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Some modern or maybe postmodern pieties


'Yo Mama Pieta' (1996) by Renée Cox


...one knows a piety from a principle because even those who oppose a piety
have to pretend to honour its core point.
*


Adam Gopnik



...one way you know that something is an institution is that you don’t have to give reasons for it. Getting a college degree, like getting married, is what people do.

John Emerson




What does everyone have to like? (I'll qualify that: in the West, if you're educated, what do you have to like?) I suppose this is close to asking what the spirit of the age is. For example and by definition, most people don't like the things hipsters like. What things do even hipsters fail to react against?

For instance, two people saying they don't like things you're supposed to: Nassim Taleb refuses to read the news, for aesthetic and epistemic reasons; Pierre Bayard says that one can and should talk about books one hasn't read. Good intellectuals aren't supposed to talk like this.

The things listed below aren't all bad, just mysteriously universal or rarely questioned. I also wanted things independent of the old political division and new cultural ones. So I haven't included Gopnik's example (gay marriage) despite it having all the hallmarks of a piety – e.g. finding support even among formative enemies, having some confusing opponents** we could report on, gawkily.


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  1. Following the news.

    The element of truth: It's important to try to understand stuff. People act badly in the absence of oversight; the powerful act even worse.

    The errors enforced: 'News is a good way of understanding the world'; 'a daily newspaper is a representative sample of all events'; 'news is a guide to what's really (causally) important in the world'; 'newsreading is a necessary condition of showing concern for the world'.

    How widespread? Trying to find evidence for any of the pieties is annoying: after all, these just are things that slip past critical notice. 60% of UK adults are on the stuff daily. The last Eurobarometer found 87% of people watching TV every day, and 89% of them watching the TV news, so let's fudge this as 80%. (They may well be inflating their attentiveness, but this lip service serves my point and so is not actually statistical bias at all.)

    What's the objection? The state of the media as it is (and has always been): sensationalist, rushed, oversimplified, unscientific unaccountable. Most people know that you shouldn't believe the likes of the National Inquirer. But one study found that 80% of 'quality' British journalism has been a false journalism, copied and pasted from PR sources. Even stories that aren't compromised by their propaganda origins are subject to irrational pressures, oversimplification to false balance to statistical illiteracy. Unanalysed reporting is plausibly worse than no information.

    La resistance:
    • Nick Davies, the whistleblower in the UK media.
    • Nassim Taleb.
    • Aaron Swartz.
    • Michael Crichton.
    • Charlie Stross
    • Ozy Frantz.
    • Aaron Gertler.
    • Robin Hanson gives a skewering view, as always: "... if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news."
    • The daily papers talk of everything except the everyday. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask."
      - Georges Perec

    We might reserve the word 'journalism' for the real, objective kind of loud third-party investigation. We definitely need journalism in this sense, and we probably need a mass media to push it, if only to scare powerful groups into behaving well. That would make my abstention free-riding, and that is a bad thing to do. But real, long-form, book-grade investigative journalism is rare, and being edged out by clickbait, even without mass disconnection.

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  2. International travel...

    Even quite level-headed people have a hyper-inflated view of the intellectual and spiritual benefits of travelling. It is hard to find anyone any more than grumpy about a particular trip, or snobby about the way others travel. The hype of going places is not at all new. But the modern practice is quite different: mass, international, touristic; holidays as the organising fact of your year. The safest conversational topic outside of the weather.

    The element of truth: 'Cause there's a million ways to be, you know that there are, doo doo doo doo-doo. I suppose compulsive xenophobes are the only really principled anti-travellers.

    The errors enforced: The possibility of fleeing yourself. Flat experience taken as sufficient for understanding. When coupled to poverty tourism, the superior virtue of the oppressed.

    How widespread? 78% of rich-world people plan to this year (p.20 here). 91% of Britons polled by Ipsos.

    La resistance:
    • This travel writer is annoyed at people exaggerating the significance of their own travel, which is all I suppose I am annoyed at.
    • Martha Gellhorn is a funny example, since she spent her whole life travelling. But with open eyes: "One needs Equanil here too, not just in our white urban civilisation; tranquilisers against impatience, against the hysteria induced by heat, and the disgust at dirt...
    • Not really this.

    • I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence... But he who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself... He carries ruins to ruins. Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from...

      Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

    • – R.W. Emerson


  3. ...while professing to be environmentalist

    Now see here.

    La resistance:
    • Couldn't find anyone lucid on the topic. 'Responsible' travel and 'green' travel bring up little of substance. The green professionals seem to be the worst, possibly because of their inflated idea of their advocacy's impact.



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  5. The internet

    Because it contains a good and growing representation of the world entire, this is a hard thing to be properly against. (You might manage it by being depressed to fuck, or anti-technology in general. But that degree of Luddism probably entails being against most social progress.) So I have to rename this 'technological utopianism' if it is to have any real bite. (Though note this research programme.)

    The element of truth: Knowledge, obvs. And the self-creation it enables is probably good for all kinds of people.

    The error enforced: That the uses of abstractions on network protocols are inevitably progressive. That politics has changed fundamentally.

    La resistance:
    • The primitivists, who are usually wrong.
    • Evgeny Morozov, who is against technological hype
    • Similarly Vint Cerf.
    • Nicholas Carr, who is probably not right.



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  7. 'Nature'

    The cult of travel usually goes along with a slack-jawed endorsement of the natural world.

    The element of truth: The beauty, if you don't look too closely. There is a level of ugliness which only human structures and actions demonstrate.

    The error enforced: Modernity as a bad deal. That 'natural' means good, when in fact a huge amount of the good things in the world are in direct opposition to natural teleoi. That GM (etc.) is essentially hazardous or wrong.

    La resistance:



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  9. Hegemonic higher education.

    The element of truth: Ideas are important. Four years of relative freedom at the beginning of adulthood is fantastic. There's a lot more to life than economics. It will be hard to replicate the deep internationalism and the universal parental and governmental approval in alternative spaces. Research and cultural transmission are important and gain greatly from local networking.

    The error enforced: That going to university has inherent value (rather than the skill, knowledge, perspective which unreliably attend students' attendance). That this inherent value justifies giant personal debt and diversion of public spending (from, e.g. the economic emancipation of all). That it's university that provides an intellectual or spiritual boost, rather than exposure to ideas, rigour, and peer discussion - each of which are tending towards being free, outwith the academy. That institutional learning is best learning. That you need credentials to be credible.

    The piety is the driver of disastrous trends: the one by which more jobs arbitarily require more degrees; the one where a degree is a hollow class marker. These overvaluations are scuppering some people's lives.



    La resistance:
    • Scott Alexander
    • Bryan Caplan Caplan Caplan Caplan (...)
    • Taleb again.
    • Peter Thiel.
    • Left critics are mostly only against the brute vocational and corporate side of universities - not the core piety of inherent value. An exception is the wonderful John Emerson.
    • 'The Last Psychiatrist', a lurid and brutal writer.
    • oh do go on.
    • This scene in Good Will Hunting is the only mainstream statement of the nonspecialness of university:
      Will: See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you're gonna start doin' some thinkin' 
      on your own and you're going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one,
      don't do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education you could have got for a dollar fifty
      in late charges at the public library!



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  11. Hating high finance.

    The element of truth: Banking has always been dangerous, and difficult to reconcile with justice. (Piety can pile on top of truths as well as falsehoods.)

    La resistance:
    • Almost everyone with lots of capital.
    • Economists, who are not mostly dishonest.
    • The effective altruists (but only in deed). A greater question than finance's marginal harm, is whether working in finance does more harm than xx thousand pounds of anti-famine donations per year is good. The piety would have you think so, but to me it is supremely unlikely.



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  13. Reading, the moral and spiritual necessity of.

    The sharpest tooth in the bunch, for me. The news piety is a special case of this, I suppose. And half the internet one, too. How often do you feel insecure about having not read a Portentous Classic? How often do you lie about having read them?

    The element of truth: Reading is awesome. A handful of as-yet-unfalsified studies find an increase in empathy from reading.

    The error enforced: That reading anything will do: the practice over the matter. That it offers unique benefits, when many people just don't need the reminder to have perspective or empathy or whatnot.

    La resistance: Only satirical attacks on reading seem to be possible:
    • Alain de Botton hopes that his children don't have to read, because reading is a "response to anxiety", and thus a bad sign.
    • Me dissembling.
    • Mikita Brottman likens it to masturbation and challenges the edification side, but then snaggle-pusses sideways saying that both are good 'self-explorations' anyway. (Here, here, here.)
    • Steven Johnson trying to make videogames look good.
    • Bayard's happy satire. But even his mouthpiece fails to criticise reading properly:
      The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.

      One of the conditions of happy romantic compatibility is, if not to have read the same books, to have read at least some books in common with the other person—which means, moreover, to have non-read the same books. From the beginning of the relationship, then, it is crucial to show that we can match the expectations of our beloved by making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.



(I myself am pious about the last two, failing to really even hypothetically attack them.)



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* 'Things one loses one's job over opposing' are far heavier than the lifestyle features considered herein. 'Heresy' might not be an excessive alternative term for those. Though that leaves us without our term for 'Things some others will kill you for saying '.


** Who protest the 'assimilation' of queer people, by which they seem to mean queer people having options.


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