The triumph of culture

From The Economist:

They tore down the statue and rolled it into Bristol harbour, and none of them denied it. Yet this month a jury in England acquitted four people over the toppling of a likeness of Edward Colston, an English philanthropist and leading slave-trader who died in 1721. Part of the case for the defence was unusual for a courtroom, and revealing of the intellectual mood in Britain and beyond. The real offence, said the accused, was that the monument to such a monster was still standing. Facing criminal charges, they made an argument about art, and about history.

In an era of rising nationalism and seething partisanship, some borders—including those between countries and political camps—can seem to be hardening. But others are blurring, such as between politics and culture, statecraft and stagecraft. When the news vies for attention with entertainment, and is relished as meme and soap opera, entertainers have a political edge—and from France to Ukraine, television personalities have exploited it. Poets may no longer be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but activist sports stars and outspoken children’s authors have a pretty big say.

The substance of public debate has evolved with the personnel, not least in the erosion of another distinction, between the present and the past. Witness the saga of Colston, who splashed back into the news 300 years after his death. A decade ago, the idea that Conservative ministers might lambast the National Trust, staid steward of English country houses—as they have over its interest in slavery and colonialism—would have seemed outlandish. (So, to American voters, would one run for the White House by the star of “The Apprentice”, let alone two.) Whoever controls the past may indeed control the future, but from the streets of post-imperial Britain to the school boards of America, they have a fight on their hands first.

Disputes over whose history is told, how and by whom, in part reflect a struggle over claims on power and virtue today. Adherents of “cancel culture”, that dismal oxymoron, believe some people, living and dead, are too discredited to be heard at all. In these rolling culture wars, The Economist has no fixed side. But neither are we neutral. Our liberal principles suggest that controversial voices should generally be audible—and that some statues should come down.

. . . .

Culture’s role in politics is not the only way it has become more salient. During lockdown, stories on the page and screen have offered vicarious adventures, and a sense of solidarity in adversity, to people across the world. Even as theatres and galleries closed, the technology of culture has developed to match this craving. If covid-19 has coloured the experience of the arts, meanwhile, in time the reverse will also be true: writers and artists will shape how the pandemic is understood and remembered, and we will be watching.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG is more than a little concerned about cancel culture wherever it appears.

In one respect, the actions of the cancel culture mobs – physical and intellectual – can be classed with book burning. In the Twentieth Century, book burning was most prominently practiced by the Nazis, who burned the books of Jewish authors.

Book burning has a long history, too. The first recorded state-sponsored book burning was in China in 213 BC, according to Matthew Fishburn, the author of Burning Books. The burnings were ordered by Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who also started the Great Wall and the Terracotta army.

. . . .

On June 22, 2011 a group in The Netherlands burned the cover of The Book of Negroes, by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, continuing both an ancient and modern tradition.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

. . . .

Panhandling Repertoires and Routines for Overcoming the Nonperson Treatment

In this article, I present panhandling as a dynamic undertaking that requires conscious actions and purposeful modifications of self, performances, and emotions to gain the attention and interest of passersby. I show that describing and theorizing panhandling in terms of dramaturgical routines is useful in understanding the interactions and exchanges that constitute panhandling. In addition, repertoires rightly portray panhandlers as agents engaging the social world rather than as passive social types. From this perspective, sidewalks serve as stages on which panhandlers confront and overcome various forms of the nonperson treatment.

This facet of human nature – oppressing or attacking the Other – is most prevalent and dangerous when a group uses force/violence to punish one or more individuals who are perceived to be from a different tribe, species, race or social position – some sort of nonperson who is not a member of whatever group of Übermenschen have the power to threaten an individual or group which lacks legal, social or physical power sufficient to deter mistreatment.

Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting within the norms of a social group and, thus, may be treated in a manner different from those who are members of a social group, racial, ethnic, educational, professional class, etc.

It is an effect that influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the in-group versus those who are seen as being part of the out-group. Othering also involves attributing negative characteristics to people or groups that differentiate them from the perceived normative social group.

It is an “us vs. them” way of thinking about human connections and relationships. This process essentially involves looking at others and saying “they are not like me” or “they are not one of us so I am not required to give them the same respect I give those who are like me.”

It takes a mob to cancel an individual.

Othering is a way of negating another person’s individual humanity and, consequently, those that are have been othered are seen as less worthy of dignity and respect.

On an individual level, othering plays a role in the formation of prejudices against people and groups. On a larger scale, it can also play a role in the dehumanization of entire groups of people which can then be exploited to drive changes in institutions, governments, and societies. It can lead to the persecution of marginalized groups, the denial of rights based on group identities, or even acts of violence against others.

In the United States, unfortunately, racial/ethnic minorities, religious minorities and language minorities have all been subject to some degree of the cancel culture of a time and place, sometimes geographically localized and at other times widespread.

PG argues that the actions of college students who “cancel” the ideas or speech of an individual or group are operating under the influence of the same class of degraded human nature that resulted in Jews being sent to concentration camps eighty years ago or the Native Americans being killed or forcibly ejected from their homes in the United States or the evil bourgeoisie who owned the means of production being attacked and killed because, by their nature, they were enemies of the proletariat.

33 thoughts on “The triumph of culture”

  1. The discussion seems to have wandered a bit from the thrust of the OP – and PG’s remarks, for that matter.

    Possibly from the “wrong ideas” that Ashley singled out. Neither of those is a morally wrong idea, one that was or is used to harm others. I would have probably used “phrenology to identify the criminal” and “lobotomy to cure the violently insane” as examples. (I would note, for D.W. and Felix, that Ashley referenced the luminiferous ether, and is quite correct in identifying that particular idea as being just as wrong now as when it was first discarded – neither the modern quantum foam or the somewhat earlier Dirac Sea theories have anything to do with being a medium for the propagation of light waves.)

    But – I cannot agree with Ashley, and do agree with PG, that wrong ideas, either harmless or morally wrong, should ever be suppressed. They must be placed out in the harsh sunlight for all to see – and to learn why they are wrong.

    On statues – I cannot dispute that statues of some personages (such as Lenin, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, others that still stand to this day in places like North Korea) should properly be removed and even destroyed, although a better use for at least one or two examples would be in a museum display alongside the examples of their moral misdeeds. But not all personages are wholly evil, even in the context of modern sensibilities. Edward Colston was indeed a slaver – and also a philanthropist. I would note that the Reverend Martin Luther King was a brave leader for civil rights – and also an abusive misogynist. If we are to pull down all statues where the subject was free of moral failings – well, we might be left with the Cristo Redentor, but not much else.

    I would also note that the modern iconoclasts have been busily destroying statues honoring Frederick Douglass and the Negro Soldiers of the Civil War. That is either a simple love of vandalism, or a serious lack of historical knowledge, a lack that can only be laid at the feet of the “progressive” education system.

    • Also tearing down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant on the grounds that he owned a slave. Never mind the fact that his father-in-law gave him the aforementioned slave, and Grant freed said slave instead of selling him despite being in dire financial straits. Never mind the fact that he was the only 19th-century president to try and enforce civil rights legislation. Never mind his enthusiastic following of Lincoln’s orders to recruit black soldiers. Never mind the fact that he was the architect of the war-winning campaigns against the Confederacy.

      Nope, at one point he had a slave, and that outweighs literally everything else.

    • Do notice I used the “proper” weasel words in referring to aether. 😀
      (Lack of needed qualifiers is a sign of what Doc Smith termed “muddy thinking” after all.)
      Open minds are a must on the borders of science.
      Because we don’t what truly happens at quantum scales. We don’t know what gravity is. We don’t know what inertia is. We don’t know what dark matter is. Or if it exists. The same for dark energy.

      Everybody has their bugaboos and peeves; mine are imprecision and absolutism.
      The universe isn’t black and white, its a gray soup of inconsistencies. Science isn’t authoritarian but probationary; it doesn’t with axiomatic unquestioned “truth” but rather theory, hypothesis, concepts, and formulations. All accepted to whatever extent they can be validated until something better comes along. Because something better always comes along.

      As you say, the proper response to dubious or contentious ideas is skepticism, analysis, and engagement. Not kneejerk rejection, recourse to authority, absolutist suppression in support of an “accepted consensus” or “settled science” because neither exists. Actual science is never settled. Pretending otherwise is either ignorance or mendacity.

      Or muddy thinking.

      As to the op, as you say, nuance matters and people need to be taken in context to their times.
      Ours will not be respectfully remembered and monument vigilantism will be in times to come be added to witch hanging and book burning among the ignorant mass hysterical barbarisms of “less enlightened times”.

      Or not.

      Maybe the Jacobins and absolutists win the culture wars.

      Nothing is certain and an open mind has to consider that “the bad guys”, however defined, can and often do win.

      That too is story fodder. 🙂

  2. “Wrong” ideas are my bread & butter.

    There are so many concepts that I will not discuss here on TPV, to avoid upsetting people. (Think about that for a moment, in light of the posts I have made.)

    Let me state simply, that on the various “Fringe” sites that I post on, I am considered “Fringe” and too “far out” even for them.

    Just like here on TPV I am tolerated because I am at least consistent in my posts, even when I apparently go “too far”.

    Start with the 800 pound gorilla, Lord Kelvin, and go from there.

    On the Age of the Sun’s Heat

    This is a series on PBS NOVA, that is pure Fantasy, pure Scientism. (I think only people in the US can watch the episodes.)

    NOVA Universe Revealed

    There is so much of “consensus science” or “Scientism” as it is called now, that the episodes are more “wrong” than what Lord Kelvin thought, yet to say that they are “wrong” brings instant attack.

    That’s what makes it so great for Story.


    • Never boring.
      Always offer food for thought.
      Tolerated is probably the wrong word, doubtedlessly best reserved for me and my meandering contrarian ways.

      Its up to PG to put us in our place if we exceed our bounds.

  3. I think psychology explains more of this behavior (cancel, et alia) than truth-seeking.

    Ideas we agree with don’t bother us. Ideas that everyone disagrees with we are comfortable declaring as false. But anything else, anything that is under dispute (either real or potential)… well, that is… a terrifying situation. It means there are things in this world that are uncertain, that we cannot know for sure. We seek certainty, and that includes consistency over time. (If it was true once, it is still true. OR… if it is not true now, it was never true.)

    In matters of science, it’s not the scientific provability that matters so much — the general population lacks the tools to judge properly, and so falls back on received opinion in one form or another. Scientific theory must stand the test of time but it is, in principle, provable… until then, it’s all just opinion. It’s morality that conveys the psychological weight to the arguments (the uses of science, the implications of science). The same could be said of religion — its uses rather than its underlying “truth system” are more important to our psychological view of it.

    It all comes down to pride and fear. What I think about a moral issue is important to ME. What others think I think about a moral issue is (perhaps) even more important to ME. This is a fundamental evolved human need: if I disagree with the group, what will they do to me? if I agree with the group, can I gain power or at least enhanced survivability?

    Humans are not solitary animals, capable of dispassionate reason. We are inescapably social animals. We want to either be on the “right side” or somehow cause the definition of the “right side” to change within our social group. Conformism (received or created) is the only comfortable living space. It takes an effort of will, ruthlessness, and a strong commitment to consistency to truly embrace scientific thinking to the disadvantage of our comfort. It takes a similar effort to truly follow a religious system. Both are capable of moral abuse, but we find one or the other (sometimes both) necessary as functioning humans.

    Not all humans can make this journey. Both require leaps of faith (the scientific method, the religious impulse) and both are enhanced by education. But the commitment to reason and rationality even at a cost of (social or direct) danger is not for everyone. If a culture’s carefully created safeguards are relaxed, the mob always returns. We are what we are.

    Alas that we cannot learn from history and evolve.

    • Good points and a worthy theory.
      Fits with mine that on social issues only a small fraction are fire-breathing true believers. Most just go along to get along without caring either way. Nixon wasn’t actually wrong about his “slient majority”.

      The only time the media notices them is after a “change election” but only for a week or so.

    • Application of the scientific method to many questions is a powerful tool. Hypothesis is wonderful. We make no progress without it. But, until it moves through the experimentation phase, it remains hypothesis.

      • My all time favorite line from SF is from Doc Smith’s SKYLARK OF SPACE 1950’s rerelease. The original is from 1928, pre-relativity, and effectively set in a newtonian universe. In the new edition the protagonist’s copilot is shocked that their spaceship has gone ridiculously superluminal. The hero just shruggs: “Relativity is a theory. Our speed is real.”

        Sooner or later every theory is superceded.
        And that is good.
        Nothing in science should ever be beyond question, consensus be darned.

        • It’s pre-quantum-mechanics, not pre-relativity. But by then, E.E. Smith, PhD, hadn’t been in a physics classroom in several decades… and had no clue about how his own field (the kind of chemistry that is designed to make things go boom) impacted things outside of the boom.

          • The story was published in ’28 but he’d been working on it (with the neighbor’s wife!) since 2015. First edition credited her as co-writer.


            The ideas went back further. (The business world in the story is pre-Rooseveldt. Teddy.) When he started it he intended it to be “hard” SF. Instead he “invented” space opera. Authorial intent has limits. 😀

            And paradigm lag is real.

            • The editor should have caught this. Wait — no — the editor probably did catch this; Smith was notorious for rejecting editorial comments that science had supeceded his pseudoscientific statements decades past. For example, Einstein’s first essay on relativity — the one necessary to refute the attempted bon mot — was published in 1905; the other, the one that purportedly only half a dozen people in the world understood but every member of the cognoscenti nonetheless opined upon, was published in 1915. (That this would have been centuries in the past of the internal timeline of the story seems to have escaped notice.)

              • Dunno, I never took the SKYLARK stories to take place in any future. Are you sure you’re not thinking of LENSMEN which was (retroactively) set way past a nuclear war? (Inertialess drive also ignores relativity but at least it handwaves its FTL.)

                More importantly: we’re talking pulps. Pre-Campbell.
                Do you think the editor even cared about scientific accuracy? And Smith most likely knew more science, even dated science, than any editor in ’28. Who wouldn’t have cared anyway.

                (Have you read something like ASIMOV’S BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE? Even into the 40’s high concept and entertainment value was prefered.)

        • If somebody wanted to update SKYLARK today, say for a video series, all it would take would be one line. “The powerbar seems to be generating a warp bubble around tbe ship.”
          The whole sub-aetheric parts of tbe series can be similarly handwaved with quantum babble, like in Star Trek.

          But if *I* were doing it, I would make it a period piece.
          Let it live alongside Burroughs, Verne, and Wells as what it is; the cultural product of a bygone era. That way Dorothy can remain a world class violinist and not be a kickass ex-marine. 😀

        • Long ago I was eight-years-old and started reading the Lensman stuff. Running across things like inertialess drive led me to the real science books to find out just what inertia was and why getting rid of it was so special. One thing led to another, and that’s when I first encountered relativity.

          Maybe Smith didn’t have all the science exact. Who cares? They were good stories, and I suspect he may have opened windows for some other little kids who smuggled the books out of the adult section and checked them out in the childrens section.

  4. This whole argument annoys the {insert string of foul expletives here} out of me, because the argument itself reflects an illusion. Or, rather, a failure to distinguish between “hagiography” and “ideas.”

    Throwing the statue of an individual who individually profited from something we find repulsive now into the harbor in Bristol is not related to preventing Richard S____ (I’m omitting his name so he won’t get any egoboo from search results that somehow turn up this page) from specifically advocating violence against the descendants of those harmed by the model for that statue. However coded the speech, however whataboutist it is, however goofy the various advocates on all sides of the dispute.

    And because they’re not the same, attempts to treat them the same are… umm… ok, no more insults… of more than slight resemblance to the battle between the ancient books and the modern books held last Friday in St James’s library. (And before trashing that, please read Swift’s essay and ponder it, and in particular ponder how it is directly relevant to “hagiography.”)

  5. Would you demand that colleges host talks on phlogiston or the luminiferous aether?

    The obvious answer to this question was, “Yes,” so I didn’t bother to post that because I was thinking of real Universities of the past, not what we have today.

    Looking back at the thread, I was curious about the way this was phrased, and googled the sentence.

    It seems that phrase is being used in “cancel culture”, and “Woke” articles. It is also being used to attack “Intelligent Design” and “Creation studies”[1].

    – It is interesting how both concepts “phlogiston” and “luminiferous aether” are used to dismiss an opponent today, yet they were used “scientifically” by “serious” people for a very long time.

    Those words have somehow become synonymous as something that “serious” people can sneer at, and blithely dismiss.

    – I disagree, they are both useful concepts for Story, but then of course, I do not make the mistake of ever being “serious”[2].

    I’m not sure if the concept is real, but I use “phlogiston” to explain “spontaneous human combustion” in some of my stories.

    This is classic Weird Tales. It would be standard to have experts lecturing about this at University. Especially at good old Miskatonic University.

    When you read the Wiki page for “spontaneous human combustion” the concept of “phlogiston” lends itself to the explanation. The fun part is to have the occasional animal also combust and have a “mystical/esoteric” reason for it.

    Then there is the “luminiferous aether”, which may actually be real, despite claims by the naysayers.

    That is classic SF and has been deliberately dismissed by the so called “Scientific community”. It has become the buzz word for “bad science”[3], yet I can show link after link to science books at the start of the 20th century filled with references to the aether.

    – If you did not refer to the aether in scientific texts of the time, then your work would not be taken seriously, and you would not get published. Einstein, Eddington, etc…, all described what they were doing in relation to the aether.

    – Michelson–Morley was another 800 pound gorilla that still has echoes today.

    In point of fact, the Michelson–Morley experiments did not actually come up with a “null” result. They simply misinterpreted the model. They describe the aether as a “fabric” that we moved through, when actually it is a “fluid”. As a “fluid” you have Laminar flow close to the surface of the planet.

    – James P. Hogan once argued that if we set up the Michelson–Morley experiment in space, away from the planets, that we might get real results.

    That right there is a great series of stories to write, in the same way that James Blish did in Cities in Flight. Blish had them trying to build a bridge on Jupiter to study gravity, and came up with the “Spindizzy” drive.

    For those who are interested:

    Wiki – Dayton Miller
    Aether research

    In 1900, he began work with Edward Morley on the detection of aether drift, at the time one of the “hot” areas of fundamental physics. Following on with the basic apparatus as the earlier Michelson–Morley experiment, Miller and Morley published another null result in 1904. These experimental results were later cited in support of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miller continued to work on refining his experimental techniques after 1904, conducting millions of measurements on aether drift, and eventually developing the most sensitive interferometer in the world at that time.

    Dayton Miller’s Ether-Drift Experiments: A Fresh Look

    Then of course there is the naysayer:

    An Explanation of Dayton Miller’s Anomalous “Ether Drift” Result

    But why listen to him when there are aether ships to build, and starry skies to sail.

    This has been a great thread for me. It has elicited so many comments that I can use in Story.


    [1] The concepts of Intelligent Design and Creationism are so contentious that I can’t post comments on any blog without instant attack, yet people are missing the vast number of obvious stories that just pour forth. Oh, well, save them for the page.

    [2] I’m never “serious”. The minute I get “serious” I lose half my IQ and all my creativity. God save us from “serious” men and women.

    [3] In high school physics class, we were taught to sneer at the Michelson–Morley experiments. Forty years of scientific endeavor, and we were taught to “sneer”?

    But I digress.

    • I find amusing the dead serious speculations that we might exist in a simulation universe.
      And I applaud the open mindedness of those physicists.
      At least it offers an answer to the anthropic principle.

      BTW, are you familiar with Modal Realism?

      If you’re on the hunt for story fodder, philosophy can be as useful as physics. 😀

      • Modal Realism

        Yes! That I can use. It is perfect for my stuff.


        Modal Realism gives me technical terms for what I am doing. Reading through the links — they were quite terrifying when I see how close “Modal Realism” is to what I am using so far — I chuckled when I saw the term “Occam’s Razor”, because:

        – Occam’s Razor can make butchers of us all.

        I saw that happen in many of the Wiki pages, where the actualists twisted themselves into “nots”. “Not” this, “not” that, and worse, “Move along. Nothing to see here.”

        The actualists keep stumbling over the “imaginary” characters. They keep wanting to make them “real”. Of course they are not “real”, yet those “imaginary” characters look at us as being “imaginary”, so it all works out. That is what upsets the acualists, they don’t consider themselves to be “imaginary”.[1]

        I find amusing the dead serious speculations that we might exist in a simulation universe.

        They are not wrong, they are simply assuming that there is an external computer to run our “simulation” on, like in the movie The Thirteenth Floor[2]. No computer would be large enough to simulate our complete Reality.

        – An external computer is of course unnecessary.

        Remember Cosmos, with Carl Sagan. He sailed in a ship of the Imagination. Take that literally, and run with it. That’s what Modal Realism is suggesting.

        The “Universe” is essentially the Infinite Chaos Sea. No form or structure exists. Things like Time and Space only occur as random bubbles of Real that spontaneously come into “existence”.(Whatever “existence” means.)

        The bubble of Real that we exist in is essentially a running analog computer, every part connected to the other. There is only inside, no outside.(Don’t pop that bubble.)

        Each bubble of Real is finite yet unbounded, like the surface of a ball. You can travel in a straight line and not find an edge. That bubble of Real is also nonlocal and acausal.

        To add to what Sagan said, to make Story work using Modal Realism:

        – Within that “finite” volume of Real is an Imaginary Space, infinite yet bounded by the Real.

        – Within that “infinite” Imaginary Space, there is a finite Imaginal Realm, where “What Dreams May Come”, Fantasia, etc…, exist.(There’s that word again.)

        Put another way, each bubble of Real is a living, thinking, being, and we are the dreams, or the nightmares, of that being.(That’s my Story, and I’m sticking to it.)

        – There are many such bubbles of Real that spontaneously come into existence in the Infinite Chaos Sea.

        The sad thing is, no matter how many bubbles of Real that “exist”, there is only a finite number. Averaged against Infinity, there is statistically no life in the “Universe”, yet here we are.

        But I digress.

        This has been such a useful thread. It will take me months to harvest and unpack everything.(I have so many windows open, my system is slowing down.)


        [1]This is like the dichotomy between Gnostics and Hermetics.

        – Gnostics think that this bubble of Real is a prison to escape from.

        – Hermetics think that this bubble of Real is a Cathedral to live in.

        The Gnostics don’t realize that there is no “outside” there is only “inside”, so:

        – Don’t pop that bubble.

        [2]The Thirteenth Floor (1999) – Trailer

        • Glad to be good for something.
          I found Modal Realism particularly interesting given the growing evidence (need?) for a multiverse. (Or a lot of turtles.)
          It is a very useful way of dealing with the anthropic principle.

          • Take Modal Realism and Story as the basis for the Strong Anthropic Principle(SAP)[1], ignore anything less[2], or more[3], and you have the answer.

            – Each bubble of Real must have Dreamers for it to exist.(There’s that word again.)

            – Any bubble of Real with no Dreamers fades away.

            That’s the point of The Neverending Story where Fantasia is threatened by the Nothing. If Fantasia is gone, the bubble of Real will fade.

            On a smaller scale, I have Realms like Shangri-La that is essentially it’s own pocket bubble of Real, that is loosely bound to Earth. When there are no more people in Shangri-La, it will fade away.

            In the 1980s there was a war in cosmology. The age of the observable universe was either 20 billion years old, or 10 billion. They ended up “voting” on the result, 13.77 billion years old. That number was not based on “science” it was a vote within “consensus science”.

            Everything in cosmology went down hill from that point on. Glug!

            [1]I’m a SAP for this concept. It is the core of all my stuff.

            [2]The Weak Anthropic Principle(WAP). Doesn’t do it for me.

            [3]The Anthropic Cosmological Principle

            Barrow and Tipler were right that the bubble of Real needs people, but they took it too far.

            – The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP)

            Which is why Gardner called their concept:

            – Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP)

            Don’t trust Gardner, he had his own agenda in many of the books and articles he wrote. We may never know the full story.

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