West's weekly round-up: August 1-7
Audience capture, everyone is old, crime and the environment
Welcome to all the new subscribers, including those who arrived via Substack’s recommendation. I hope you enjoy it, although output will be rather slower this month as I’m off on holiday soon. This week I wrote about Liz Truss, who rather resembles Michael J Fox’s radical Reaganite character in Family Ties; on Thursday, the anniversary of the start of the First World War, I wrote about English conceptions of themselves as a Germanic people.
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This week I appeared on Alex Kaschuta’s podcast, which is available here and also on Razib Khan’s. I was also interviewed by Czech website Echo24, although I imagine most of my subscribers can’t read Czech, unless I’m shamefully underestimating you.
From 2010 to 2020, BBC mentions of terms suggestive of racism increased by 802% while mentions of terms suggestive of sexism increased by 610%. Mentions of homophobia and transphobia increased by 134% and 3,341% respectively while islamophobia and anti-Semitism increased by 585% and 2,431%, respectively.
I imagine we’ll see a further shift with the generational turnover. Most middle-aged BBC journalists tend to be vaguely on the Left while holding firm ideas about impartiality, but in most American media organisations the younger cohort are far less tolerant. (To all the new subscribers, I’m not particularly known for my sunny optimism, by the way).
Why is everyone in power so old these days? Byrne Hobart asks the big question, and it’s the kind of post I like the most. Rather than starting with a grand theory and working everything around that, he looks at every possible explanation, and leaves us to decide ourselves. It could be any of the answers, maybe a combination of them; or maybe it’s all a sampling error. But it’s interesting nonetheless.
The Onion's Our Dumb Century is a classic satirical look at the twentieth century, of course, but it's also a nice tour through the American zeitgeist over that time. One of the headlines that hits a little harder than it used to is from 1985: "Dynamic New Soviet Leader Not on Brink of Death." In the early 80s, the USSR successively appointed Yuri Andropov (68 years old, died in office in a year and a half) and then Chernenko (who took power at the age of 72 and died after just over a year). But now the US Senate is the oldest it's ever been, the speaker of the House is 82, the party leaders in the Senate are 71 and 80, and the Presidency is held by someone who won at age 77, running against a 74-year-old.
It would be great to have a simple, pat explanation for this, maybe involving the increasing complexity of the political system, the importance of longstanding donor relationships rather than the energy necessary to campaign door-to-door and give rousing speeches, etc. But the phenomenon isn't just tied to politics: we're listening to older music, and watching older actors— in movies that are mostly revisions to existing franchises (Lord of the Rings has produced three big-budget multi-volume video franchises in my lifetime). From 2005 to 2019, the average age of CEOs at hire rose fourteen years. There must have been something really special about the class of '81 at every college.
I’m late to this excellent piece by Gurwinder at the Prism substack (subscribe here) on audience capture. It’s one of the main pitfalls of being a writer with an audience (although I can’t talk about ‘my relationship with my audience’ without sounding in my own head like a pretentious fraud, but there you go). Your fans go to you for writing, but often belief confirmation — and the more you give it to them, the more they will love you. Gurwinder cites some examples of where it has pushed people into extremes.
Nikocado, moulded by his audience’s desires into a cartoonish extreme, is now a wholly different character from Nicholas Perry, the vegan violinist who first started making videos. Where Perry was mild-mannered and health conscious, Nikocado is loud, abrasive, and spectacularly grotesque. Where Perry was a picky eater, Nikocado devoured everything he could, including finally Perry himself. The rampant appetite for attention caused the person to be subsumed by the persona.
We often talk of "captive audiences," regarding the performer as hypnotizing their viewers. But just as often, it's the viewers hypnotizing the performer. This disease, of which Perry is but one victim of many, is known as audience capture, and it's essential to understanding influencers in particular and the online ecosystem in general. ….
Audience capture is a particular problem in politics, due to both phenomena being driven by popular approval. On Twitter I've watched many political influencers gradually become radicalized by their audiences, starting off moderate but following their increasingly extreme followers toward the fringes.
At the Baldwin substack, Ben Southwood on how crime leads to more suburban sprawl; looking at how the homicide spike in US cities from the 60s led to an exodus to the suburbs and exurbs, he writes:
For example, one study by Julie Cullen and Steven Levitt finds that when crime rates across the city rise ten percent, city centre populations fall one percent – with people generally moving to the suburbs. One crime tends to push one person out of the city centre, on average.
Suburbs are far less efficient, energy-wise, and result in car dependency, all of which are bad for the environment. I’m a great fan of cities, but they need to be civilised, and the two big destroyer of civic life in the late 20th century were the 2C’s: cars and crime.
The war in Ukraine has taken place in two very different climatic and cultural zones: its initial phases saw Russian armour wend its way through the dark forests and marshes of northern Ukraine, the ancient homeland of the first Slavic peoples, to be destroyed in close fighting on the narrow wooded roads in a stunning and unexpected Ukrainian victory. Yet the gruelling war of attrition in the country’s east is taking part in a very different landscape, in the open steppe that was once the home of nomadic peoples.
The Cossack heritage both sides claim is the result of earlier Slavic peoples, runaway Ukrainian and Russian serfs, claiming the freedom of the open steppe and adopting the customs, lifestyle and much of the vocabulary of their nomadic Turkic predecessors. The very word Cossack, Ball notes, “derives from the Turk root qaz, ‘to roam’”, and is cognate with the ethnonym Kazakh further east, as the Cossacks “comprised mainly Russians — usually renegades, escaped serfs or criminals — but they also included Turks, Tatars and remnant Polovtsi.” Even now, Ukrainian is sprinkled with Turkic words, a legacy of the two cultures’ long history of interaction and competition. One Ukrainian commander I met went by the nom de guerre “Duman”, or fog, deriving from the Turkic word for smoke or mist. Even now, Ukrainians refer to Russians with the dismissive Turkic epithet Katsab, or butcher.
Steven Pinker’s book about how everything is getting better may have been unfortunately timed but things really have got less deadly, by almost any measure. As an example, about a third as many people in Britain die in fires as they did in the 1980s. Grenfell was incredibly shocking and horrific, but big fires were far more common across the West just a generation ago; a nightclub fire in Dublin killed 48 people in 1981, and there were similar disasters in Italy and Spain in 1983, killing 64 and 83 respectively. British people in their 40s will probably remember the Valley Parade disaster in 1985, which killed 56 people watching Bradford City, and the King’s Cross fire, which killed 31 in 1987 (before then, you could smoke on the Tube, although it was being phased out). Fires just aren’t that common anymore, big or small: and yet, as Ned Donovan writes, fire departments are just as big. It doesn’t really make sense.
The disparity wasn’t always so vast. In 1980, fire departments in the United States attended almost 3 million fires. In 2020 that had halved to 1.4 million. The reason is simple, with the proliferation of smoke/fire alarms, reduction in smoking and the increase in fire safety for buildings and things like furniture. Similarly, in 1980 fire departments in the US attended 5 million calls for medical aid, but in 2020 attended 24 million. There are now so few fires that there is double the number of false alarms each year in the US than genuine fires. The number of firefighters, however, has skyrocketed – primarily to meet medical demand.
Peter Hitchens writes about the phone. The phone as it once was — you know, that thing where you talked to people, before it became this monster devouring your teenage children’s attention.
People who were unused to the machine were afraid of it and did not like to touch it. My mother once employed a woman in her fifties from the poorer part of Portsmouth, to come and clean our house two or three days a week. The woman was a mother of several children and had come through the long and intense German bombing of that city quite undiscouraged. She was not a child or a fool. But she was not having anything to do with telephones if she could avoid it. They might get her mixed up in something. Once, my mother came home late one afternoon to find a note beside the device, with the penciled message “PHOAM WENT.” We wondered for years who it might have been. Nobody ever called later to confess, and calls were rare events in our house. Britain’s stern Post Office did not indulge us, as American phone companies did, with free local calls. Chatting was for the wealthy. Everyone else still had to write letters, or do their gossiping in person. Quite possibly the mystery call (it still haunts me) was a genuine wrong number.
Britain’s political system might be in perma-crisis but at least we still have Italy. Of the country’s 59 prime ministers, 17 lasted less than a year and another 34 did not make five. And it looks like it’s all change again; but, as Christopher Caldwell writes, what commentators call a crisis for democracy is actually its triumph over the technocrats.
But there is an odd thing about Mr. Draghi’s role as a symbol of democracy: No voter anywhere has ever cast a ballot for him. He was installed to break a political impasse in early 2021 at the request of President Sergio Mattarella, who is himself not directly elected. Honorable and capable though Mr. Draghi may be, his resignation is a triumph of democracy, at least as the word democracy has traditionally been understood.
These reforms have come to seem obnoxious to many voters. For example, the European Union wanted Italy’s beaches opened to market competition. The Italian seashore is public property. The state gives concessions to small businesses that manage beaches. Such businesses, often kept in the same family for generations, employ some 100,000 Italians.
Partisans of the reforms, which were backed by Mr. Draghi, call the families that run those ancient beach concessions “monopolists” who profit from public property. Opponents of the reforms, the most voluble of whom has been Mr. Salvini, would say the epithet “monopolist” was a better fit for the international hotel chains likely to wipe those small businesses out.
“The devil has now led this nation too much astray for many years, and there has been little loyalty among men, though they spoke well, and too many injustices have reigned in the land,” he tells his hearers bluntly. “Daily one evil has been piled upon another and injustices and many violations of law committed all too widely throughout this entire nation.”
Wulfstan goes on to detail all the different ways in which the essential bonds holding society together had begun to break down. He gives specific examples, described in a manner intended to horrify and disgust his audience. His account still has the power to shock a thousand years later: particularly horrible are his descriptions of desperate people selling their own family members into slavery and his fierce denunciation of the sexual abuse of female slaves. There is no fudging of the details, no opportunity for the audience to turn their eyes away; in stark and brutal language, Wulfstan makes his audience confront exactly what their society has become. No wonder he thought the coming of the Antichrist could not be far away.
Eleanor Parker writes about Wulfstan, one of the great clerics of Anglo-Saxon England, and in that fine British tradition of doomongers warning that the country is going to the dogs, from Gildas to Hitchens. Wulfstan, like many of those doomongers, was correct — England’s political system collapsed in the face of Danish pressure and Cnut ended up as king. And yet, in part thanks to Wulfstan’s wise counsel, Cnut ended up as one of England’s greatest kings.
But he didn’t give up. He still had work to do. All along, his priority had been the moral health of the nation, and he still believed that the unifying power of law could offer a cure. So Wulfstan became Cnut’s chief English adviser, writer of the king’s laws and public pronouncements, which emphasized the need for conquerors and conquered to live in harmony, to observe the same laws, to share common values, and to find reconciliation after the long years of war. This time, Wulfstan’s work had real success. Cnut proved to be susceptible to influence; peace came, at least for a time, and the laws they made formed the basis for many later codes, ties that still sought to hold English society together centuries after Wulfstan himself was dead.
Finally, why do so many superforecasters have autism? asks Sam Atis.
The paper also found that autistic people seem to be better at ‘Syllogistic reasoning’. What does that mean? In the study, people were presented with eight logical arguments, and had to figure out whether the arguments were valid or invalid. Four of the arguments were consistent with reality, and four of the arguments were not consistent with reality. For example, the argument ‘All birds have feathers. Robins are birds. Robins have feathers’ is both logically valid and consistent with reality (what they call ‘valid-believable’), whereas the argument ‘All mammals walk. Whales are mammals. Whales walk’ is logically valid but not consistent with reality (they call it ‘valid-unbelievable’). So, we have four different types of argument: valid-believable, valid-unbelievable, invalid-believable, and invalid-unbelievable. A ‘belief bias’ occurs when people score worse on ‘incongruent problems’, the ones which are either valid-unbelievable or invalid-believable, than they do on congruent problems. In other words, someone with low belief bias is more likely to notice that although whales cannot walk, an argument that concludes that whales can walk may not be logically invalid. The result of the study, as you might have guessed, is that autistic people show much lower levels of belief bias than do neurotypical people.
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