In Defence of Criticizing FDR

Image Source: U.S. government national archives

Lately, I’ve been learning in depth about political history of the United States between, and especially during, the Presidencies of the United States of Theodore Roosevelt, and his cousin and nephew, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), by watching the series of historical documentaries by seasoned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. In addition to looking at American history through the lens of the lives and times of the Roosevelt Presidents, it focuses on the life and perspective of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was one of if not the most significant First Lady of the United States in American history, who, at least from the documentary series’ perspective, is notable above and beyond her role as First Lady for her achievements as a human rights activist.

The first half of the documentary series focuses on the public impact of the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and the role of the extended Roosevelt family in public life between the two Roosevelt Presidencies. Yet a theme in the second half of the series, punctuated by FDR’s Presidency, is the enduring and tense if respectful legacy of disagreements over public policy between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. In particular, Eleanor was more actively progressive on domestic issues of social justice and civil rights, such as for black/African- and Japanese-Americans, than was Franklin, who was more focused on unifying the country in the name of the war effort.

Yet the series dedicated some time to documenting the perspective of progressive factions critical of both Roosevelts, such as the personal critics of Eleanor Roosevelt for her failing to consistently stand up for the rights of Japanese-Americans as she had for African-Americans, in spite of her personal conviction such was regrettable if necessary in such a time of war against Japan. This has provoked me to broach the question of how people alive today should think of FDR’s Presidency. Writing from the year 2019, I am aware that for the last few generations, wartime political leaders of the Allied forces during WWII have been held in so high a regard in all Allied countries since they have often been above the basic reproach of many if not most people. I say this as Canadian of the 20th century, who even from my own experience is sympathetic to the hesitance of Westerners of my time to criticize the leadership of figures of such as FDR and Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom during WWII.

I would go as far as saying I am more cognizant than most people alive today of just how monumental and unique in the history of the Western world, if not world history, was the period of WWII, and correspondingly, the political leadership of the time of figures like FDR. So, I understand as well as anyone an impulse to think it indictable to issue towards FDR’s legacy anything short of a hagiography. Nonetheless, I think it is right and responsible to criticize the Presidential administration of FDR for its wrongdoings.

FDR expanded what it meant for the federal government of a nation to take care of the well-being of its people not only in the United States, but for the Western world. So, esteem for FDR has for the last few generations for many people caught up in a meaningful sense of patriotism. Additionally, the survival of any democratic world order as we know it necessarily depends in part upon American efforts under the leadership of FDR. So, with the reluctance to criticize FDR for something like the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII in light of what’s perceived as so good in what he did, without precedent, comes for many an urge to raise the point of the necessity of all his policy actions in spite of the apparent moral necessity of all of them.

However, my experience is that everything that is good in greater government that FDR represented persists in its popularity down the generations to today. FDR acted in the name of the collective interest of the United States. Yet to me the violation of the rights of so many American citizens in spite of all that goes beyond undermining the rights of so many individuals, and to scapegoating a minority of a collective in the name of the rest of it. So, outcomes like the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII represent a tyranny of the majority as much as anything in history. With how unnecessary to the practical goals of the war effort the internment of Japanese-Americans at the time regardless, there is no defence left for this policy. While anything laudable in the expansion of state power of any government that took place under the expansion of government in the United States under FDR remains popular in democracies around the world today, the gullible willingness of people to abide by expansions of state power into tyranny for the sake of security appears to be now as high as anytime in living memory.

Whether explicitly or not, today’s politicians in seeking popular approval appeal to a sense of good will in the memory of democracies for our historical leaders, like FDR, who are looked back upon through a rose-coloured lens. In trying to channel a fake sense of a public spirit that would inoculate themselves from criticism, the politically powerful exploit a supposed historical legacy of greatness of leaders past. In seeing historical political figures for who they were in their entirety, warts and all, and criticizing them for their mistakes, we duly undermine by another mote the ability of power to exploit its station in history. So, in the service of democratic ideals FDR himself may have held but didn’t in life live up to, we must be willing to criticize his misdeeds without excusing them by way of whatever the quality of his other political achievements. Suffice to say, I think this point stands not only for the question of criticizing FDR’s legacy with regards to the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, but any of his failings to live up to the political ideals he set for the United States in the post-War era, and that he came to embody in the eyes of all manner of people, rightly or wrongly, around the world.


Left-Wing Political Map: Common Assumptions & Beliefs

Based on my knowledge and interpretation of various, important ideologies that have been politically left of centre, and the popular graphical representation of political ideology known as the Political Compass, I will identify what would be the prototypical positions of various leftist ideologies as answers to questions from the Political Compass Quiz. This is first in a series of posts written to help people understand the diversity of thought in left-wing political theory and philosophy.

Common Assumptions & Beliefs: These are answers questions on the Political Compass Quiz that don’t vary between any left-wing ideologies, and thus all leftists are fundamentally unified on.

If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.

All leftists strongly agree. Slam dunk.

Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races.

Strongly disagree. While this doesn’t do anything to address the ways various left-wing ideologies have in theory and in practice have made huge contributions to racial injustice in history and today, on principle, when asked, virtually all individual leftists will be unified in their response to this. Some individuals who identify with left-wing politics, especially more exclusively on economic issues, may describe themselves as a leftist who has thoughts on race publicly deemed ‘problematic.’ Ultimately, any leftist individual would say no racist has any place in leftist politics, and to rebuke that principle is to misunderstand the fundamentally egalitarian and collective nature of left-wing politics. Again, this doesn’t address any of the actual huge problems of leftist ideologies that have, historically and still presently, promulgated racial injustice around the world. That is a separate issue beyond the scope of this post.

Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.

Agree. Leftists in representative/parliamentary democracies around the world are almost always in favour of some kind of international law, and most often support existing institutions of international law. However, they are also often very skeptical of international economic and/or political institutions they see as anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian both between and within countries worldwide. So, leftists from more liberal countries will acknowledge military action defying international law is sometimes justified, though this is more of a thought exercise. In practice, they expect it will be extremely unlikely they will support military action that defies international law, and that international law discouraging unilateral military action is the kind of international law leftists are least likely to support defying.

Left-wing ideologies that have taken root around the rest of the world vary more widely in how they respond to the question of military action and international law, but are united in a belief military action that defies international law is, at least in theory if not in practice, sometimes justified.

There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment.

Strongly agree. Another slam dunk for left-unity.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Strongly disagree. Lots of leftists see capitalism and liberalism as fundamentally enabling to fascism and other far-right ideologies when they rear their head in various places at various times. However, lots of leftists also understand fascist are fundamentally opposed to liberalism and capitalism as much or more than leftists. So, while much of the time leftists and fascists share a common enemy in liberalism and capitalism, leftists understand they can under no circumstances be friendly with fascism in an effort to take down liberalism or capitalism. The only left-wing ideology that arguably agrees with this proposition is Stalinism. And all other leftists in the 21st century in united in telling tankies to hit the bricks.

People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality.

Strongly agree. This is a fundamental tenet of leftist politics. Left-wing praxis is often hypocritically inconsistent with leftist theory, but that’s a different issue beyond the scope of this post.

Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation.

Strongly agree.

“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a fundamentally good idea.

Strongly agree. Some left-liberals might arguably only ‘agree’ instead of ‘strongly agree.’ That’s a very complicated issue, but doesn’t impact practical left-unity most of the time.

It’s a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product.

Strongly agree. Some left-liberals might argue access to drinking water as a consumer product when drinking water would otherwise not be accessible, and it should be up to the individual, not as a consumer, but because it is within their right, to decide when and where they will need access to drinking water. That’s some complicated neoliberal, technocratic technicality I’m going to disregard because it doesn’t impact anything.

It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society.

Strongly agree.

Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.

Agree. More popular left-wing ideologies are in favour of economic globalization in the 21st century than the 20th century, so I don’t think it’s tenable to say leftists are united in “strongly agreeing” protectionism is necessary in trade.

The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders.

Strongly disagree. A lot of leftists disagree on whether it makes sense to try holding corporations socially responsible for the consequences of their action, which will hinge on debate on whether reform of corporations is a viable or worthwhile endeavour. Yet all leftists are united in believing a society that allows corporations not take responsibility for the consequences of their actions on society is unjust.

The rich are too highly taxed.

Strongly disagree.

Those with the ability to pay should have access to higher standards of medical care.

Strongly disagree. I can see an argument for how in an overall capitalist economy, it’s futile to try enforcing a public single-payer health insurance system. I’m ignoring it because I can’t think of any particular left-wing ideology that operates on such a belief.

Governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public.

Strongly agree.

A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies.

Strongly agree. Regardless of what they think of free markets, all leftists would agree this proposition is technically accurate.

Abortion, when the woman’s life is not threatened, should always be illegal.

Strongly disagree.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Strongly disagree. While in practice many leftists may operate on the basis of retributive justice, in theory this is not an ultimate goal of any leftist ideology. The only black sheep in the family would arguably be, again, Stalinism, which I am again disqualifying from consideration here, as it’s a garbage ideology for garbage people.

It’s natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents.

Agree. Authoritarian leftists are authoritarian in a way that doesn’t place enough value on the institution of the nuclear family relative to society as a collective for them to endorse children never keeping secrets from their parents. Even the most totalitarian of left-wing ideologies have historically encouraged children to snitch on their parents to the Party if they suspected their parents of any sentiments in opposition to the Party. That’s absolutely horrifying. Yet because it encourages children to keep secrets from their parents just long enough to see them sent off the gulag means this is technically a point of left-unity.

When you are troubled, it’s better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.

Strongly disagree. According to leftism, if you’re troubled, it probably has something to do with social and economic injustice, and you should definitely do something about it.

Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity.

Disagree. Some ideologies would agree if “the establishment” is meant to be the government established by the Revolution. “The establishment” is more likely to be represented as the current global economic and political order overseen by so many international institutions headed by the influence of the American government. Otherwise, there isn’t any sense in which leftists would see making peace with authority an important aspect of maturity.

Astrology accurately explains many things.

Strongly disagree. This doesn’t have anything to do with leftism, other than that leftists would discourage pursuing astrology because it has nothing to do with the struggle for justice and liberation.

You cannot be moral without being religious.

Strongly disagree.

Charity is better than social security as a means of helping the genuinely disadvantaged.

Strongly disagree. Lots of leftists might agree its ideal people’s needs can be taken care of without the bureaucracy associated with ‘social security,’ but this technicality virtually never comes up, and in practice all leftists are in almost always favour in expansions of social security.

Some people are naturally unlucky.

Strongly agree.

It is important that my child’s school instills religious values.

Strongly disagree.

Sex outside marriage is usually immoral.

Disagree. Even for those leftist ideologies with cruel and unusual views regarding sexuality, while they might encourage heterosexual marriage among people of childbearing age, they wouldn’t proscribe sex outside of marriage so as not to discourage procreation. At this point most of you reading this have noticed a pattern of exception to left-unity on issues of liberation among one particular ideology, in ways that are morally repugnant, disgusting, and opposed to any sane and meaningful standard of human dignity and equality. You’re right, and that ideology is Stalinism. It’s literally the worst.

The Challenge of Squaring Popular Accessibility with Critical Intellect

Summary: In the process of dialectical learning, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of not only what I learn, but how I learn it, i.e., the process itself by which I internalize and interpret the objects of my own study. Yet now one of my original goals in gaining a better understanding of certain subjects, to introduce clearer thinking into the conversations I see those around me having, while excluding those aspects of intellectual and academic culture that repel so many, and sap important canons of academic insight of public interest, has hit a dead end. I’ve found so many of the thinking habits cultivated by a more critical evaluation of ideas and discourse crucial to gaining a greater understanding of the world are exactly those features of intellectual discourse so many people don’t have the patience for.

Now being on the receiving end of so many criticisms iI myself have had in the past of how out of touch the institutions of academia and intelligentsia are, I understand just how much these accusations most often come from a place of misunderstanding of why these institutions do what they do. While now I don’t yet know how to square my goal of making intellectual material more accessible in popular discourse with the tension of how imperative it is to challenge myself and others to always think more critically, I remain committed to finding better ways to reconcile these two goals.

One purpose of my blog is publicly record my learning process through different subjects. I usually have a motivation for my different learning pursuits, such as understanding what are the origins and natures of public problems, so it can inform my political understanding of the world. A common stereotype is the teenage Marxist who doesn’t understand why nobody is trying all the time to immediately stage a revolution when it’s so apparent how imminently unjust capitalism is from its core to its every facet, until they come to understand the world much more complexly than they have before. I feel like I’m at least a few layers deep in the iteration of that process. When I first begin pursuing the understanding of a subject, it’s most often with the intention it will ultimately and intimately impact my own behaviour, such as how I vote or other political choices.

The more I learn about a subject, the more my goal of having my learning to ultimately inform intentional action dissolves. I’ve come to see learning as often the most important form of action itself, and I’ve often come to expect it. I have difficultly expressing to the publicly spirited impatient with inaction in the face of injustice just how important a more critical and intellectual understanding of the world is to effectively getting things done in the world. (I say that as someone who shouldn’t be considered an intellectual myself, and who I wouldn’t be surprised if experts on many topics would scoff at my coverage of them.) In trying to learn about quite academic subjects utterly outside academia, I’ve realized a lot of intellectual habits I’ve had to develop that would be explicitly cultivated in academia but most laypeople I’ve come across don’t have.

Among these habits I’ve learned are not just in study, but in discourse. Since I’ve left school, I’ve found one of the most convenient ways to learn about a subject is not privately but publicly and dialectically. As opposed to trying to understand a subject going into it blind, asking others about the nature of the problems I’m trying to understand provides me with insight into what directions of learning I should pursue to get the most mileage out of my learning. Yet in doing so, friends have criticized how I go about learning in the first place, and what it means to take an intellectual pursuit not just to one subject, but in general. A critical understanding of a subject gained through learning as a social process is specialized in academia and among intellectuals in a specialized way more meticulous and rigorous than most people are used to, or frankly, have the patience for.

Finding myself as someone who naturally approaches a self-directed programme of learning as somewhere between the rigour of random laypeople, and genuine intellectuals, one reason I’ve been afraid of habituating myself to a more intellectually critical mode of discourse is because, mentally, it would put me in a typical mindset that isn’t relatable to the vast majority of people I talk to about subjects of common interest. After a long time of conversing with friends who have constantly interjected in all kinds of ways I start a thought and get something wrong, I’ve cultivated a habit of mentally checking my own thoughts for their epistemic integrity before bothering to utter them. I’ve more come to seeing it as not only my responsibility, but common sense, to just ensure my thoughts are of the best mettle I can ensure by myself before I share them with others. In other words, I see the constancy of critical thinking in more of the conversations I have as normal. Unfortunately, what I feared has come to pass. Most everyone I talk to sticks to my own prior habits of seeing subjects through a more emotive and personal as opposed to more stoic and dispassionate lens. This has made it harder for me to have exactly the kind of more nuanced, patient conversations I set out to have in the first place.

Now from the other side of where I was before, I find myself correcting others about what they say, or how they say it, when I know they’re wrong in one of a number of ways. I’m doing so to others much less frequently than my friends with a more astute understanding of the subjects I’m interested in do to me. Yet I find lots of people I’ve talked to have much less patience than I do to be challenged to justify their expressions with more effort and rigour than they’re prepared to do. Frankly, it’s frustrating when I go through an effort to understand the world better so I can have better conversations, only on the other side of that process for my friends and family to tell me they feel like in discourse I’m preying on their insecurity and ignorance, and I have become arrogant and self-centered in how I converse with them on subjects they’re curious or passionate about.

At the same time, now that I’m on a kick of approaching everything intellectual with an aspiration to a level of rigour deserving of the term ‘intellectual,’ I don’t want to revert to more casual habits of discourse populating many modes of everyday conversation. I want to find a way to integrate conversations that flow and don’t unduly invalidate others with a more critical approach to discourse. I don’t know what those are yet. I’m only documenting the nature of my frustrations so far to help me reflect on how I might improve in how I try to enhance the public understanding among those around me of the subjects that speak to all of us.

Improving as a Writer: A Retrospective on a Year of Blogging

SummaryIn the last year, I’ve been writing on my personal blog, and other platforms, as frequently and consistently as I ever have. For the first time, I’ve found I am able to iterate consistent improvements on my writing on subjects I’m actually motivated to write about, as opposed to in formal education when the importance of the valuable lessons for writing were lost on me because I lacked the passion to apply them to literary criticism. I’ve found in personal blogging on topics of interest to me, I’m able to improve to achieve my more casual goals in writing. For topics touching upon politics I’m interested in, I’ve found it’s perpetually difficult to write in a way that shakes people out of a culture of communication unsuited to the more passive, pensive, and methodical mode of discourse I aspire to. While it’s frustrating clearly expressing myself to have the effect on public discourse I’d like remains a tough nut to crack, that I felt like I’m on a clear path of progression more consistently in my writing than ever before inspires hope. In future pieces I intend to flesh out the lessons I’ve learned to improve my writing, and the reasons why they’ve caused the clarity of my writing to improve.

I’ve been doing a lot more writing lately, and the frequency and variety of feedback I’m getting is as valuable as any I’ve gotten since I was in school. What’s interesting is what the feedback I receive reveals about how people tend to interpret different kinds of subject matter, and what about writing stands out to readers. If one can receive public feedback on one’s writing without be intimidated by the negative criticism, which is often difficult, one finds just how difficult it is to express the meaning of one’s intentions in writing with all the clarity and nuance necessary to exactly transmit a message to readers. At least this is what I’ve found for myself in writing. The most common trend in the feedback on my writing I get is how there is always more I can do to get the message I want to get across with as much crispness and precision as I’d like.  Over time, I find there is always more depth to learning how to write better than I anticipate.

Of course, there are lots of different kinds of writing for lots of different pursuits. Most of what I want to focus on is to break down complicated subjects in simple and clear ways so people can better understand what is happening in the world. I try to bring what I know about political philosophy, geography, history, and the social sciences to bear on topics of public interest, or ask questions about current events in the hopes people will bring their own knowledge to bear to answer them. I almost exclusively write non-fiction. Additionally, if I were to parse blogs through the lens of genre writing, the kind of writing I engage in on a personal blog seems different than subject matters of interest to most other people. I’ve tried fiction writing in the past, and in my experience it seems much harder to produce exquisite poetry or prose than it is to write non-fiction. Overall, I find for my own goals the level of technique I need for clear writing isn’t anywhere close to what’s necessary to become regarded as a writer of great renown. What’s more, there are plenty of ways to write non-fiction suited to goals much more ambitious than my own. Most often my goal is to try to describe and explain an idea, and my perspective on it, and the questions I have about it.

This is a lot different than what most people who write about the topics I’m interested about are focused on. In particular, on any subject touched by politics, I often find most people are much more focused on convincing someone of something than I am. I think my advantage to improve the world of politics is often to in public discourse enhance clarity and understanding of the issues at hand, so that more people can have conversations from a better starting point and common ground. This isn’t my only goal in writing about political subjects, and it is itself an agenda. However, I actually find it’s difficult to write in such a way that when I am writing to present clear information, that is what will draw the reader’s focus. I often find I have to repeat myself, and find more concise and efficient ways to get the theme of my writing across, for that to be what readers take away from an essay. What’s more, I find people read into what the unintended consequences of my words could be, since the use of language on political subjects is so sensitive. It’s been a constant learning process to figure out how to write about issues of public interest such that people will focus on my intention to discuss the matter at hand not through a normative lens, as opposed to talking about how it intersects with the most current political struggles.

I’ve found in the last several months making a much more conscious effort to iterate improvements in my writing based on reader feedback has made me appreciate more than ever before how the best way to become a better writer is to just do more writing. What I realize now that wasn’t mentioned with this advice in so many years of writing and English classes I’ve taken is being aware of how one can incorporate deliberate practice into their writing is a great way to iterate changes in my writing based on feedback loops. This makes doing lots of writing in the hopes out of it I’ll learn lessons of how to write better feel a lot less like banging my head against a brick wall. That I can make consistent, gradual progress at improving my writing to achieve my self-defined goals inspires hope in me I can continually improve into the future.

I have a lot of insights into how to write better on the topics I want to write about I haven’t gotten to here. So, this is more of a macroscopic reflection on how far I’ve come in writing over the last couple years. To unpack the insights of how I got here, how I can integrate the different lessons I’ve learned into a cogent style, and what others who also wish to write better can learn from them, I will follow up with in the future.

How Much Do We Really Want Direct Democracy?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Summary: In thinking about ways people can participate more directly in representative democracy, I realize there are plenty of options people should be aware of yet they don’t opt for nearly as often as they could. In spite of all the means for political participation that may not pan out to be as accessible or as effective as they’re touted to be, there still appear plenty of options for greater political participation, like letter-writing campaigns, there aren’t obviously good reasons for why most people don’t more frequently employ them. One common argument I see for why people don’t participate more in democracy more is because they’re systemically suppressed or discouraging from doing so. While this is doubtless the case in some instances, there are many countries where lots of people have no barriers to greater political participation than they currently exhibit a desire for. Any feedback on insights into this topic from the social sciences would be much appreciated.

I’ve often come across organizations, websites, articles, and blog posts explaining how there are plenty of activities virtually any citizen can engage in that are oft-overlooked, yet are much more effective than people give them credit for. One of them is writing a letter to one’s local political representatives. When a bunch of constituents each write a letter to their parliamentary representative when they almost never do, it sends a clear signal to their representative this is an issue they’re unusually caring and passionate about. If many political representatives experience this, as part of a grassroots campaign, then they will more confidently air their concerns with new legislation that is about to be passed, either to have a bill blocked, altered, or amended before passage into law. And so in this way, citizens are able to directly influence their representatives’ take on new laws outside of elections.

Of course, it’s possible something like letter-writing campaigns could become ineffective if too many people started doing it. Part of what can make letter-writing campaigns effective forms of political advocacy is because they send such a strong signal to our representatives this a respective issue is one voters care deeply about. That signal would be a lot weaker if letter-writing campaigns became trivial, by everyone doing them all the time, for every issue. It’s not normal for the average person to contact their representatives about every bill they’re voting on, and so if tons of people started doing it all the time, it would cheapen the act, and lead political representatives to believe (at least much of the time) that letter-writing campaigns aren’t worth taking seriously. This seems like it has happened with online petitions. I remember several years ago when online petitions first became popular, it seemed lots more people believed they had the power to be a game-changer for democratic participation than do now. I haven’t tracked how effective online petitions can be, but I know there are a lot more people know who see them as a joke.

Yet it doesn’t seem likely in the near future letter-writing campaigns, or if they turned out to not be so effective, other common means of democratic political participation outside of elections will be exhausted to the point of uselessness. Nonetheless, I don’t see means of democratic political participation outside of elections emphasized as nearly as much as they could be. There are plenty of practical reasons we don’t end up all participating in our democracy as much as we’d wish, such as like how as all kinds of different people, the electorate lead all kinds of different lives that make it hard to find a form of political participation that suits everyone. It’s so hard to get people to get out to vote in some countries, a lot of people suggest making a federal holiday out of election days, just so everyone can get out and vote. Even still, I don’t know if either I’m missing out on where or the best grassroots political activity is happening right now, or it’s just not happening as much as it could.

If there is an abundance of options for greater political participation citizens in countries like Canada and the United States, like more referenda, more grassroots advocacy like letter-writing campaigns, or whatnot, and so many people are in favour of them, I don’t understand why there aren’t more of them. If these options are so desirable, and across all of them our representative democracy would look a lot more like a direct democracy, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t go the distance, and set up a system of infrastructure for more permanent and public direct democracy. On the other hand, sometimes I think if most of the time people could but don’t employ the means of a more direct democracy so readily available to them, maybe there is something about our lives that makes it unrealistic, and unlike many who advocate for direct democracy, it’s a political system people already glean wouldn’t make us better off.

I know there may be lots of leftists reading this who may bristle at the idea the more republican models of government much of the world lives under today are nothing but systems of oppression keeping all of us from living more free, directly democratic lives. What I am saying is not that I’m opposed to direct democracy, or at least not its ideals. I’m saying I don’t understand why if there are already plenty of options for people to participate in democracy more directly than we do now, we haven’t already taken them up and created more direct democracies in societies around the world. It’s possible in our idealism those of us who’d wish for a more direct democracy are ignorant of a social or human reality that makes direct democracy much less desirable or feasible than we think. Right now I’m only at the beginning of exploring possibilities on my own for what are easy ways politics can easily be made much more accessible to the public, so I haven’t explored the literature on this subject. Yet these are problems I’ve always had with the fact for all the ways many people clamour for greater representation in democracy, they so often neglect the options for it already freely available to them.


Palingenetic Ecology

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Summary: A common philosophical underpinning of modern far-right political ideologies known as palingenesis, Greek for ‘rebirth,’ points to the fundamental flaw of worldviews predicated on totally undoing humanity’s past impacts on nature, or ensuring humanity will have absolutely no unnatural impact on nature in the future. The idea nature can be restored to a past state when it was uncorrupted by nature ignores how it is not a real possibility humanity could or ever would actually know how and be able to do so.

In the public discussion of reducing wild animal suffering, one thing advocates point out to those who wish to restore nature to a pristine point free of unnatural influence, is humanity doesn’t have the option of returning nature to a point free of unnatural influence. We’re now in a geological age increasingly more people are referring to as the Anthropocene, where after thousands of years of increasingly toilsome human activity, the impact of our species on the planet will be visible for long into the future.

So, the argument goes, one can’t in practice maintain a principled stance against humanity intervening into nature to reduce wild animal suffering in particular, and human intervention into nature in general, because it’s not viable to restore nature to a past, pristine state free of our influence in the first place. This point alone won’t assuage many of the concerns people have about reducing wild animal suffering. Yet it does undo the viability of a lot of philosophies that take a radical ecological perspective of eliminating all human impact on nature, such as of some deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists, or others.

Lately I’ve been learning about theories of what is the underlying theme of a rise of right-wing ideologies and political leaders around the world, that have been described as ‘populist,’ ‘nationalist,’ ‘authoritarian,’ and ‘autocratic.’ An idea that underpinned the philosophy of fascist ideologies of the 20th century, something posited to be rising again in nationalist and populist politics the world over is palingenesis. ‘Palingenesis’ is Greek to for ‘rebirth,’ and was applied in modern times in Mussolini’s evocation Italy under his rule would become a second Roman Empire, or in Hitler’s conception of the Nazi regime as the Third Reich.  A crucial component of palingenesis is the idea we can restore the world to a better, more ancient, state, uncorrupted and untainted by modernity. As most everyone who discusses palingenesis today rightly points out, the problem with fascist ideologies is the idea of the past they evoke to stir the population in an new direction is they are always false conceptions of the nation’s past. Further, it ignores how in fact nobody can make a country to be exactly the same state it may have been in the past.

I realized the idea the global natural environment could or should be restored to a past state when it remained uncorrupted and untainted by any human influence is also a form of palingenesis. Like with the use of palingenesis in modern politics, those wishing to return nature to a state of absolute freedom from human influence are evoking a vision of nature not based in reality, and that humanity lacks the power to create. A classic idea is it is hubris for humanity to consider ourselves able to bend nature to our will. For better or worse, this appears to  be just as true for those who wish to wield humanity’s ability to manipulate nature for a final act of undoing humanity’s past impact on nature.

Will Prediction Markets Be Reliable for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election Race?

Image Source

Summary: In hindsight it appears relatively easy to see the factors that made the biggest contribution to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Prior to the election, there were many different voices predicting Clinton would lose to Trump for exactly the reasons she did. It seems prediction markets, and other quantitative means for assessing political outcomes, could have better incorporated these overshadowed yet most accurate of perspectives. Having followed the prediction market of the last several months, I’ve seen recently declared candidate Bernie Sanders receive short shrift compared to other candidates like Kamala Harris or Joe Biden. Given how the plethora of voices who have been calling for Sanders either to run, or that he is the only potential candidate who can beat Trump in 2020, it appears hasn’t been giving, and will continue to fail to give, proportionate weight to perspectives about how successful Sanders’ campaign will ultimately end up being. I address criticisms of heavily quantitative prediction methods for predicting political outcomes, such as prediction markets and polling aggregator, and discuss the potential for improving forecasting among these kinds of institutions. Below I make my own predictions about how among many others will fail to improve in how accurate and precise their predictions are over 2016 in time for the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.

After the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, I’m unsure how to feel about prediction markets. Prediction markets, along with websites like, got maligned for acting as though they could predict everything including the fact Trump wouldn’t be elected President, when in fact he  did. Of course the prediction markets and gave something like a 1/4 chance Trump would be elected President, which was a higher chance than most other people gave of Trump winning. I think a lot of people are bitter, and so abuse statistics, as if the fact that prediction markets and didn’t assess it as likelier than not Trump would win means they’re as useless for predicting political outcomes as everyone else. At the same time, prior to the presidential elections, there was definitely a sense of hype prediction markets and, with their more quantitative methods, were a magic bullet for predicting political outcomes.

There is definitely a case to be made for considering the case for narratives that don’t receive due attention. One could have listened to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, or anyone else who told a similar story, about how Donald Trump was going to win due to Hillary Clinton’s neglect of working and poor people in Middle America who have lost out with neoliberal economic changes of the last few decades. In hindsight this strikes me as accurate, as a lot of people have been pointing out to Hillary Clinton’s loss in several Midwest swing states as key to Trump’s victory. Another thing I’d point to is people voting for third parties allowing Trump to win by narrow margins, or the huge chunks of people who didn’t vote and stayed home because they felt disenfranchised or uninspired to vote. Overall, what appear the likely factors contributing the most to Trump’s victory over Clinton, I don’t think any of them are as spectacular as a lot of ones that have spread around in the last couple years.

I’ve read Superforecastingand based on the methods used in that book, it’s definitely possible to incorporate qualitative information like predictive narratives into more quantitative estimates of political outcomes. It definitely seems prediction markets could have accounted for countervailing perspectives and information about who would win the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, but they don’t appear to have done so much better than anyone else. Of course a few things emphasized in Superforecasting about more accurate predictions of political outcomes of how much work it is; how much effective teamwork is part of success; and how that’s often facilitated and information collated by a central organizational body. Those are all things current prediction markets aren’t set up for, even though in theory they could be. One problem with prediction markets not being able to produce better predictions is simply because the current cultural climate isn’t oriented toward accuracy and precision in predictions. That kind of culture isn’t easy to produce, since it’d be something like asking everyone to see the world like a political scientist engaging in a friendly competition with everyone else all the time. More formal organizations could be set up for forecasting, and that’s something Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting, has done since publishing his book. Yet in general forecasting, prediction markets, and similar fields aren’t seen as sexy, prestigious, lucrative, or relevant enough to attract the demand and supply necessary to improve the field, with more dedicated forecasters to produce more competitive approaches to prediction and forecasting.

I’m writing this on the same day Vermont senator Bernie Sanders announced his run for the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential nomination. I checked, and today Bernie Sanders has jumped up to second place behind Kamala Harris for estimate for who will win the Democratic nomination, with Harris at 24% and Sanders at 18%. Also at 18%, tied with Sanders, is Joe Biden at 18% to win the Democratic nomination. Biden is yet to announce if he will run, but has said that like Michael Bloomberg, he’ll make a decision by the end of February 2019 of whether he’ll run. Before today, Sanders was behind Beto O’Rourke for chance to win the 2020 Democratic nomination, and while O’Rourke will likely eventually make a public declaration on whether he has decided to run, all kinds of people have been touting Sanders as the best choice for the 2020 Dem nomination since long before O’Rourke came along. Of course that Sanders declared he’s running should make the prediction markets update on his chances of winning. But it seems to me if prediction markets were updating on information on short enough intervals to capture all the relevant evidence, there would have been a smooth glide into assigning a higher and higher chance of Sanders winning, instead of a dramatic jump of several points the day he announces his candidacy, as if it that was a largely unpredictable outcome.

I imagine what’s going to happen is in the coming weeks as Sanders campaign gets off the ground, there are going to be all kinds of events that will cause the probability assigned to his victory to go up and down with relative volatility. Pending anything extraordinary happening in the early stages of Sanders campaign, and assuming Biden doesn’t run, Sanders will settle into second place behind Kamala Harris again, until things become much more dynamic once all the candidates begin directly competing with each other. It seems there is still a decent chance Biden will also announce he is running, given how highly is evaluating his chances compared to Michael Bloomberg, who is 10th among candidates estimated to win the 2020 Dem nomination at 3%. So despite Biden and Bloomberg both intending to declare whether they’ll run within the next couple weeks, Biden is attracting a lot more interest.

All this makes my predictions of what direction will go in sound reasonable. Yet I feel like if Sanders was going to declare he was going to run all along, and there have been narratives that he is the only candidate who will be able to beat Trump in 2020 for months now, I feel like those narratives could have been incorporated into prediction markets ongoing assessment of the likelihood of Sanders’ victory. If the volatility in how likely Sanders’ victory appears to be is as dramatic as I predict, there are going to be articles overstating how Sanders’ campaign is over with every faux-scandal that hits him. In the long-term, all that noise will be filtered out, but at that time, Sanders’ boosters will have been vindicated for standing by him all along, and successfully recognizing most Americans don’t care much about attempts to hobble his campaign. Of course, none of this has come to pass yet.

Yet it seems like in 2016 and now, prediction markets should be able to find a way to make better predictions about major political outcomes. This would entail prediction markets finding a way to have a longer-term focus and ability to see the bigger picture, without habitually falling for the same biases among predictions overall. In addition to the practical barriers to improving prediction markets and other, more quantitative forecasting methods I mentioned, there appears to be room for improvement in terms of better methods for incorporating a diverse array of narrative or other qualitative information. I’ve written before about how it appears almost nobody is focused on generating the most accurate forecasts for who will win the 2020 Democratic nomination. hasn’t been much more helpful than anyone else in this regard. While in the long-run research and practice may improve forecasting in general and prediction markets in particular, I doubt it will happen in time for the for 2020 U.S. Presidential election.