From Looking Glass to Scary

My “looking glass” take two days ago was a cute way to avoid discussing the “tribalists” or the “cult” but perhaps things are actually getting too serious to dismiss those items as merely bizarre, upside-down-thinking about the world. If it were only flat earthers, maybe. But even the senior columnists seem to be getting honestly worried about the current state of Republicans and MAGA.

  • Adam Frank on whether our society has become too complex to survive;
  • My thoughts on the pace of change, science fiction, and the MAGA dream of a simplistic past;
  • David Brooks, a right-wing guy, is now shocked by how Republicans have given in to Trumpism;
  • Paul Krugman on whether Americans can survive a party of saboteurs.

Let’s start with this.

Adam Frank, Big Think, 9 Feb 2024: Have we created a society that’s too complex to survive?, subtitled “Human civilization has always survived periods of change. Will our rapidly evolving technological era be an exception to the rule?”

Key Takeaways
• Human societies evolved from simple to complex over millennia, experiencing slow change until recent centuries when technology accelerated our evolution. • Over the past two centuries, technological advancements have transformed society at an unprecedented pace. • Adam Frank explores how this increasingly quick pace of techno-social evolution raises questions about humanity’s ability to adapt.

He establishes that Homo sapiens evolved to its current form about 300,000 years ago, and over much of history since — some 15,000 generations of 20 years each — life was remarkably static. Until recently.

Instead, we inhabit a world of rapid change driven by technology that has produced a techno-social world of staggering complexity. It’s a situation utterly unlike almost every other generation in the human lineage.

So, is that a problem? Have we created a world that’s too complex and fast-changing for our own good?

Of course my immediate thoughts are that this rapid pace of change, especially over the past century, is what has inspired science fiction, and at the same time inspired all sorts of reactionary conservative movements by those uncomfortable with such pace of change.

And so he outlines the “arc of human cultures” from small groups to more complex ones. This affected how humans lived together socially. These days, we see rapid change in our own lifetimes (think of iterations of new phones). Which in turn affect our politics and social interactions. He considers how much change a human can experience in a lifetime. He concludes:

So, what is the inherent timescale for the networks that make up our human techno-social world? That’s the million-dollar question. The naïve answer: roughly a human lifetime (i.e. a century or so). There was a lot of change from 1820 to 1920 but society didn’t fall apart. This may have something to do with the flexibility of both human cognition and the nature of the social networks (their topology) that keep societies stable.

Now, however, we seem to be driving strong changes on timescales that are less than a single generation. Is this too fast for the distributed cognition that occurs over our social and political networks to handle? Is the pace of technological change — coupled with the impact those changes have on social organization (i.e. the rules of the network) — now too fast for our systems to absorb? That, too, is the million-dollar question.

Still, one thing is certain. All the generations alive today are part of a vast, unplanned experiment in the flexibility and stability of human social orders. Our fate as a planetary species depends on how that experiment works out.


This leads to my thought that, how much does any individual person suffer the pace of change? The world has become more complex, but that’s because it’s bigger. There are many different specialties and subcultures involved in that complexity, but any one individual doesn’t even know about most of them. There was an era — perhaps this is part of the MAGA dream — when the ordinary man (that is, husband, head of the idealistic two-parent household) could fix his car, and fix his radio or TV (we took the vacuum tubes to the hardware store to figure out one was bad!), without having to consult or pay specialist technicians. Now, we need technicians to fix our things, and we don’t have any understanding of how those things work that’s any different than using magic. How do our iPhones work? Actually, by relativity physics the conservatives don’t believe in (see Conservapedia), and GPS satellites that work because of satellites in orbit around a spherical earth, which the flat-earthers don’t believe in.

And this in turn leads to my recent observation that substantial portions of our population are rejecting both science and democracy. Is this how Adam Frank’s idea that our complex society may not survive works out?


The commentators are getting really worried.

NY Times, David Brooks, 8 Feb 2024: Trump Came for Their Party but Took Over Their Souls

I thought I was beyond shockable, but this week has been profoundly shocking for me. I spent the bulk of my adult life on the right-wing side of things, generally rooting for the Republican Party, because I thought that party best served America. People like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump chased me out of the Republican orbit (gradually and then all at once), but I have still held out the hope that my many friends on the right are kind of like an occupied country. They have to mouth the Trumpian prejudices to survive in this era, but somewhere deep inside, the party of Reagan still lives in their souls.

After this week, and the defeat of the immigration-Ukraine-Israel package, it’s hard to believe that anymore. Even if some parts of the bill survive, the party of Eisenhower, Reagan and McCain is just stone cold gone — and not only among House Republicans, but apparently among their Senate colleagues too.

My progressive readers are now thinking: Have you not been paying attention? Donald Trump has owned this party for years. If he told them to kill the immigration compromise because he needed a campaign issue, they were going to kill that proposal.

To which I respond: I don’t think you quite understand what just happened. This wasn’t just about Republicans cynically bending their knee to Trump. Rather, I’m convinced that Trumpism now pervades the deepest recesses of their minds and governs their unconscious assumptions. Their fundamental mental instincts are no longer conservative, but Trumpian.

And then he summarizes five convictions of Republicans, based on the events of this past week.

  • Democracy is for suckers
  • Entertainment over governance
  • Foreigners don’t matter
  • Lying is normal
  • American would be better off in a post-American world

The first item includes this passage about the border bill,

This week’s immigration-Ukraine-Israel package is one of the most one-sided compromises I’ve ever seen. Republicans got most of their long-term priorities, while Democrats got almost none of theirs. “By any honest reckoning, this is the most restrictive migrant legislation in decades,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted. “This is almost entirely a border security bill, and its provisions include longtime G.O.P. priorities that the party’s restrictionists could never have passed only a few months ago.”

And yet Republican after Republican came out against the package, arguing it doesn’t have absolutely everything they want. They have adopted the Trumpian logic that under him, they will never have to compromise. The dictator will issue commands, and everything Republicans want will just happen.

And this is consistent with the item, from two days ago, about how Three-quarters of Republicans back Trump being ‘dictator for a day’. They hope that Trump will become a dictator and simply assert what’s the law, without any kind of democratic process.

Brooks concludes the article,

We’re living through one of the most dangerous periods of modern times. As the historian Hal Brands noted recently in Foreign Affairs, the situation today is reminiscent of the mid- to late 1930s. Back then, fascist Italy assaulted Ethiopia. Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland. Japan ravaged China. These three regional conflicts had not yet metastasized into a global world war, but even in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt warned of an “epidemic of world lawlessness.”

That epidemic of lawlessness is back. Russia, Iran and China have started or raised regional tensions in ways that threaten to coalesce into something truly nasty. Groups like the Houthis seek to fill the vacuums left by American weakness. The storm clouds are gathering.

You’d think these trends would inspire a note of seriousness among the men and women elected to represent the people of this nation. It hasn’t. Trumpism was once a posture most Republican officeholders donned to preserve their political viability. But it’s an eternal verity of human psychology: If you wear a mask long enough, eventually the mask becomes who you are.

At the same time, I try to understand all this through the lenses of history and human psychology. These trends of authoritarianism have always been with us. It may be that our modern world, at least in the U.S., based on idealistic principles of science and democracy, are testaments to human imagination, but, as with Adam Frank’s article, may be overcome by the forces of basic, tribal, human nature.


One more.

Paul Krugman, Opinion, NY Times, 8 Feb 2024: Can America Survive a Party of Saboteurs?

Krugman extends his recent themes about the economy. He’s had two other recent posts on this: Confirmed: Immigration Does Make Us Richer, and (subscriber only) Trump, Immigration and the Lump of Labor Fallacy.

In the current piece, Krugman consider what might have happened if Biden had not passed the CARES Act to limit the financial hardship created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Which was a huge policy success.

But Trump’s Republicans (and recent events have confirmed that Trump really does own the G.O.P.) are everything the Democrats of 2020 weren’t. They’ve rejected a border security and foreign aid bill that they themselves demanded and then negotiated, one that was far harsher than Democrats would have wanted. And they aren’t even trying to hide their naked cynicism. They want to block a border deal, even one that gives them almost everything they want, because any deal might limit their ability to attack President Biden over the issue.

And Krugman concludes,

I’m worried about the future. One of America’s two major political parties is now dedicated to achieving power at all costs, and will try to make the nation ungovernable when a Democrat sits in the White House. How long can our democracy survive under these conditions?

Is there some similarity to our present condition with the timidity of ordinary Germans in the 1930s? “First they came…”

Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

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