Category Archives: Philosophy

Don’t Trust Political Memes, and Don’t Share Them

Think of this post as a public service message.

In some ways, memes are the 21st century version of the comic strip or the political cartoon. They can be quite funny, and they make their point in just a second or two. Memes have been a boon for comic-strip-style humor. Someone needs to fill the void left by Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and a lot of people have ably volunteered. Anyone with a joke and basic computer skills can make a funny meme, and millions of people can share the fun. National distributors no longer serve as gatekeepers and censors, allowing some unique talents to shine that would have remained dark just a decade or two ago. This has been a wonderful development.

But for many reasons, political memes are typically riddled with factual errors and offer little more than confirmation bias. They should be shunned, not shared.

Here is a quick statistics lesson from one political meme I saw making the rounds recently. That’s not to pick on this meme specifically. There are millions like it, just as bad, floating around the Internet. This is just one I happened to see, though I should note that Turning Point USA has a poor reputation, even by its genre’s low standards.

Also keep in mind that this meme is on the correct side of its issue. Imagine how wrong the wrong ones can be! As Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Here is the meme:

turning point meme

Here is a list of things it gets wrong.

1: This meme is undated and cites no sources.

2: There is no publication titled “World Economic Freedom Index.”

3: For indexes that do exist, their data do not go back 60 years. They go back to 1970 for the Fraser/Cato index, and 1995 for the Heritage/WSJ index.

4: Venezuela does rank 179th in the 2018 Heritage/WSJ index. But it gives no rankings from roughly 60 years ago. If the 4th place figure comes from a different index, that is not a valid apples-to-apples comparison. But we don’t know where that figure comes from. None is cited. Google doesn’t turn one up, either. For all we know, some intern could have just made it up, and now people are sharing it.

5: Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998. His brand of socialism was 14 years old when Turning Point USA was founded in 2012, not 10 years before this undated meme was created.

That’s five errors in one meme that took less than ten minutes to dig up. That says more about Turning Point USA and political memes in general than it does about Venezuela’s ongoing tragedy.

Don’t trust unsourced political memes, don’t share them, and take people who heavily rely on them as seriously as they deserve–even, or especially, if they share your ideological priors.


Joshua Greene – Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Joshua Greene – Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

A defense of utilitarianism that is actually far more interesting for its insights on evolutionary psychology. The brain has evolved some surprising methods for getting along with others—or not getting along. Greene also explores how they apply in a modern world so different from the hunter-gatherer world we have only recently escaped, from politics to everyday life.

Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France

Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France

I read this as part of an attempt to understand populism. Burke, an 18thcentury Englishman, favored the American Revolution, but opposed the French Revolution. This seems strange at first glance. But it actually makes quite a bit of sense.

Burke saw the American Revolution as a restoration of traditional British values, such as the rule of law. The French Revolution consciously rejected tradition and tried to create a brand new man from scratch. The result was the rule of the mob, not the rule of law, and the Terror.

The parallels to today’s rise of populism on the left and especially the right during the last few years make Burke quite relevant; suffice it to say that despite, or perhaps because of his conservatism, he would not be a Trump supporter.

Burke overemphasizes tradition in my opinion, and takes a few ugly stances in the book common to his time, especially regarding Jews. But he is a perceptive analyst, and his arguments are as powerful against today’s populist threats as they were against the ones in Burke’s time.

Best Books of 2018: Suicide of the West & Enlightenment Now

Re-posted from

Review of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy (Crown Forum, 2018) by Jonah Goldberg and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018) by Steven Pinker.

Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West” is a literate, snappily written, and often humorous defense of Enlightenment values and a broadside against populism. Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” has a similar theme, backed by an astounding collection of empirical data.

The cooperative social norms that make mass prosperity possible are completely unnatural, Goldberg argues. They are also the best thing that ever happened to humanity, as both argue. The current populist trend is a primal yawp from our baser instincts. It is also the biggest danger the Miracle faces, as Goldberg terms the post-1800 wealth explosion. The average person has gone from three dollars a day to more than 100 dollars a day, at least in countries that more or less adopted Enlightenment values and institutions.

If you doubt the degree of human betterment that has happened over the last two centuries, and how tightly intertwined they are with liberal values and institutions (liberal in the correct, classical sense), even a cursory skim of the first 345 pages of Pinker will show you in great detail. It really is a Miracle, and the most important development in human history since the invention of fire.

Readers who focus on the authors’ criticisms of President Trump are missing the bigger picture. The populist mindset, or rather emotion-set, and not this or that politician, is the biggest threat facing the modern Miracle. President Trump and his analogues in Italy, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and elsewhere are temporary. But the gut-level impulses that make them electable are part of human nature. That is the concern here, not a president who will evanesce from the political scene after a term or two.

Populism is not a left or right phenomenon. It is an anti-Enlightenment worldview based on the immediate, the concrete, and the emotional. A lot of people feel that living standards are declining, and that people aren’t getting a fair shake. The data say otherwise, but a lot of people just feel that way, and form their beliefs accordingly. As Goldberg puts it:

Populist movements do tend to be coalitions of losers. I do not mean that in a perjorative sense but an analytical one. Populist movements almost by definition don’t spring up among people who think everything is going great and they’re getting a fair shake. (p.367)

For many people, their reptile brains override the more analytical parts. If you want to see populist emoting in action, a typical political argument on Twitter, Facebook, or cable news will do. Confirmation bias is rampant, contrary evidence is dismissed, language gets strident, and sometimes things get personal. The flames are as hot as they are shallow, whether they blow from the left or the right. But people still get sucked right in. We’re wired to behave that way.

Populism is having a moment right now, just as it did during the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century, and in the German romanticist movement in the century before that (though that movement was redeemed by some beautiful art and literature). Populism will have more moments in the future. The question is if its latest yawp is merely a blip, or a longer-run rejection of the ideas that make progress and modernity possible.

Like populism, Enlightenment thought works outside of a left-right framework. But unlike populism, it operates on a longer, more cool-headed time horizon. This type of liberalism—again, in the correct sense of the word—is more concerned with abstract cultural values and long-term institutional structures. Having the right long-term process matters more than immediately getting the right immediate results.

Pinker and Goldberg both argue that this patient, abstract approach also explains classical liberalism’s limited appeal. Even when our heads often know better, our hearts are still in hunter-gatherer mode.

It is hard to write news stories about the long-term trends the Enlightenment approach emphasizes. A struggling hometown business with a dozen employees is more emotionally compelling than the fact that worldwide, 137,000 people climbed out of absolute poverty today. One of these stories is rather more important than the other. But it doesn’t fire up people’s reptile brains, so it flies under the radar. Pinker illustrates this phenomenon with graph after graph on a relentless array of policy issues, and Goldberg shows how this affects the quality of both political debate and the politicians in that debate.

Goldberg and Pinker are not alone. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc are other quality entries in the genre. Both authors, especially Goldberg, acknowledge the influence of CEI Julian Simon Award winner Deirdre N. McCloskey and her Bourgeois trilogy.

Readers interested in primary sources will find some of the best Enlightenment thought in Adam SmithDavid HumeThomas JeffersonF.A. Hayek, and James Buchanan. Populists, knowingly or not, draw from sources ranging from Jean-Jacques RousseauGoethe, and Nietzsche up to twentieth century progressives such as Louis Brandeis and Ralph Nader, as well as right-wing populists such as Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon. Pinker argues that President Trump’s world view is, probably unknowingly, eerily similarly to Nietzsche and Rousseau. Understanding them imparts a better understanding of what makes the current administration tick.

If you don’t have the time to read both books, Reason’s Nick Gillespie had an enlightening conversation with Goldberg in June, and Pinker gave a lecture at the Cato Institute in March. There is some overlap between the two books, but they are far from redundant. The authors’ different personalities and different emphases make for two different, complementary, and important works.

Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Despite the title, this delightful volume is no self-help book. It is mostly a biography of Montaigne, the 16th century Frenchman who invented the modern essay, which means “to try” or “to attempt”.

The very word captures Montaigne’s basic humility. He did not intend his essays to be definitive, or the last word on the subject. His writing style and his philosophy were thoughtful, gentle, playful, scattershot, introspective, and curious. Montaigne conspicuously lacked certainty and dogmatism, which occasionally got him in trouble. Above all else, he seemed to value peace and quiet, and seemed to view his time as Bordeaux’s mayor as a burden, not an honor. Readers who know me personally can understand why Montaigne has long been one of my favorite thinkers.

Bakewell expertly captures his spirit. Rather than a straight biography, she mimics Montaigne’s literary approach in the Essays. She tells the story of both Montaigne and his writings in bits and pieces, going on frequent tangents while staying mindful of larger themes, such as humility and taking joy in little things.

Aristotle – The Poetics

Aristotle – The Poetics

A shorter work with useful insights for appreciating storytelling in general, and Greek drama and poetry in particular. Aristotle offers a key insight for making a character believable: a character’s every action and every word should be based on either necessity or probability.

The plot necessitates some actions on the character’s part. What the audience knows about the character’s personality dictates the probability that his reactions are believable. To use a lowbrow example, the reason it’s so funny when Homer says something intelligent on The Simpsons is that is so out of character.

Some of Aristotle’s other ideas about what makes good drama or good poetry seems to be his personal taste. This being subjective, it need not be taken as gospel.

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a morally neutral tool that can equally be used for good or bad purposes. It is important to use it wisely and only towards good ends. Athens having no professional lawyers, On Rhetoric was Aristotle’s guide to pleading one’s case in court, and to persuasion in general.

Aristotle first goes over the different elements of rhetoric, than turns his attention to the structure of an effective persuasive speech. Aristotle’s main concepts are the three pisteis of logos (logic and truth; basically the facts of the case), ethos (audience emotions about the orator as a person) and pathos (audience emotions about the orator’s arguments).

Another key Aristotelian concept of argumentative structure is the enthymeme, which has many forms, but always leaves at least one of its premises unstated. This is both a strength and a weakness. It can hide vulnerabilities, if only by failing to mention them. But to hide a weakness, it must have one in the first place.

The most famous example of an enthymeme is Hegel’s structure of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—with the unstated premise being that the synthesis is, in fact, plausible. This is often not the case.

This is the first place a skilled rhetorician should attack such an argument. But few people can identify such an argument on the fly when it is being made, let alone know where that weak spot is.

So in many cases, especially in ancient Athens’ non-professional legal system, enthymemes can be used on offense with little fear of having to play defense. Again, Aristotle stresses, rhetoric by itself is morally neutral. Its powers can be used for good or for evil, depending on who wields it. Use it wisely.