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Text Dump: Sloths, Politics, Narratives

I wrote enough to post normally this week but decided to hold some of that text back. I was in Atlanta for a couple of days, and I guess I brought some pretty shitty weather with me. I didn’t schedule any posts while I was preoccupied with all of this. I’m dumping these ideas here to air them so that my head can empty a bit, and maybe I’ll take parts of them back up later.

Intensive Science post #3 should be ready at the end of the week. #4 next week.

 

Contents:

I. The Sloth Assemblage: The Sloth/Moss/Moth interaction covered recently in the NYT. Short, fun.

II. The Party Line: Although I don’t want to throw away other totalizing views on “political values”, I have a slightly different impression on the topic.

III. Increasing Apparent Likeness: A less triumphant end-of-history narrative.

IV. Tinkering with a Leaky Landscape Metaphor: Trying to avoid looking like a cynical relativist.

V. Where I’m Clearly Failing the Ideological Turing Test: New Age. Holacracy.

VI. Baby Boomers: Just sharing a snippet from the Archdruid that tickled me.

So, leadership training down in Atlanta. They had me take the Myers-Briggs and I got what I always get- INTP. They had a breakdown of result confidence: off the charts I, very very T, more middling N and P. Adorably, I typed fogbanking.com/blog into this app and it also tagged my writing as the ravings of an INTP.

 

I. The Sloth Assemblage

This was great:

The sloth is not so much an animal as a walking ecosystem. This tightly fitting assemblage consists of a) the sloth, b) a species of moth that lives nowhere but in the sloth’s fleece and c) a dedicated species of algae that grows in special channels in the sloth’s grooved hairs. Groom a three-toed sloth and more than a hundred moths may fly out. When the sloth grooms itself, its fingers move so slowly that the moths have no difficulty keeping ahead of them.

The probable interplay of these three components has now been worked out by a team of biologists led by Jonathan N. Pauli and M. Zachariah Peery at the University of Wisconsin. Their first step was to ponder a 35-year-old mystery about the behavior of the sloth.

Every week or so, the sloth descends from its favorite tree to defecate. It digs a hole, covers the dung with leaves and, if it’s lucky, climbs back up its tree. The sloth is highly vulnerable on the ground and an easy prey for jaguars in the forest and for coyotes and feral dogs in the chocolate-producing cacao tree plantations that it has learned to colonize. Half of all sloth deaths occur on the ground. The other serious hazard in its life is an aerial predator, the harpy eagle.

 [..]

The moths’ caterpillars are coprophagous or, to put it more bluntly, consumers of excrement. They grow to maturity in the sloth’s dung pellets and, on hatching, flutter up to the trees to find a sloth host. Burrowing into its fur, they mostly shed their wings and live there happily for the rest of their days, mating and dying in a safe, protected environment.

After they die, their bodies are decomposed by the host of fungi and bacteria in the sloth’s fur. The metabolic products of this decay, especially nitrogen, are the feedstock for the specialist algae that grow in the sloth’s hair shafts. The researchers guessed that the sloths might be eating the algae from their own fur, and that this could be the purpose of the whole system.

Leaves are poor sources of nutrition, and animals that depend on them, like gorillas, often require large guts to hold them all. The sloth, having to climb along thin branches, can’t afford a big gut. It moves slowly because every calorie counts, and it pays to slow down its metabolism. But the invention of giving over its fleece to algae farming would go a long way to solving its problem of limited nutrition.

Dr. Pauli and his colleagues guessed that the sloth might be overcoming the poverty of its leaf diet by eating the algae on its fleece, and that the moths were essential fertilizer for the algae. In their paper they report much evidence in support of their hypothesis. The greater the infestation of moths, the more nitrogen a three-toed sloth carries in its fleece and the greater the amount of algae. An analysis of stomach contents showed the sloths were indeed eating the algae.

 

II. The Party Line

There are several broad, all-encompassing answers to odd questions like “Why do Conservatives favor X and Y, where X and Y seem to assume contradictory values?” Some of these totalizing* answers (answers include Haidt’s political values or Lakoff’s language power) can be useful ideas, but I wanted to make a different suggestion.

From Lakoff’s Moral Politics:

“Conservatives are largely against abortion, saying that they want to save the lives of unborn fetuses. The United States has an extremely high infant-mortality rate, largely due to the lack of adequate prenatal care for low-income mothers. Yet conservatives are not in favor of government programs providing such prenatal care and have voted to eliminate existing programs that have succeeded in lowering the infant mortality rate. Liberals find this illogical. It appears to liberals that “pro-life” conservatives do want to prevent the death of those fetuses whose mothers do not want them (through stopping abortion), but do not want to prevent the deaths of fetuses whose mothers do want them (through providing adequate prenatal care programs). Conservatives see no contradiction. Why?

Liberals also find it illogical that right-to-life advocates are mostly in favor of capital punishment. This seems natural to conservatives. Why?”

My suggestion: A political party is an ecosystem that might encompass many disparate factions. These factions do sometimes clash, but it is to the benefit of the faction that their host party survives and maintains coherence, so they communicate and infect each other with apologetic that ties them all together. Sometimes a champion of a particularly strong faction might announce a position that cleanly appears to connect the dots between a party’s many interests, creating [an illusion of] coherence. The alliance of these factions, made for pragmatic purposes (historical path-dependence) might afford particular narratives that the tribe adopts. Narratives that the tribe adopts then create this odd sucking sound called “legitimacy” that can act as an immune system against foreign political powers and their narratives/values. These adopted values do, in turn, create pressure on the endemic factions, too.

The “conservative disposition” in a slightly different alternative history could apply to a whole different series of positions if tribes were consolidated and cultivated differently by political institutions.

When Rush Limbaugh said that he just knew that Clarence Thomas was guiltless (without knowing anything about that matter) but he isn’t so sure about Christie (with roughly the same amount of special evidence- that is, none), he broke the invisible rule that we never talk nakedly of our own tribe. The reason that Clarence was guiltless was because he was a true conservative- a member of the tribe who sided with the full coalition of political factions, every cousin tribe. Christie, by contrast, was not on board with the full coalition. When attacked by the Other, Rush reflexively leaped to the defense of the tribesman with high centrality, and was more cautious with the more distant tribesman.

I also find this factional-power suggestion plausible because it hits a lot of this blog’s interests/perspectives. There are no pure, consistent values inside of people that are deeply and unchangeably different. People aren’t monolithic- we can and do re-prioritize our values anytime we’re forced to think about them. Instead our tribal affiliations come first, and then our locally shared narratives and values are treated as default positions. The same dynamic applies to matters like religion.

 

III. (Increasing apparent likeness)

Thanks to international institutions and global media, certain rhetorical trends have become universal. Even the most tyrannical organized regimes call themselves ‘People’s Republics’. Literally almost every nation today has a variant of the word “democratic” in its constitutional documents– the United States is one of the few exceptions, popularizing the initial concept for others to take the best parts of. (Obviously “democratic” doesn’t mean nearly the same thing to all parties, but the fact that we invoke the same words is interesting). It’s fun to think of what other tricks our many siblings have picked up from us.

It must also be the case that the best of the NSA has been and will be iterated on by other organizations.

It is generally accepted that along some recognizable dimensions China is approaching the Anglo-American world (“capitalism”, if you’d like), and along other recognizable dimensions the Anglo-American world is becoming more like China (the security state).

Part of this dynamic is the ease of communication allowing for rapid-fire idea exchange, and part of this is the dominance of particular institutions acting as vectors for particular value systems and structures. Just as global markets have allowed for a small group of disproportionately compensated superstars, global communications has allowed for disproportionately pervasive memes. (A long tail is also enabled in both ends of the analogy: there are more/easier microtransactions and small pockets of ineffably weird recombinant ideas than ever before, too).

In the near term, there are a great many other configurations of humans, some obviously worse and many others not, that are no longer in the cards or are even entertained. It isn’t so difficult to draw a narrative about the increasing uniformity of the global landscape of politics and government, flattening and sizzling out into some kind of static, uniform plane. Does this narrative line afford the ending to be “liberal democracies for everyone”? It’s not a line I really buy but I’d imagine that the settled state is actually something less-than-liberal in this narrative.

 

IV. (Tinkering with a Leaky Landscape Metaphor)

I think that there are plenty of distinct, viable, nearby peaks in the landscape of potential political arrangements (where heights are measures of values that we share).

None of these peaks can be approximated that well until they’re actualized (and we can hardly measure them afterwards, either). But we do share enough information and values that many of us can collectively disregard a whole swath of “likely-valleys” with regard to political structure and goal-setting. I think Sam Harris made a book with a values-landscape metaphor, and although I haven’t read it, I do find the idea kind of attractive at the surface level. I don’t champion a single, clearly defined peak- not because of some illusion of political fair-mindedness but because I think most people can be okay and the wolves can be kept at bay from various hills- that’s all. There are certainly formations I’d want to avoid, though.

There are seductive peaks at a distance that are separated by revolutionary gorges of unknown depth. It seems reasonably likely that some of the highest peaks imaginable are on the other side of steep valleys of painful political reformation. It also seems likely that some peaks seem a lot closer than they really are.

Surely, it’s not just the population that shifts around this landscape- the landscape itself shifts endlessly. Economics, politics, culture, and technology can level hills, raise buttes, fill valleys, stretch and squeeze distances. Some political arrangements are nearly ideal fits for certain environs (values, returns) and totally senseless in others. Some environs don’t afford any favorable settled lifestyles.

Some communities within our population (demes?) have fared differently within the political area the population takes up. Some of these demes have had the ground beneath their feet shifted, and are still trying to circle back to find that peak they sat on once before. Some of these demes have their eye on particular peaks that may not be a shared value with the rest of the population- everyone else sees a hole in the ground there.

There are many people who think that tinkering stochastically at smaller levels could allow for smaller populations of people to explore adjacent landscapes. This sensibility reveals itself differently depending on the history of the speaker, but it might show up as an argument for stronger local government, or as special regulation-free zones, or unspoken as powerful people or organizations can simply ignore norms and rules that would otherwise cohere the population.

In the United States, at least, an increasing contingent of Liberal thinkers are becoming “conservative” in the sense that they are unwilling to move quickly in any direction. They are defending a legacy, several uphill steps [and some odd lateral ones] that they have fought for in the past half-century. It’s unclear to me that the Conservatives are pointing in any particular direction as a group. By definition these two very large population segments cannot take radical directions- instead they can sometimes be acquired/hijacked by rapidly moving demes, groups who suddenly found the vision and energy to march to some other area for whatever reason, maybe desperation.

The ground is shifting beneath us.

 

V. Where I’m clearly failing the Ideological Turing Test 

I have made attempts to pass the Ideological Turing Test with regard to ideologies and inclinations that I don’t hold (or only partially hold), and even the less tasteful ones (e.g. the neoreactionary direction) can be understood in a consistent, non-condescending way. I don’t gag reading it, although it is obviously silly to me once I stop reading.

But I find New Age-ism and holacracy aesthetically repulsive and I have difficulty working out why.

Here’s what I think:

New Age-ism: There is no real doctrine to wrangle with. There’s nothing solid for me to look at. People who call themselves adherents don’t point to the same symbols or anything, it seems- it’s almost entirely an attitude. There’s nothing to play with. New Age answers no questions and poses no new ones of any interest.

Holacracy(TM!) has a vaguely similar problem. I’ve certainly worked in small successful, flat teams before. I am un-surprised that it is not self-destructing in the organizations that would tend to experiment with it, because of what even considering such a structure says about the organization: a culture of accountability and competence. This is not a widespread culture among many organizations. Changing organizational structure is not enough. Holacracy, as I understand it, doesn’t seem to illuminate anything. Would I like to work in a holacratic organization? Sure, depending on who my co-workers are.

In all, I don’t think these two have props for an on-looker to latch onto. Only participants can gleam anything from them.

 

VI. Baby Boomers

The Archdruid, as ever, killing it- this time in indictment of the Baby Boomers. (It wasn’t the main point of this article, to be fair).

[…] The Boomers were among the most idealistic generations in US history, but they were also far and away the most privileged, and the conflict between those two influences has defined much of their trajectory through time. Starting when the Sixties youth culture crashed and burned, the Boomers have repeatedly faced forced choices between their ideals and their privileges.  Each time, the majority of Boomers—there have always been noble exceptions—chose to cling to their privileges, and then spent the next decade or so insisting at the top of their lungs that their ideals hadn’t been compromised by that choice.

Thus the early 1970s were enlivened by the loud insistence of former hippies, as they cut their hair and donned office clothing to take up the corporate jobs they’d vowed never to accept, that they were going to change the system from within. (Even at the time, that was generally recognized as a copout, but it was a convenient one and saw plenty of use.) By the 1980s, many of these same former hippies were quietly voting for Ronald Reagan and his allies because the financial benefits of Reagan’s borrow-and-spend policies were just too tempting to pass up, though they insisted all the while that they would put part of the windfall into worthy causes. Rinse and repeat, and today you’ve got people who used to be in the environmental movement pimping for nuclear power and GMOs, because the conserver lifestyles they were praising to the skies forty years ago have become unthinkable for them today. […]

The expectation of imminent apocalypse is the despairing counterpoint to the literature just described. Instead of insisting that the world would shortly become Utopia (and no action on the part of Boomers is needed to cause this), it insists that the world will shortly become the opposite of Utopia (and no action on the part of Boomers is capable of preventing this). This serves the purpose of legitimizing inaction at a time when action would involve serious personal costs, but there’s more to it than that; it also feeds into the Boomer habit of insisting on the cosmic importance of their own experiences.  Just as normal adolescent unruliness got redefined in Boomer eyes as a revolution that was going to change the world, the ordinary experience of approaching mortality is being redefined as the end of everything—after all, the universe can’t just go on existing after the Boomers are gone, can it?  It’s thus surely no accident that 2030 is about the time the middle of the Baby Boom generation will be approaching the end of its statistically likely lifespan.

 

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