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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Scott Adams and What Counts as Censorship?

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You may be familiar with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. According to Wikipedia, as of 2013 it was syndicated in 2000 newspapers in 65 countries and 25 languages. I say “as of 2013” because he’s been doing some things recently which have made him less popular, or at least have made a segment of people very angry with him (his net popularity may have actually increased.) Most of the evidence for this is self-reported, so there is some chance it’s a fabrication, but based on what he’s written I would be very surprised if it wasn’t in fact true, knowing, as I do, the sorts of things which make people mad. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to know that anytime someone stakes out a strong political opinion, and particularly when that strong political opinion could be viewed as a defense of Trump (Adams is now endorsing Johnson, wait now he’s back to Trump) they’re going to get some backlash.

One of Adam’s claims is that Twitter (and Periscope, which is owned by Twitter) is Shadowbanning him. (With respect to Twitter, shadowbanning consists of not sending your tweets to all or most of your followers. With Periscope, Adams claim is that they artificially lowered the number of followers who were being displayed.) Adams is not the first to make this claim and he won’t be the last and as I said I see no reason to doubt what he says. His posts on the subject provide evidence to support his assertions and he’s quite calm about it. This is not someone with an obvious axe to grind, and he’s even reasonable enough to admit that it might not be happening, but one of the reasons it’s called shadowbanning is that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The actual mechanism is murky (as you might imagine from the word shadow.)

Obviously if Adams doesn’t know for sure if he’s being shadowbanned I sure don’t, but even people who offer up alternative explanations for shadowbanning acknowledge that it exists. It seems more a question of how widespread it is, though there certainly are lots of people who think they’re being shadowbanned. Regardless of how widespread it is, or whether Adams is affected or whether it’s ideologically motivated it definitely represents a disturbing new weapon in the ongoing war over free speech, which has been heating up over the last few years.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this war, which mostly appears to be raging on America’s campuses. Everyone from The Atlantic to Zerohedge has written about it. (What? You haven’t heard of Zerohedge? Well there goes my clever A-Z construction. How about everyone from The Atlantic to The Economist?) And most of the articles are built around one or more ridiculous examples of someone objecting to something which appears fairly trivial. (a song, the cultural appropriation of a hair style or any of these 13 things.) I could do the same and fill up the article with similar ridiculous examples, but as I said that’s been done already, a lot. Which is to say this is not going to be a post rehashing the issue or another call for college kids to lighten up. What I want to talk about is what counts as censorship because I think that’s a more interesting way of approaching the issue. But before we can talk about censorship i.e. preventing free speech, we need to establish what free speech is in the first place.

The first and most legally consequential definition of free speech is just what it says in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech…” Under this definition, unless the government is doing something to restrict your speech, you still have it. Which means that only the government can censor people. Even here there are exceptions. The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity, threatening immediate violence, and false statements can be restricted without violating someone’s free speech. You may have also heard of the shouting fire in a crowded theater standard. Though it should be noted that this particular standard applies to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. If there actually is a fire, basically the opposite standard applies…

The government is generally not considered a battleground in the current war over free speech. Most people seem to think that it does a pretty good job of not censoring people. Though some may argue that they don’t need to since any necessary censorship is already carried out more effectively by the public at large. But I do think the recent scandal over the IRS disproportionately targeting conservative and tea party groups could be framed as a free speech issue, though few people seem to be making that connection. (The Wikipedia article doesn’t make any mention of a free speech angle.)  In any event there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with the government arresting people for what they say.

And for some people this is exactly the standard they apply, unless the government is actually arresting no censorship is taking place. But the First Amendment doesn’t mention imprisonment, and it doesn’t even mention censorship. What it actually says is that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. I see lots of articles mentioning censorship, and it’s presence or lack, but I don’t see any mention of whether free speech is being abridged, which is what the First Amendment actually prohibits.

As usual with the Constitution the language was chosen very carefully, and abridge is interesting not only because it makes you think of a book, but because it implies a lighter hand than censorship. Obviously the way language is used changes over time, and abridge appears to have had a stronger connotation at the time the Constitution was written than it does now, but’s it not as if the word “censor” didn’t exist. The Framers chose abridge for a reason, and I think the implication we should take, with respect to interpreting the First Amendment, is that it’s not enough to avoid outright banning, but that we should be avoiding any diminishment of speech.

At the opposite end from the “only action by the federal government counts as a restriction of free speech” are people who feel that unless they can say anything they want in any setting without consequence that censorship, in some form, is taking place. But is this actually true? In the way that some people believe that unless the government is arresting you your free speech has not been violated, are there some people who believe the opposite? That unless people are being arrested for preventing speech that they don’t truly have freedom of speech? I don’t think so. I can’t find any calls to cart away network executives in chains if they cancel a TV show, or to lock up Jack Dorsey when someone is banned from Twitter or to round up the Mozilla board of directors when Brendan Eich was forced out.

This is not to say that people don’t get angry about these things, but their anger is not about what people can do, their anger is about what people should do. This may seem like a fine point, but a lot hinges on it. Legally, networks can cancel shows, and they can ban you from posting on Twitter, and they can fire you, and all based on what you said, but should they? As I see it the two sides are arguing past each other. The one side is arguing what censorship is technically, and the other side is arguing what censorship is morally. These are two completely different arguments, and while the former just appears to be looking at what they can get away with the later debate might actually include a discussion of what’s best for the intellectual health of students and citizens and the country as a whole.

To return to Adams and Twitter, the question of whether they can shadowban him is easy. They can, Adams himself admits it. And for many people that’s the end of the story, there is no separation between the ability to do something and the appropriateness of doing something. As you may have already guessed I am arguing that they shouldn’t and I’m going to make the argument that it should be considered censorship from a few different angles.  What I’m not going to be arguing is that free speech is some sort of absolute good, though that’s not far from my true feelings, but for the purposes of the present discussion it will help if I’m more specific.

My first point is made best by drawing a comparison. Imagine if one company ran all the newspapers in the country. It might be legal, it might still produce objective news, but it would definitely be worrying (they might even make a movie about it). The potential for abuse is just too great for people to not be concerned. People would, quite understandably, wonder why the government hadn’t broken it up. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for the government to not have a demonstrated interest in a single nationwide newspaper company, as either a monopoly which should be broken up, a monopoly which had been granted for some reason (like baseball) or at a minimum a monopoly to keep an eye on. And yet very few people are concerned about the effective monopoly of Facebook, or of Twitter (within its niche) but is this a case where technology has outstripped the ability of government to react to it? In other words one argument about whether shadowbanning is censorship hinges on Twitter’s dominant position. It’s not as if CNN has banned Adams, but he can still go on Fox News. There is no real competitor to Twitter, despite their troubles (which is not to say people aren’t trying.) The monopoly is even more apparent with Facebook, which made the news recently when it was revealed that employees within Facebook were suppressing conservative content.

One of the reasons why it’s so important that the government not abridge freedom of speech is that they have a monopoly. In the government’s case it’s a monopoly on the use of force, but it’s really the monopoly part that’s important. Other monopolies, particularly monopolies on modes of speech, have a similar moral responsibility to not censor. Once again, this has nothing to do with what they can do, but what they should do. And because of their effective monopoly, what Facebook and Twitter should do is very similar to what the government, another monopoly, should do.

The second argument concerns the particulars of shadowbanning. I don’t know about you, but I find the practice to be particularly Orwellian. We’ve already granted that Twitter can ban people, and I think that if they’re going to do that they just should, ideally with a reason why. In other words, if Twitter doesn’t want you on their platform they should have the guts to say it to your face. I would think the morality of this should be obvious, but if not perhaps it would help to look at reasons why they might shadowban people rather than outright banning them. The key feature of the shadowban is that there is no notification. Why is that? You would imagine that if they wanted to warn someone about their inappropriate behavior that they would send them a warning, something very clear and unmistakable. But they don’t which leads me to believe that it’s purpose is not to warn people. But if that’s not it’s purpose, what is? It seems specifically designed to restrict speech, but in a way that people won’t notice. This makes it difficult to complain about it, or even to know what’s going on, as we see in the case of Adams.

I said it was Orwellian, and on reflection it may be closer to Brave New World. Where people are distracted by the illusion of agency and control, while actually possessing neither. Also, as long as we’re talking about the First Amendment, there’s another section to it, which might bear on this topic. The First Amendment also grants people the right “peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Imagine if the government allowed a gathering on the National Mall. A typical protest where you can have your signs and you can yell and march, and do do all the normal things you do at a protest. But in reality, rather than letting you protest on the National Mall, the government, without your knowledge, secretly funnels you into the holodeck from Star Trek. As far as you can tell you’re marching towards the Capital waving your sign, with protesters as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t feel pretty good about things, surveying the vast uprising that you’re a part of. But in the end it’s just a holodeck, and you haven’t really done any marching or any protesting. In reality you’re just a guy in a box shouting at himself.

To recap, thus far the arguments are, Facebook and Twitter should be held to a standard nearly as high as the government because of their de facto monopoly in social networks, and micro-blogging respectively. And that shadowbanning is creepy and dystopian. I want to look at free speech from one final perspective. I predict that I may be walking into a minefield, but I think the comparison I’ll be making is not without merit.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal, and from that point, though there was fierce resistance in many states, it was the law of the land that the government couldn’t segregate people on the basis of race. However private companies were still allowed to refuse service to blacks, as was the case in one memorable instance in 1957 when the Finance Minister of Ghana stopped at a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware and tried to order orange juice, only to be refused service. (Eisenhower personally apologized.) It wasn’t until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that it was made illegal for businesses to refuse service on the basis of race, under the doctrine of public accommodation.

These days it seems obvious that a hotel shouldn’t be able to refuse to give someone a room on the basis of race, but back then it wasn’t obvious. While it’s been clear since the founding of the republic that the government needed to be under certain restrictions, precisely because of the monopoly on force that I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t clear at all that the same restrictions should be placed on private businesses. The doctrine of public accommodation was their way around that. Not only were these businesses open to the public, but they used government provided roads and utilities. Consequently, while not part of the government they could nevertheless be placed under the same restrictions concerning discrimination.

Perhaps you can already see where I’m going with this, but if not, free speech is in the same situation the Civil Rights movement found itself in after Brown, but before the Civil Rights Act. There’s lots of things we don’t think the government should be able to do, but we’re okay with private businesses doing them. If you think this comparison is valid (and if you don’t think it’s valid I’m interested in hearing why). Then you’re left with one of three options:

1- Free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. And that’s why we allow a different standard to exist.
2- We should extend the same basic restrictions the government operates under to businesses which provide a public accommodation, particularly as it relates to speech.
3- The Civil Rights Act was a mistake and we shouldn’t apply any restrictions to private businesses in terms of racial discrimination just as we don’t with apply any restriction as regards speech.

I have a hard time believing that anyone is going to stake out option three as their position, particularly the kind of people who are offended by Scott Adams and others like him. (Rand Paul tried it and it worked about as well as you would expect.) This leaves either number one or number two. Number two assumes that you think that free speech is at least as important as preventing discrimination (otherwise we’re talking about option 1). And if you do, and you accept the comparison I made, then option two is the only logical choice. I win!

If you don’t want me to win (and, frankly, who could blame you) and you don’t want to get crucified for supporting option three. Your only defensible position, as far as I can tell, is to admit that free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. Perhaps you’re fine with that, perhaps you honestly feel that free speech isn’t especially important, particularly when, in this day and age, it appears to frequently result in threats and harassment. And even if you’re a big believer in free speech, like myself, it’s still appropriate to wonder what value it actually has. Why did the founders consider it so important? Important enough to be the very first amendment? What role does it serve? How does it improve our society, and our country?

These questions are particularly important right now on the eve of the election. If freedom of the press is ever important it has to be especially important when deciding who to vote for. And it can only exercise that importance if free speech is a way of improving the outcome in an election. The most obvious way it could do that is by disseminating truth.

There are some who would argue that in this day and age free speech is doing the exact opposite of that. We see articles lamenting the fact free election, we hear podcasts where the host complains that facts have become irrelevant. But if this is true (and I’m not convinced that it is) how do we decide which speech to allow and which speech to restrict? Certain people want to claim that it’s clear what’s factual and what’s not, and that we just have to impose restrictions based on that. But is it really that clear? I’m not sure that it is. I’ve already written about the questions which have been raised concerning Hillary’s health, and some people will declare it as fact that she’s in perfect health. But these same people were also saying she was in perfect health right up until the moment that she collapsed on September 11th and for several hours afterward. I remind you that I freely admit that I don’t know how healthy Clinton is. Just that people want to declare something like Clinton’s health to be a fact in the same way that it’s a fact that light travels 299,792,458 meters/second, and unfortunately those two are not equivalent.

But even if there was a foolproof way to designate something as a fact and a non-dangerous way to put a single organization in charge of applying that restriction (could we get unicorns farting rainbows while we’re at it?) distributing non-factual information is not why Adams and others like him are being shadowbanned. As far as I can tell Adams is being shadowbanned for expressing unpopular opinions. I am not claiming by this that this is the only reason that people get (shadow)banned, I’m claiming that when we examine all the reasons for someone to get banned saying things which are factually incorrect does not appear very high on the list, if it appears at all. Interestingly, while I was writing this post, the news reported that numerous Facebook employees wanted to remove Trump’s posts because they considered them hate speech. If you search the article I just linked to the words “untrue”, “lies”, “fact” and “false” do not appear.

Now, it might be that Trump did say things that were untrue, but it was just easier to make the hate speech argument. This takes us off into another realm where gallons of ink have been spilled, with arguments about whether people have a right to not be offended, and we’re already basically out of space. I’ll just leave you with two final thoughts:

First, it’s clear from the fact that many of the founders were slave-holders that they did not consider preventing discrimination to be more important than free speech. In fact they didn’t consider to be an issue at all. In this they were certainly incorrect, but are we so sure that it should be flipped to the point where preventing discrimination goes from having zero attention paid to it to being more important than free speech?

Finally, if you question the value of free speech I urge you to take a look at countries where free speech is restricted, and consider that in many ways this restriction represents one of the few differences between those countries and the United States. We’ll continue discussing this in my next post.

If you've ever considered giving any money to Scott Adams take that amount and divide it by the esteem you feel for me (say 1000 times less) and donate that (rounding up to the nearest penny is appreciated).

Saturday, October 22, 2016

And There Was Silence in Heaven...

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And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

I sometimes worry that I have made it impossible for anyone to read my blog unless they think exactly the same as I do (or are REALLY open-minded). For anyone who’s not religious, there’s too much religion. For anyone who is religious there’s too much science fiction. For anyone who’s a religious science fiction buff, there’s too much that’s specifically Mormon. For Mormon science fiction buffs there’s too much pessimism. If, after all that, you happen to be a pessimistic Mormon science fiction buff, then you may have felt right at home so far. Well we can’t have that, so for this post I’m going to throw in some crazy speculation, and engage in the sort of thing normally restricted to numerologists, apocalyptic prophets, and seminary teachers. Okay, I’m not going to get into as much speculation as the average seminary teacher, but I wanted to err on the side of over-selling things.

I started the post off with a couple of scriptural references. I’ll be contrarian by discussing the second verse first. That verse is from D&C 87, the section of the D&C where in 1832 Joseph Smith predicts that there will be a Civil War and it will start in South Carolina. Which is at least somewhat impressive considering that this was almost 30 years before the actual Civil War, which actually did start in South Carolina. But more important for our purposes he goes from predicting the Civil War in basically a straight line to verse 6, quoted above, which ends by predicting a “full end of all nations.” So what happened? It’s been over 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we certainly haven’t seen the “full end of all nations.” And, frankly, the famines, plagues and vivid lightning have been underwhelming as well.

You might reply that Joseph was wrong, and that he wasn’t a prophet (though I would argue that just being wrong on this point doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a prophet.) This is certainly one possibility. But this is a Mormon blog, so we’re obviously not going to spend much time on the idea that Joseph was wrong. We’re going to proceed from the assumption that he was right. But of course even if he wasn’t, he is not alone in predicting some sort of apocalypse. Not only do we have the rest of Christianity to add to that, but there’s also a pancultural millennial impulse appearing even in places not know to be bastions of Christianity like India and China. And this was all part of the zeitgeist before we even had nuclear weapons. Surely if it seemed like the apocalypse was inevitable before that, the addition of nukes could only change things from “maybe” to “definitely.”

And yet, since those two terrible days in 1945, when nuclear weapons were actually used in anger things have been fairly calm. Nukes have not been used again (outside of tests). There have been no wars between the great powers. The whole period is unusual enough that people have called it the Long Peace, and other people have written books about the eventual extinction of war in books like The Better Angels of our Nature and The Remnants of War. So if Joseph Smith predicted that the American Civil War would be the beginning of the end, why have we had 70 years of relative peace?

And here we finally turn to the first scripture and the theme of this post, the silence in heaven and here, we begin our speculation. Obviously speculation can’t get anywhere without making some assumptions. Our first assumption will be that the silence spoken of refers to a period of relative calm. No big disasters, no big wars, no worldwide famines or plagues, etc. The second assumption is that the opening of the seventh seal refers to the time immediately preceding the Second Coming (an assumption backed up by McConkie’s chapter heading). The final assumption (at least to start) is that the half hour is based on a day lasting a 1000 years. With all these initial assumptions in place we can begin by speculating that the Long Peace is just the half hour of silence mentioned in Revelation before the action really starts. In other words the Long Peace is part of the plan, and Joseph wasn’t wrong, we just needed to combine his apocalyptic prophecies with the apocalyptic prophecies of John and it all makes sense. Except…

Except that 1000 / 24 = ~42. So one hour in a thousand year day only equals around 42 years, which means that half an hour is only around 21 years, which is way too short to account for the 70 years of peace we’ve had. Of course it does say “about” the space of a half an hour, but you would assume that anything above around 31 years and it would have been more accurate to say “about” the space of an hour. So at this point we’ve realized that it’s a dead end and we end this post and I see you next week, right? No! What kind of rampant speculator would I be if I just called it a day there? The next step is obviously to take our period of 70 years and see if we can find some 21-31 year slice which might fit the bill. In other words we have to take parts of that 70 years and make them, metaphorically, noisy.

As grim as it might be, in this case deaths are a useful proxy for “noise”, thus, not to get too clinical about it, if a lot of people died at the beginning or end of those 70 years we’d start our half hour clock after that or end it before that.

Looking towards the beginning of the period, while it’s commonly believed that World War II wrapped everything up in a tight little bow, Stalin and Mao were still out there. And even if you ignore the Cold War they were killing millions of their own citizens in the years following the war. Presumably Stalin stopped killing people when he died in 1953 (though you never know, killing people beyond the grave is exactly the kind of thing Stalin would do.) But Mao was around much longer, and is thought to have (indirectly) caused the deaths of nearly 45 million during the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t end until 1961. Most of those people died from famine, which is one of the things mentioned in section 87. In the end, regardless of the cause, the premature deaths of 45 million people or more than half of everyone who died during World War II gives us ample justification for moving the start of the half hour of silence to at least 1962.

If the silence begins in 1962, it would have to have ended sometime between 1983 and 1993.  That obviously still doesn’t get us where we want to be, since if anything rather than marking the renewed start of violence and famine and plagues and earthquakes* that period contained the end of the Cold War. But if we’re trying to extend the “noisy” period, what about the Cold War? Would it count? I said already that I was going to use death as a proxy for noise and in this particular case the Cold War was not particularly “noisy”. Of course there was the Korean War and Vietnam. Both of which saw the deaths of a few million people. And while I don’t want to minimize either war, they don’t quite seem to rise to the level of what we’re looking for. But if we abandon the standard of deaths (I know I’m abandoning a standard I proposed, but trust me you do this all the time during rampant speculation.) Could we make a case for the Cold War?

*Speaking of earthquakes there was an earthquake in China in 1976, which you have probably never heard of, which is estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people. Still nothing to compare to the Great Leap Forward. But, in terms of percent of population this would be equivalent to 94,000 people dying in the US, or 50x as bad as Katrina.

The best case to be made would be built around the potential for death and destruction. And while it never came to that (though it came close several times) the potential was there on a scale never before imagined. If we decide to assume that the Cold War fits our criteria for “noise” and that the half hour of silence would have to start after it ended, then that pushes the start all the way from 1945 to 1989. (I’m going with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of the end). When you combine the unraveling Soviet Union with the Tiananmen Square protests, which also happened in 1989, it really seemed like a long nightmare had just ended. It was earth-shattering enough to lead people like Francis Fukuyama (who we pick on a lot) to declare the end of history. (The essay on which the book as based was also written in 1989.) Frankly, I’m getting a pretty good feeling about 1989. (To cap it all off that’s the year I graduated from high school.)

All of this is of course rampant speculation and of limited (if not nonexistent) utility. So why engage in it? While there is a certain esoteric draw in trying to understand the scriptures in this fashion, I do it more to bring out a larger point. (Though I shouldn’t minimize the pleasure I take in engaging in a little apocalyptic nerdery.) And the larger point is that we shouldn’t mistake the current “silence” for the first day of summer, when it’s actually just a temporary calm as we pass through the eye of the storm. And I believe that it’s safe to say that we’re more likely in the eye of the storm regardless what you believe about Joseph Smith, or the Bible.

There are four reasons why the eye of the storm model is better:

1- It corresponds more closely to reality. People want to talk about the Long Peace, but as I pointed out 45 million people died in a four year period under Mao. This event was unique only in scale. Something similar happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when 25% of the population died. While this only represents 2 million people, it was still 25%!!! I know this trick is getting old, but if translated to the US that would represent the deaths of 80 million people. Would anyone be making the Long Peace argument if that many people had died in the US regardless of the whether a foreign power had anything to do with it? In other words the Long Peace argument would appear to dismiss entirely or seriously undervalue internal political strife.

2- It is mathematically more robust. I already mentioned this in a previous post, but Taleb has show that the work of Pinker and others on this subject is not statistically valid. You can read his paper for a more detailed analysis, but in short, when you’re talking about the average level of violence in a period, that average is completely dominated by large, rare events. The example Taleb gives is of saying someone is extremely virtuous except for that time he gunned down 30 students. Our own period could be extremely peaceful except for that one nuclear war in 2027.

3- If we assume that the storm is about to start again, and we prepare accordingly, this has very little downside. As I’ve said before. If you’re wrong and it is the start of summer, than having been more cautious carries minimal expense. But if you’re right and it was just the eye of the storm then being more cautious may save your life.

4- Finally, if you are an active member of the Church with a testimony of Joseph Smith it accords better, not only with what he said but with what more recent prophets have been saying.

Of course just knowing that you’re in the eye of the storm doesn’t allow you to stop the hurricane. You can only survive it.

There are, of course, people who don’t agree with these points. Certainly 1 could be a matter of opinion. I will leave Taleb to defend point 2, a task he is more than capable of. And of course point 4 is all about faith, which leaves us with point 3.

I see two avenues for attacking point 3. The first is that it pulls resources away from things that are more probable and more important and more beneficial. The second would be that it actually leads to dangerous millennialism where people either stop doing things in expectation of the end of the world, or they try to hasten the end of the world in some fashion reasoning that the perfect world only comes after the tribulations. The two objections are related, with the one being, essentially, just an extreme version of the other. I separate the two because the second case can snowball into something that can only be described as a mass hysteria. Of course examples like Harold Camping’s predictions in 2011 are easy to identify and ridicule, as are early examples like the Millerites. But more disturbing are the secular millennialists, since this is arguably what was going on during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cambodian genocide mentioned earlier. (See how I tie it all together.)

I think in discussing this it’s useful to examine the LDS Church’s stance on the matter. While not incredibly common it’s easy to find General Conference talks about the Second Coming. And you can even find talks about preparing the world for the Second Coming. Yet if you read these talks there is very little beyond exhortations to do more missionary work, and have more faith. Mormons have to no mass project to save the world (or to kill all people with glasses, like the Cambodian genocide) nor have the brethren given any hint of a date. In fact what the brethren constant urge is that we stay out of debt, have a 72 hour kit, and as much food storage as is practical. In other words, even in a religion with the concept of the Second Coming right in it’s name. It’s certainly possible to avoid the more extreme strands of millennialism.

But of course that still leaves us with the idea that by focusing too much on potential bad stuff that we can slow down or prevent the good stuff. Many people will confidently argue that if we spend all of our time fearing worst case scenarios that the best case scenarios will never come about. Well first, there is definitely a difference between taking precautions and being afraid. As the Mormons like to say, if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. And I don’t think that as a society that we spend too much time and money on preparedness for potential disasters. And I think all of the people involved in Hurricane Katrina would probably agree with me. I think if there’s any misallocation of resources it would be that we spend too much on short term band-aids and not enough on preventing long term calamities. That concept deserves it’s own post, but allow me to illustrate how it ties into our current subject.

My argument is that while it looks like the dawning of a new age of peace, prosperity and progress that this is actually just the eye of the hurricane. We want to believe, that with the exception of a few pesky terrorists that we’re still at the end of history, and it’s only a matter of time before peace and democracy and freedom will triumph everywhere. This is why people have no problem expanding NATO and pissing off the Russians (did you notice that a rollback of NATO was part of the demands Russia made when they suspended the arms control deal?) or deciding to risk war with Russia over Syria. Which might be forgivable if it was clear what we expected to accomplish. As far as I can tell we want to save lives and depose Assad and eliminate ISIS and promote a moderate, secular replacement and eventually rebuild the country into a modern democracy. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but it is certain that in trying to contain and manage this regional conflict we have increased tensions with Russia.

Tensions with Russia are bad because they have nukes, which I worry about, a lot. Obviously they’re pretty scary all on their own, but I worry that we have no experience conducting diplomacy in the presence of nukes. Allow me to explain what I mean. The history of the world since the invention of nuclear weapons can be divided up into three periods:

Period one: The US has nukes and no one else does. This lasted basically four years from the end of 1945 till the end of 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke. I don’t know what diplomacy was like then. The war has the effect of overshadowing everything after it. But if we engaged in any diplomacy it should have been designed to prevent proliferation at all costs. Based on everything I know about Stalin it wouldn’t have worked. Churchill’s solution was to keep the war going and immediately pivot to the Soviet Union. I can certainly see where it might be argued that war-weariness kept us from achieving a truly decisive victory. And I see parallels between the two World Wars and between the two Gulf Wars. But I’m inclined to think that Churchill was wrong. Still if World War III had happened, say in the 60’s, if for instance the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone another way, then Churchill would have seemed prescient, but the farther we get from 1945 the less of a good idea it seems. (And as I said I think on balance it’s already a bad idea.)

Period Two: The bipolar cold war of mutual assured destruction. Here our diplomacy was all designed around getting countries into our sphere and keeping the Soviets from getting people into their sphere. And avoiding war through the promise that whatever the Soviets did to us, we’d do back to them. I’m not honestly sure how good we were at this sort of diplomacy or even if we were pursuing the right goals. (The older I get the more impressed I am by Nixon’s trip to China though, I can tell you that.) But regardless we survived, which was by no means a sure thing.

Period Three: A multipolar world where many countries have nukes. With the end of the Cold War it’s no longer just us vs. Russia, there are a lot of players. It’s entirely possible the biggest risk of nuclear war is between India and Pakistan, and however hard diplomacy was in bipolar world, it’s even more difficult in a multipolar world. And yet rather than being aware of that fact we seem to have reverted to some version of pre-1945 diplomacy, only with the addition of Churchill’s idea of imposing our will on the Russians, after they have nukes. While Churchill’s idea was misguided, doing it after the invention of the ICBM is suicidal.

What do we do about all this? You may have noticed that when I finally ended my speculation by concluding that the half hour of silence ended in 1989, that I never took the obvious next step and calculated when that would put the end of the half hour. You may have already done the calculation, but if not, it would put the end sometime between 2010 and 2020. Let’s all hope that I’m wrong.

Rampant speculation, with only the thinnest basis in scripture, of the kind I just did, doesn't come cheap (or maybe it does) either way consider donating.