Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Triumph of Stupidity (1933) (russell-j.com)
392 points by mutor on Nov 27, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 269 comments



In "How to Make Wealth", pg points out that the emergence of the rule of law made the modern economy as we know it possible. It did - social progress has made institutions like democracy and ideas like liberty and rationalism more popular than it has ever been in history.

This used to give me a dangerously false sense of optimism - that the modern society is a stable scientific one, where good intelligent people are in charge, and that the state of affairs are always improving. This notion partly came from the privilege of never having lived in a war-zone. The life of chaos of those who are unfortunate to be in one is even now beyond my understanding.

I think that the idea that humanity is always marching forward to better days is something implicit among people who live in peaceful affluent societies. But if you look at history, the world has always gone through cycles. No matter how much we improve socially, a regression seems almost inevitable. The Roman Empire did fall, and was followed by the Dark Ages.

Even in the most democratic countries of the world, fascism is only just around the corner. There is a large chunk of society who're easily swayed by purely emotional rhetoric based on in-groups and out-groups, and likes to follow leaders who make a show of macho masculinity. The status-quo is pretty fragile. The nerds aren't safe. Those with warrior tendencies always have upper-hand over those with nation-building tendencies, and that reads like a tautology.


>There is a large chunk of society who're easily swayed by purely emotional rhetoric based on in-groups and out-groups

I think this sentence is the biggest indicator of the problem. The Problem being not that there are large parts of society swayed by emotional rhetoric, but that to most people, the emotional swaying happens to others. It's never me who's swayed by emotions, it's always less rational people, and if only those people could get their shit together, like me, we'd be in a much better place.

You're just as swayed by emotion as those non nerds, you're just swayed on different values. Pretending like you're above it gets us nowhere, because it perpetuates an unhelpful me vs everyone else mentality. It's very satisfying to the ego but it just serves to further drive a wedge between you and everyone else.


That's what struck me most about the article, as well. Russell's essay is very flattering, until you realize the we that he terms "the best men of the present day" are probably not the we of Hacker News.

In particular, when Russell writes about "the philosophical radicals ... who were just as sure of themselves as the Hitlerites are[, who] dominated politics and ... advanced [the world] rapidly both in intelligence and in material well-being," he is very likely writing about people who would definitely be a Hacker News they, given what I know about his politics and given statements like "if at any future time there should be danger of a Labour Government that meant business, [the British Fascists] would win the support of most of the governing classes."

So, if this essay leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling about your "wider and truer outlook" and the feeling that you are being oppressed because of your "skepticism and intellectual individualism", well, congratulations! You've discovered the power of emotional rhetoric.


Great point.

It's why the Elon Musk's, Larry Page's and Bill Gates of the tech world retreat into their own private dreamlands as far away from the politics of the real world as possible, cause they know they don't stand a chance against the rhetorical snake charmers that are Bush, Obama, Clinton and now Trump.

I'll leave here, Matt Taibbi's more modern take on this that blames the media or what I like to call the rhetoric amplification industry. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/america-is-too-dum...

The solutions are complex but eventually we'll have to start looking at China. Cause no one else seems to be working on alternatives to what the media has become today.


>It's why the Elon Musk's, Larry Page's and Bill Gates of the tech world retreat into their own private dreamlands as far away from the politics of the real world as possible, cause they know don't stand a chance against the rhetorical snake charmers that are Bush, Obama, Clinton and now Trump.

Elon Musk: capitalist. Larry Page: capitalist. Bill Gates: capitalist. Obama and Clinton: capitalists. Bush: capitalist with special emphasis on heavy resource-extraction industries. Trump: capitalist with special emphasis on finance and real-estate.

Honestly, what do the above list of men even disagree about? Gay marriage, and maybe one or two other minor cultural issues.

I mean, maybe Elon Musk could be seen as having a few leftist sympathies in naming his spaceships after Iain Banks characters, but I'm pretty sure he didn't actually mean to shout-out anarcho-communism.


Ah yes, because Chinese media is so well known for its balanced, neutral and thorough investigation of political issues.

Hate on western media if you like, but just remember the same industry that gave the world Fox News also gave it The Intercept and The Economist.


Wow. Democracy can be ugly, but to look to an oligarchy for the solution? I think this is the antithesis of Russell’s thrust.


Russell had no idea nor could anyone have imagined what the modern news media would turn itself into today. Which is why I posted the Taibbi piece.


I'm fairly sure Russell had heard of William Randolph Hearst.


Well, the democracy can't build nuclear power plants and fast trains, an an oligarchy can. So there's that.

But still, if you want to look for an alternative to western media, you'll need to look elsewhere - China is turning more and more free, and is becoming increasingly like the rest of the West - good and bad, the whole package.


the democracy can't build nuclear power plants and fast trains, an an oligarchy can. So there's that

You say that like it's a bad thing.

Maybe the case for fast trains stacks up (in some places), but Nuclear power just doesn't. I know some people assume that because some of the safety problems are overstated it makes it a good option, but that chain of reasoning doesn't hold.


http://www.withouthotair.com/

This book does a pretty decent and math-based argument that the chain of reasoning for nuclear energy holds up pretty well. Have there been some new developments that suddenly made it not so?


Considering it doesn't address the cost of building the plants I'd say it isn't very compelling at all.

Heres a good article on the costs: http://theconversation.com/what-does-nuclear-power-cost-old-...


>Well, the democracy can't build nuclear power plants and fast trains, an an oligarchy can.

The democracy once did, and in fact, was probably more democratic when it chose to. Of course, now it chooses not to because the vast majority of the population are NIMBYs, while nuclear power and fast trains are actually supported only by a technically-educated elite (ie: us).


Musk, Page, and Gates are masters of real-world politics; otherwise they would never be in the positions they've held. In fact, if they were at all inclined to private dreamlands, they would not have done what they have, so far. Admittedly, I don't know any of them personally, but those top-end executives I have known make "rhetorical snake charmers" and understatement.

On the other hand, none of Bush, Obama, Clinton or Trump are stupid (although I have no evidence that Bush is especially sharp). And none of them are any more evil (or more good, for that matter) than any of your apparently favored three.

There is no solution to this; politics is how humans make large-scale and not-so-large-scale social decisions. Get used to it.

Personally, I think I'll pass on China as an example. I'm a bit too constitutionally unwilling to give up my crabby individuality.


I think he's really talking about aristocracy/gentry whether he realises it or not.

Doubt is inherent in the process of intelligent reasoning. A highly intelligent person cannot come to correct conclusions about a topic without thoroughly examining it from as many sides as they can. They weigh up the pros and cons and then come to a conclusion. But even after all of that they will be aware of its flaws and downsides and thus doubt themself.

So why do I say aristocracy? Because the upper classes, the gentry and the wealthy were born into a position of power and confidence. Just because of who they were in society, they believed they were right. And as they were wealthy, they also made up the vast majority of scientists/philosophers/etc. The downfall of the aristocracy throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the new thinkers no longer having that inbuilt "born-to-rule" mindset, that while arrogant, also lent an arrogant confidence to their position that a common intelligent man may not have.

In short, it's not confidence that led the thinkers of old to undoubting - it's arrogance. And maybe a little bit of that is always necessary to get things done...


The philosophical radicals were a group of progressive thinkers who ran a journal that publicised Darwin and debated the rights of women and the trade ofs between lazzie-fair capitalism and socialist ideals (see my links elsewhere).

I'm not sure who you think we is on HN, but if you consider HN to be mostly populated by people who prefer some kind of evidence-based reasoning then I'd think they would fit in very well.


This just strikes me as post modernist / relativist bullshit. You're claiming that the real problem is not a population largely persuaded to vote against it's own interests inside a voting system which fundamentally empowers party insiders at the expense of the population.

No the problem is ALL OF US, we're just as emotional as these manipulated people!!11 Stop worrying about the broken voting system, the owned press and mislead population. Instead worry about your own emotionally driven mind.

It appears like a wise argument against HN hubris but you're really trying to derail people from a clear view of a problem and instead move the debate into introspection.


Epistemic status: attempting to point at a thing that I can't fully articulate

Whenever one side is totally in the right and the other side is totally in the wrong, you'll get people calling for moderation. "There are two sides to every story," they say. "How can you be sure that you're so different from your opponents?"

Whenever two sides are exactly the same, you'll get people calling for action. "Look at the atrocities they commit! You can't justify that."

And in the first case, you'll also get people calling for action. "Look at the atrocities they commit! You can't justify that." And the people calling for moderation will further say: "whenever two sides are exactly the same, you get people calling for action..."

And in the second case, you'll also get people calling for moderation. "There are two sides to every story." And the people calling for action will further say: "whenever one side is totally in the right and the other side is totally in the wrong..."

So it goes.


You've just created an infinite loop here, you know?

My takeaway is: just disregard what everyone is saying and focus on the consequences of the actions proposed.


I haven't created the loop, I'm just gesticulating towards it. The loop exists, I don't know exactly what form it takes, and I don't know what to do about it.

Focusing on the consequences seems like one way out, but... I feel like both sides will always tell me that if I just focus on the consequences, it will seem obvious that they're right and their opponents are wrong. And when I ask both sides "okay, what are the consequences?", they're going to argue about what the consequences are, and the argument is going to look like all the other arguments.


Now I feel Zenoed[0].

But anyway, arguments about consequences should not be infinitely recursive, because they deal with the real world, the observable reality. If you're stuck in such a loop, you're doing it wrong.

Sadly, most of the policy-related discussions are done wrong.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno's_paradoxes


> Epistemic status: attempting to point at a thing that I can't fully articulate

Oh come on: stop stealing Scott Alexander's lines.

As to the rest, well yes, the whole point is that levels of contrarianism and meta-contrarianism, the location of a position on today's political landscape, indicate basically nothing at all about the actual merits of the idea.

Except if it's a Republican idea, in which case it's been carefully optimized to be wildly insane. But they're a special case: other country's right-wing parties often aren't like that (say, the Christian Democrats in Germany).


If everyone thinks they aren't the ones being misled, and the problem is with other people, how are you going to help them realise what's really going on?

The best type of leading is leading by example. Encouraging introspection by doing it, regardless of whether you think the problem is with you or not, is more likely to bring in good habits faster than telling people they're wrong.


This is why liberal intelectuals are so paralyzed. Yes of course we're emotional too. And yes we can be swayed. But life is not black and white. The best of us has managed to develop a resistance to this kind of rhetoric by a life of study, debate, examining common rhetorical tricks etc. And it's not just different values that drives us. It's values that has carried us through a century of carnage into a much better life. We need to stop apologising and invoking bullshit relativistic cultural arguments and show some pride in basic values like equality for women, freedom of speech etc. I kind of think that's the central point that Bertrand Russell is making we paralyze each other by focusing on any potential error instead of realising that the things we value is mostly aligned and has been refined over a long time. We can trust most of our values.


I would argue it was only through 'bullshit relativistic cultural arguments' that equality for women and freedom of speech are even considered basic values to begin with.


Please explain, I can't even imagine what you could be referring to.


The argument for women being allowed to vote and women being allowed to work in factories, along with being paid the same (which is still ongoing) was via highly organized spreading of word and demonstrations. Articles were written, flyers passed out, petitions written, discussions were had all over. These were all considered at the time, uppity issues that was more or less bullshit that "we" the american people should focus on core values such as family instead.

To be frank, women's sufferage really was formulized in 1848 arguably, and then took until 1920 to actually happen. During that time, there was similar discussion to what we're having now. The idea of basic values have changed because of cultural discussion, over the course of decades.

I would argue that equality of sexualities has increasingly become another core value, with the debate of such happening over similar amounts of time. The discussion of course is still ongoing in this field and I'm eager to see what will happen in the future.


I think we may be talking past each other a bit. To me cultural relativism is the claim that we have NO grounds for saying one set of values is superior to another. Women's suffrage is the very opposite, It's a set of values people felt passionately about and fought for. And now it's embedded in western culture. And we have good reason to believe that cultures that embrace it produces more flourishing and 'happier' people.


You should read Thomas Sowell's "A conflict of visions". It's short and really great. It's about why people group themselves into the political left and right, and why those sides disagree.

One of the points he makes is that the left and right don't agree on what the words "equality" or "fairness" mean. Right wing people tend to focus on equality of process. Left wing people tend to focus on equality of outcome.

That is, a conservative will tend to say "is the hiring process fair? yes? then if 90% of the jobs go to men, there's no problem". Whereas on the political left, they may say "if 90% of the jobs go to men then by definition the hiring process is not fair, and we should find a Solution, like by setting quotas". Right-wingers will tend to reject direct intervention like that, as they don't trust in human ability to intervene without causing unexpected and undesirable side effects.


Russell was pretty close to the definition of a liberal intellectual, so I'm a little unclear what your point is?


Don't you think it's possible that through diligent study of human interaction and how the mind works you could gain a better understanding of how biases are formed and reinforced and stand a chance of recognizing when your own rational decision making is being bypassed? And in fact there is a large group of people (mainly the nerds, as it happens) who are working daily towards exactly that? And haven't they earned at least a little bit of the right to call themselves more rational than the person who has never even thought in these terms for a single moment of their life?

>It's never me who's swayed by emotions, it's always less rational people, and if only those people could get their shit together, like me, we'd be in a much better place.

That is true, though I would amend it to "even if they got their shit together, like me, we would still have a long ways to go in that regard. But it sure would help if everyone knew what confirmation bias was so that politicians and the media couldn't so easily use it to convince people of things that might not be true!"


Diligent study of how biases are formed? Sure.

Nerds working daily towards that? Lol, no. Psychologists, maybe.

"Nerds" of the Hacker News variety are every bit as susceptible to various psychological failings as anyone else. There's nothing special about programming or physics or chemistry that makes you into some sort of uber-rational superhuman and it's very dangerous to believe that.

As time goes by, the more it seems to me that deep down we're all pretty much the same. The spectrum of human nature is pretty small: the gap between the most intellectual and moral and the least isn't anywhere near as big as some would like to think. For every intellectual with a convoluted theory that leads to an unintuitive conclusion, there's a man on the street armed with common sense and a degree from the University of Life who can blow it out of the water with a single sharp observation.


I don't know. If we're talking about the self-described "rationalist" technologist clique, you have a point. Their relative insularity and elitism sometimes serves to intensify their own biases.

However, I think it's too pessimistic to say that people can't learn to be better at this. Just knowing that bias exists is a step in the right direction. I can have productive discussions with those self-described rationalists, (although I have to learn their terms of debate first since they keep making up their own). But there's something admirable in people trying to adapt these great intellectual traditions to their lives now.

And furthermore, who else are you going to turn to? Maybe there will eventually be professional bias-shattering specialists you can call on, but for now we all have to do what we can.


> Diligent study of how biases are formed? Sure.

> Nerds working daily towards that? Lol, no.

You realize that the only difference between those two is a piece of paper? Getting a college education is - or rather, was - literally being a nerd of $SUBJECT_MATTER.


If you describe anyone with a college education as a nerd then the word loses almost all meaning, as it'd describe a huge number of people.


Well, the word nerd (and geek) used to mean someone who you'd expect to be better in their domain than your average college degree holder, so me having to defend nerds only shows we've already reversed the meaning.


Just as a counter point, I've never thought of nerd/geek as terms describing prowess in a field. I see 'geek' as a term to describe someone who is passionate about something that it isn't cool to be passionate about, or in a way that isn't concerned with being cool. Nerd would be basically the same, except it's taken on a stronger negative connotation, basically because it's used to imply lack of social skills, and perhaps more obsessive behaviour.


Simple miscommunication. I didn't mean that all nerds are like that. I meant that of those who are like that, they are disproportionately nerds.


I'd like to point to the "Effective Altruism" movement as a counterpoint. It's a bunch of nerds that decided on a rational approach to charity. But nowadays, these mostly male, white, Silicon-Valley-type, science-loving and science-fiction-reading do-gooders have found the threat of runaway AI as one of their supposedly objective main issues. Artificial Intelligence which, as it happens, is also something that these people have an interest in. What are the chance?

(Not that there aren't parts of EA that I think are worthwhile, such as givewell.org. Just as an example of how hard it seems to be to arrive and any purely rational outcome).


>But nowadays, these mostly male, white, Silicon-Valley-type, science-loving and science-fiction-reading do-gooders have found the threat of runaway AI as one of their supposedly objective main issues. Artificial Intelligence which, as it happens, is also something that these people have an interest in. What are the chance?

The chances are 5%. That is, 5% of people involved in EA actually put any money towards the AI stuff. 80%, on the other hand, consider global poverty worth throwing money at.


>Don't you think it's possible that through diligent study of human interaction and how the mind works you could gain a better understanding of how biases are formed and reinforced and stand a chance of recognizing when your own rational decision making is being bypassed?

No. That requires knowing what the rational decision would actually be, if you would only make it. Knowing exactly how emotionally distraught you are about your grandmother dying during a physics exam doesn't give you any information about physics.


The question I was pondering in the comment was whether the tragic cycle of progress and destruction is true or not. I'd love to learn otherwise - but data paints a bleak picture. It took just about twenty years after the 'war to end all wars' for the second World War to begin. Even though there isn't a World War at the moment, UN recently published a report stating that the displacement of humans due to war and persecution is at an all time high in recorded history (http://www.unhcr.org/558193896.html). The question so is whether we are we simply doomed to repeat history.

But as you noted, there is a degree of hidden bias in my statement. I will be more careful in such thoughts in the future. However, one cannot think about the world in a completely detached manner without making any sort of personal value judgements. We have to ascribe some degree of validity to people's opinions and decisions, and to where we personally stand in that spectrum. It is just that such judgements should be made after deliberation, and not slip in as a patterned thought as I have erred here.


We should indeed recognize that we are all prone to the effect, but here you have replaced one sweeping generalization with another.


All positions have a political dimension into them. Real world is not computable - hence, opinions and beliefs dominate.

From a purely mathematical point of view, any political grouping is arbitrary and non-exact.

Until someone figures out a social calculus - in effect, an algorithm to compute what is good and what is evil - there really is no scientific high ground for thinking fascists are in absolute terms worse than 'computer geeks'.

What we can do - and improve on- is recognise we have different opinions and that's ok (although pathological behaviour which sometimes stems from certain political beliefs is not).


You beautifully illustrate Bertrand's point. Of course we can think geeks is better. We've got a ton of data to look at.


I would very much like to have this data :)


Its called the 20th century. Study it a bit.


I presume you mean that the tech stack of modern civilization was created by 'geeks' (although that's stretching the definition quite a bit)?

Ignoring all the politicians, businessmen and artists trivializes civilizations development quite a bit.

Also, science and technology is morally and politically impartial. Note that saying increased knowledge or productivity 'is good' is again a value statement.

Yeah, I think so too but that's just my position - but this is not a mathematical truth but a political position that requires constant backing up.

The point that this requires constant backing up in adiscussion (and that that's the way it should be) and not considering people with different values and priorities as 'being wrong' was the whole point of this thread.


"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." This is the point Bertrand was making. Stupid people believe so deeply that it gives them power to act. The intelligent is so obsessed with the minutia of possible difference- like whether increased knowledge is good or bad - That we suffer from permanent analysis paralysis. We're impotent when action is required. So no I think you're confused about the point of the discussion ;/


I think this post is the biggest indicator of the problem, as set out by Russell.

> The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.


> I think that the idea that humanity is always marching forward to better days is something implicit among people who live in peaceful affluent societies. But if you look at history, the world has always gone through cycles. No matter how much we improve socially, a regression seems almost inevitable. The Roman Empire did fall, and was followed by the Dark Ages.

The so-called Dark Ages were a period in which Roman-style governance was exported to the individual kingdoms of the former Roman Empire. Rome could only ever maintain political dominance for so long. Stability increased the might of kingdoms, these kingdoms didn't always want to live under the thumb of Rome. Rome kept it up for a good long while, but it couldn't do so forever.

The Middle Ages was when Europe became Europe. It saw the rise of a completely new type of institution, the pan-national Catholic Church, which became a third check against the power of kings. The manorial system grew out of the old Roman villa system and increased the output of farms and industry. This allowed militaries to professionalize and central government to flourish. Instead of one Rome and many vassal states, the vassal states each became their own Rome.

The intense competition between states eventually produced a theory of sovereignty that cut down on warfare tremendously.

The Middle Ages were not some dystopian hell out of which the Renaissance magically sprung up.


I think you are projecting the narriative of Progres (TM) onto the accurate facts you are presenting.

i.e. the Catholic Church did not invent checks and balances. They used to have those in the Old Republic, but those were abandoned after the Roman Civilization reached the appex of its, let's call it cultural vitality. I see the authoritarism of the Caesars as a symptom of Rome having run out of fresh ideas, they "jumped the shark" if you will.

I agree the Middle Ages were not some sort of dystopian hell. There was a Dark age after (or more precisely, around) the time when Rome fell. Those were hungry and dangerous times, and the people that survived were more impoverished (both in the material and the intelectual sense) than their forefathers, but survive they did. The Middle Ages is what resulted when the survivors rebuilt society out of the wreckage.

I agree that many former Roman institutions were repurposed during those times, but I do not see this as a way of purposeful progress. Rather, those obsolete institutions were salvaged and repurposed by the new Medieval society for its own needs. Superficially they look like a continuation of the same, but they were successful because they had a different cultural sensitivity, they had fresh ideas now, with their own new values and their own expectations of how things should be. And they pushed those in directions that no old Roman philosopher would've been able to imagine.

I think people tend to conflate Middle Ages with "Dark age" because the Middle Ages ended in a relatively mild collapse. The (Christian) Reformation and the Enlightenment allowed much of the cultural treasures of the past age to be preserved, but also caused warfare, famine, dislocation of whole nations, etc. Again, hungry and dangerous times, and again the survivors picked up the pieces and build the world we know today.

Our world looks superficialy like a continuation of the Renaissance, but it is not. The Renaissance is the apex of the cultural vitality of the Middle Ages, and our own World's foundations rest upon many of its repurposed ideas and institutions. But it had ideas and values of our own, and our forefathers took that in directions that no Scholastic monk would have ever imagined.

So, you can see, we are no closer to a future of endless joy, anymore than any other society that inhabited this planet ever did. We are going our own way around the cycle, and clearly we have ran out of fresh ideas ourselves.

I will not pretend to be subtle, our times will be on the down slope and depending on how fast this proceeds we ourselves or our children may end up in one of those dark ages (no uppercase, thank you very much) where hungry and dangerous is the norm. And then others will come and pick up the pieces. I guess what I expect to acomplish in life is to leave behind some cultural artifacts in good working order; and I hope that, one or two centuries from now, some smart guy will pick those up and push them in directions that I'd never be able to imagine.


I think it's you projecting a narrative here. :)

> I agree that many former Roman institutions were repurposed during those times, but I do not see this as a way of purposeful progress. Rather, those obsolete institutions were salvaged and repurposed by the new Medieval society for its own needs.

Seems to me a distinction without a difference. The "new Medieval society" was the same as the old Roman society. It may have been different families in charge in many areas, but they were all cut from the same cloth.

> Again, hungry and dangerous times, and again the survivors picked up the pieces and build the world we know today.

I think you overestimate the scale of collapse and rebuilding. The most devastating collapse the world has ever seen, World War II, directly transitioned to the biggest boom the world has ever seen.

To me, a collapse is like a forest wildfire. It burns away overgrown areas and makes room for a fresh start. If we see a decline in American hegemony in our lifetime, and that's big if, I'm confident it will be replaced by something far more interesting.


Just FYI, the "dark ages" are not called that because they were literally dark and miserable. They're called the "dark ages" because we don't know much about what happened during this time, due to lack of source material.

I suggest you don't dig too deeply into why this might be, or the provenance of most of the historical documents we have that describe Rome. When I did, the results were quite disturbing.


What was disturbing about them?


The biggest problem is that many of the best known and most important texts describing the history of Rome cannot be reliably traced back further than the 13-15th centuries, and there are strong arguments that some of them were forgeries (which in turn, casts doubt upon the rest).

The fact that many historical documents are forgeries or were edited for political reasons is not in doubt. The Donation of Constantine is one notorious example, in which a document that claimed to be "a forged Roman imperial decree by which the emperor Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope" (quoting wikipedia). In fact it was forged some time in the 700s.

During the Renaissance there was a craze for collecting works of antiquity, to the extent that the Catholic church actually posted large rewards for the discovery of previously unknown manuscripts. Not surprisingly, large numbers of works that were previously entirely unknown or merely rumoured were "discovered", often in circumstances that to a skeptical modern eye seem completely implausible.

A typical origin story involves a scholar/adventurer type venturing to a remote monastery, upon which a previously forgotten ancient manuscript was located. The monks that toiled at the abbey copying these manuscripts throughout the dark ages were invariably ignorant of the great importance of what they had, until the discoverer presented the manuscripts to an amazed and delighted world (and collected a reward).

Examples of texts with such stories are the Annals of Tacitus, the Poems of Catellus, and the History of Velleius Paterculus.

These stories have repetitive, severe problems that would be torn apart in a world that had snopes.com, but of course the medieval era did not. In no particular order:

• The texts frequently have a single source document, with none others ever being found. That document was invariably treated with little caution, meaning that the oldest copies of the text are said to be copies of this one original manuscript. It's implausible that works that were recognised immediately upon "discovery" as great works of literature had literally a single copy in the entire world.

• The origin stories are sometimes absurd, like the Poems which is claimed to be discovered under a beer barrel.

• The texts are often not cited at all or their existence is barely even mentioned from the time they were supposedly written up until the time of their "discovery", at which point citations suddenly appear all over the place. It is difficult to believe that such large and historically important works could be barely noticed by scholars for literally centuries.

• They sometimes have mistakes that a contemporary author could not possibly have made, e.g. in Tacitus' Annals he refers to London as "remarkably celebrated for the multiplicity of its merchants and its commodities" although at the time the book was supposedly written London was little more than a village around the size of Hyde Park at the far end of the empire, and wouldn't have been known to anyone in Rome. A medieval forger with little knowledge of actual ancient history, on the other hand, could have easily made this mistake.

The more you dig into the back stories of important ancient documents, the more you discover that if they had simply been invented for profit, we'd have absolutely no reliable way to discover it.


You sound like you've been reading a lot of Rod Dreher :-). If you haven't been, you might be interested in his blog, where he discusses "The Benedict Option" as a (Christian) response to this sort of cultural decline. He's also working on a book on the topic...


Complexity and complacency kill. As you say, everything moves in cycles, and while it's easy to say that we "make the same mistakes", the reality is closer to "the same inevitable forces take effect".

Our societies are driven by emotion, and by reactionary forces. Revolution leads to expansion, which leads to consolidation, which leads to narcissism, which leads to complacency, which leads to inner turmoil, which leads to revolution.

I've recently re-read Asimov's Foundation series end-to-end, and his ideas of how an empire rises and falls, while quite clearly based on Rome, hold very true, particularly in today's world.

All we have now will ultimately end in ashes, and assuming we don't end up with an uninhabitable planet, something new, and marginally better, will grow from those ashes - but it will take time, and the setbacks will be enormous.

As long as we have humans making decisions, the same ideas will take root, the same feelings will be in effect, the same dichotomies of "us" and "them" will arise, and the instinct to hoard for winter will never subside.

The only way out is probably strict technocracy run by benevolent AIs - but it's not one that anyone is going to be willing to accept, as by doing so one loses much of what it is to be human.

Ultimately, you have to accept the bad with the good, enjoy what little life you have, and make your goal maximising the happiness of yourself and others - as there's quite literally nothing else to do.


> Complexity and complacency kill.

Clearly it's not as simple as "complexity is bad." Ask any engineer: complexity often enables performance and efficiency. A modern V6 is far more complex than a 1960's car engine, but smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more fuel efficient. Complexity is just a fact of life that needs to be managed.

Indeed, the story of our civilization is progress driven by ever-increasing complexity, facilitated by technological innovation. Amazon is far more complex than a local mom-and-pop. It's also far more effective at getting products to people quicker and more cheaply. Going back in history, Great Britain's financial system was vastly more complex than what contemporary countries had, but it enabled the tiny nation to build and control a vast economic empire.


Essential complexity is not bad; accidental complexity is.

The complexity of something that overlays or models a system should reflect the complexity of that thing.


Complication kills, not complexity. Complex systems are made up of simple independent pieces. Those pieces work together naturally often leading to new behaviors. Because they are independent, they can also adapt easily to changes in the environment.

Complication is different. Complicated systems have dependencies that are more tightly bound together. Because of this, they can't adapt as easily to environmental changes. Consequentially, this creates conflict between system and environment that can often be destructive or violent.

Or at least that's my social hypothesis. I based my idea on the Rich Hickey "Simple vs. Easy" talk on software complexity. I think his ideas could be generalized to societies as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI8tNMsozo0


>The only way out is probably strict technocracy run by benevolent AIs - but it's not one that anyone is going to be willing to accept, as by doing so one loses much of what it is to be human.

This is along the lines of Plato's philosopher kings, who he insisted were the only hope. This is fascist crap. Benevolent Philosopher kings don't exist, and neither do benevolent AIs.

There was, in fact, rule by philosopher kings in Plato's generation, by a gang of thirty who learned from Socrates. Unsurprisingly, they were brutal fascists. An AI regime would be the same.

This is because there is only one way to ensure human needs are met, and it isn't technocratic anything. It is to ask people and empower them to get what they need directly. I.e. democracy, in as direct and total a form as we can manage efficiently.


One of the Thirty was a student of Socrates, not all thirty, and none of them were philosopher kings. They were a puppet government installed by the Spartans, which is why Socrates was amongst the people who opposed them. The fact that Critias was among the Thirty was used by Socrates' enemies to slander him but he had lots of pupils among the youth of Athens all of whom had different reasons for listening to his lectures.


The slander was justified, in my opinion. Critias was not merely 'among' the Thirty, he led them. And Socrates was not exactly a democrat anyway.

In any case the point is: no hyperintelligent monarch is going to appear to introduce a reign of reason that will save us all.


> This is because there is only one way to ensure human needs are met, and it isn't technocratic anything. It is to ask people and empower them to get what they need directly. I.e. democracy, in as direct and total a form as we can manage efficiently.

Which would work, except that what one person needs or wants does not align with what the other needs or wants. If you'd then purpose to 'weigh' the needs and wants against each other I'll point out that there is no way to do such a thing. Since all human judges of what is ethical are biased by everything they are.

Supposing a AI regime could be established it'd be so powerful as to completely annihilate proponents of values that it considers inferior and thereby creating a 'perfect' society from a certain point of view...


>If you'd then purpose to 'weigh' the needs and wants against each other I'll point out that there is no way to do such a thing.

Sure, we have many tools for achieving this. Compromise, conversation, empathy. We've been using these tools to solve our differences for as long as there have been humans.


> It is to ask people and empower them to get what they need directly. I.e. democracy

You've simply replaced one unproven ideal with another here.


How is democracy an 'unproven ideal'? It has thousands of years of history across many human cultures.


Were any of those cultures successful because of democracy? We don't have controlled experiments on human governance, no ideas have been proven.


> The Roman Empire did fall, and was followed by the Dark Ages

Rome didn't "fall", the "Dark Ages" weren't "dark." Those are oversimplifications from historians centuries ago, a point emphasized in most introductory history classes.


> the "Dark Ages" weren't "dark."

I don't know. With the cognitive relativism of our times, we want to make sure each civilisation, and each of its ages, are "equal". They certainly can be equally interesting for studies, but if we take a simple way to measure its effect on the human race by checking out how many books that are still read today have been written during these periods, you'll see that ancient Greece and Rome (and ancient China, and French enligthment) have been periods of great fertility, while for the normally educated man it is hard to find more than 2 or 3 books from the Middle Age that are still read and having influence nowadays.

So, at least following a few similar criteria, the Dark Ages were "dark". And it is not very surprising: when all the intelligensia spend almost all its brain power in obscure religious debates, you get very few results.


Really how many works from Greece and Rome are still widely read today? The Aeneid, Odyssey are as obscure as Beowulf or Canterbury Tales in terms of who actually reads them certainly if your standard is the "normally educated man". Plus writing off Augustine, Aquinas et al as having "obscure religious debates" is rather churlish. The morality developed during that period, combined with governmental changes formed the basis for the political / legal system which now governs most of the world. I'd much rather their debates happened rather than live under Greek, Roman or Chinese systems.


If by obscure, you mean that tens if not hundreds of thousands of high school and college students read all or part of them every year, and that their themes and motifs permeate our culture and still underly our understanding of governance, mathematics, and even Science, then yeah...they're obscure.


The writings of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, are still widely read among the "well-educated" and continue to exert enormous influence on the world. It is perhaps true that they are not now important of the "normally educated", but this is something that has happened only in last twenty or thirty years, as trend of college educations becomes more and more "vocational".

I don't know what a previous poster meant by mentioning Augustine and Aqunas and then saying "the morality developed during that period" (Augustine 4th century BC, Aquinas 13th century). The truth is that Augustine was especially heavily influenced by Plato and Aquinas' entire philosophy was mostly an attempt to synthesize Aristotle with Christianity. There is a tendency by some Christians to think morality somehow can't exist without God, but the truth is otherwise. The Greeks certainly had well-developed modern morality, along with brilliant moral theory. And the reality is that most of the important advancements in morality have come from "liberal", often secular, thinkers, while Christianity (and other religions) get pulled upward from old barbarisms only while kicking and screaming.


My point was that the whole period, starting with Augustine, was about Christianising the previous philosophy and government. The Greeks had well developed morality but universalism was not really a part, even the Romans firmly split between citizens and non-citizens, patricians and plebs. Greek philosophy is heavily responsible for the misogynistic aspects of Christianity for instance, but during this period women had more legal freedoms and ability to exist independently and their rights actually became worse later on. Everyone is influenced by what came before, but we very much live in a world in which their developments on previous philosophy are very welcome.


"Greek philosophy is heavily responsible for the misogynistic aspects of Christianity for instance, but during this period women had more legal freedoms and ability to exist independently and their rights actually became worse later on."

Any references for this? I find it highly doubtful.

The Greek philosophy was universal in that it applied to anyone who was a "person". I don't think that's different from any morality that's followed, it's just that the "universe" has always been limited, e.g., in U.S. rights were created universally for "all men", but that didn't originally include women or slaves.


>The truth is that Augustine was especially heavily influenced by Plato and Aquinas' entire philosophy was mostly an attempt to synthesize Aristotle with Christianity.

Pretty much every philosopher is influenced by the great philosophers who came before them. If you look at philosophical (or indeed scientific) work today, it is no less under the influence of previous work. Augustine and Aquinas were very original in many respects, but they quite rightly built on the best philosophical ideas that they knew of rather than starting from scratch just for the sake of it.


Augustine was a Western Christian philosophist, and he lived AD, not BC.

He died in 430 AD, 20 years after the sack of Rome by Visigoths. Pretty much what people call the beginning of medieval period.


Thanks, was thinking AD but for some reason BC came out.


The basis of political and legal system in Latin Europe is Roman jurisdiction, as far as I know.


I don't think your claim that "all the intelligensia spend almost all its brain power in obscure religious debates" is very realistic. For one thing, the concept of university is clearly a medieval invention.

Lots and lots of innovation was done during Middle Ages, as was interesting philosophy. Ancient Rome and Greece get the attention because they are the oldest stuff that is somewhat preserved, not because they would not have been surpassed in the following centuries.


Not sure I agree. In many domains of science, politic and arts, not only middle ages didn't surpass the ancient times, they were even a regression. Some domains that come to mind: sculpture, architecture, mathematics, theater, law, philosophy, poetry...


I don't know enough about sculpture, but regarding architecture, there were many innovations during Middle Ages.

First of all, medieval builders constructed churches and palaces that were bigger and higher than ancient ones. That's what Gothic architecture is all about (even though the name "Gothic" is a later pejorative). This was possible because of new innovations in structure of arches etc.

They were also able to construct these buildings with real windows, which was not actually the case in ancient times. (For instance, look at Pantheon: ancient, and quite big and impressive, but no windows, just the oculus at top).

For construction tools, medieval times came up with e.g. the wheelbarrow (although this was independently developed in China much earlier) and various types of cranes.

If we look at politics, law and economics, well, medieval politics was sophisticated in many ways and I cannot see why we should call it regression. As I wrote in another comment, during Middle Ages the development achieved, for instance, abolition of slavery and things like Magna Carta. As well as the start of merchant banking and foreign exchange contracts.

And many of our well-known poetic legends are medieval: Roland's Song, Carmina Burana, The Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy, Beowulf, and if you go to religious arts, people like St. Francis.

Edit: regarding sculpture, I'd imagine that the Greek had easy access to sculptable stone materials that medieval Central Europeans had less so. There's even less stone sculpture in northern Europe where the bedrock is granite and it takes absolutely modern tools to sculpt them.


Not true for pretty much all of that. A great deal of the advances made by the Romans were simply unworkable in Northern Europe. Roman concrete, for example, depended on volcanic pozzolanic ash which was not available further north. Roman agriculture was based on simple scratch ploughs that took advantage of the sandy soils around the Mediterranean. To work the hard, dense soils of the north required the invention of the heavy carruca, leading to a dramatic increase in food production and a population explosion through the middle ages.

You can keep on going down the list. Medieval poetry and literature developed extensively into forms we take for granted within our modern culture. The ideas of chivalry, nobility, and courtly love are so deeply ingrained within our society that we take them for granted.

As for architecture? Come on! Take a look at Aachen Cathedral[0] (built in 800 AD) and tell me that's a "regression" compared to the Romans.

[0] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Aachen_C...


It's a bit of a myth that mediaeval philosophers spent all of their time discussing obscure points of religious doctrine.


Well they did spend quite some time discussing the trinity and the virginity of Mary. Also there was this problem with stillborn babies: but baptised, they wouldn't go to the paradise, but how could they go to hell if they didn't have time to commit their first sin? Big debates... So they invented the limbo, just for this special corner case. (As a developer I see this as very smelly, the abstraction was leaking too much)


Yes, they often discussed theological issues, but that was far from the only thing they did. It's easy to be smug in retrospect. Most of what philosophers and scientists talk about now will no doubt seem rather silly in, say, 800 years' time. The theological discussion is also very rich, by the way. In particular, the attempts to clarify the ontology of the trinity were really quite interesting, and gave rise to some independently interesting philosophical discussion.


There is a bit of a selection bias at play. The selection of ancient Greece and Rome are in a large part due to those dark-age intelligentsia; they and their successors picked those books to be the basis of knowledge.


Most of these classics, especially the Greek ones, were forgotten in Western Europe of the middle ages. They were preserved in the Byzantine and Muslim cultures and were reintroduced to the West starting from the 12th Century, a process which culminated in the Renaissance.


when all the intelligensia spend almost all its brain power in obscure religious debates, you get very few results.

What's great about this sentence is how it brings the whole narrative full circle, back to fascism and Germany.

The Papacy in the middle ages was basically a fascist institution - ridiculing and condemning anyone that didn't agree with it.

But it wasn't till the 16th century that a German named Martin Luther dealt that fascist regime a serious blow by nailing some thoughts to a Cathedral door.

Luther wasn't the first to have those thoughts, though. He was simply the first credible mind to have those thoughts outside the sphere of influence of the Pope. The German politics Luther lived under enabled him to contradict the Papacy without fear of punishment.


> the Dark Ages were "dark".

In Europe perhaps, but there's a whole world out there.


Certainly, for example Tang dynasty was a golden age in China.


Rome disintegrated, and if the sacking of a once glorious capital by the various tribes of Europe isn't a "fall", I'm not sure what is.

The Dark Ages weren't "dark" in the sense that many understand them, but they were a period of fragmented power, small empires, and warring dynasties - much as much of the Roman period was, but the fact that their structure disintegrated is undeniable.

In their case, it all tied back to lines of communication and an increasingly inefficient taxation system, which lead to declining revenues for Rome, rot at the fringes, and eventual atomisation.


Many will argue the Roman Empire just shifted to the East where it continued to have an impressive, long-lived empire. You certainly can argue the Western Roman Empire declined over a period of centuries, but that is nothing like a 'fall.'

The 'dark ages' witnessed the high mark of Western Christendom, which had its own fascinating form of 'international' unity and an impressive legacy of achievements, and it certainly shaped modern Europe. I mean, I think everyone knows that 'Dark ages' is a made up label from centuries ago during the Enlightenment era.

Either way, neither of those labels are endorsed by any serious modern historian as far as I know.


> The 'dark ages' witnessed the high mark of Western Christendom,

And quite a number of low marks in terms of industrial production, technical knowledge, public health, collective wealth, individual freedoms and so on. In fact, without the rising Arab civilization undertaking huge efforts to acquire and preserve what the Western countries were discarding as "unchristian", we would have lost even more knowledge than we did.

There are so many reasons the "dark" attribute stuck and survived for almost 700 years (it wasn't an Enlightenment construct but rather a Renaissance one, although technically coined even earlier). It might be too generic a term to survive the contemporary level of analytical debate of history, but ignoring it would be a disservice to the cause of science and progress.


> And quite a number of low marks in terms of industrial production, technical knowledge, public health, collective wealth, individual freedoms and so on.

What makes you claim this? The growth of population, economy and individual freedoms continued through the Middle Ages. Ancient Rome was not a particularly "civilized" place if you look at it by, say, medieval English standards.

And lots of technical innovations were made during Middle Ages (both through interaction with Middle East and Asia, and through independent development). Technical knowledge accumulated. Public health learned some lessons - yes, some of those very slowly, it took 200 years to fully recover form the Black Death - but the population and economy grew, except for this plague anomaly which the ancient civilizations would hardly have handled any better.

Throughout Middle Ages, agricultural output grew and new tools were brought in and new crops were introduced, as well as crop rotation in farming (from just farming to fallowing and then to three-field rotation).

New scripts were developed, e.g. Carolingian minuscule enabled faster writing and producing of books (prior to the printing press which is seen as the starting point of Renaissance but was developed by medieval people).

Regarding individual freedoms: slavery, common in ancient civilizations, was largely abolished in Europe during medieval times. Magna Carta is clearly a medieval document.

Medieval times were not dark. Development was not as fast as later on, but it existed, almost continuously, with some (mostly local) setbacks.


"Ancient Rome was not a particularly "civilized" place if you look at it by, say, medieval English standards."

One of the odd things about the fascination with Greece and Rome as the basis of all civilization (ahem) is the failure to understand how alien those civilizations were.


> In fact, without the rising Arab civilization undertaking huge efforts to acquire and preserve what the Western countries were discarding as "unchristian", we would have lost even more knowledge than we did.

Not to discount the advancements of Arab world during this time period, but this is not an either/or thing and is much, much more complex than you are portraying it. Large amounts of knowledge were actually preserved by the church (mostly in monasteries) and the parallel church structure set up during the latter periods of the Western Roman empire helped cushion the decline of the West as Rome shifted East.

The "Dark Ages" were not dark (which is why historians have almost universally quit using that term in favor of "Middle Ages") and are a very complex and interesting time period.

I highly recommend Dan Carlin's excellent Hardcore History episode "Thor's Angels" [0]. He spends four hours talking about just this very specific period (what happened in Europe when Rome declined), and spends lots of time talking about the church's role in stabilizing what could have been a whole lot worse.

[0] http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-41-thors-a...


Places like Irish monasteries were also saving ancient literature. Indeed it was them, and not Arabs, who kept alive literacy and reintroduced it - along in cases with Christianity, to the West.


I enjoyed Cahill's book on this topic, but it is a bit of a romantic overstatement of the case. A more balanced perspective here: http://www.theeway.com/skepticc/review05.html


"I mean, I think everyone knows that 'Dark ages' is a made up label from centuries ago during the Enlightenment era."

Actually, the idea comes from Petrarch, who was a late Mediaeval writer who was upset at the disrespect paid to ancient Latin and Greek literature and culture during the Migration and Mediaeval periods. Of course, Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment intellectuals all picked up on the idea for their own reasons.


> Many will argue the Roman Empire just shifted to the East where it continued to have an impressive, long-lived empire.

It is a historic fact that Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 to Constantinople, where it remained the center of the Empire for the next 1100 years.


By the time Rome was sacked, the center of the Roman empire was for several hundred years already in the east.

To be more precise in Nova Roma or Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and this since the 11th May 330.

It remained the center of the Roman empire until 1453, this was long after the Roman culture in the west was almost completely destroyed. (and with it western Christianity turned into a tool of oppression)

So while the West during these times faced oppression and feudalism, the Roman empire certainly did not.


Indeed. The only reason to still consider certain parts of the Middle Ages as "dark", particularity the early portion, is the due to the lack of contemporary sources. The Merovingian Kingdoms of the seventh century, for example, are genuinely hard to study because we've lost so much.

The term "dark" should not be used, as it still much too frequently is, as some negative value judgment that covers a thousand year period which encompassed hundreds of different societies and cultures spanning an entire continent.

It is understandable why people think this way, since European history (at least in the United States and Canada) is still largely taught in a way that skims over the Middle Ages: check out how awesome Greece and Rome were, then, well, the Middle Ages when they had these grand churches, but who cares because then came the Renaissance when everything was cool again.

I've taught European Medieval history survey courses at the university level and one of the most difficult challenges was getting this idea of a horrible "dark" age dispelled from the students' minds. This is not to say that everything was somehow great or that all ages are "equal" in "value" (whatever that really means), but you can not begin to study a period of history without facing your own preconceptions of it (and, really, your own society).


There's been a lot of recent interest in this topic. For example: http://www.amazon.com/The-Fall-Rome-And-Civilization/dp/0192...

Summary is that though Rome didn't fall overnight, there was a massive economic collapse first in the west and then several centuries later in the east (the latter coming on the heals of a devastating outbreak of the plague).


> There is a large chunk of society who're easily swayed by purely emotional rhetoric based on in-groups and out-groups, and likes to follow leaders who make a show of macho masculinity. The status-quo is pretty fragile. The nerds aren't safe.

What makes you think nerds are any different?


Great question. They aren't.


Imagine polling this forum to identify their heroes and then poll a non-technical forum. Then contrast the two lists for macho qualities. You can probably do this simply by counting the sports heroes.

Admitting that one is not immune to biological influences is really what matters. In this respect, nerds are more mindful. Also, nerds historically belonged to the out-group. Again with mindfulness, we will hopefully sympathize with the out-group even if our recently elevated social status is permanent.


FYI, this idea of continual progress through history was invented during the Enlightenment, as far as I know. Before that the prevailing idea was more the LotR-style descent-into-less mentality that "great things of the past will never come back again"...


This is what happened in the West. It doesn't always need to be the same cycle of total destruction followed by reconstruction. While we should look to history for guidance, we cannot assume the same things will happen, or even that the same pattern will repeat itself. Short of an accidental nuclear holocaust, it seems rather unlikely that the current economic system will be undone anytime soon.

As a counterpoint to the demise of the Roman Empire, the Chinese Empire not only survived for thousands of years, it assimilated all the different people's living in the Chinese Mainland into one race (the Han). I feel like something similar is likely to happen in the future of the world.


>> emergence of the rule of law made the modern economy as we know it possible

The world has had laws since the beginning of man's time on this planet. What made the last 100-200 years different for the US and for the world has been free market economy, not laws alone.

>> It did - social progress has made institutions like democracy and ideas like liberty and rationalism more popular than it has ever been in history.

Democracy by itself fails. The most successful partial Democracy has been the US which is a Democratic Republic, not a true Democracy or Republic, the strength lies in the constant struggle of both.

>> that the modern society is a stable scientific one

Societal stability has nothing to do with science and everything to do with the choices people make every day and the military that defends a free world.

>> Even in the most democratic countries of the world, fascism is only just around the corner.

[Even in the most democratic countries of the world, Communism is only just around the corner.]


You know, as tautological as that sounds, it does not seem to happen a lot.

Yes, if you wait for long enough, everything fails. If it didn't fail yet, it's just a matter of waiting a few more centuries. But those failures are getting shorter and shorter in duration, while the periods societies are "failing to fail" get longer and longer.


It's a question of scale. Small groups will go through the same stages of civilisation as a much larger group, but more rapidly. There's a "rotten spot" between very small groups and very large groups where things are particularly unstable, which we have stayed largely abreast of through telecommunications, but it doesn't make us immune to those forces, just more easily dented and less easily broken.


This comment sounds like post-modernist pap. Beware -- modernism isn't the ultimate ideology, but post modernism isn't the bee's knees either. (Fyi, that "notion of continuous progress" of yours comes from Hegel.) Your comment comes off as handwavey and I think you've been "swayed" by the emotional rhetoric just as much as the next guy. It's as if you became disillusioned with communism, so you decided to become a libertarian. (No, this isn't an appeal to the balance fallacy. I'm saying reversed stupidity isn't intelligence.)

Also, what's this about cycles? Have you ever seen a population graph? It literally looks like a backwards L. But from your comment, one might expect a sine wave. And if you've been following say... Bill Gates's blog, the third world has significantly and measureably improved in the past 50 years.


Democracy has nothing to do with how well an economy operates, and it has nothing to do with how free individuals are, all it ensures is that a majority has control of who rules them. An economy operates best when individuals are free to pursue their own ideas, because the best ideas - the ones that create lasting value for the world - are spread throughout a population, they aren't concentrated within the mind of a democratically elected leader.



  "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are 
  cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
This seems to be the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Knowing more means having greater awareness that what you know is only a small part of what you could know.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

  "A hundred years ago the philosophical radicals formed a school of intelligent 
  men who were just as sure of themselves as the Hitlerites are"
If true, I wonder what caused this. Could anyone suggest cultural, social or technological reasons that may have temporarily united the intellectuals of the age?


> Could anyone suggest cultural, social or technological reasons that may have temporarily united the intellectuals of the age?

I think the Internet played a very strong hand with uniting the "unintellectuals" of our age.

As for your actual question the answer lies within that sentence "philosophy." Philosophy has been found[1] to be an excellent way to teach children how to access their intelligence; most importantly regarding critical thought. To blindly follow the stupidity of others you must have first failed to practice critical thought.

[1]: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/21/teachin...


> I think the Internet played a very strong hand with uniting the "unintellectuals" of our age.

It seems like the Internet has the opposite effect of uniting people. By allowing people to form ever tighter communities around specific topics, it allows people to feel like they've been united closer with others, but the interests of the groups they form are narrower than pre-Internet social groups. As to whether this affects intellectuals and unintellectuals more, it's hard to say. I could definitely be swayed either way. I've observed communities that fill every square of the (intellectual, unintellectual) x (narrow interest, broad interest) matrix.


Dunning Kruger didn't show that more competent people thought themselves lesser than incompetent, just that they thought they were lesser than they actually were, and incompetents thought themselves better than themselves, not better than those more competent.

i.e. Self reporting showed a shallowing of the competency slope, not a reversal.


> the philosophical radicals formed a school of intelligent men

Does anyone know who these men were?


The Philosophical Radicals was a philosophically-minded group of English political radicals in the nineteenth century inspired by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. Individuals within this group included Francis Place, George Grote (1794–1871), Joseph Parkes, John Arthur Roebuck, Charles Buller, John Stuart Mill, Edward John Trelawny, and William Molesworth.[1]

Amongst other things, members of their group were the publishers of Darwin and ran the progressive journal the Westminster Review.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_Radicals


Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Epictetus etc..


Maybe I didn't quote enough :)

> A hundred years ago the philosophical radicals formed a school of intelligent men


I'm guessing the ones during the Enlightenment? Rousseau, Kant, etc.


John Ralston Saul argues it was the age of Reason that did this in the book Voltaire's Bastards going all the way back to the Jesuit schools.

http://www.johnralstonsaul.com/non-fiction-books/voltaires_b...


The problem is that smart people (setting a low bar to include anybody who doesnt have deep-seated prejudice or inviolable beliefs rooted in ancient superstitions) who don't think critically are subject to propaganda. They'll be told that opposing Hitler is simply being intolerant of intolerance, and that makes them no better than the Nazis. If they don't think about it critically, they'll agree, but if they do think about it critically, they'll realize that one side is being intolerant of oppression and violence, while the other is being intolerant of regular people being allowed to peacefully exist. During Hitler's rise, there were many prominent Nazi sympathizers in the US, and this was solved not by a pandemic of critical thinking but by instituting war propaganda in the opposite direction.

This is the same problem that plagued abolitionists in the 19th century, women's suffrage at the turn of the last century, civil rights in the 60s, apartheid in the 80s, and gay rights and refugees today, some of which had to be solved by counter-propaganda by those in power, and some of which had to be solved the hard way by those with little power loudly promoting critical thinking.


> smart people (setting a low bar to include anybody who doesnt have deep-seated prejudice or inviolable beliefs rooted in ancient superstitions)

I think this hits on what I disliked about the quoted Russell passage. He uses "intelligent" as if it is objective and obvious who is included, and that it is those who he broadly agrees with. You're doing something similar by dismissing from your definition of "smart" anyone who is prejudiced or religious. It is clear to me that there are extremely intelligent people who are one or the other or both. What do you achieve by excluding them from your definition of intelligence? It is better to attack prejudice as misguided on its own, rather than as the product of stupidity.

This applies to Russell as well; in thinking his opponents are just stupid, he deprives himself of the ability to understand their viewpoint well enough to debate it. The worst way to win an argument is to think the other side is just stupid and you're just smart, so there's nothing to talk about.


I am using Russell's definition of smart because that is where the people that he calls stupid in the quote above my post get their cocksure attitudes.

You can call it whatever you like, but the reasons for one group being so certain and the other group being subject to propaganda still remain. The goal for somebody in the latter group who can think critically is not to convince the former group (very difficult, whatever you may call that group) but to get other people in the latter group to think critically as well.


"In this gloomy state of affairs, the brightest spot is America. In America democracy still appears well established, and the men in power deal with what is amiss by constructive measures, not by pogroms and wholesale imprisonment."

Oh.


How the mighty have fallen.


I dunno. Life would not have been that great for me in 1950s America.

On a large-scale, I agree. On the one hand, I would like to see the US transition to being a regional power, not a global one. Think UK now, versus UK 100 years ago. That said, human nature abhors a power vacuum, and I would rather live under US rule than under Russian, Chinese, or Islamic rule. I know what to do and what not to do under US rule. Also, I can do most things that I want to do without having to deal with common-place gangsterism.


> I know what to do and what not to do under US rule.

That's not a benefit of living in the US over living in China or under any other tyrannical rule.

People under Kim Jong-Un's rule know exactly what to do: Avoid upsetting him in any way, or perhaps more accurately, avoid giving him an excuse to fuck up your life. In a broader sense, the same principle applies anywhere where people have rulers.

If you upset your rulers, you will be punished for your insolence, no matter if it's saying bad things about The King/Emperor/Putin/Mao/Hitler, smoking a certain herb, pointing out the government isn't following its own rules, or collecting rainwater on your property.

Sure, it's much nicer to live in a "representative" (hah!) democracy than in Russia, but the fundamental arrangement is the exact same everywhere: rulers ruling over their subjects.


> Also, I can do most things that I want to do without having to deal with common-place gangsterism.

If I start a business in Canada (or the US) I can expect minimal to no interference from the government, organized crime, or the military. My impression is that this is not true in China or Russia.

If I want to build a rocket, I can actually do that and launch it while complying with minimal regulatory oversight. Maybe it would be different if I were Muslim.

Basically, there aren't too many things that I want to do that living under US rule prevents me from doing, whereas the same is not true for other regimes.

EDIT>

> Sure, it's much nicer to live in a "representative" (hah!) democracy than in Russia, but the fundamental arrangement is the exact same everywhere: rulers ruling over their subjects.

The details matter.


> If I start a business in Canada (or the US) I can expect minimal to no interference from the government

I already acknowledged it's nicer to live in "The West" than in Russia for example.

But if you start a credit union with the intention of genuinely competing with the banks, the government will "regulate" you out of business for being a nuisance to the banking cartel.

In other words, the true nature of our societies comes into view, and as I pointed out, that nature is the exact same everywhere. The difference is that you live under a polished turd, whereas Russians don't.

> The details matter.

In a fundamental sense, they don't matter at all. A ruler is a ruler, and a subject is a subject, and ruling over people always involves coercion.

Coercion is, by definition, against anyone's will, and so no one is genuinely fine with being ruled.


> Coercion is, by definition, against anyone's will, and so no one is genuinely fine with being ruled.

But again, the details matter. In a practical sense, there's no stark difference between mild coercion and compromise. One could argue that compromise is voluntary whereas, trivially, coercion is not, but this just discards a large part of human experience.

I got married voluntarily. I had kids voluntarily. I choose to have friends, rather than isolating myself. Although all of these decisions were voluntary, their constraints on my behaviour are more onerous than anything dictated by my government. So if government coercion is less restrictive than social coercion / compromise, what's the point of taking a dogmatic stance?

EDIT> No man is an island.


"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else." - Winston Churchill


Hm? I feel like this still applies reasonably well to America.

For all of the radical lunacy in our politics, our government's actual actions remain fairly moderate. (Of course maybe that's because political gridlock prevents us from having time to enact radical policy.) And we still are leading the world in all sorts of things, like scientific progress and technological progress.


Moderate? Hardly.

- The war on drugs is utterly radical, as well ineffective and brutally oppressive.

- Assassinating people (including Americans) by Drone strikes, based on "meta data". No due process or oversight.

- Disregard for the Geneva Conventions (Bombings of hospitals and other civilian targets)

- Torture. Including public defense of torture.

- NSA. Privacy used to be an inalienable right.

- Military bases in 200+ countries.

The list goes on, but I think I've made my point. The US is only "moderate" for the most creative definitions of "moderate".


74 countries according to this article:

http://qz.com/374138/these-are-all-the-countries-where-the-u...

Point stands, nonetheless. That's a lot.


I appreciate the correction.


Don't forget considering universal healthcare to be an abomination.


Yeah, those things you quoted don't seem like counterexamples. Compare to: assassinations as regular political tools, enslavement of minorities, internment camps, genocide, religious warfare, an utter lack of rule of law, hereditary rule, ..

I think we're doing pretty well compared to civilizations of yore.


>> we still are leading the world in all sorts of things

Sure, the US is in a pretty nice spots on technological progress, agriculture and has a rather strong economy.

But I wouldn't say "we" (not everyone on HN is American!) are leading the world in all sort of things.

American democracy is far behind what happens in other countries (like Sweden), totally corrupted by the pressure of lobbying groups and a certain political microcosme. It's also hard to compare the levels of poverty of the US to most "advanced" European countries for instance... Let's not even talk about healthcare and education.


I would never quote Sweden as an example of democracy. It is bad case of "political correctness terror", if anything.


There's a difference between somewhere that is undemocratic, and somewhere with a democratic government you don't agree with.

You may be right about Sweden having a poorly democratic system, but the fact that you find the tone of the society to be problematic is not evidence of that.


> I would never quote Sweden as an example of democracy.

Yeah. It's a monarchy.


What exactly do you mean by "American democracy"? What do you mean by "democracy" to begin with? On what basis do you compare "American democracy" to "Swedish democracy"?


I interpreted that part as being relevant given some of the statements from the Presidential nomination process going on today. That said, this point in the nomination process is not very indicative of where things end up.

Potentially more directly related is that there was some wholesale imprisonment that occurred in America a few years after Russell wrote that:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_America...


Most of what the US is leading the world is in how much military we have and how much we incarcerate. Technological improvements, health improvements, life expectancy, etc. are no longer US led.


That's an incredibly prescient piece of writing, to see that clearly what would happen in the next 14 years and to write it down so un-ambiguously and tersely. Who is our present day Bertrand Russell?


It's me, I'm the smartest man on Earth. I'm still waiting for people to catch up. I find it strange to predict the next 14 years when the world is exploding with Africa/Asia literacy and the internet mainstreamization, and the technology. It's like trying to guess the flow of streams, with the waves beating. In 1935, it was a smaller scale of events. It doesn't matter, anyway. The world doesn't need more ideals and high-level thoughts, people function less than they think at that level, and there is progress enough, it needs empathy and respect, and fixing the bottom, for a more cohesive whole. These days I worry about what Africa will be when pacified, since it seems to be the major change, with internet, and they have a different culture, and they got shafted a lot, it seems. Africa is 1.1B people, US+Europe, so with our level of education, it'd be a crazy actor. http://ourworldindata.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/ourworl... People rave at the impact of major works, but the impact of achieving literacy in one generation, and opening all these infinite doors to half of humanity, this is a major event, and you can predict it just as well as you can predict the path of an engulfing ouragan... I'm in such a poetic and verbose mood. Alright, I give up the title. Another day.


Chris Hedges writes alot about this nowadays. His background as a war reporter for nyt gives him a bit of a radical perspective, but like much of modern social commentary, it makes me depressed reading too much of it.

Joe Bageant (RIP) is really good too, and he can be funny aswell. Hedges is never humorous.

We should add Chomsky to the list, although I can't stand reading his stuff. I'm sure it's good what he writes, but he is just too high-brow for me.


Chomsky is obviously strongly influenced by Russell, he's usually on the mark but takes 25,000 words where Russell takes 500 or so to make the same point and much stronger.


Chomsky's output before the mid-70's was very highbrow, but most of it subsequently is very readable and straightforward.


Not loved by all, but maybe George Monbiot


Stephen Pinker. Just about the only person from a humanities field that left me in awe of his intellect when I saw him speak.


Michel Houellebecq?


I'd go with Alain De Botton. I like Sam Harris too but a lot of people hate him. He's not a philosopher per se but he's willing to have strong opinions about controversial issues.


Sam Harris's book on free will was quite naive--he missed a lot of the key points of today's debate, while being fairly emphatic as though he had just discovered something crucial. I certainly don't hate him, but he remains a dilettante, to me.


>he's willing to have strong opinions about controversial issues.

So is Rush Limbaugh. A lot of people are, in fact. Being today's Bertrand Russell should require a bit more than that.


How often does Rush Limbaugh take on his critics in an open debate? Sam Harris regularly accepts invitations to debate his opponents and usually wins the debate in my opinion.

Furthermore, he sometimes changes minds -- including his own -- based on those dialogues. Limbaugh just preaches to the choir.


What about Richard Dawkins ? (good science reputation, strong media presence)


He's more of a symbol, especially in atheist circles, than a great scientist. His "bout" with Wilson is pretty depressing.


Noam Chomsky ?


surely he falls easily into the "cocksure" category


Good choice. And if he were still alive, Christopher Hitchens.


Replace Germany with Russia in article and you would be describing the sad state of things in modern Russia, the most brutal and stupid are running the show there now.

Aside here is an interesting article regarding this > https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/russia-great-for...


Hm.. as opposed to Germany, Turkey, UK and the US?


Yes (except Turkey - Erdogan wants to become what Putin is).


Don't forget France. A politician noticed a PS4 console in a terrorist's room and concluded that that's what they used as a super-secret communication channel. Turns out they used good ol' SMS. Already intercepted. They announced that from now on they'll also intercept the PS4 messaging traffic anyway.

Then there's the plan to put ankle bracelets on "known extremists"...


I don't know why you're getting downvoted, but (disregarding the risk that I might get as well) I agree. Especially how quickly Hollande seized the opportunity of the tragedy-shocked nation to start attacking Syria...


It is not the stupid who run Russia, in fact looking at Syria Putin seems to be the only one with a realistic goal in that war. The Russian interests are their access to the Mediterranean and following from that they want to aid their ally, the Assad regime, both clearly attainable military goals. Contrast that with the western engagement in Syria, ISIS was created in Iraq during the occupation, and now the West tries to put down by bombs what was created by bombs, a strategy that did not work for Israel in the last 50 years. So perhaps Russia is run by the cynical, but certainly not by the stupid.


I never said Putin was stupid, but he does have an army of "willing idiots" both and home and abroad helping and supporting his goals.


he does have an army of "willing idiots"

Didn't you mean to say "coalition of the willing"?


"civilised world" is kept together by midddle- and working class people. What people need is hope and predictable outcomes from their personal efforts.

The Great Depression of 1929 struck America hard but Weimar Germany much harder. Incremental changes and hard work did not produce improvements. Life was uncertain and critical amount of people felt that life was unfair to them. They were ready to try stupid and unorthodox.

I find it unlikely that radical and stupid ideas alone can rock liberal democracies. They are always present. What is needed is personal uncertainty and fear of the future that resonates with the society.


> "civilised world" is kept together by midddle- and working class people.

Well, sort of. I think first you need technological innovation, and then the middle- and working class fill the labor to maintain that technology, but they for the most part didn't create it. They are users of it. Companies do investments and allocation of capital to produce that technology. Without a central source of capital, it would be hard to get the investments needed to research and produce it. I think technology (in all its forms from basic to advanced) is what enables the motion of society and individuals and the freedoms.

And also civilized society is just as much about daily life and consumption of information and perceived oppression or unfairness as it is pure work. It feels like a lot of modern arguments are about these perceived unfair situations, but on a personal level rather than systematic level. This leads to systematic "macro" chaos but predictable individual "micro" movement in the system (based on emotion and current view of the world). As long as the technology and resources can be maintained, there will be some order in the basics in society, since everyone needs food, shelter, clothing, security and so forth, so I would say, the whole system is what keeps the civilized world going and then some day, something fundamental breaks in some way, due to the accumulated macro momentum of micro scale movement, and then the macro breaks, or something like that.

Edit: also as an addon, these micro movements are decided today, by so called "thought leaders", and so these thought leaders are also responsible for the civilized world in that sense. An idea or representation of something has a huge effect I think.


> In America democracy still appears well established, and the men in power deal with what is amiss by constructive measures, not by pogroms and wholesale imprisonment.

Well all was not perfect even there - just a couple of years later all Japanese were "wholesale imprisoned".


Thereafter black americans since the 1970s


Thanks for sharing. We could spend hours drawing from this essay.

Let's consider this part:

"A hundred years ago the philosophical radicals formed a school of intelligent men who were just as sure of themselves as the Hitlerites are; the result was that they dominated politics and that the world advanced rapidly both in intelligence and in material well-being."

Another example of this is neo-liberal capitalism: from Hayek [1] and his disciple, Friedman [2], to myriad think tanks, Reagan and Thatcher, SCOTUS (eg Powell [3]), etc. We're still living with the outcome of a generation of intelligent, organized, ambitious people united by a [flawed] ideology.

[1] Hayek - "The Road to Serfdom" http://amzn.to/1PRWyDj [2] Friedman - "Free to Choose" http://amzn.to/1QKIewt [3] Powell - "Attack on American Free Enterprise System" http://bit.ly/1Q2bHR7


Just a nitpick but Hayek and Friedman were both classical liberals.


Strictly speaking Hayek was the first Hayekian liberal - but did self-describe as a classical liberal.


Your specific objection being? Or do you consider your rhetoric sufficient?

Any comments about the enthusiasts for the currently totally unsustainable welfare states set up in the West along with the massive associated debts to be loaded onto the backs of those as yet unborn?


sufficient for here -- and from me to you

it was a case in point


I don't understand this essay. It seems to be a romanticism of intelligent individuals, but he refers to Nazi Germany as the triumph of the stupid. However, isn't Nazi Germany the product of a small group of highly intelligent individuals?


> [...] isn't Nazi Germany the product of a small group of highly intelligent individuals?

Yes, a small group of intelligent individuals, who succeeded in rallying the "stupid" masses behind them.


Wouldn't any successful political movement need the support of the "stupid masses"?


what do you mean by "highly intelligent individuals"?



Haunting and frighteningly timely short essay. This particular part jumped out (not least because the first sentence is highlighted):

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.

Around the same time (1930), Sigmund Freud articulated the concept of "the narcissism of small differences" in his book Civilization and its Discontents, a concept that is endlessly useful in understanding how otherwise like-minded people tend to tear themselves apart. A related concept in software development is "bikeshedding".


However in "bikeshedding", like-minded people tearing themselves apart over small things is a byproduct of the underlying problem: they're procrastinating the bigger issue.


Maybe that's the point. I feel sometimes like the world today is so complex, that it's hard to be sure of any politics whether it will work, or produce more misery than good. So, perhaps on a subconscious level, it's easier to bicker about details and never actually do anything.

Moral high ground is the privilege of those that don't do anything...


I think it is a potentially dangerous mistake to put the "stupid" label on all those that support anti-democratic tendencies.

Among other things, such as having a false impression of what else is possibly going on, one might be inclined to dismiss the problem too easily.


It's a classic, but I do think there's more to it than stupidity versus intelligence. It's also about conviction versus cowardice.

In my experience bullying and persecution are very often more about fear and insecurity. If you're persecuting and blaming someone else, you're not being persecuted and blamed yourself. It's a way to deflect hostility and responsibility away from yourself and on to other people. It seems to me most of the people Russel was writing about may not even have been going along with the mainstream because they genuinely thought Jews, Communists etc were a real threat, but because if everyone is having a go at them they're not having a go at me. If I join in then I become one of the team and can buy safety and security for myself that way. In the uncertain and dangerous times Germany had been through, any route to personal security and safety must have looked very attractive.

How is this relevant today? Clearly Putin is using this sort of response to great effect by using conflict and rivalry with foreigners to deflect criticism away from his abysmal record at actually achieving anything of value for the Russian people. Even having a Russian jet shot down by Turkey plays to his advantage in that respect.

For us the question is, how to treat Muslim minorities in the West, and what to do about the Syrian refugee crisis. The refugees didn't create this crisis and are the primary victims. The vast majority of Muslims in the west are against ISIS and deplore it's tactics. But blaming 'The Muslims' for all of this and using excuses such as that terrorists will infiltrate the west disguised as refugees are blinkered and cowardly. What are we going to do? Drive millions of refugees back into the Mediterranean sea?

It's going to take determination and perseverance to do the right thing. Take as many refugees as we can. Build bridges with Muslim communities in the West. Confront IS and it's backers militarily and economically. There will be further attacks. Integrating so many refugees is going to be expensive, hard work and there are going to be negative consequences and mistakes made. It's not going o go smoothly. But we still have to do it not because we are 'Intelligent' but because we have courage.


Throughout the last hundred and fifty years, individual Germans have done more to further civilisation than the individuals of any other country; during the latter half of this period, Germans, collectively, have been equally effective in degrading civilisation.

Russell here is making the same mistake as most people today. It wasn't the "Germans collectively", it was the German government, tolerated by a mostly ignorant population with a few "hawks" to show support for the government action.

Contrary to the top post here right now, this is the same thing happening in the US right now. The government bombs another country every 1-2 years and people let it happen. We're still in appeasement times but the state already gradually disrespects individual liberties and soon America will become a collective much like the one described in the article.


Well, I must disagree and say it was the "Germans collectively", at least in a large part (37% of them voted for Hitler in his last real election), but in their defense, it was the Treaty of Versailles, imposed upon the nation at the end of WWI, that basically forced them into this position.

Remember, Hitler and the National Socialist's were voted into party thru democratic means, although to be sure, democracy was never really a part of the German zeitgeist back then.

All the major players knew the ToV was going to lead to another war, and it sowed the seed for the rise of some sort of militaristic, Fascist government.


Well, with Obama (who was elected by the American people) attacking at least two souvereign countries (Lybia, Syria) will you hold the American population responsible?

More generally, if I vote today for X and tomorrow X turns out to be a murderer, will you hold it against me because I can only vote every 5 years?


I didn't vote for Obama, but I do remember he put a great deal of effort in telling supporters he was going to get us out of the wars of the Middle East, no?

Anyway, any equivalence between what is going on now the ME and what Hitler and the Nazis were doing back then is totally false.


I'm not saying they're equivalent, I'm saying that it's difficult to blame someone for his voting if he's bound to it for 5 years and can't change it.


The difference, to me at least, is that Hitler was very forthcoming with his plans for Germany...Mein Kampf quite clearly laid out his intentions, and almost all Germans owned a copy for political reasons.

So in that case, it seems voters knew exactly what they were getting (and eventually got) with Hitler.

Obama, not so much...obviously.


If we believe in democracy, yes! We are totally responsible.

The fact that there is such a disconnect between the actions of government and the will of the population shows how flawed "democracy" is.


> ...shows how flawed "democracy" is.

As compared to what?


Well democracy is supposed to be citizens participating directly in the political process. What we have is a very watered down version of democracy - we elect officials every few years, but don't really participate in law making or ratification.


I think it would be too easy to say that it was only the German government responsible for what happened. Below is a key quote:

What has happened? What has happened is quite simple. Those elements of the population which are both brutal and stupid (and these two qualities usually go together) have combined against the rest.

And another quote from Hannah Arendt:

Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.

The problem might be that the "mob" is getting stronger for various reasons and there is an active elite that is eager to exploit them for their own gain.


"The government bombs another country every 1-2 years"

This is dumbing down history. The world would as we know it would not exist without all the US army involvement around the world in the last 100 years: notably WWI,WWII, the cold war, & many more.Some less glorious, indeed. But it's not "bombing every 1-2 years" but a mixture of defending freedom, sometimes financial interests, mistakes and more. But overall, there would not be a "free world" without the US power and the will to use it


If only US military involvement was only in WW1 & 2. The US was one of the good guys then, sure. Most of the other conflicts US army has taken part sound like a powertrip from an arrogant white man. Indian wars and the resulting genocide, Vietnam war where the french wanted the US to spank their unruly colony into submission... I'm sorry to say, the parties who like to smear US have quite enough fact based material.

That said, I'm not claiming US is evil but it's not a force of good either.


You might be interested in reading about Operation Condor.


FWIW, I believe one good deed doesn't "neutralize" a bad one.


Yeats's The Second Coming, written in 1919 and following the cataclysm of the First World War, conveyed the same horrific and accurate vision of the future:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”


Reminds me of Yeats' The Second Coming (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)):

  Turning and turning in the widening gyre
  The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
  Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
  The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
  The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
  The best lack all conviction, while the worst
  Are full of passionate intensity.

  Surely some revelation is at hand;
  Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
  The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
  When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
  Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
  A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
  A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
  Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
  Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
  The darkness drops again; but now I know
  That twenty centuries of stony sleep
  Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
  And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
  Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Is there a way forward? A way to avoid the same mistakes and perhaps save humanity from the triumph of stupidity?


I believe there is, but for me the skepticism comes from my belief that there are a lot of 'well-read' people today thanks to the internet, Google and Wikipedia, although not many critical readers and thinkers. The best illustration of this for me is in the movie "Good Will Hunting", where the main character overhears a cocky college student, and puts him in his place [1]. That scene epitomizes a large portion of talk I hear about me, but with no real substance, or a Will Hunting to put them in their intellectual place. I think we don't teach basic critical thinking any more except in special classes or programs when it should be part of every class - common sense.

   [1] http://theartofspokenwords.blogspot.co.id/2011/04/good-will-hunting-bar-scene-quote.html


there's a kinda funny part in the Daodejing (or, Tao Te Ching, by the old Giles-Wade latinization of Chinese):

(3) Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.

He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.

---

I think our elites most of the time do a good job at the "empty their minds" bit. Spread a lot of confusion, FUD, and nobody dares to do anything. They are failing on the "fill their bellies" front, that's something to work on.

I find the passage kinda funny, since eastern philosophies are very popular nowadays mostly because of a hippie outlook on what they say. This part is in a way very cold and calculated. Daoism is pretty level-headed, my favorite of all eastern schools, along with some elements of Zen.


No. Just enjoy the ride.


I think it's not stupidity (nor the Dunning Kruger Effect) that leads mankind astray; it's groupthink, in any shape or form. When you blind yourself to whether you and your allies do more harm than good, in service of some abstract ideal or philosophy, you fail.


Fukuyama presents an interesting counterpoint in The End of History (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Las...):

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."


Today, Americans shouldn't take this as luck, but as a cautionary tale.


Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Hermann Göring, and the other leaders of the National Socialist party were horribly brutal, but they were not stupid. They were some of the brightest in the most well-educated country in the world. The same goes with French influenced Marxists such as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Bertrand Russell is right on many points, but he's terribly wrong to think the enemies of civilization are stupid. Read Machiavelli.


Russell wrote this piece in 1933, just one year before US government confiscated gold from its citizens (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_Order_6102). "Brightest spot" didn't last long.


> The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

It was Hume and Kant who injected skepticism back into Western thought and are responsible for empowering the stupid, including the Nazis. If you know the cause of your plight then you can fix the effect.


I think it's simpler than that. Politics attract assholes and intelligent people avoid assholes.


For me it was present day US in place of Germany.

It would be interesting if people reading this would say here which country they associated Germany to. I suppose almost all the countries will be on the list.

So an interesting question would be which country you associated the US in the essay to?


Opportunist here, riding on the popularity of this post. See my recent post which is partly along the lines of thoughts expressed by Bertrand Russel: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10611416 Summary - readers who think that vast majority of individuals are 'stupid' - please contact me. One of the failings of 'sane' intelligent people is that we do not band together.


Written in 1933. In the same year, Heidegger joined the Nazi party.

Now go figure who was the most prescient of the two.


aka the raging cretinisation of the world or overfitting, from data science jargon; second time in a row I'm forced to write this here on HN, I'm probably overfitted too. :(


>>> By murder, by torture, by imprisonment, by the terrorism of armed forces, they have subjected the intelligent and humane parts of the nation and seized power with the view of furthering the glory of the Fatherland.

reminds of current US foreign policy.


This does not belong here.


As opposed to all those links you posted that do belong here?

Really, if you don't like it that much and you believe it does not belong here you can flag it. But the best way to make HN into what you feel it should be is to post good links and to visit the new page to upvote the things that you feel do belong here.


Fair enough.


Meta:

We get these comments pretty regularly. Perhaps something could be done to avoid them - like the "Add Comment" page having some basic guidelines. A reminder of etiquette, the things that get downvoted, how to properly object (ie flag)?

It's a worthy sentiment but it's also a useless comment in that people who don't want to read the story should [and will largely have] just step over it whilst those who think it should appear here will read and so will naturally downvote such an objection.


In a sense, one can see how the Nazis' commitment to a brutal racial hierarchy undermined their ability to win WW2 (i.e. Jewish physicists left the country). On the other hand, is this being put forth as a serious theory of historical change? Wouldn't it be better to look at objective conditions (e.g. austerity conditions imposed after WW1, rampant anti-semitism) rather than whether or not the Nazis were 'stupid'? As nasty as they were, I doubt that Hitler, Goering, Himmler, etc. would appear as stupid today. Also, wouldn't the decades long commitment to eugenics on the part of many of Russell's friends, including forced sterilization, suggest that the intelligent should be full of doubt?


I found this worthwhile.


Why not?


Oh, and because it invariably leads to comments which are in breach of HN guidelines. See these comments about Donald Trump?


This is a good point and it's a shame you got downvoted for it.

(I up voted it, but it's still grey.)


Really? This is an old text saying that nazis were stupid and americans were not. I don't think that this qualifies as "[something] that good hackers would find interesting". It must have been posted here as a way to warn people to "not be stupid" or something?


I don't think it's saying Americans were not stupid. To me it reads more as Americans were not (at that time, in his assessment) allowing stupidity to triumph to nearly the same degree.


By murder, by torture, by imprisonment, by the terrorism of armed forces, they have subjected the intelligent and humane parts of the nation and seized power with the view of furthering the glory of the Fatherland.

^ The terrorism of armed forces part is particularly important. We tend to think that terrorism is something crazy non-state actors do in religious or delusional fervor, but it is really just the use of violence to achieve certain political ends. This is precisely what the American army started doing around the world after World War II. If you include psychological manipulation with it as well, as recently evidence by the disclosure that the DOD was paying NFL to propagandize during games, we get a very concerning picture of the role of the US military in today's world and in the US itself.

In this gloomy state of affairs, the brightest spot is America. In America democracy still appears well established, and the men in power deal with what is amiss by constructive measures, not by pogroms and wholesale imprisonment.

^ How dated that sounds. Wonder what Russell would say about the America of today, with the oligarchy entrenching itself to replace a democracy, a wide-scale militarization of the police, a pogrom against Muslims in some southern states, the wholesale imprisonment of African Americans, and the popularity of near-fascist leaders like Donald Trump.


"a pogrom against Muslims in some southern states"

That's just untrue. A pogrom is an organized massacre of an ethnic group - it's not happening, in southern states or anywhere else in the US.


littletimmy, how about citing sources for these extraordinary claims ("a pogrom against Muslims in some southern states")? I can't believe it wouldn't be widely known in the current "politically correct" environment.

Even if you are now aware that "pogrom" wasn't the right word to describe something "against Muslims" that is worrying you, please do write what that is.


your reply was not to littletimmy so he may not answer you. However it is possible he was talking about things like this:

http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/2015/11/armed-protesters-...

Whilst not a pogrom it certainly does lay the ground for some future issues. All you have to is consider the reaction if Muslim Americans decided to use their 2nd ammendment rights to protest christian or jewish churches, whilst covering their forces and armed with semi automatic weapons.


Was it a protest "against Muslims" as persons of the religion as whole, or just against the goals or actions of just some militant or extremist Muslims?

The messages of the protest were "solution to islamic terrorism -> ted cruz" (obviously a call to the solution of the assumed problem through voting, that is, politically, they refer to: https://www.tedcruz.org/ ) and "stop the islamization of america" according to the picture from the same site:

http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/files/2015/11/pan.jpg

Isn't even filing such event as something "against Muslims" (implying "in general") a big misinterpretation? Who benefits from such misinterpretations?

And did the protesters break any law?


How is a protest against "islam the religion as a whole" where people protest by wielding guns is acceptable?

The main theme is pretty clear here: "Against the islamization of America" And they're standing outside a mosque holding rifles.

The precise reason is written in the article: "he was convinced that Irving’s mosque had established the country’s first Islamic court earlier in the year—a false rumor that started online but grew in popularity after Mayor Beth Van Duyne made it the focus of speeches to Tea Party groups.

“They shut the illegal court down,” Wright said, incorrectly. “And then, they threatened to kill the mayor.”"

A bunch of gun-wielding lunatics that think mosques are setting up secret courts.


> How is a protest against "islam the religion as a whole" where people protest by wielding guns is acceptable?

My argument was, it wasn't "against Muslims" as a whole but just against "islamization" by supporting the candidate of protesters, that makes a big difference. For example, Ataturk was effectively against islamization of Turkey, as its top political leader, and made it much more modern and more secular state, ending sharia courts in 1924. Which was a worthy goal for anybody who wasn't an islamist.


I never said they broke any law, I asked you to consider a parallel situation and consider the outcome of that theoretical situation.

If it wasnt a protest against muslims why were they protesting outside a mosque? If they wanted to protest extremism is being an extermist yourself the best way to do that? Surely they should be protesting against someone who is espousing extremist beliefs and not just the nearest collection of muslims who have not been accused of any extremism.

Is america really becoming islamized? is there any evidence of this? Or does their definition of islamisaztion mean any muslims living in America at all?

Could the same protests be carried out without face masks and weapons? These seem to be included just to cause fear.


> Surely they should be protesting against someone who is espousing extremist beliefs and not just the nearest collection of muslims who have not been accused of any extremism.

But, per article, they actually believed they had an information about the specific extremism happening exactly in this mosque, so it's not "just the nearest collection of muslims" it appears they did exactly what you suggest to do:

"he was convinced that Irving’s mosque had established the country’s first Islamic court earlier in the year—a false rumor that started online but grew in popularity after Mayor Beth Van Duyne made it the focus of speeches to Tea Party groups."


>it appears they did exactly what you suggest to do

well that is entirely subjective, given that the following line states that it was a false rumour that started online it could have been started by anyone, including these armed militants, as reason to wander round intimidating people.

Also a moderate amount of research online indicates that not only was it an unsubstantiated rumour but it was debunked in July of this year. So had these individuals done any actual research they would not have protested this venue for the reasons they said they were protesting.

http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2015/jul/16/chain...

Thats just the first link I clicked which gives the date of July. 3 or 4 links down is the snopes article.

http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/shariatexas.asp

So defending them by saying they had legitimate reason to protest is untrue and anybody wanting to check this could have done so in a few minutes on the internet. They either checked and protested anyway because it was never really about protesting (but about intimidation) or they did check, found their claim was false and protested anyway because protesting was always just a cover for intimidation.


"They either checked" (...) "or they did check"

That's an interesting approach to the covering of the real possibilities. No further comment.


Apologies if you did not understand what I was trying to say. Evidently I mistyped but I think it was clear what I was trying to say, but on the basis that you were not able to understand due to my error please let me clarify.

They either didnt check the veracity of their information and protested something they didnt fully understand. Which to me means they didnt really mind what reason they were using to protest there i.e. they didnt believe in the reason given, but that didnt mater as it was just an excuse to use as to why they were doing what they were doing.

OR

They did check and find it to be false but protested anyway because the reason for the protest was never really anything other than an excuse to wander round intimidating people.

In both cases my point was that the reason given was just an excuse, whether it was true or not was not important to the protestors.


He created the Russel Tribunal, so I guess he will not be very happy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Tribunal


Very interesting, I'd never heard of this. Thanks.


Oh man, I hadn't heard about the DOD thing. Here's a link for anyone too lazy to look it up themselves

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/defense-military-tribute...


$6.8 million in the context of the US defence budget doesn't seem that big a deal to me - that's a rounding error in terms of the Pentagon recruitment budget (which appears to be in the range of low tens of billions).

NB I'm not trying to be pro-military - just noting that armed forces everywhere need to recruit and they will have to spend money to get their message out there and a football game seems as good a place as any. I've seen military sponsorship of school level rugby games here in the UK.


its not so much the amount of money spent but the propaganda nature of the activity. As said by senators involved in bringing this to light, most people would assume it was being done to support soldiers not as part of a remunerative arrangement, as the National Guard also said they work well as a recruitment tool. In any other format the fact that something is a paid advert (when it is designed to look like normal programming/article/editorial) usually has to be clearly stated. This is nothing of the sort.


Surely it's propaganda regardless of whether the state is paying for it or not?


>it is really just the use of violence to achieve certain political ends.

That's not terrorism, that's just war. All wars use violence to achieve political ends. Terrorism is the use of the fear of unpredictable attacks against a civilian population to prompt a high-impact political response, like war or revolution. Not all violence is terrorism.


Stay-behind paramilitary organizations like Gladio were associated with old-fashioned terrorist attacks in Italy.


> How dated that sounds.

It's also somewhat idealistic. After all, it was only in 1920 (13 years before the essay was written) that in the US women got the right to vote. And even today in some states felons are not allowed to vote.

Edit: And of course people under 18 also don't have the right to vote.


And women voting in Switzerland: only since 1971:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women's_suffrage_in_Switzerlan...


1971 on the national level. On the cantonal level, it was between 1959 and 1972 that women voting was introduced in most cantons. Only the two Appenzells hold out until 1989 and 1990.

But you have to remember that in Switzerland, the people had to vote in this. Only 12 years earlier in 1959, 2/3 of the voters voted against it. In 1971, 2/3 of the voters voted for it. A big turnaround in a short time.

Do you really think that most countries would have given women voting power when they did it if they'd asked the voting people (that is men at the time)?


It's not an argument against Switzerland, just an argument that women had officially less rights even in rich Western societies until very recently and that it wasn't easy to achieve the current state.


I didn't take it as an argument against Switzerland. It's just that there are always good or bad reasons behind such one liners.

When we grow up, we think the world as it is now has always been that way. Only with time we learn that lots of what we take for granted has actually been around for a very short time.

In Portugal, women got granted the same rights to vote as men only in 1976 because the country was a dictatorship until then. Hard to imagine that there were dictatorships in Europe only 40 years ago. In Spain, the other dictatorship at the time, women got the right to vote in 1931 but because of the dictatorship soon established afterwards, they couldn't vote for 40 years (of course, neither could men).


1991 actually: In 1991 following a decision by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last Swiss canton to grant women the vote on local issues


Sad, but on another side, particularly funny thinking about the possible meanings of the name "Innerrhoden."


For those who don't speak German: "Innerrhoden" sounds like "innerer Hoden", or "inner testicle" in English.


Innerhoden is a none-word. It doesn't exist. There is an Inerrhoden (double r) in Switzerlandl,,,,,


Donald Trump is near-fascist? I thought he is fascist through and through.


He's not coherent enough to be any one thing in political terms.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: