Author Archives: Pascals Bookie

Conservatives speak a different language

… and often I don’t understand it.

Pretty much every time I see the term ‘Social Engineering’ used I think the writer has got it backwards.

Mark Krikorian writes in a short post at NRO’s corner blog:

As John O’Sullivan wrote years ago in NR, if different groups of Americans had children at different rates, resulting in changes in the ethnic (or religious or whatever) composition of the nation, that’s nobody’s business one way or the other. But mass immigration, especially in the context of the low fertility levels that are inherent to modernity, represents social engineering in its purest form, the elite’s decision to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Instead, how about we leave social engineering to the ChiComs and just let today’s American moms and dads decide what tomorrow’s America will be like.

(emphasis mine).

Leaving aside the merits of the US immigration debate and other aspects of Krikorian’s post*, I find the use of ‘social engineering’ here to be fascinating. I understand his point well enough, (and I’d rather not dwell on it), but what grabs me is that social engineering here can only mean the actions of his opponents, it could never be applied to his own policy. It’s a code of some sort, it no longer means just what the words say.

Obviously much of what governments do is social engineering of one sort or another. The criminal justice system is in place largely to deter and punish behaviours. Taxes are used to encourage some activities over others and so on. These sorts of things are never termed social engineering though. SE is almost always a bad thing. This much I can understand and be quite comfortable with. Whatever ‘social engineering’ is, it’s something that goes against freedom, and we are all liberals now pretty much, with the arguments being about how best to maximise (and define) liberty.

What I don’t understand is that whenever the term is actually used nowadays, it seems to be aimed at policies that remove some aspect of State control over the shape of society. In the example above, Krikorian seems to be saying that open borders would be an extreme example of social engineering. To me that is precisely wrong. A strict immigration policy, aimed at keeping a nations demographics in some sort of racial or cultural stasis would be a far better fit for the label ‘social engineering’. Given what the words mean.

If the US government was forcibly dragging non-white immigrants to the US in order to deliberately alter the demograhic mix, or refusing white applicants entry, then he’d have a point. That would meet the natural definition for SE. But they aren’t doing anything like that.

The same applies to arguments around gay marriage and state recognition of de-facto relationships. Surely when the state is recognising the relationships that people have, and not discriminating between them, then that is the opposite of what the words ‘social engineering’ actually mean.

And on the contrary, when the state did discriminate on those grounds and deliberately favoured some relationships over others, (and even made some relationships illegal), in order to foster a particular style of domestic arrangement that was felt to be most beneficial for society, then that is, quite precisely, ‘social engineering’.

So is all this just projection on the part of conservatives, or are they adding (or subtracting) some meaning to the term that I’m not seeing?

* I’ll just say that his links are interesting, as are the uses he puts them to.

When you put a price on it, it’s for sale.

Claire Browning at Pundit has got a must read piece on the mining-our-national-heritage business.

Firstly, she catches Gerry Brownlee spinning a wee bit when he supports the case for digging by citing a world bank report listing NZ as second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of natural wealth per capita. It turns out that…

…our ranking was overwhelmingly attributable to pasture and crop land (68%) and, ironically, protected areas (19%). The subsoil assets category comprised a tiny proportion (3%).

Hmmm.

Secondly, she points out that National do not appear to be kidding.

Senior ministers don’t come out punching hard, in a fight they’ve voluntarily bought, which they must know is going to be a knock-down drag-out fight, without a degree of commitment to something or other. Tim Groser invoked this image, allegedly dear to the public heart, of a Conservation minister who “goes around with knobbly knees and shorts and releases kiwi into the wild. I am a champion releaser of kiwi into the wild … but I’m sorry, we’ve got to grow up”. Gerry Brownlee liberally salted his soundbites with words like “hysteria” and “paranoia”, and blustered on Morning Report about how what we’d just heard was an “incredibly biased piece of reporting but not anything more or less than I expect from Radio New Zealand”.

She’s right. It’s no coincidence that this was first signaled in a speech to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. When you then go on to announce a ‘stock-take’, that’s also not an accident. (I’m actually kind of amazed that the Government is using that ‘stock take’ language as something to supposedly calm our nerves and allay our fears.)

I’m a bit disappointed by the pushback I’ve seen so far. It appears to have accepted the framing set up by Brownlee and is responding almost solely with arguments around the 100% Pure branding and the negative effects on the tourism dollar that might be felt through the mining of our National Parks, wetlands, marine reserves and who knows what all else.

The problem with this is that it puts a dollar value on those assets. Put a price on them and they are for sale. These assets are not for sale. That is the point of them. They were not land banked to be used in case of increased demand for lignite. Not all of these lands are pretty little tourist spots either. By making it ‘tourism vs mining’ we allow National to be able to carve off wetlands and other habitats because ‘tourists never go there’. These lands are protected because of their intrinsic value, any money we may earn off them through tourism is nice of course, but that is merely an allowable activity, not their purpose.

Labour’s opposition has got some potential problems. Given their recent history National will have some room for maneuver. I think the mocking ‘absurd’ tone could work. It focusses on the fact that these are schedule four lands, and moves outside of Brownlee’s framing of monetary value only. It is also not anti-mining per se, which is important, (for Labour), given Labour’s historic ties.

On that note, here’s Levon Helm singing a Steve Earle song about mountains, and mining

“One percent”

Why the leak?

That’s one of the questions raised by Scott Cambell’s barnburner of a story.

“Clearly we are at a crossroads. The ACT Party has threatened to end its relationship with National if we allow Maori seats on the super city. Despite multiple arguments in support, its mind cannot be changed.”

That’s from an email “sent to National’s 58 MPs by one of its own senior members”, which TV3 has a copy of, but have not put on the interwebs as far as I can tell. (natch)

Hide denies threatening to “end the relationship”, saying “What we have done is state our position very clearly – we would be opposed to any reservation of seats for a particular group.”

Curiouser and curiouser.

Scott Campbell, who is obviously in a far better position to know than I, says that in an ‘all-but-done’ deal there will be no mana whenua seats.

But an all but done deal isn’t done yet, and someone wrote this email and someone, (possibly the same someone), leaked it. We can assume they did so for a reason.

If Hide didn’t make the threat, then why would a senior National Party member tell caucus that he did? If he did make that threat, why is he backing down from it?

Whatever the answers to these delicious questions, this is clearly a tough test for John Key’s big tent coalition strategy, and for two of his coalition partners.

Personally I hope Hide’s bluff gets called. Or maybe that’s already happened.

Update:
The ‘senior’ National Party member is … Tau Henare. Hide confirms that if the seats are in, he’s out as Minister of Local Government:

He told the Herald last night that he had made it clear to Mr Key that he could not remain as minister if the legislation included Maori seats on the council.

“But it wasn’t by way of a threat,” he said.

Mr Hide said he told Mr Key: “Just to be absolutely clear, you have got our support for supply and confidence but as a minister, as the Act leader, I couldn’t be responsible for introducing to the House a bill that would have reserve seats in it.”

…a principled position.

Still leaves Key in the position of having to deal with at least the appearance of an ultimatum.

Needing it to be true?

C S Lewis – Mere Christianity “The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

The political blogosphere is a wondrous beastie for those of us who are interested in rhetoric, argument and the eternal question “Who are these people and why are they saying these things?”

As mentioned elsewhere DPF’s satire on the Green’s climate change policy isn’t all that funny

When Swift made his modest proposal about Irish peasant farmers finding a cure for their problems by eating their children, the target of the satire wasn’t the Irish peasant farmers, but rather the people that were ignoring their plight. That’s pretty much why it was satire and not just an anti-Irish version of the blood libel.

But what interests me is why someone might find DPF’s satire satirical. What’s the point of it?

On one level it could just be what satirist and US Senator Al Franken termed ‘kidding on the square’. This is where you say something outrageous, not minding at all if it gets taken literally, while retaining the defence of ‘just joking’ if challenged. Anne Coulter’s career of accusing liberals of being traitors is built entirely on this tactic.

On this reading DPF’s post is just flat out nasty propaganda, accusing the Greens of having genocidal instincts. Some commenters to the post certainly read it this way, with variants on the “It’s funny/scary because it’s true” routine.

Another reading of the post is that it’s a response to a particular form of psychological dissonance.

As the science around AGW becomes ever harder to dismiss, people who have invested a lot in dismissing it need to find an outlet. It’s not that they were wrong, or blinded by ideology, or that their opponents were smarter than them, or just correct about them in some of the things they said, rather it must be that their opponents are even worse.

Here’s the slacktivist explaining the idea as it relates to certain right wingers in the US at the moment who are convinced, or perhaps just ‘joking’, that ‘health care reform = killing grandma’.

This downward plunge is bound to accelerate. The goal is a feeling of moral superiority, achieved at first by telling oneself little lies about the behavior and motivations of others. But those little lies lead to feelings of guilt. That guilt is legitimate, earned and wholly deserved, but this isn’t about whether one’s feelings are just or appropriate, it’s about whether one’s feelings feel good. So the guilt provokes a feeling of moral inferiority that can, for those addicted, only be countered by telling slightly larger lies about the even-more-inferior morality of others. Those bigger lies carry with them a larger sense of guilt and so the cycle repeats itself again and again with the lies getting larger and larger. And with every downward spiral, the ever-larger lies become ever more implausible, so that it becomes harder and harder to pretend that one actually believes the lies one is telling oneself and the guilt becomes that much more intense and undeniable and can only be staved off, temporarily, through ever more outrageous lies until finally one finds oneself desperately asserting that President Obama’s desire to provide health care for the uninsured is actually a plot to murder your grandmother in cold blood and reinstate the Third Reich here in America.

Consider what the example above means for those embracing it. Even a cursory examination of this claim would reveal it to be false, but they have chosen not to examine it, chosen to swallow it unexamined and to pass it on to others because they need it to be true. They need it to be true because this is what it would take for them to recapture at least the illusion of moral superiority. Let that sink in for a moment.

To be confident of the claim that they are better than some other group, they have chosen to compare themselves to a eugenic Nazi regime that euthanizes senior citizens. That such a regime is wholly a figment of their warped imaginations is less revealing than the fact that they have been forced to imagine such a horrifying scenario in order to find something with which they can believe they compare favorably.

Ouch.

Strange things are afoot at the circle K

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission…”
Harry Schoell, CEO, Cyclone Power Technologies Inc.

– The best thing about cheesy 80’s SF on the telly, (and StarWars), was the robots. I was all kinds of disappointed when I saw my first real robot, via the news, and all it did was swing a big ‘arm’ around and did something to help build a car in a Japanese factory.

I suspect now, that the thing I found cool about those SF robots was that they were little metal persons. They clearly had more than just processing power and autonomic reactions. They were self aware, curious, emotional and aware of others. Nothing like robots at all then, appalling SF, and even worse telly. But still, they were pretty cool.

In the early nineties when I was looking at a few theories of mind, Artificial Intelligence was obviously a useful thing to think about. What would it mean to say that a computer, or an integrated system of machines, could think? That would obviously be a mind, wouldn’t it?

Back then I thought the most important issues, if such machines were invented, would be; “What rights, if any, do we give them” and ” Help, they are going to kill us”. Those are still important issues.

– There’s been a bit of talk about what they are calling ‘The Singularity’, defined as the point at which we invent a machine ‘smarter’ than us. The existence of such a machine, would cause a positive feedback loop with the machine(s) being able to further improve both their own descendants, and us, upwards along an increasing spiral of alleged awesome. I’m not at all sure what to think about that.

Most of the talk I’d heard about this was from people mocking the boosters of the idea, many of whom to be fair, do seem a bit strange.

This though, is a little bit different from that. More prosaic, less utopian, more real.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.
The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?

A bunch of scientists have had a meeting discussing AI issues, they’ll be releasing the report “this year”. Should be interesting. The NYT report itself is kind of strange. It seems to be offering a warning, but the meeting also seemed to be about letting people know that there is nothing to be alarmed about. (So look over there and don’t worry your good selfs. It’s all under control.)

Aside from the criminals and terrorists, I’m more than a bit concerned about what governments and corporations will find do-able, working together even.

I’m not stocking up on tin foil just yet, but some of this stuff needs to start getting regulated I think. Or at least talked about. That which isn’t already classified of course.