Why I haven't read Lolita

I posted a Twitter poll recently, by way of unburdening myself of the following opinion about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the book about a middle aged man who has a love affair with a 12-year-old girl. Here is the question:

How many of you, like me, always found it bizarre and even a little hard to believe that a book about a pedophile and his victim—Lolita—should wind up being a classic for the ages? Never could read the damned thing. Just ugh. Can I finally say that now?

In another tweet I elaborated slightly:

Supposedly highfalutin “art“ that sympathetically portrays monsters of all sorts always struck me as deeply pathological. Natural Born Killers, The Collector, Pan’s Labyrinth...and Lolita...all trash. All pretentious and pernicious garbage.

How does it improve us? Not at all.

While most of my followers agreed with me (maybe not surprising), I thought I would explain my view on this a little less briefly, for the sake of those literature lovers who think it is weird and surprising—if not positively philistine of me—that I would judge a book without reading it. So here goes.

I am not totally ignorant about the book. I watched the 1997 movie adaptation. I read the first chapter or so, and flipped through the rest at various times over the years, trying and every time failing to persuade myself to read it. It has always left me sick to my stomach. A great deal of this has to do not just with the subject of the book, but the sort of glowing praise people give it, people who, it is perfectly obvious, would never dare to judge the book on its moral content, because that sort of things is just not done. Not anymore.

I've read much more about the book, over the years. I'm passingly familiar with what is said about it. Moreover, I have consumed my fair share of clinical and mostly nonjudgmental portrayal of criminals, monsters, and twisted characters of various kinds. John Fowles' book The Collector was one I read as a graduate student. It's a book about a young man who kidnaps and holds an art student in his basement; she eventually dies of illness, and he gets away with his crime and learns nothing. I read it to the end and I simply could not believe that it was a popular or well-regarded book. I regarded it as wholly without merit.

I wholly reject the notion that art is a self-contained, closed system, that we must simply accept the latest ejaculations of a morally corrupt art world as being profound and worthy of contemplation. I think the dictum "art for art's sake" is a canard that serves as cover for an art world mired in corruption.

If depictions of evil are thought to have any merit at all, it will be for one of three reasons: stylistic excellence, profound insight into human nature, and the tendency to edify or uplift us—to improve us.

Now, it is common (but completely puzzling to me) to suppose that stylistic excellence is enough to make some work of art noteworthy. But to my mind it clearly is not enough. Graduate schools are full of all sorts of brilliant wordsmiths whose work is immediately forgotten because they just don't have anything interesting to say.

But Lolita, we're told, isn't just beautifully written—an assessment I'm afraid I don't share, by the way, based on what I've read. It is also supposed to give us dark but necessary psychological insight into the mind of a pedophile. That may be so; I'm not going to gainsay such claims, because I haven't read the book and I wouldn't be able to say for sure without reading it. Let's stipulate that Nabokov has plumbed those depths.

But what I will say is that mere clinical insight, as opposed to moral perspective, into some dark corner of human nature does not make for great or classic art. It might be useful for law enforcementa and psychologists, perhaps, if it is a faithful portrayal of this sort of evil. It is a bizarre quirk of cultural life in the modern period that otherwise intelligent, sober people have thought such psychological perspective was enough to justify us taking some art seriously. On my view, it isn't enough; it never has been. There is no classic art that does not take an essentially moral (not to say moralistic; that's different) perspective on any evil it portrays. Perhaps Fowles, for example, laid bare the soul of a kidnapping madman (I couldn't say), but what he didn't have was an interesting moral perspective on such a madman.

It would be revolting enough if such clinical depictions of evil were characterized as important art. But lift the curtain back just a bit and you will find all sorts of appalling admissions that people find such art thrilling or titillating. For example, one not infrequently sees the comment (as, for example, here) that readers sympathize with Humbert Humbert, the antihero of Lolita.

Hence it really looks as though this kind of art is basically degrading to its more enthusiastic consumers. They like the degradation. Maybe it is comforting to them, or exciting; I wouldn't be able to say. All I can say is that I want absolutely nothing to do with it.

For me the sine qua non of good art, the one absolutely necessary (if not sufficient) requirement, is the tendency to uplift or improve us effectively. We are made better people for having seen it. But in the case of Lolita, and in the other examples I cited, it actually does the opposite of what good art is supposed to do, on my view. A merely clinical or sympathetic portrait of evil—if that's really all it is—tends to deaden the soul of its audience. It's a bad influence. I actually wonder if it can really appeal only to people who actually like such bad influences, or who believe them not really to be so bad.

It is not that I think all art should be "moralistic," like parables, fables, Sunday School lessons, and 19th century children's literature. That is not the point at all. There is a profound difference between being really uplifting or edifying, on the one hand, and merely didactically inculcating (through obvious example to emulate) various moral or religious principles. I am a big fan of Shakespeare's tragedies, which do lay bare the evil in man's soul, but which also edify the reader or audience by indicating, in what is ultimately an exquisitely beautiful and satisfying way, that such evil will be justly repaid, why it is indeed evil, and how the world can move on in spite of it. Those are important lessons, too; we need not just to understand evil, we need the tools, moral and emotional, to fight it. Good art provides us some of those tools in a very basic and necessary way.

The reason we do and should assign our children to read classics is to teach them by inspiring example many moral principles that our lives might be too humdrum to illustrate. For example, I've been reading David Copperfield to my son lately. He, as as American middle-class boy, has no way of knowing what it might be like to live through a period of absolute poverty and bereavement (as David does when working for Murdstone and Grinby) and yet retain a sense of dignity and decency. Having read those pages, however, he will begin to have some inkling of that sort of life, sympathy for those going through it, and admiration for those who stay basically decent as David does.

If a modernist writer took up the same subject, the book would not be appropriate for children, because David would be shown helpless in the face of molestation by Grinby and violence by Murdstone, and he would ultimately become a nasty piece of work with no way out. Also, Little Em'ly would become a whore and the Micawbers would die in the gutter; and nobody would learn any lessons. And it would be hailed as a great work of literature because it provides such an unflinching, realistic look at the life of the poor.

That is, of course, just one example. Great literature is absolutely full of examples. It is why most of us read it. Most of us have no interest whatsoever in reading literature and consuming other art as mere psychologists or clinicians. We love a good story because we care about characters we relate to, showing what we, too, might want to do in their interesting or exciting situations.

More generally, we consume art as a way to appeal to and develop our sense of what life is really like, what it ought to be like, on the best view. What the purveyors of modern art do is substitute "sophisticated" or "edgy" for "best" and then proceed to convince themselves that art that essentially celebrates monstrous behavior is fine art.

So that's why I haven't read Lolita. I don't care if hoity-toity people tell me Nabokov was a brilliant stylist, or that he had insight into the criminal mind, or the modern mind. I regard criminality and twisted modernism as things to avoid, fight, or repair—certainly not to examine clinically or lovingly.


Constantly monitor those in power

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

That's a question we should be asking more in this day and age of constant surveillance.

I'm toying with a proposal: Anyone who goes into public office should have absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Every movement should be available on video, every email and message logged and read, and every conversation recorded. Even the most top secret and sensitive state negotiations should be watched by duly vetted, randomized—and constantly monitored—professional monitors. As with state secrets, maybe for things like sex, bathroom breaks, etc., only some special monitors would have access.

Whether or not monitors actually saw every moment and heard every word, it would all be there, available to the law, not capable of being tampered with. And perhaps we would want monitors to actually watch it all, people duly tasked to catch any whiff of impropriety.

No one would go into public office then, you say? Nonsense. Power is powerfully attractive. No dishonest, secretive person would go into public office—that seems clear.

It would be humiliating, you say? Well, power ought to be a humbling thing. Only those really willing and able to wield it in the full light of day it should be able to.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant—and power, throughout human history, has so often been so profoundly dirty.

It is not as if we don't have the technology. (Well, we do if we create legal consequences for tampering with the monitoring devices.)

Power corrupts, they say; but consider that it corrupts primarily in private. If all email, phone, etc., were transacted under massive, constant monitoring, only honest public servants would go into politics.

What state interest—to use the language of the lawyers—is really served by public officials having privacy, in light of the awful consequences of allowing power to be wielded in secret? Is the privacy of a President, Senator, or big city mayor really so important that it outweighs the public's profound interest in making sure that power is never abused?

We might have a similar legal requirements regarding executives of companies worth over $N. Clearly, they too wield far much power for us to trust them to exercise that power responsibly. They need a rolling, anonymized, and confirmed-independent cadre of monitors.

The precise social and technical requirements of monitors as a citizen role (and, perhaps, profession) would be difficult to work out, granted, but not insurmountable. Monitors might sell secrets? This is why monitors themselves would be monitored. They might collude with each other and with power to overlook misdeeds? This is why they would be unknown to each other and reassigned on a rolling basis. Isn't there still a need for privacy even for the most powerful positions, in the case of sex or using valuable cryptocurrency keys? These are technical problems with technical solutions, to a certain extent, and the punishment for violating your trust as monitor would be harsh.

What kind of person would a monitor be? Professional monitors would be vetted for honesty, intelligence, and responsibility, I imagine, not unlike judges. It is probably important that the monitors be drawn from pre-vetted but fairly large public pool, not (or not just) a privileged professional class. The role would be like jury duty. And again, the consequences for a monitor divulging legitimate secrets would be very serious.

It is also possible that people would be available only to do random spot checks; or even less, just to monitor that the system is working reliable and recording everything. The mere fact that the data is being saved constantly would probably be an adequate disincentive for most criminal politicians and executives.

Finally, this proposal would make leadership more of a moral calling. That's what it would be, then, too: difficult and wise leadership, not morally fraught power. It would require real personal sacrifice; it would require you to be on your best behavior, and that your best really can stand up to close scrutiny.

Obviously, I'm not sure of the details. But it sure is fun to think about a system in which there is totalitarian surveillance of the powerful and not of the people.

Totalitarianism only for the powerful—never for the people.


A Theory of Evil

For a long time, the precise nature of evil eluded me. But extended, dark contemplation of the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his associates has helped to bring the nature of evil into focus. Mind you, this is not a topic in philosophy I have studied much at all, so I have no idea if I am recapitulating any of the theories of evil currently on offer. I make no claim to originality, and the following will be brief and provisional.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. It will help, before I elaborate this definition, let me clarify what evil is not.

First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. We all have deep contempt for Epstein; but he deserves it richly. Evil is contempt for the humanity of others. That qualifier is very important, as we will see.

Another thing evil is not is mere old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy. Misanthropes, in the sense in which I understand it (maybe I'm mistaken), claim to "hate everybody," and they are very much distrusting, but they aren't necessarily bad just for that. Most self-described misanthropes do not hate human life as such; they're just deeply, profoundly disappointed with everyone. They still have principles and ideals that we fall far short of; their principles are what make them misanthropes. They are very impressed with the idea that we are all sinners. They do not reject the principle that we should value all human beings; they just believe that, due to the inevitable foibles of humanity, we cannot justify admiring or trusting anyone. Evil is quite different, as we will see.

I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil as well as of goodness—i.e., understanding this sort of contempt—is profoundly important if you are to have a mature, clear-sighted view of your own life and of the world and its history. We might define naïveté as the failure to accept that many people have such contempt. I am writing this essay partly because I have been rather naïve, in this sense, all my life. I have always liked Will Rogers' charming sentiment that he never met a man he didn't like. Over the years I have been increasingly impressed by the strength of the Christian elevation of love, or agape, as a virtue—love for one's fellow man. I thought it was something of a failing in myself that I disliked some people. One of the fictional characters I rather admitted was Dostoyevsky's Idiot; a trusting nature, unwilling to accept the existence of evil, was Prince Myshkin's problem, too. I am coming to the conclusion that I myself have been rather idiotic about evil, and that has to end.

An evil person looks at another person and says: this is a non-person; this is a piece of trash; this is an obstacle or tool to be used and then discarded. Psychiatrists call such people sociopaths. A Kantian might say they treat others not as ends in themselves but as mere means to their ends. That is close, perhaps, but limited. After all, there is also a kind of nihilistic evil, which seeks to destroy pointlessly, due to the deepest contempt for a person, and hatred of their humanity as such—not to advance any further goal. Such dark, twisted, broken souls exist.

But what do I mean by the key phrase "contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others"? How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of this or that feature? If the big bad boss sees that an employee does poor work, the big bad boss might look down on, or have contempt, for the employee. But because that is only due to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for "ugly girls" and "nerds," but that is only for those features. We won't call the boss or the mean girl positively evil unless they demonstrate contempt for something deeper: their target's humanity.

So, what is that? I add "human life" as a clue: I mean contempt for the very life or existence of a person, not just for perceived weaknesses, faults, sins, or mistakes. This could entail careless disregard for a person's mind or body, or both; it could entail active desire to harm without regard to ultimate consequences. Certainly this comes in degrees. Perhaps a bully who relentlessly teases is on the road to something like evil, if over time it becomes clear that the bully thinks of the person as merely a plaything for pleasurable torture. But most bullies have some regard for their victims: killing, for example, is out of the question. An accidental killing would inspire deep guilt in most of the world's bullies, who are merely bad, not evil. Lack of a sense of guilt indicates positive evil.

But clearly, evil is not an all-or-nothing affair. There are degrees of evil because there are degrees not just in the scope of one's contempt for humanity (as I will explain shortly), but also in the amount or strength of one's contempt.

I take the latter to be a truism: some people are merely bad, some are inconsistently evil (for example, reformed), and some are "pieces of work." The concept of a "piece of work" has long interested me. Perhaps it can be understood as a person who consistently has a mild amount of contempt for the interests of those who surround him, but who hides this contempt well. In any event, bad sorts have contempt for the basic humanity of others, contempt that waxes and wanes with their moods, their society, substances imbibed, and even their philosophy or religion.

But generally, I think that for us to call a person evil requires strong and consistent contempt for the humanity of others. By the way, whether a person actually acts on their contempt seems unimportant. An evil monster, locked away with no opportunity to work evil, is still an evil monster.

So far I have been vague in my description of evil in a certain sense, i.e., in the varying scope of evil. Sometimes, the scope is quite narrow. A person obsessed with just one other person can have quite evil feelings and motives toward just that person. Perhaps this is how we should understand certain relationships that go terribly wrong. In addition, some criminals who are prone to outright evil may experience that type of contempt—for the humanity of their victims—on an individual basis. Two particularly evil crimes often directed at individuals are murder and child rape (or pedophilia), both of which I have analyzed at some length a few years ago.

If evil can be manifested toward single individuals, can it be manifested toward families and small groups? Certainly it can. The motive of revenge may be understood as the utter rejection of the humanity of a person, well beyond the righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which at least used to be regarded as a particularly dark sort of evil: members of opposing tribes regard each other as worthless vermin in need of extermination.

Widening the scope even further, racism is revealed as one of the varieties of evil: it involves the very destructive notion that there is no difference among all members of a race, that they are all equally undeserving of respect. It can be horrifically evil in its more extreme forms, in which contempt rises from lack of respect to positive desire to harm or exterminate.

War crimes are a tremendous evil: they reveal profound contempt for the humanity of the enemy. War is a terrible plague, because success at the endeavor often seems to require that one dehumanize, or lose all respect for the humanity of, one's enemy. But noble warriors have respect for their foes and refuse to treat their humanity with contempt. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned notion of war, but it seems the only defensible one. Good soldiers may have to participate in terrible, destructive battles, but they never sink to the level of war crimes because they are not evil, and that is because they retain a basic respect for the enemy's humanity. I wonder as a non-military person: is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?

One very broad scope (21% of the U.S. population) is children. There are some people in the world—believe it or not—who have contempt for the humanity of children. They are the child rapists. They would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

In the broadest scope, there is an evil, if thankfully small, movement afoot in the world. It appears to be hostile to human life as such, wherever it occurs. In lieu of a better word, which I couldn't find, I invented one: antivitism (anti-life-ism). This is, I want to suggest, an evil movement, however organized or disorganized it might be. "Partial birth" abortion and active euthanasia of teens for depression are two examples: only those contemptuous of the value of human life as such could champion such things. Again, pedophilia advocacy is another example: the harm to children is so horrible and so obvious that it seems only contempt for humanity as such can explain the defense of it.

One strand of this movement does have a name: antinatalism. As a dictionary definition has it, this is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." More generally, antinatalists hold that human life is itself a tremendously bad thing, as they never tire of telling you.

Now, let me be fair: I don't claim that antinatalists feel contempt toward their fellow humans. They certainly sympathize with human pain, which of course suggests decency. But anyone who takes such a theory seriously enough to act on it, I think, would have to be among the most inhuman monsters conceivable. If human life is on balance so awful, then the antinatalists would seem to be doing us all a favor by literally putting us out of our misery. This does raise an interesting theoretical challenge to my definition of evil: if antinatalists have contempt (as in, a very low estimation) for human life, but they do not in any obvious way have contempt for people, are they evil according to my definition? My response to this is not to revise my definition of evil but to accuse antinatalists of incoherence. If they value human pain, then as a matter of fact they do value human life over human death, regardless of their protestations. Please, though, antinatalists, remain incoherent if you must remain antinatalists; please don't start taking your contempt for human life to heart.

I accuse no one of evil of the broadest scope, for the simple reason that the accusation would be absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps some of history's worst murderers were that evil—perhaps many. I would not rule that out.

So much for this brief discussion of the scope of evil. Next I want to maintain that it is of the utmost importance that we accept that evil actually exists. Naïve people have had too little experience with extreme evil to accept that it exists. They react with horror and incomprehension when confronted with it. I myself have willingly used the concept of evil (as in essays I linked to above about murder and pedophilia) but with a great deal of incredulity. I suppose I used it as shorthand for "extremely bad." That's not wrong, but it fails as a definition because it leaves out the essential feature: contempt for humanity.

The existence of evil is simply hard for some of us to accept, and that is precisely because we can't imagine anyone having such contempt for innocent life. It was only after wrestling with the Epstein case—only confronting the increasing evidence from a case in my own lifetime, of monsters callously, deliberately, joyously violating innocence, demonstrating extreme contempt for the human life in their sway—that I was able to begin to believe it wholeheartedly.

A modern impulse, which looks (but is not necessarily) naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. It strikes "sophisticated" people, sometimes, as old-fashioned, mean, stupid, and insensitive. So they try to sympathetically "understand" evil, to explain it reductively in terms of vague, impersonal root causes rather than the very real and present mental states of individual evil people.

This modern conceptualization, that the concept of evil is insensitive, is highly pernicious, I believe. If we are not willing to name evil as such, we will understand evil motives badly, we will judge evil actions improperly, and we will punish evil crimes leniently.

Indeed, in the last few generations—picking up in popularity in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, even sympathetic, and even celebratory depictions of evil have become the norm in Western culture. I will not here speculate on why this has been the case. I will say, however, that I believe this attitude to be part of the explanation for why crime rose in the same time period (until mass incarceration began), and why horrifically evil crimes seem to have proliferated and to have become ever more popular to this day.

This is a result of the moral abyss we find ourselves in—an echo from its depths, so to speak. If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive. That is a fact, a very awful one. It should give us all pause.

We have been allowing evil to thrive. We must begin to stop it now, more vigorously. If necessary, we should re-examine the notion of evil and begin, once again, to name it for the unspeakable, but very real, horror that it is.


I leave you with a related thought.

What makes humanity loveable, and what inspires the most devotion toward heroes and leaders, is the capacity for creation, the ability to invent, build, preserve, and restore whatever is good, i.e., that which supports and delights flourishing, well-ordered life. What makes evil individuals worthy of our righteous anger is their capacity for destruction of the good, due to their contempt for human life as such.

If so, then the love for God may be understood as a perfectly natural love of the supremely creative force in the universe. For what could be greater than the creator of the universe, and what could be more loveable? And then it certainly makes sense that they would regard Satan as a force most worthy of our hatred and condemnation, since Satan is held to be an essentially destructive entity, the one most contemptuous of human life as such.


On the misbegotten phrase "surveillance capitalism"

The loaded phrase surveillance capitalism has been in circulation since at least 2014, but it came into much wider use this year with Shoshana Zuboff's book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The phrase means the system of extremely widespread surveillance by giant private corporations, entailing the systematic invasion of our privacy as well as control and abuse of our personal data.

I am opposed to the phenomenon that the phrase names, but I also am opposed to the phrase itself. How so? As I've made amply clear in this blog, I think we should care much more about privacy, and indeed we should be hardcore about it. Moreover, the best defense we have against incursions on our privacy by Big Tech is to decentralize social media (and other data, too, come to think of it) and to embrace data self-ownership.

The problem with the misbegotten name "surveillance capitalism" is that it implies that it is because of capitalism that we currently live under a regime of surveillance through social media (as well as financial, medical, and other data). This is nonsense. Indeed, it should be obvious why it is nonsense. But I enjoy explaining obvious things, and sadly it sometimes seems necessary. So here goes.

It isn't capitalism per se that is responsible for our massive surveillance. The Internet was capitalistic in 1999 but did not feature 2019 levels of surveillance. We could still institute new decentralized systems of data exchange that would make what Zuboff is pleased to call "surveillance capitalism" much more difficult. Moreover, massively intrusive surveillance can be expected to happen, and actually does happen, under socialism, as it does in China.

The reason we live under a regime of massive surveillance is not economic or political but technological: blame it on the cloud. Because we need to sync data on our various devices, and between large networks of people, our data came to be put in the cloud. Though they could have been, different networks were not made interoperable, so that you and I could take exclusive control of our data if we wanted to. Instead, each of the Big Tech giants—Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—came to have its own internal data standards which allowed it to operate its own walled garden, insulated from the others and from smaller competitors. The economic system of capitalism is, quite simply, governments permitting free markets to operate with comparatively little regulation. The presence of such a system is not enough to explain why we found ourselves with such proprietary standards and walled gardens.

If you are still not convinced, then imagine, if you will, that the Democratic left took control and converted America to the sort of government-controlled economy so many democratic socialists want with increasing desperation. That would not make it more likely that we would adopt a system of neutral, open standards. Why would it? Data standards and our economic systems certainly seem to have little to do with each other. Indeed, a socialist economy would be much more likely to impose various kinds of surveillance and top-down control. After all, such control is essentially what "market socialism" is all about. In the market socialist economies that the American and European left hanker after, giant governments and massive corporations would naturally work together to surveil the populace via the social media panopticon. Not for nothing has the Western left-wing commentariat backpedaled on their original expressions of horror at Chinese social credit system. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, some are saying.

And that, of course, would be surveillance socialism.

By contrast, the adoption of common, open standards that would allow us to own and serve our own data without fear of interference by massive authorities, corporate or governmental, would essentially be an individualist, pro-liberty system, much as the Internet itself was and to some extent still is.

The irony is rich indeed when giant institutions like Facebook and Twitter are led by avowed progressives but, because they are corporations, it is capitalism that is blamed for their immoral power-grab. At best it could be blamed on corporatism. What's the difference, you ask? Capitalism is defined by and highlights the freedom of economic interactions. But, you ask, wasn't it corporate freedom that allowed Big Tech to take control? Not really; not necessarily. Corporate freedom greatly underdetermines why our privacy has come to be systematically violated in 2019. In other words, it's not enough to explain the problem. Corporatism, by contrast, involves the wielding of power by giant corporations; by now, it is clear that it was the desire to shore up their power, economic power to be sure but also ultimately their political power, that motivated Big Tech to make our data into their private fiefdoms. So the more apt term is, surely, surveillance corporatism.

Indeed, it is only a free market system that could be counted on to support and guarantee any future possibility of privacy, or freedom from surveillance. If enough of us are left free to build network of decentralized social media, decentralized (and properly encrypted) cloud storage, and encrypted communication, then how will it be possible for us to be monitored, except with our very clear acquiescence (as when we write public blog posts)? If we join together in decentralized networks, it will be impossible for us to be subjected to the same sort of surveillance. Well, it will be impossible if we are left alone.

But governments could require that we make our data capable of being monitored. Those politicians and bureaucrats who have insisted on having (probably unworkable) government back doors for encryption fall into this camp. The problem is that progressives and socialists ultimately want to regulate (if not collectively own) pretty much everything. But to do that, they need to surveil everything; they certainly can't permit conversations and economic transactions going on out of earshot.

So let's call such a system of government-sponsored regulation, indeed, surveillance socialism and possibly surveillance corporatism. Unlike "surveillance capitalism," those really would be apt sobriquets, because it would be the essentially socialist demand for regulation or collective ownership that would require our data to be left open to government surveillance—and indeed, perhaps also to corporate surveillance by the wealthy friends of politicians. Such chummy back-scratching is, after all, how market socialism, or corporatism, works.


The challenges of locking down my cyber-life

In January 2019, I wrote a post (which see for further links) I have shared often since about how I intended to "lock down my cyber-life." That was six months ago. I made lots of progress, but it seems I'm far from finished, too.

In that post, I explained three problems about computer technology (viz., they put at risk our security, free speech, and privacy). I resolved to solve these problems, at least in my own case, by executing a lengthy to do list involving such things as adopting a better method of managing my passwords and quitting social media.

So the problem is that I didn't quite finish the job. Finishing the job, as it turns out, is kind of difficult. There's always a little more that can be done. Simple-sounding tasks, like switching browsers, can have aspects that one just never get around to. So in the following, I'm going to discuss the things I haven't actually done. Perhaps in a later post I'll make a to do list that you can use. But first I need to just talk things through.

  1. Stop using Chrome. Well, of course, I did stop; that was easy. I'm not sure when the last time I opened Chrome was. I switched to 95% Brave, but also 5% Firefox for those times when Brave seems to have a weird Javascript issue (what's up with that, Brendan Eich?). But I still have so many questions:
    • What do all of these different features of Brave do, really?
    • Do they really work? Are they adequate? Are there other plugins I should be using on top of what is built into Brave?
    • When I don't want a website to be able to infer who I am, must I use the Tor feature? Does browsing "Privately" help at all? (It deletes cookies, OK, but...)
    • What should my cookie strategy be? Should I generally browse with cookies off?
    • What are best practices for browsing generally? I remember reading a bunch of things in The Art of Invisibility that I thought were good ideas but which I don't think I ever implemented.
  2. Stop using Google Search. I use DuckDuckGo about 90% of the time, StartPage (which uses Google results) for the 10% when I think Google might have better results (which it does maybe 20% of the time, to be honest—that's when I'm dissatisfied with what I get from DDG). Sadly, I do rarely use Google News when I need to look more deeply through the news. So:
    • How do I comprehensively search recent news without using Google News? (I just haven't investigated the question, that's all. There are lots of apps, but are any really comprehensive while also respecting user privacy?)
  3. Start using (better) password management software. Don't let your browser store your passwords. And never use another social login again. So I'm doing pretty well here. I did stop using social logins many months ago and never looked back; if you're already using a password manager, they aren't an added convenience. The password manager I use is Enpass, which is easy to use and allows me to sync directly between my devices and my NAS, bypassing the cloud (unless you want to call my NAS a "private cloud"). My only misgiving is that Enpass is not open source, which means they could be sending copies of my passwords to their servers, and customers (who would otherwise be helped by the OSS community) wouldn't be any the wiser. Now, I guess I trust Enpass, but I'm thinking:
    • Is there in 2019 a password manager that is (1) easy to use (has autofill capabilities in browsers, at least computer browsers), (2) open source, and (3) allows me to sync my passwords across iPhone and two Ubuntu computers (using WebDAV)? I haven't taken the time to look into Bitwarden yet.
    • I have inadvertently saved a few passwords in my browser. Gotta delete them.
    • I am still using old, insecure passwords on many minor accounts I haven't opened in years. I should at least do an audit of the most important accounts I haven't touched in a while (that could pose a danger) and change those passwords.
    • I have to get my wife and younger son using password managers, both for their sake and because *ahem* it's possible they could be a backdoor into my systems.
    • WebDav is a secure protocol, right?
  4. Stop using gmail. Well, I'm mostly done with this; I pay for my own hosting, although the data itself is on somebody else's server, and I use my own domain name (sanger.io). But I still have a Gmail account, and that simple fact is still bothering me. Part of the reason for this is that there are still some accounts I made that made use of my Gmail account, and I might lose control of them if I delete my address. The other problem is YouTube. In sum:
    • Is it adequately secure that I host my own email? I've protected my privacy against incursions by Gmail (as long as there isn't a Gmail user in the thread...), but shouldn't I be using a service that provides zero-knowledge encryption? That would be quite a bit more expensive, I think.
    • Again, I need to review all my old accounts for importance, and switch the email address and passwords from Gmail to my personal email address.
    • Probably, I should turn on a vacation message for a couple of months, just on general principles, before permanently deleting.
    • Wait, is it possible to delete my Gmail account without entirely removing my Google account? Oh good, yes it is.
    • I still haven't downloaded and started separately maintaining my own address book (this is a huge oversight on my part). I think I should do that before deleting Gmail.
  5. Stop using iCloud to sync your iPhone data with your desktop and laptop data; replace it with wi-fi sync. This is mostly done. I mean, I flipped some switches, but completely extricating yourself from iCloud if you've been actively using it isn't simple. I went through a bunch of different menus on my phone. On the other hand, I think my son is still using my account's free iCloud space on the MacBook I gave him (that was when I switched to Ubuntu). So I'm not sure.
    • Investigate thoroughly how to ensure that I'm no longer using iCloud and whether I really for any purpose must use it if I'm going to keep using my iPhone. Pretty sure I don't.
    • Discuss with/negotiate with/frown sternly at son to determine whether he really needs to use iCloud. He likes the "find my iPhone" feature. Ugh.
  6. Subscribe to a VPN. Done! But:
    • Look again into my choice of VPN now that I've been using it for a few months.
    • Should I not perhaps give myself another option? Other people switch between VPNs. I haven't had a need to yet.
    • VPNs might protect you from being protected from unsophisticated identification tactics, but they don't protect you from malicious/tracking cookies (see above), digital fingerprinting, or VPNs who lie and/or collude with governments or criminal organizations about whether they keep logs. What really is the best way?
  7. Get identity theft protection. Done; this is one area where I have nothing further in mind to do.
  8. Switch to Linux. Yeah, baby! Ubuntu installed on my desktop and laptop. Very happy with it. So much nicer in many ways than both Windows and Mac. Not looking back. I very much recommend it. But:
    • I'm not sure I've optimized my systems for security adequately. Need to do an audit.
    • First, I need to do research on what such an audit would look like. Maybe this, maybe more.
    • Ugh, if I'm going to do this right, I need to study Bash more so I can really understand networking (like iptables) better.
    • And then I need to study infosec properly. Something like this?
  9. Quit social media, or at least nail down a sensible social media use policy. I quit and have nothing left to do (as far as I know) with Facebook, Instagram, Quora, and Medium (at least). This is still, however—it turns out—is a huge pain point for me. I'll just dive into the individual issues:
    • I said I'd stay in touch with family and friends via a mailing list. I haven't been doing that. I'm sorry. But there's a huge difference between interacting randomly with people I know and pushing out my personal news to a bunch of people's email inbox.
    • Hence I'm inclined to think I need to start interacting a lot more on some alternative social network. But none seem to be "happening" yet, although there are some. We're getting there; we're getting closer.
    • So maybe I should organized another strike or a mass try-out as I said. But ugh. Both of those are a lot of work and distract from other important priorities. I'm not trying to be a rabble-rouser except to solve my own problem here, honest.
    • YouTube is increasingly problematic. But I still use it. BitChute and others have some copies of videos I want to see, but definitely not all of it. Maybe I should use a proxy/republisher/search provider of some sort, but wouldn't that still enable Google/YT to track me? Well, how would I use it without being tracked—like an anon account I use only behind Tor or something? Is that even feasible? Could I live without it? Should I? (I would be cutting myself off from a lot of stuff I want to keep up with. Are there other ways to keep up with it?)
    • Twitter: well, OK, just in the last few weeks I've started posting more randomly as I used to, not just in promotion of my blog and Everipedia and programming. Again, I'm sorry. I've been a bad boy. I think I should rein myself in. Right? No doubt. I should probably just re-read this. Maybe update it.
    • I gotta think about installing my very own Mastodon instance. It could get big. I have a friend (several friends) who could help. Hmm. This might be a good idea for me. My friends would join. Then I'd just have to get them to interact with me and each other there. Could work!
  10. Stop using public cloud storage. This is 90% done! I installed a NAS, all my files are on it. But:
    • I need to do a proper sync with my desktop instead of accessing via the (convenient, but slow and not right for daily workstation use) browser and mobile apps. (You'd know what I meant if you had a NAS. This is a problem you want to have. You just want a NAS. You will thank me.)
  11. Nail down a backup plan. I have a zero-knowledge encryption service...but in the cloud. So it's done and I think it's secure, but I'm not that happy about it. For backup, I'll switch to another less centralized solution when I am convinced that one works properly with all the features I need; I'm pretty confident that none do yet, but there are plenty of people working on such.) Issues:
    • All righty then, how are those decentralized alternatives coming along?
    • Is zero-knowledge encryption backup really secure? Come on, really? And the service I'm using isn't open source, is it? That sucks.
    • I haven't organized my old backup files (which used to live on a large old external drive) and investigated them generally. I did back them up, right? Surely I did. Need to triple-check.
  12. Take control of my contact and friend lists. Well, I don't store my active contacts in iCloud, so that's a start. The most up-to-date database is the one that is local to my iPhone. I really haven't made much a start on this:
    • I don't use my Gmail address book, but Google still has access to it, so that sucks. Really need to finally delete Gmail so I can delete those contacts. I feel like I'm letting my friends down by letting them keep that data.
    • Pretty sure Microsoft still has some contact data in the cloud as well. Looks like I'll have to fire up the crappy old Windows partition, investigate, and nuke.
  13. Stop using Google Calendar. So here is a way in which I am cooler than you. (There aren't many ways, but this is one.) My calendar works via my NAS. I set it up using CalDAV, which frankly I wouldn't have been able to do if I weren't comfortable with rather geeky stuff. That isn't to say you couldn't engage your geeky friends or family members to set your NAS up with this functionality. I still use the Apple app but they don't have my data; it updates directly with my NAS via CalDAV. I even gave an associate of mine an account for updating my calendar directly, something I wouldn't feel so comfortable doing on gCal. Anyway, no adjustments needed at this time.
  14. Study and make use of website/service/device privacy options. OK, so now this is a bit of a problem. I never really did this properly. I spent many hours, but I was haphazard and I left out a lot of important sites. Indeed there are some sites that perhaps I shouldn't be using at all if I really want to be hardcore about privacy. Let me give a partial list, with notes:
    • Amazon: They're pretty goddamn evil. They do store a hell of a lot of data about you. But I should check them out some more and make sure of my harsh judgment, because just getting rid of them would be pretty difficult. They're so convenient. But the rest of the Internet is very big, you know. I could look stuff up on Amazon without logging in and not using cookies, and then buy elsewhere (e.g., books from Powell's in Portland, or whatever).
    • Netflix: It (like Prime Video, which we ditched) is becoming more like TV used to be, as someone predicted not too long ago. As these services proliferate, you'll have to subscribe to many if you want to have good access. Well, my family went without any access (just DVDs) for years. Didn't do us harm. I know my wife wouldn't complain, except insofar as the boys would complain. And is it really necessary to get rid of a big source of entertainment just to secure your privacy?
    • Expedia: Do they sell my travel data? Well...so should I buy direct from the airlines? Are they any better?
    • Etc. I need to go through assorted other apps I have installed and accounts I have opened, which I have ignored but which might find ways to track me, and which it might actually benefit me to uninstall/remove account. This could extend this to do list very long indeed.
  15. Also study the security and privacy of other categories of data. I haven't done this at all. Another long list, in each case asking: well, what are my risks to security and privacy, and how can I mitigate them?
    • banking data
    • medical data
    • automobile data
    • telephone/cell data
    • credit card (including shopping) data: Is it getting quite unreasonable to make a regular habit of buying gift cards and using them to avoid putting all that shopping data out there? Well folks, I'm not afraid to admit that I'm thinking: maybe.
  16. Figure out how to change my passwords regularly, maybe. I've been thinking about this one and I'm fairly sure I'm not going to bother with most, but I do have more refined ideas about how to approach this. I think this is reasonable (comments welcome):
    • Make a list of unusually sensitive passwords. Not too many (maybe 5-10) or you won't do the next step:
    • Change those ones quarterly.
  17. Consider using PGP, the old encryption protocol (or an updated version, like GNU Privacy Guard) with work colleagues and family who are into it. I looked into this but never followed through. Won't take long. Just need to take the time, and then start using it with those very few people who are geeky enough to use it as well.
  18. Moar privacy thangs. None of these are done.
    • Buy a Purism Librem 5 phone. Just to support the cause. I might actually do this, but I've been waiting for more evidence that I'd actually, you know, want to use the damn thing. But I sometimes think I'm morally obligated to spend the money anyway, because the thing so badly needs to exist.
    • Physical security key. Maybe just for the laptop, when I'm traveling. I have one. I might get a different one (since this one was given to me, and so...). The biggest trouble is to pick one out and then learn how to use it.
    • Encrypt my drives. Is that even possible after I've started using them? No idea. Is it really worth it? Don't know. Need to investigate.
    • Credit card use for shopping. I could buy some prepaid credit cards or gift cards; this is a Kevin Mitnick suggestion, which he goes into in great detail in The Art of Invisibility. I might not go into all of that as I am not a federal criminal. My wife, who is also not a federal criminal, might go in for this as she is soo private. "How private is she?" you ask. She's so private, she would probably not want me to say that she's very private. True!

What have I left out? A fair few of my readers know all this stuff better than I do. Can you answer my questions? Please do so below.


Things I don't understand even after they are explained to me

  1. Why public art is so ugly.
  2. Why the public are not up in arms about the ugliness of public art.
  3. Why I continue to drink and even occasionally desire beer even though it isn't actually that tasty to me.
  4. Why people are evil. (Some people really are. No, some people are really, really evil, if you didn't know. If you claim not to know, then either you haven't seen enough of the world to know, or you're lying. Or you have a stupid philosophical theory.)
  5. Why philosophers put so much work into some pretty transparently stupid philosophical theories.
  6. How people who have been taught the tools of critical thinking and independent reasoning end up following each other in what are more or less intellectual mobs.
  7. Why rich people pay massive amounts for truly ugly buildings that they proceed to work or live in. They can't possibly like being there.
  8. Why parents and teachers continue to tolerate the entire appalling textbook system, generation after generation. (Most textbooks suck surprisingly badly upon a little examination.)
  9. Why there are so many people in the orbit of the Clintons who were murdered, committed suicide, or died in a plane crash.
  10. Why gazillionaires, who could buy whatever the hell they wanted, choose to buy some of the most godawful dreck on the market for millions of dollars.
  11. Why so many serious people seem to take such artistic taste seriously. (It can't just be because a lot of money is spent.)
  12. Why public opinion about gay marriage apparently changed on a dime. (I have a theory, but I don't find it that convincing.)
  13. Why some psychologists and journalists write things that for all the world look like pedophilia apology—as if the mental health of pedophiles were somehow more important than protecting children from predators.
  14. Why there aren't more journalists that seem to care very sincerely about neutrality.
  15. Why, despite rough attempts, no one has made a real, credible effort to start a really neutral news service. (You'd have to think through what this really requires. Why hasn't anyone done so? I don't get it.)
  16. Why more quite intelligent people become such idiots when they talk or write about politics. Most people lose about 20 IQ points when they write about politics.
  17. Why people allowed child abuse to go on in the Catholic Church, and other institutions, for so long; why management seems to tolerate it and not keep a sharp lookout for it.
  18. Why educational psychologists have not systematically examined the very real (and quite easy-to-prove) phenomenon of teaching babies and toddlers to read. Makes no sense to me at all.
  19. Why Republican politicians keep voting for higher spending and, often, higher taxes.
  20. Why there are next to no schools that get rid of grades in preference to ability grouping.
  21. Why we seem so chummy with Saudi Arabia in particular, and not necessarily with other oil-producers.
  22. Why so many politicians believe in astrology. How do you get to such a position of responsibility and still believe in fairy tales?

Yes, I know I have a lot to learn still.

More coming.


On the clash of civilizations

There is a global conflict underway. A good way to understand it is by looking at the different interests that are coming into conflict. And a good place to begin is, of course, with:

The immigrants. People from the “global south” are immigrating north, inspired by the images of prosperity they see on television and the Internet and drawn by ever easier and cheaper transportation and lax immigration policies. In some cases, they are actually escaping real oppression. In most, however, they are merely running from poor, backward, relatively lawless, and restrictive systems. In any case, there is certainly mass immigration, mostly northward.

The conservatives. Conservatives view the demographic and cultural changes that this mass immigration brings with alarm. They have many different concerns:

  • If demographic trends continue, it is easy to see how Christianity (or more precisely a slightly Christian secularism) might well be replaced in Europe by Islam within a few generations.
  • Already, the presence of Islam in Europe is changing some legal processes, and Sharia law could well be instituted in some places before that much longer, if the Muslim population continues to grow.
  • In the United States, immigration from the global south means more Democratic voters and more enthusiasm for socialism. Conservatives don't like that.
  • In general, Western civilization (religion, languages, tastes, mores), maybe especially in Europe, are weakened as non-Westerners move in.
  • In Europe, places that have been largely free of crime for generations are suddenly dangerous. In America, a talking point (I'm not sure how well supported it is by statistics) is that there is more crime if we have more illegal immigrants.
  • And yes, for some there is surely a racial element to their concern: they don't want Europe, or America, to become less white.

The nationalists. I make a separate category for the Japanese, Hungarians, and others who are broadly opposed to immigration, period. They may be distinguished from Western conservatives who are often perfectly happy with a fair bit of immigration, just not unregulated, indiscriminate, and too much immigration. The Japanese, Hungarians, and quite a few others simply don't want to change the character of their societies, as immigration might well do. They look at the effects of immigration on Europe and America and say, "No thank you."

The progressives. On the other side, there are many progressives and liberals, as well as many libertarians, who essentially want there to be open borders. As with progressives' demands for censorship, their increasing moral fervor for open borders is evident, but they don't often want to admit it in so many words. But the reasons for the stance are clear:

  • These are disadvantaged brown people who need our help. Why not give it to them? To exclude them from sharing in our prosperity is racist.
  • Indeed, the conservative position is easily dismissed as racist, which by contrast gives progressivism a brighter moral luster. (That isn't an argument progressives make, but it certainly seems to inspire them.)
  • We can expect greater support for socialist, globalist projects from immigrants, who are more left-leaning. We can do more for them, and they will be grateful to and supportive of our programs.
  • If the "Western" or "white" character of European and American civilization are in decline, let it decline. If there are people reproducing more, who can support social programs arriving from other places, that's a good thing, not a bad thing.

The elites. Closely overlapping with, but distinguishable from, the rank-and-file progressive viewpoint is what I will call the elite viewpoint. Their concerns are perhaps hidden and cynical but no less real and influential:

  • We need cheap laborers and "guest workers." These immigrants do jobs our own people are not willing to do. Few will actually admit to thinking so, but a view aptly described "elitist" is that society actually needs an underclass and European and American societies need to replenish theirs.
  • Immigration is shaping into a massive left-right fight, and that's a good thing—it justifies concentrating power in the hands of the more enlightened power centers of Brussels and Washington, D.C., as well as justifying the seizure of new powers that, formerly, liberals would never have agreed to (such as control of speech and mass surveillance).

This conflict has come to a head recently—why? It seems to be a combination of factors. There has been lax immigration enforcement for generations; this has led to a growing flow (and now a flood) of immigration, including illegal immigration especially recently; there is again especially recently widespread pro-immigrant sentiment on the left and among elites, which has given political cover and support for expanded bases of social support; in recent years, tolerance of illegal immigration has become de rigueur, with signals everywhere in mass media indicating that complaints about illegal immigration is politically incorrect; meanwhile, some of the ill effects of illegal immigration, especially crime in Europe and political chaos in the U.S., have made immigration in general an important hot-button issue; and, finally, the urgency of the issue has radicalized some, who are all but declaring that they are in favor of open borders.

In other words, things are coming to a head especially because our elites and progressives seem increasingly openly in favor of open borders, and the borders really have been opening up. This would seem to entail an enormous change in global civilization; and it makes an adjudication of all of the issues listed above (and below) incredibly important to settle.

In a blog post last March, I asked whether Western civilization is collapsing. In the end, I didn't find the question all that fruitful. Conservatives say yes, progressives say no or who cares, but it doesn't seem that anything is going to be settled by discussing that question. I think it might be more enlightening to ask another: What do we want the world to look like?

The main options of immigration policy seem to bear directly on this question: open borders (as many progressives and libertarians want); the status quo (which nobody seems to want, but which seems very difficult to escape); traditional regulated immigration (which we all say we want, except for the explicitly open border radicals, but which the Establishment resists tooth and nail); and very little or no immigration (a la Japan).

The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.

But perhaps "What immigration policy do we want?" is not the question I want to ask. I'm asking a philosophical question that is, perhaps, prior to or in any event seems logically bound up with questions about immigration policy. The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.

It is tempting to place before the reader a few choices:

  • Traditional pluralism. We want a smorgasbord of different nations, each having a different language and culture, a national religion, etc. In other words, more or less how the world was before the advent of globalism...and colonialism.
  • Monoculturalism. We want a single global monoculture, everyone speaking the same language, having the same secular beliefs, democratic socialist politics, a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship, globally regulated Internet, etc. Eventually, a single world government.
  • A midway position. Something in between these, more or less like what we have now. Maybe there will be a lingua franca like English and "best practices" for business and technology, and plenty of intermixing, but most countries (there will always be exceptions like the United States and Canada) will retain a national identity, even if they are members of superstates.

Then we might ask on what grounds we can adjudicate among these—and then proceed to the debate.

But this is also not quite an honest sort of debate to have. It is not unlike imagining what your ideal state would be like, and then telling an elaborate story about Utopia. This is fairly useless because unless Utopia is possible, then you're simply telling a story. If you can't rationally expect to be able to bring about your Utopia—if there is no clear way to get from here to there—then taking half-steps in that direction might well prove to be disastrous. For example, you might say you want a global secular monoculture, but if you expect to get one by advocating for open borders in the E.U. and the U.S., don't expect to usher one in anytime soon. How are you going to get the rest of the world on board? And wait a moment—do you want the rest of the world on board? Or is it only the Western world that you want to lose any cultural distinctiveness? Would you prefer to have that (or to tolerate that) in Japan, Indonesia, Somalia, and Argentina?

So I don't want to invite speculation on what your Globutopia would look like. It seems to me that the question really is "Do we want open borders—and if not, what sort of immigration policy?" after all. This is the relevant question in the sense that it is essentially the question we disagree on.

That is not to say there are not more fundamental questions than that. For example:

  1. Is it preferable that all or the vast majority of people in a country share the same culture—language, religion, traditions, mores, broad political culture (in the U.S., our "civic religion"), etc.?
  2. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world share the same culture?
  3. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world have roughly the same amounts and types of cultural difference among different countries? So it's not a global monoculture, but global multiculturalism spread out everywhere.
  4. Is it possible for human beings with radically different cultures to get along very well in the same country? If it's a problem, how much of a problem is it? What is the best solution to that problem?

These are essential, fundamental questions. If we don't know our answers to these questions, it seems unlikely we will be able to defend our answers to "Do we want open borders?"

I would love to make advance tentative answers to those questions, but they are very difficult and I don't want to go on for much longer. Probably many of you would be uncomfortable if I were to put these questions to you; that is probably why we don't talk about these essential questions very much. They are deeply uncomfortable questions. They are politically fraught. But they are still important.

Here are a few notes on the four questions above:

  1. Suppose I say, thinking of a country like Ireland or Japan with a fairly distinctive culture that seems charming in various ways—that seems to benefit in various ways from being homogeneous—that it is a grand thing for everyone to share the same culture. Well, what does that say about the United States or India, countries with large minorities or various distinctive cultures? "Diversity is our strength," we are told. Is it sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness? Or what?
  2. Suppose I say, thinking of various dystopias and the morass that is global entertainment culture as interpreted by Hollywood (and its imitators elsewhere), that a global monoculture would be a massive mistake? On the other hand, I've observed many college educated people around the world going to similar hotels, restaurants, conferences, entertainment venues, riding in similar cars and trams, using similar tech, starting similar startups, etc., in New York, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They seem to like it. Everybody is nice and speaks English at their conferences. Is that so bad?
  3. The idea of global multiculturalism (like, Christians and Buddhists in equal numbers everywhere) strikes me as interesting but deeply implausible. Only educated cynics, mostly but not only Westerners, view religion as a smorgasbord that you can pick and choose from. That approach seems insincere and glib. Most of us think there are differences here that really matter. Surely the idea of "global multiculturalism" is not really possible. Is it?
  4. Then there's the big question: Can people with radically different cultures be expected to get along in the same countries? Well, they certainly have to, that's for sure. I don't support religious wars, for example, or race riots, or (as in the U.S. lately) political skirmishes that resemble nothing so much as brawls between fans of opposing sports teams. But if it's a problem, what's really the solution? In the U.S., political differences have gotten so bad that some suggest we split the country in two—because we can't get along. Terrible idea, I'm inclined to think.

I haven't even mentioned another essential question to our current problem: Do we in the West have any special obligations to the people of the global south, either because their countries were formerly colonized, or because the West is more privileged? That's a question we might want to answer separately even if we think we have the other ones figured out.

There are, in fact, other crucial and fundamental questions. Here's another one: Are all cultures of equal value? Should some religions, for example, be stamped out? Don't act all shocked, now. Some atheists think Christianity should be stamped out. Some conservative Christians want Islam in Europe and America stamped out. Muslims seem to want all other religions stamped out (but maybe especially Judaism). We're probably all glad that human-sacrificing religions are gone.

What the hell do we want?

We should be talking about all of these issues and not letting them be settled by default by our elites.

Maybe I'll hazard some answers later, but I'll give you the floor now, if you're brave enough.


Why pedophilia is evil

Prefatory notes—I wrote the first draft of the following essay about the horror of pedophilia in late 2016 or early 2017 and posted it on Medium and Quora, where it got quite a bit of attention. Since I deleted my accounts on those sites last winter, this essay (and a number of others) have been unavailable. But I want this and a number of other essays to keep circulating, so I'll be posting them here on my blog. The following essay in particular seems important in light of the Jeffery Epstein imbroglio.

But it wasn't the Epstein case, or any particular case, that originally led me to write about pedophilia. It was, rather, a long-standing interest in applied ethics in general, together with the (to me) jaw-droppingly incredible fact that people defend pedophiles. (As was the case with philosopher G.E. Moore, a lot of my philosophical writing is basically in reaction to absurd positions that other people take.) When I first encountered this rhetorical phenomenon in 2002—that was when pedophiles first descended upon Wikipedia—I simply couldn't believe it. My naive incredulity disappeared through repeated encounters with pedophiles in connection with Wikipedia. In fact, I came to believe I had an obligation to do at least a little something about it, which is why I reported Wikimedia Commons' pedophilia pages to the FBI in 2010 (which took no action that I know of).

All that said, this is no more a pet cause than any others in applied ethics. I have also written about the evils of murder, racism, antivitism (a neologism of mine), censorship, violations of privacy, and other topics in applied ethics. I especially like my essay on "Our Moral Abyss."

I have rewritten the essay slightly, and follow it with some replies that I made to comments by real, live pedophiles (they're online and quite shameless, if you didn't know) that I hope will clarify my arguments.


First, let’s talk about what the word “pedophilia” means. People who write about pedophilia insist that the word means (a) sexual attraction to prepubescent children (or, sometimes, any children below the age of consent). But, of course, people often use the word to mean (b) actual sex with children, i.e., what is more correctly described as child sexual abuse or (these mean the same) child rape.

I want to state very clearly and defend the thesis that pedophilia in both senses is not just “bad” but deeply evil. This is not a thesis about either psychology or the law, but instead about morality.

It’s distressing how poorly the evil of pedophilia seems to be understood. So let’s try to get very clear, beginning with (b) actual sex with children.

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.


The moral horror of child sexual abuse

Sex with children is a horrific evil because it traumatizes the child for life. In this regard, it may be compared to torture and rape of adults; even after the act is over, it continues to wound. It fills the child with undeserved shame and low self-esteem for life. For some adult survivors, this pain becomes so unbearable that they take their own lives. It permanently alters the child’s understanding of sex. Some suffer (and that is the right word) from nymphomania, and some become completely closed off to all sexual relationships. Horrifyingly, it also makes victims more likely to be abusers when they grow up.

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.

I want to assert very clearly and forcefully that anyone who presumes to evaluate the morality of child sexual abuse without discussing the horrible facts about these consequences is, by that omission, perpetuating the evil. I would argue that every discussion of the subject should make unequivocally clear that, however “pedophilia” is defined, sex with underaged children is a horrific evil and is intolerable. This would not be so important if pedophilia were widely understood to be a terrible evil, if it did not have its shameless advocates; but since such advocates do exist, it is incumbent on the rest of us to remind those who might be at all confused on the point of these basic facts.

Another shockingly incorrect stance on this topic is that sex with prepubescent children is wrong only when the child “doesn’t consent.” This needs only one reply: the trauma described above will happen whether or not “consent” seems to be given by the child. And, of course, children are not capable of consenting, because they don’t understand the nature of the sex act or its consequences. Anyone using such phrases as “if the child consents” is using the language of pedophilia apology and is very highly suspect.

There are other reasons why sex with children is wrong as well, and they bear briefer mention. Children can be physically injured by sex. It can result in pregnancy among girls as young as 12 (sometimes younger), and in STDs among both boys and girls, which only compounds the horror. Child rape is one of the most egregious violations of the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It deeply damages families and family life. And of course it is against the law, and age of consent laws exist for very good reasons, as I hope I’ve explained.


An evil mental disorder

Some writers demand that everyone use the words “pedophilia” and “pedophile” according to senses defined by psychiatrists. But, just as we may opt not to extend our everyday use of “fruit” to tomatoes, even though biologists tell us they are fruit, so we may opt to continue to use these words in their popular senses.

As a philosopher, i.e., someone trained in the definition of concepts and argumentation over how to apply words, I want to advise the opposite: you may and should continue to use the word as you always have, at least in most contexts. A pedophile, in this popular sense, is someone who sexually abuses children, or who tries to, or who wants to. To be clear, I’m not saying that these ought to be the scientific or clinical uses of the terms. I’m saying that the everyday use, which I am discussing here, need not mirror the clinical use.

The medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation.

But now let’s do talk about the clinical sense: the desire to have sex with children. This, too, is a moral evil.

Some will bristle at that mere claim. They act as if the fact that psychologists write about, and treat, pedophilia means that, since pedophilia is just a medical condition, it is off-limits for moral evaluation. This argument is so obviously fallacious that it actually serves better as a reductio of the premise; in other words, the medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation.

Others will say that mere desires obviously can't be morally evaluated. Admittedly, among the people who write about this subject, it is a less popular stance to say the desire and not just the act is evil. But it is worth pointing out that, if you were to take a poll — I couldn’t find any, probably because it seems so obvious — you would discover that the vast majority of people find the desire to have sex with children to be very bad indeed, and I’m guessing most people would have no objections to placing the label “evil” on it.

I am not saying this is an argument for the claim that desire for sex with children is evil. But it puts in context the frankly bizarre and disturbing practice of some to treat pedophilia as merely a psychiatric disorder, as if it were not a very deeply serious problem for other people as well. Let us grant that pedophilia, in the sense of desire for sex with children, is indeed a psychiatric disorder; indeed, there seems nothing well-ordered about it. But most of us simply couldn’t care in the slightest that it is a psychiatric disorder, i.e., we don’t care that there is something wrong with the brains of pedophiles, except insofar as such people pose a threat to our children. Pedophilia as a disorder per se rightly strikes us as a threat, and such a monstrous threat that it is evil.

So, yes, well spotted, pedophilia is a disorder. But that does not stop us from condemning it as something quite evil, not just a clinical condition like, say, high blood pressure. I do so condemn it, and so should we all.

Mind you, I don’t mean to say I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for the psychological condition of a person who wakes up one day finding himself wanting to boink little boys and girls. It is, rather, that I greatly prioritize the health of families and communities far above whatever pain an illicit desire might cause such a person. In fact, the priority of the former is so much greater that I can say that the only significant reason that most of us need care about the mental health of a pedophile is that, through caring, we might perhaps prevent child sexual abuse. There is no other important reason.

If this still isn’t clear, think of it this way. I suppose there are people who want very badly to rape women. They fantasize about it, they watch rape porn, they might have come close at times. Some have actually done it, although others have never done it. Call such a person a rapeophile. (Arguably, an extreme form of a DSM-5 category, sexual sadism disorder.) Now, if pedophilia is a mental disorder, I think it is safe to say that rapeophilia is one too. To be sure, being a rapeophile might cause a person great mental anguish; it certainly should. But in this situation, whom do I care more about: the rapeophile, or women who might possibly be in danger from the rapeophile? Obviously, the latter — even if the rapeophile has never acted on his desires.


How can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control?

But, some critics will say smugly, you're missing an obvious objection: how can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control? The short answer is that it’s not entirely beyond a person’s control. But let’s back up a bit.

As a philosophy instructor for many years, I taught undergraduates the common maxim that one cannot be responsible if one lacks freedom; if we ought to do something, or not, then it must be the case that we are free to do it, or not. How can we be obligated to do something that isn’t in our power?

When psychiatrists inform us that pedophilia is a mental disorder and when certain (I think quite contemptible) activists insist that pedophiles cannot control their desires, these claims are sometimes used draw the definitely false conclusion that pedophilia, in the psychiatric sense, is not bad.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature.

I deny the premise. I claim that pedophilia, or the desire to have sex with children, can be controlled. Alcoholism too is a mental disorder and it can be controlled, albeit with great difficulty. That is why I maintain that alcoholism is quite morally bad. Many people—many recovering alcoholics—agree wholeheartedly with me. All acknowledge at least that it is an addiction, and few would object to the good advice that we should not allow ourselves to sink into that awful swamp before it gets that bad. Indeed, I would say, we bear a huge obligation to ourselves to avoid it. But admittedly, once we are addicted, it becomes more understandable if we do not heroically and suddenly de-addict ourselves. Still, we also bear a very heavy burden to lift ourselves out of addiction as well as we can, and, after the fact, we can still be blamed for allowing ourselves to become addicted. We will bear this burden until the addiction no longer afflicts us; and then we will still bear the burden of not letting ourselves sink back into it.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. That's a fact.

And this fact is, as it turns out, a deeply important point that must not be passed over lightly, much less dismissed. It is entirely unrealistic—as well as cynical and corrupting—to deny the adjustability of desire. After all, a great deal of morality and psychiatry both, as well as rehabilitation in criminal justice, are concerned with adjusting unwelcome desires. To treat desires and compulsions as unchangeable forces of nature is essentially to give up on moral improvement, psychiatric recovery, and criminal rehabilitation.

Universal experience teaches that intense desires do not simply arrive full-blown in our heads. They creep in, as it were, experienced as mere possibilities. We consider them, perhaps briefly, musing. If something is quite taboo — for example, murder, sex with a sibling, or using the “n” word — then most of us will drop the idea immediately, and the desire has little chance to germinate.

Let’s suppose there is a person who, for whatever reason, has unusually weak self-control. If this person finds himself with a desire, he has no filters to rein it in; it doesn’t occurs to him that he should not reject it. Instead, he nurses his desire. He thinks about it. He considers and discusses with himself; he imagines; he plans, but without acting on the plans.

Suppose that person is a pedophile.

The pedophile then, finally, decides that he has a problem, that it might be wrong for him to have these desires. Is such a person not morally culpable, foolish at least if not actually evil, for allowing such desires to fester unchecked? Why wouldn’t he be? Think about any illicit or undesirable desire you might have had in the past — for too much porn, dessert, alcohol, drugs, game time, or whatever your vice might be. It can be hard to stop yourself from indulging in bad habits. But do you not also remember when you developed those bad habits, and when you could have much more easily reined them in?

Why should the desire for sex with children be any different? Don't just claim that it is different; explain very carefully how and why it is different. It isn't.

Someone might argue that I am comparing bad habits like overeating or drinking too much alcohol — and those are actions — with an undesirable desire, which the pedophile we’re talking about doesn’t act on. If he never indulges the desire, why think the mere desire is bad?

This is a fair question, but there is a clear answer. The thoughts are bad, of course, because people who lack the self-control to order their thoughts often lack the self-control to restrain the behavior that the desire would lead to. We do not leave children alone with people who confess that they have pedophilic desires, because desires might lead to action.

The desire is horrific because the action is horrific. Would we not also be horrified by someone confessing he thinks constantly about raping women? I certainly would be.

This is the main reason, then, that pedophilia in the clinical sense is horrifically evil: it can, and sometimes does, lead to a horrifically evil action. It is idle and sophomoric to insist that, after all, it might not lead to that action. A person who lets such an evil desire fester and grow strong has for that very reason demonstrated a lack of self-control. The risk is significant, and it is a risk of a great evil.

The desire is horrific because the action is horrific. Would we not also be horrified by someone confessing he thinks constantly about raping women? I certainly would be.

Let me consider one final reply. What if someone claims to have this desire but that it is fully under control — that he would never rape a child, and would only ever fantasize. Putting aside worries about the risk, surely mere fantasizing hurts no one.

Well, no; it is not fantasizing per se that makes pedophilia so evil. It is, first and foremost, the risk. And anyone who is so out-of-control as to permit these feelings to fester in himself is a risk, so far as the rest of us know, no matter what he may say. And while the fantasizing might not hurt anyone, it certainly does increase the risk.

Pedophilic feelings have other ill effects. They can cause someone to go looking for child pornography, which creates a market for actual child rape. Even drawn child molestation can increase the chances of a desire for the real thing, thereby creating a market. After all, if a pedophile enjoys looking at drawn pictures of children being molested, surely he or she might get even more excitement from actual photographs.

It is also an undesirable desire because the pedophile must never act on it. It is, for that reason, in addition to be horrifically evil, also pointless.

Let me clarify one last point. In this section I’ve been arguing that pedophilia, considered simply as a desire for sex with children, is horrifically evil. But I am not saying that psychiatrists or clergy or others who are working directly with pedophiles should be highly judgmental. I have no opinion on that; I suppose psychiatrists should do whatever in their clinical experience reduces the disorder fastest and most permanently, while remaining humane, of course.


Stop the pedophilia apology

If you look online at discussions of pedophilia, one of the first things you will read about it is not how evil child sexual abuse is. Instead, you will read that pedophilia is just a feeling, and feelings can’t be controlled, so pedophiles aren’t bad. The fact that this is the popular narrative horrifies me, and I think it should horrify you. The narrative is not only quite wrong, for reasons I’ve already explained, it is also quite dangerous.

Even those who agree that sex with children is a great evil unwittingly contribute to the problem, if they speak as if pedophilic desires were unalterable facts of nature. When a behavior seems to spring from a desire or a psychiatric diagnosis, modern thinkers are in the unfortunate habit of treating the desire or diagnosis as, indeed, incapable of change, when they certainly are not.

There’s a funny thing about free will: the more we believe that something is in our control, the more control we have over it. By contrast, the more we believe that something is out of our control, the less we will be inclined to do anything about it. It is as if a belief in free will gives us free will.

Therefore, I’m afraid that those who characterize pedophilia as an unchangeable desire are actually directly contributing to the problem. It would be like telling alcoholics that they cannot escape their alcoholism. If they believed that, then why would they even try? And just imagine saying that aloud to "rapeophiles": "Too bad you have a desire to rape women. Now that you have it, make sure you don't act on it." We can't imagine anyone with such a complacent attitude in the #MeToo age. Why countenance such an attitude toward those who desire to rape children? Are children less worthy of protection than women?

If your illicit desires are unchangeable, if you bear no responsibility for them, then why fight them?

Heeding this message — and also horrifically — many pedophiles regard their condition as just “another sexual orientation” that may be responsibly indulged (i.e., only in fantasy). One can find a sympathetic group for practically anything online, including pedophilia. I’m sorry to report that, in my experience, pedophilia propagandists are online, active, and emboldened.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

Their propaganda is disturbing. Consider: There is the plea that we should “understand” pedophiles first and foremost, often with no attention to the risk to abuse victims. There is the drive to consider a deep moral evil and societal cancer as primarily a matter of clinical study and treatment, with the implication that moral evaluation is somehow unscientific and reactionary. There is, incredibly, “activism” on behalf of “age of consent reform,” as if advocacy on behalf of one of the most horrific crimes imaginable were somehow “progressive.” And there are aggressive demands of tolerance of drawn depictions of child molestation — created by and for pedophiles — because it is a “victimless crime." Never mind that what is depicted is, for all decent people, one of the most heinous of crimes, worse than rape because it is the rape of children. Never mind that the consumers of such depictions are pedophiles who must restrain themselves from that crime. These abhorrent practices normalize pedophilia.

If there is one reason that we should insist that pedophilia is a criminal behavior as well as a disorder, and that it is a horrifically evil one at that, it is that we should take a stand against those who would, quite deliberately, try to normalize it. If it is normalized, this will embolden the weak and the malevolent to indulge their desires. We have less to fear from those who are strong-willed enough not to act on their desires. But the world is filled with weak and malevolent people who are only too ready to indulge their desires when an opportunity arises. There is no social or individual benefit to be gained from normalizing pedophilia. If there is one thing that deserves to remain taboo, it is this.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

- fin -


Note: what follows are some replies I made to pedophiles, yes, real-life pedophiles, who commented on the Medium copy of the above article. I'm not including the pedophiles' replies because I did not save copies of what they wrote when I left Medium.

Reply #1

This is a reply to a teenage self-confessed pedophile who said he'd never acted on his feelings and that I was very mean for lacking empathy for his plight.

I’m writing so that unformed minds, who might be confused by the likes of you, won’t be. I have absolutely no desire to have “empathy” for pedophiles, any more than I want to have empathy for rapists. Frankly, I think child molestation is considerably worse than rape of adults; it is a truly horrific crime. “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.” The only reason to empathize with such a person’s pedophilia is to prevent crime; and the way that crime might be prevented by empathy is not by making the criminal (or would-be criminal) feel better about their criminal ideation but by coming to understand their patterns, motivations, and other things that allow us to (a) catch and punish criminals and (b) aggressively prevent actual child abuse.

If any teen of mine confessed to being sexually attracted to little children, I would (a) explain in great detail why pedophilia is not just a little bit wrong, but horrifically evil (and probably make them read the essay I wrote, and demonstrate excellent understanding of it) and (b) immediately seek professional help from a therapist who agreed with me that pedophilic desires must be treated as criminal ideation, with a goal of eliminating them as much as possible.

It’s silly and absurd to be accused of having a “look-how-morally-upstanding-I-am” tone as I patiently explain how evil pedophilia is. I have also carefully and patiently explained why murder is wrong, and nobody accused me of being self-righteous. That’s because normal people don’t think they’re particularly great because they don’t commit crime. For normal people, that’s just the baseline.

But I will, of course, show no compunctions about telling pedophiles directly and without regret that you are not just “sick,” but deeply morally corrupt, and I don’t mean a little bit or in a hip and edgy way (like, e.g., drug abuse seems to some people), but in a straightforward your-heart-is-black way. Pedophiles are evil. They don’t need empathy. They need therapy in the way that muggers could use rehabilitation — not because we feel sorry for the pedophiles (or muggers), but because society desperately needs them to refrain from their evil behavior. And the notion that pedophilia is a sexual orientation that needs to be normalized is horrifying and beyond obscene.


Reply #2

This is a reply to a European graduate student in the humanities, I think, who thought he was being clever by making sophistical replies to the arguments in my essay. These are my rebuttals.

Matt, as you are speaking as a pedophilia apologist, and as you are speaking to someone who believes pedophilia (in both senses defined in my original essay) is evil, you have no credibility or authority. So when you adopt a tone of condescension, you merely come across as ridiculous. I’m still laughing at you. And this is why I’m not going to reply to your laughable attempts at zingers; they just make you look creepier.

Here are a few replies:

I wrote: “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.”

You responded, irrelevantly: “Exactly how is it not legitimate? Are you suggesting that it is impossible for a pedophile to control their actions? You’ve already argued that they can in your previous article.”

“Rapeophilia” — defined, say, as the exclusive or predominant desire to rape women — is about as legitimate as pedophilia, defined similarly but with regard to children. So imagine someone came up with “Non-Offending Rape Attracted Persons,” or NORAP, and said the various sorts of things about their desire to rape women that you say with regard to attraction to children. They just need help; they shouldn’t be ostracized; they should be “understood”; don’t judge them as a potential rapists because most of them don’t rape; etc. Well, it’s pretty damn obvious that saying these things in defense of a fictional NORAP category is no different from saying similar things in defense of NOMAPs (i.e., pedophiles). Considering that defense of rapeophilia is utterly illegitimate, we can also say that defense of pedophilia is utterly illegitimate.

Now, I’m glad that you at least pay lip service to the notion that pedophiles can control themselves. But I say more than that they can stop themselves from raping children. I say, furthermore, that they bear a heavy burden to deny and rid themselves of their desire to rape children, which they should have denied and repressed the moment it appeared. Instead, they went with it. It is playing with fire to indulge potential criminals by saying that their desire to rape children is a “sexual orientation” on a par with heterosexuality or homosexuality, by saying that there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing, etc. Imagine a group of people, the worst of whom are regular rapists, who say, “There’s nothing morally wrong with people who can only get off on rape fantasies. They can’t control themselves. We should understand them. Some women actually secretly want to be raped, you know — but of course, we believe rape is very, very wrong. (Except, of course, for the people who think it’s just fine, right?)”

You’re not even nearly as clever as you think you are. You’re an idiot. Your bias in favor of people who commit horrific crimes has made you unable to understand basic reasoning. I don’t have many opinions about the best way to rehabilitate pedophiles. I know I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t generally opine about such things. But I do have an opinion about social mores: it should never be an acceptable part of society to encourage adults to accept within themselves their attraction to children. That is, and should remain, one of the strongest taboos we live by. I don’t know or particularly care what therapists say to pedophiles in their therapy sessions.

I also have an opinion about the goal of therapy is the same as the goal of therapy with rapists or alcoholics or drug addicts: to rid themselves of the desire. In this regard, it’s very, very different than the goal of therapy for homosexuals. Most people think we shouldn’t try to “cure” homosexuals; I’m one who thinks we shouldn’t. In that regard, homosexuality can be regarded as a sexual orientation whereas pedophilia and rapeophilia cannot. Similarly, wine tasting and being a whisky connoisseur can be regarded as more or less healthy pastimes; alcoholism isn’t, and alcoholics bear the heavy burden to rid themselves of their compulsion.


Why murder is evil

Originally posted on Quora, since deleted, and now re-posted here with a few edits. The Quora question was, "Who might you find in the lowest circles of hell?"

If there were a hell, then murderers, particularly mass murderers, would have to occupy the very lowest circle. I think many people do not understand what a horrific crime murder is. This is a shame. So let me explain it.

Frankly, the crime of murder makes all others pale in comparison. The trouble in understanding this is that murder is more "metaphysical" and so its evil, more difficult to comprehend. When a person is dead, nothing else happens to him qua person. Thus the crime of murder seems to have a short shelf life. It takes ten minutes to sharpen the knife, a minute to confront the victim and do the deed, a few hours for the body to be discovered, a year or two for the survivors to grieve, and then life goes on. Some educated idiots even seem committed to the view that, since life is a vale of tears, murderers are doing their victims a favor. For many murder victims, the terror and pain last only for moments; is it really so bad?

But, no. That's not how it is. If you think this way, you probably also don't understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. The evil of murder lies not in the pain of dying and grieving, but in the enormousness of what it deliberately prevents: an entire life.

If you (wrongheadedly) think of life materialistically, as collecting stuff, then consider that murder involves not only robbing a person of all of his current possessions, it also involves robbing him of all possessions he would ever earn and enjoy in the future. The murderer as it were leaves you utterly naked for eternity. He's stolen your money, your house, your car, your jewelry, your computer, your devices, your toys, your clothes--and everything you would have had in the future, too. That's a lot of stuff!

If you think of a life as a series of experiences, many of which are worthwhile in themselves--"peak experiences" and all--then consider that murder involves robbing a person of all the experiences he would have in the future. The murderer as it were locks you in a plain, windowless room forever. All chance at experiencing books, movies, relationships, food, etc., all gone.

If you think of a life as "love," as a collection of meaningful relationships, then consider that murder involves abruptly breaking every single one of those relationships, between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife. All of them, all at once, never to return. The murderer as it were restrains you from all future dates, outings, time with children and parents, all of it. He has stolen your power to enjoy your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your friends--everyone you know, everyone you will know, everyone you might otherwise have brought into the world. That is truly an incredible loss.

If you think of life as service, as helping others, then consider that murder involves preventing you from helping anyone else, ever again, in any way whatsoever. The poor, sick, ignorant, and powerless, whoever you might have helped, will not be helped, at least not by you. The murderer as it were ties your hands and makes you watch helplessly as others try to shift for themselves even when they can't or don't know how.

If you think of life as the pursuit of meaningful goals, then consider that murder permanently and irrevocably removes a person's ability to achieve anything whatsoever. The murderer as it were chains you to a wall with everything you might want to do far out of reach. The murderer makes every one of your dreams permanently, irrevocably impossible. Imagine how outrageous it would be for someone to come to your dream job and then physically restrain you for five minutes from doing that job. Then imagine someone doing that for the rest of your life. That's what murder does.

There are, of course, some other truly horrific crimes, such as abuse and torture. But murder is worse than abuse. Many abused people go on to live good lives and give life to others. In the end, they would rather have been abused than murdered. Murder is also worse than torture. Think of the war heroes who were tortured even for years, who later went on to have happy families and achieve great things. In the end, they would rather have been tortured than murdered.

The most deadly institution in human history is government; certain heads of state would be at the very bottom. If sheer numbers are what matter, then Stalin, being responsible for more deaths than any single individual in history, would have to be at the very bottom. Mao would be next. Hitler would be third.

Just try to think of everything that these monsters robbed from the world. It's inconceivable.

We should think quite a bit harder about the political, social, and psychological factors that made it possible for such monsters to rise to power.


Toward a social contract for social media

Last week, I led a "strike," or boycott, associated with the hashtag #SocialMediaStrike, directed at the giant, centralized social media services. Though throttled by Twitter and no doubt by others, the brief campaign led to massive use of the hashtag, many people carrying out the strike, as well as dozens of news stories from around the world.

Here I will tell the story of what happened, make some observations about what we might do next, and then make a rather specific proposal, what we might call a "social contract" for social media companies.

What happened

Let me tell the story briefly, from the beginning.

I joined Facebook around 2006 and Twitter in 2008; I never felt quite right about them, and my objections piled up over the years. After I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I abandoned as much of social media as possible. Facebook was a challenge, but I permanently deleted my account, and haven't looked back. It wasn't hard to leave Quora, Medium, and Instagram. But I was still on Twitter for career reasons, and it bothered me that I had abandoned my Facebook friends. I thought, "There's got to be a way to get my friends to join me on some alternative social media network." But how? Then it occurred to me that if somebody made a browser plugin for my friends, that would insert my posts on Minds (for example) into their feeds on Facebook, and which would enable them to reply to me, that would go some way to making different social media networks interoperable. This idea got a lot of play on Twitter.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that the lessons I had learned as part of a blockchain company since September 2017 (Everipedia) were applicable to social media as a whole: the whole social media system needs to be decentralized. What does that mean, exactly, though? There are several ways to think about it:

  • We should own (ultimately control the distribution of) our own data. Nobody should be able to shut us down, just as nobody can shut down our blogs.
  • We should have total control over our own feeds, i.e., our user experience as we use social media apps. This includes the sorting algorithms
  • Social media apps should not be "silos." They should share data; they should be interoperable; if you post on one, your data should be available on all the others (that do not specifically block you or your post).
  • More than just sharing data, the data they use should be entirely independent of the apps that contain them. That means social media apps become, essentially, social media readers analogous to blog/news readers.
  • To continue the analogy, just as blogs and blog readers exchange data via the common (practically universal) RSS standard, so social media readers should exchange data via a common social media standard.

My employer (Everipedia) kindly supported me as I spent some time developing this idea in speeches and a Wired article. In writing the latter article I hit upon the idea of using social media to organize—ironically, sure, why not?—a social media strike, and to write the Declaration. Whoever I talked to about it loved it. It resonated for people with both left politics and right. That's interesting and perhaps unexpected, because it is an idea that ultimate concerns Internet politics itself. It turns out that when it comes to Internet politics, almost everyone is still essentially "liberal": we all want to be free to publish and to be in control of our own experience. (Matters, of course, are different when we consider whether we want other people to be free to publish and to be in control of their experience. But when it comes to our own, we want to be in control.)

That was last March. I had several months to organize something bigger and more formally, by reaching out to a lot of influencers and get them on board as early signatories of a Declaration of Digital Independence, but whenever I started to make cursory movements in that direction, I frankly lost heart. The reason, as I eventually realized, was that the only way I was going to do this is by reaching out to regular people through normal channels, out in the open—you know, real grassroots organizing. Everything else felt (and might actually have been) philosophically inconsistent. So a little over a week before July 4, I got to work.

I cleaned up the various documents and started pushing them out on various channels, but especially on Twitter.

At first it looked like it was all going to be a dud. Then, slowly but surely, different "blue check marks" and then news outlets started showing interest. When the BBC and Fox News' Tucker Carlson took an early interest last Monday (July 1), that really opened the floodgates. Here's a list of coverage a colleague collected:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK6BHGu9SD4 (Tucker Carlson interview)
  2. https://twitter.com/questCNN/status/1147240877892481031 (CNN interview)
  3. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-larry-sanger-slams-facebook-twitter-social-media.html (widely distributed and discussed)
  4. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/wikipedia-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-to-protest-power-of-giants-like-facebook-184501284.html
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-48825410 (ditto; first major coverage)
  6. https://www.newsweek.com/reddit-technology-social-media-strike-larry-sanger-facebook-twitter-1447549 (ditto)
  7. https://nypost.com/2019/07/02/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-over-privacy-issues (ditto)
  8. https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-06-29/wikipedia-co-founder-unveils-declaration-digital-independence (first coverage by anyone, I believe)
  9. https://thenextweb.com/tech/2019/07/04/reddits-r-technology-goes-dark-as-part-of-socialmediastrike (/r/technology's blackout in support was widely reported)
  10. https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/larry-sanger-wikipedia-mitgruender-ruft-zu-social-media-streik-auf-a-1275236.html
  11. https://www.elpais.com.uy/vida-actual/motivos-cofundador-wikipedia-llama-huelga-redes-sociales.html
  12. https://www.repubblica.it/tecnologia/social-network/2019/07/01/news/wikipedia_lancia_sciopero_social_stop_il_4-5_luglio_per_un_sistema_piu_libero_-230074747
  13. https://thehill.com/homenews/451471-wikipedia-co-founder-wants-two-day-social-media-strike-to-highlight-privacy-issues
  14. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/07/01/wikipedia_founder_calls_for_social_media_strike
  15. https://observer.com/2019/07/wikipedia-founder-larry-sanger-july-4-social-media-strike
  16. https://www.salon.com/2019/07/03/wikepedia-co-founder-plans-social-media-strike-will-it-work
  17. https://www.marketwatch.com/amp/story/guid/D29FC838-9D0E-11E9-956A-E9AF1A718551
  18. https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2019/july/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-july-4-5
  19. https://siecledigital.fr/2019/07/01/le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-invite-a-la-greve-des-reseaux-sociaux
  20. https://www.rp.pl/Spoleczenstwo/190709913-Tworca-Wikipedii-wzywa-do-strajku-w-mediach-spolecznosciowych.html
  21. https://fossbytes.com/wikipedia-co-founder-social-media-strike
  22. https://twitter.com/BBCTech/status/1145654230558134274
  23. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1205730/greve-facebook-twitter-larry-sanger
  24. https://twitter.com/JeanneCBC/status/1145723863210352641
  25. https://twitter.com/GarethM/status/1145712804118351874
  26. https://pawoo.net/@masterq/102365444906120134
  27. https://gizmodo.com/wikipedia-co-founder-picks-a-nice-day-to-log-off-1836017140
  28. https://www.presse-citron.net/quand-le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-appelle-a-la-greve-des-reseaux-sociaux
  29. https://libertysentinel.org/wikipedia-co-founder-boycott-social-media
  30. https://themerkle.com/can-a-social-media-strike-be-pulled-off-in-2019
  31. https://samnytt.se/social-media-strejk-utropat-den-den-4-och-5-juli
  32. https://www.reddit.com/r/technology/comments/c7g36c/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by
  33. http://mugayir.com/wikipedia-ceosundan-sosyal-medya-boykotu-icin-cagri
  34. https://actualidad.rt.com/actualidad/320005-cofundador-wikipedia-convocar-huelga-redes-sociales
  35. https://elpais.com/tecnologia/2019/07/03/actualidad/1562153010_528990.html
  36. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/07/01/demanding-users-fight-data-and-privacy-protections-wikipedia-co-founder-calls
  37. https://www.observalgerie.com/style-de-vie-et-loisirs/hitech/cofondateur-wikipedia-appelle-greve-reseaux-sociaux-4-5-juillet
  38. https://www.reddit.com/r/tech/comments/c7ipl7/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by
  39. https://twitter.com/thehill/status/1146384654578196481
  40. https://wnd.com/2019/07/wikipedia-co-founder-urges-social-media-strike
  41. https://www.numerama.com/politique/530423-le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-vous-invite-a-faire-greve-avec-lui-contre-facebook-twitter-et-youtube.html
  42. https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/c8s87d/im_larry_sanger_wikipedia_cofounder_everipedia/
  43. https://www.newsmax.com/newsfront/wikipedia-social-media-data-privacy/2019/07/03/id/923114/
  44. https://www.verdict.co.uk/decentralised-social-media
  45. https://twitter.com/PrisonPlanet/status/1147122675917185024
  46. https://summit.news/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-slams-zuckerberg-big-tech-for-appalling-internet
  47. https://twitter.com/bitchute/status/1147336649883283456
  48. https://reclaimthenet.org/larry-sanger-twitter-facebook
  49. https://reclaimthenet.org/larry-sanger-declaration-of-digital-independence
  50. https://twitter.com/svbizjournal/status/1147558662950592519
  51. https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2019/07/05/larry-sanger-wikipedia-social-media-strike-fb-twtr.html
  52. https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/social-media-strike-larry-snager-internet-dark-a4183046.html
  53. https://www.cnet.com/news/reddits-rtechnology-goes-offline-for-july-4-social-media-strike
  54. https://www.curvearro.com/blog/why-social-media-is-ready-to-go-on-strike
  55. https://tribetica.com/can-a-social-media-strike-be-pulled-off-in-2019
  56. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/social-media-strike-why-favourite-083241784.html
  57. https://world.einnews.com/article/489949068/7umkU6G_w9ukLXsk
  58. https://inside.com/campaigns/inside-social-2019-07-05-1568KII3/sections/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-121855

There was probably more. Despite this amount of coverage, I don't think the story ever trended on Twitter or Google News.

That the effort was throttled by Twitter is obvious. Tweets were placed behind "sensitive content" warnings—never with any explanation, but often with high irony—even when I merely shared one of Twitter's own memes with the #SocialMediaStrike hashtag. There also seemed to be games going on with the hashtag itself.

What inroads did the effort make? There were a few notable "blue checkmark" supporters, but on the whole the result was a creature of grassroots efforts and direct reporting on those efforts. No major politician supported it; no A-list conservative or libertarian YouTube star or pundits supported it; no high-ranking lefty, rightly complaining about "surveillance capitalism," joined; none of the leading Silicon Valley darlings, often critical of social media, joined; etc. In short, the Establishment pretty much uniformly took a pass—except, oddly, for the massive amount of news reporting as I said, and despite that reporting.

The lack of Establishment up-take I chalk up to the fact that it was started as a grass-roots effort and thus was beneath their notice; presumably, their support would need to be courted in advance. But as I said, I specifically decided not to court their support in advance. I'm not particularly sorry I didn't, even though clearly it would have been a bigger deal if I had. It would have been bigger, yes, but the rank and file would be wondering much less about the genuineness of the movement. Besides, I'd have to worry about movement politics and personalities. What we've demonstrated is that this movement has legs without any A-list endorsements. And I don't count myself in that group. I'm a B-lister at best. Heck, I've only got 6,000 followers and Twitter gave me my own blue checkmark only a couple months ago. My interest will continue to be that of a disgruntled social media user who also happens to be a casual Internet theorist.

Next steps: some notes

After announcing that they were back from the strike, many people asked what the next steps were. Some suggested we do another, longer strike; I'm not opposed to that. Many suggested that we start new social media networks; I think some of these people really didn't realize that there were plenty under development. Representatives of several alternative social media networks reached out to me, including CEOs of two or three well-known ones. It's all been quite confusing and so you'll have to give me time to get it sorted out, especially since I'd like to be doing other work too, of course. Helping to organize this effort is at best a temporary sideline for me.

First, then, let me make a few observations about future strikes:

  • We still haven't shown the whole world that there is a massive latent demand for decentralized social media and data self-ownership.
  • Simply doing another strike (perhaps a longer one) might be more effective than last week's strike.
  • But a similar strike anytime soon would almost certainly be ignored by the press and many potential participants. It would be better to plan any follow-up strike for some time months from now—even next year on the same days.
  • There doesn't have to be a centrally organized strike. You can declare yourself to be on strike on any social network you like, and maybe repeat the message daily or weekly, and then don't interact except to promote your strike.
  • Here's the thing. If there's going to be another big organized strike, I'm not going to be the one to organize it. I'm a reluctant organizer of this sort of thing, to be honest. As I said, I'm not a specialist or working full-time on this stuff. So someone else, or some other organization, would have to organize it. I might well participate, though, if someone else organizes it.
  • Another proposal I saw is to have regular planned strikes, like once a month. This strikes me as unlikely to make big inroads, but of course it all depends on execution.
  • There's a whole aspect of any such effort toward data ownership, privacy, and decentralization that might need special attention, I think: teaching the ignorant. A common reaction to the strike was, "Wait, why should we care about privacy again?" I explained that before, even why we should be hardcore about privacy, but much more needs to be done on this. Similarly with free speech. So many people, especially younger people, have never learned why free speech is so important.

But there are maybe more important issues aside from any strike:

  • I'm not aware of anything like an industry-wide agreement or commitment to interoperability and to settling on common standards. I'm interested in helping to broker that or to kick it off, although I probably wouldn't want to participate, as that is not my area.
  • I'm not interested in endorsing or joining any social media companies as an adviser. Though I am often asked, I am an adviser to almost no one. Thanks for asking.
  • In my Wired paper, I describe "mass try-outs," i.e., as many people as possible descends en masse on one particular social media alternative, then another one a week later (or whatever), for as long as necessary.
  • Here is a message for alternative social media CEOs: there is strength in numbers. If you fight each other for the giants' table scraps and leftovers, you'll get nowhere. If you join forces to make each other interoperable and to organize mass try-outs, you'll not only get a massive amount of publicity, you'll get a massive amount of new users. A rising tide lifts all boats. Please act on this observation.
  • I'm happy to try to bring you together for these purposes, if you're not already making satisfactory headway, but I don't want to be part of the organization. That's your business, not mine. I have no interest in being an interloper. This is not just because I don't like to be rude, it's because I don't know you or trust your organizations (yet), and I would like to stay independent of the fray.
  • I do have one piece of advice for such an organization: you can't include all alternative social media organizations in the biggest, most serious mass try-outs (I think), like every little Mastodon instance. Some will not make the cut, because they're not big enough.
  • That said, if you (social media companies wanting to organize mass try-outs) want massive grassroots support, the best way to organize which sites to follow is to use some objective and publicly-verifiable metrics of engagement, such as Alexa or Quantcast, number of social media mentions, or something else like that. Another option is to agree on a list of judges, and they democratically determine a list of n networks to do a "mass try-out" on.
  • Of course, the also-rans should also have their (perhaps briefer) day in the sun. But the main event will feature some of the unquestionably leading alternative social media networks and will have more days and more publicity, naturally.
  • That is, as long as they really are provably committed to decentralization, self-ownership of user data, and interoperability. But we would have to determine their bona fides.

So what should we do next?

Proposal: A social contract for social media

Here is a proposal that I would like your feedback on.

I'm thinking of trying to get the CEOs of alternative social media companies—and then, perhaps, the big ones—to agree to a set of principles.

Once agreed and signed, I would be happy to help broker an announcement that a deal, along these lines, had been reached.

And then we could do some "mass try-outs" of at least some signatories, in conjunction with a new social media strike. But I think the first step is to get the alternative networks on board.

What principles? I don't think the Principles of Decentralized Social Networks is specific enough. What we really need to do is to operationalize those very general principles. So, something like this:

  1. We, representatives of social media networks agree to work with each other to adopt, adapt, or create a single, commonly-used, commonly-developed, and mutually satisfactory set of standards and protocols for making our networks interoperable, regardless of what other and underlying technologies we may use.
  2. "Interoperable" networks are those in which, at a minimum, posts that appear on one network can appear on other networks of a similar kind. Thus if one network supports microposts only, then microposts that originate on other networks can appear there. Similarly with longer posts, images, videos, and so forth.
  3. We will make diligent efforts support what might be called personal social media accounts as soon as available, so that there is support for peer-to-peer social media that does not require any networks or instances at all. In other words, these would be user-owned social media accounts, made according to standards that enable a person to post a social media feed entirely independently of any social media network. We will work diligently toward offering full technical support for users to post directly from feeds they directly and individually control onto our networks.
  4. As we become more fully decentralized, we will make user data fully portable. In other words, when a fully decentralized and interoperable network comes online, we will enable users to export their data in a format that allows them to host the "ur-version" of their data elsewhere.
  5. There is no requirement that our networks must carry all types of social media content; we may restrict what we carry by medium. Some networks may focus on microposts, others on blogs, and still others on photos or video. The standards and protocols should cover all uses of all these media, sufficient to specify how they are used by the big social media networks. As distinct new kinds of social media are invented, these too should be specified as well.
  6. It is also to be expected that we will support all features supported by the standards and protocols. For example, while some networks might support a wide variety of "reaction" features, others might have just "like" or "dislike," and some might have none at all.
  7. We, the social media networks that are party to this public pledge, each retain the right to moderate all content that appears on our networks. Neither any central body nor any specially commissioned organization has the right to determine what may and may not appear on our networks. We may be as open, or as restricted, as we wish.
  8. We acknowledge that there are other serious problems associated with decentralized networks—such as, perhaps especially, spam and problems associated with real-world identities. We will work diligently to solve these problems in a way that does not create a potentially corruptible system, or an ideologically-driven system of viewpoint-based censorship.
  9. Whether or not our own projects will support a private messaging service, the standards and protocols we support will include end-to-end, strong encryption for individual private messaging as well as private group chats.
  10. The only requirements for a network to be join this decentralized system are neutral technical protocols; the only requirement for a person to create an account will be purely technical ones. There will be no application or vetting process, any more than there is for the registration of a new domain name, blog, or email provider or address.
  11. The standards and protocols we adopt will be open source, not proprietary.
  12. We will create or place our trust into, and continue to support, an open and democratic organization that manages these standards and protocols. We may and should be expected to object if we notice that biased or corrupt procedures, particularly those operating behind the scenes, are shaping the development of these standards and protocols.
  13. We will particularly resist incursions by governments and giant corporations that attempt to hijack the standards and protocols for purposes of censorship, surveillance, or profit-making opportunities not open equally to all.
  14. We are committed to ease of use—so that people can enjoy the full benefits of owning their own data and participating in a decentralized social media system without installing their own server or doing anything else that requires technical skill beyond that of the plain non-technical person.

Please read that over and let me know what you think.

I propose that social media CEOs negotiate with each other on some such set of principles, then all agree upon them. The benefits of doing so would be tremendous:

First, this should light a fire underneath all and create a mutual, shared understanding about the ultimate goals of the new social media architecture. It would constitute a "Manhattan Project" for redesigning the Internet (or, as one organization has it, "redecentralizing" the Internet).

Second, it should also give users enthusiasm about alternative social media, by giving them some assurance that networks they reward with their participation today will remain true to certain basic principles. This is, as Internet entrepreneurs can surely agree, very important.

Third and finally, this will also give journalists, commentators, and technical professionals commonly-agreed grounds for criticizing the big social media networks. Perhaps they will want to claim to be moving toward decentralization; but if they cannot satisfy the requirements of this agreement, we can deny that they actually are decentralized. If the public shows tremendous support for decentralization in the sense that is agreed to, this will make it ever harder for social media giants to resist moving toward a decentralized future.

I know I haven't come to grips with all the issues involved here, and I know there are real experts who have. So help me to edit (or completely rewrite) the above so that it is something that we should expect social media networks to accept—assuming they really do take decentralization seriously.

The above is a very rough first draft at best. How should these principles read? Please discuss below.