Memetics and Evolution

Blade Runner 2049: Is Bondage Immoral?

Blade Runner 2049 Poster

Blade Runner 2049 Poster

The original 1982 Blade Runner was not a great commercial success in its theatrical release, but had a huge cultural impact over time. Aspects of its vision of 2019 Los Angeles and noir style have appeared in hundreds of other movies. The production of Blade Runner 2049 as a sequel is another symptom of Hollywood’s creative exhaustion and the unwillingness to finance risky productions that don’t have a pre-marketed, built-in audience to guarantee at least some return. The sequel is lavish and lovingly crafted, in many ways more ambitious than the original. But I think it fails to live up to the original, and here’s why…

The original had a very simple story — Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is an updated noir detective, tasked with finding and killing escaped replicants. Like a classic Raymond Chandler gumshoe, he’s single and lives an isolated life estranged from all but his job. The dame in his story is Rachael, the embodiment of feminine beauty and vulnerability, who turns out to be a replicant herself, brought up with false memories of a childhood that never was. She has never experienced real pain, living as the protected “niece” of Eldon Tyrell, the brilliant billionaire head of Tyrell Corporation. Unlike most replicants, she is not doomed to die on her fourth birthday, as was apparently intended to limit the threat that superhuman replicants might rise to overthrow their normal human masters. Replicants have been made illegal on Earth, and are used only in space and the outer colonies. The Earth seems to have been largely depopulated, as most humans with get-up-and-go got up and left for the colonies. It’s noticeable that the humans Deckard encounters on Earth are all eccentric, physically imperfect misfits, while the replicants–and Rachael, and Deckard himself–are good-looking and healthy.

Deckard is ordered to find and eliminate six replicants who have killed humans and landed on Earth. The outlaw replicants are desperate to find a way to live beyond their programmed death dates and intend to force Tyrell to change their genetic programming. The plot revolves around Deckard’s gradual discovery of who Rachael (and by controversial implication, Deckard himself) is as he chases down and kills three replicants.

The story is of gradual discovery and the resonance of the personalities of the three replicants he kills. Because the plot is relatively simple, the art design, atmosphere, and nuance have greater impact.


Why is the sequel less effective? Because it tries to do much more — there’s more plot, violence, and most importantly an evil villain whose motive seems to be megalomania. In the original, flawed humans did their best to survive using replicant labor, and replicants, who have been enslaved and sentenced to death long before their time, are acting to survive as well. The evil involved is not a single man’s greed or megalomania, but slavery itself–which had been justified out of human fear. The sequel’s plot clanks along with a definite villain and his henchwoman as foils, and there’s so much plot that the characters are less compelling.

The sequel is set thirty years later, in 2049. Blade runner ‘K’ (played by Ryan Gosling) seeks out those rare surviving replicants who were built without a set date of death. ‘K’ knows he is a replicant but accepts his orders without question, and he kills an old replicant living alone in a desolate protein farm. When he checks out the area, he discovers a buried box containing the bones of a replicant woman who appears to have given birth via C-section–but it is supposed to be impossible for replicants to have children.

Wallace, the new Tyrell, first saved humanity by discovering how to produce food industrially, then re-introduced replicants after buying the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation and introducing new models who followed orders without the possibility of rebellion. The one thing he cannot create, it seems, is a replicant that can reproduce–and he must have the secret to allow his empire to expand without the limitations of one-at-a-time replicant production, and incidentally make Humanity 1.0 obsolete. There isn’t time for a good explanation of how he came to be so evil, and most of his will is expressed by his replicant assistant Luv, who provides the kickass female fighter every thriller now seems to require. He personally kills several of his creations showily, knifing one woman in the stomach during a demonstration–we are to assume he is a psychopath.

As in the original, the details of technology are left to be imagined since there is no way to address them on film. The sequel also introduces the now-common idea of the AI personality verging on human, in the character Joi. Joi is an off-the-shelf and heavily advertised AI companion who has customized herself to support K. The interactions between them seem like real human affection and support, and Joi demands to be saved to a physical memory and erased from the cloud so she can join him with the real possibility of death. Near the end of the film, K encounters an ad for Joi and realizes much of what he thought was her personality was off-the-shelf mannerisms, notably giving him the name Joe — as a Thai prostitute might.

But this movie is just toying with that issue, more effectively explored in Her and Ex Machina.

Because the plot is overly complicated, there are some significant plot holes. We see two birth records with identical DNA, but one is tagged male and the other female; this is to prime us to believe K is the male son of Rachael and Deckard. Later we discover the child was female and K was given some of her memories, but that means he was programmed after those memories had been created, and so he must have been decanted as a replicant much later. Deckard explains that he helped confuse the database and insert false information, but the contrivance feels forced to mislead the audience.

Another serious flaw: K rescues Deckard from a crashed flyer and tells us Deckard will be assumed dead and so is now safe from Wallace. Then he delivers Deckard to his daughter’s workplace. His daughter is a contractor for Wallace and it seems highly unlikely his visit would not be noted in such a surveillance society. K then apparently dies on the snow-covered steps, but who cleans up his body, and how will this not result in revealing Deckard and his daughter to Wallace and the police?

The movie is excellent and well worth the (rather long) time spent, with art design rivalling and extending the original. The soundtrack is apparently much too loud in some theaters. But like many recent big-budget movies, it tries to out-action and out-evil its source material in a way that actually diminishes its long-term impact (see “Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire for another example.) It seems likely that the characters from the original will be remembered long after the sequel is forgotten.

As a meditation on slavery, the sequel brings up more issues than the original. New-model replicants are supposedly incapable of rebellion, unlike the Nexus-6’s of the original. We see this in both K and Luv, who faithfully carry out the orders of their supervisors–at least until K begins lying, claiming to have found and eliminated the threat posed by the child when he thinks it was him, which verges on disobedience.

We can see slavery as a spectrum from acceptable to horrifying–from plants and invertebrates grown and harvested for food to mammals like cows and sheep who clearly have some sentience, but in those cases who would not have existed without the implied use for human needs. As we grow more sensitive and wealthy, sensitivity to the pain of our mammalian relatives has increased, and we strive to use them as painlessly as possible. Our nearest relatives, primates, are still used for medical research but under relatively humane conditions. Ethical quandaries grow as the intelligence and emotional understanding of animals grows towards human; we now know cetaceans, elephants, and others have societies and communication abilities analogous to primates. Is it moral to create and grow intelligent, feeling life only to use it and destroy it as suits us?

Both movies address this dilemma, which ties into current debates about slavery, autonomy of workers generally, and the immorality of any but voluntary contracts. If I create you and use my resources to support your growth and life, do you owe me work and loyalty? We see this accepted in traditional families, where children are supported, molded, and used to support the enterprises of the family until they reach an age of independence–this family transmission of culture and family production of children to create successor families is the foundation of human existence. Would it be wrong to commission an artificial human and expect some period of labor in return? Probably not–so long as the android is given the choice to leave for an independent life once the contract is up. The evil of Nexus-6 replicants is not so much the period of forced labor as it is the forced end to their lives; we can imagine the less immoral alternative of manumission after four years and settlement on a planet of their own, given humanity’s fear of replacement.

The self-reproducing replicant would, as is suggested by the sequel, make standard humans obsolete. It would be immoral for standard humans to be killed or restricted by the new model’s success, but also immoral for the new models to be prevented from living as they wish. This is a dilemma unlikely to occur in reality, as genetic alteration of humanity will likely be a smooth evolution that only widens the current spectrum of abilities, blending new with old without a split. It seems unlikely there is any way to program genetically modified humans to obey–it’s not that kind of programming. HBO’s Westworld revolves around that issue, with the creator designing its models to achieve human levels of consciousness only by allowing them memory and growing free will.

Extended HD trailer:

More on pop culture:

Valerian: Fun Trumps Flaws
Star Trek Beyond: Teambuilding Exercise
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”

Men of Honor vs Victim Culture

Calvin on Victimhood

Calvin on Victimhood

The widely-noticed blog post by Jonathan Haidt, “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account,” starts out this way:

I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell andJason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind…. The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

This is very obvious to anyone paying attention to college campuses these days. And as he and the authors of the paper he discusses point out, this new culture of victimhood thrives only where there is very little actual victimization or inequality — under the umbrella of a micromanaging government or university administration who can be called on to recognize your victim status.

As we dissect this phenomenon, then, we first address how it fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties. We note that these tactics sometimes involve building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses.

And an epidemic of falsification has occurred, with many of the most publicized cases of rape or hate crimes on campus having been revealed to be hoaxes or fabrications. In a world where young people are encouraged to think of themselves as members of oppressed minorities, some of the most privileged — affluent students on university campuses — demand more subsidies and more recognition for their special snowflake natures, and agitate for more grants and more programs to allow them to avoid repaying student loans and to work after they graduate at activist nonprofits.

In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs [ed. note: I call these settings grievance bubbles in my writings], though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims, emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless. [p.707-708] [This is the great tragedy: the culture of victimization rewards people for taking on a personal identity as one who is damaged, weak, and aggrieved. This is a recipe for failure — and constant litigation — after students graduate from college and attempt to enter the workforce]

One issue which is going to be more and more obvious with time: these students are leaving permanent records of their entitled and litigious attitudes in social media and online; I would not blame employers for looking these up and not employing those who have lied or exaggerated their grievances to demand special action.

But let’s return to the cultures of individual morality identified in the paper. Honor culture makes every person responsible for maintaining their boundaries with others and acting as necessary to punish aggression against them or their reputation; it is the prevailing system when interpersonal aggression is the dominant form of social control. In societies with hierarchical organizations as in feudal Europe or Japan, persons much above you in status were deferred to while persons much below you were deferential toward you, or else.

A) A Culture of Honor
Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129). But historically, as state authority has expanded and reliance on the law has increased, honor culture has given way to something else: a culture of dignity. [p. 712-713]

The Enlightenment and the end of feudalism brought in a new kind of moral order, based on law and individual rights, which the authors call a “culture of dignity.” Most developed countries have adopted this model, where each person is deemed to be equal under the law and enjoys individual rights that law and state forces will enforce against others. The honor culture continues as an element of many subcultures, notably in the military, law enforcement, and areas where order has broken down, but the boundaries of allowable violence and retaliation are constrained; duelling and violence for retribution is now illegal. Offenses are now to be brought to authorities for resolution and punishment, and grievances below a minimal standard are to be dealt with socially.

B) A Culture of Dignity
The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.

When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem (Aslani et al. 2012). Failing this, or if the offense is sufficiently severe, people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts. Unlike the honorable, the dignified approve of appeals to third parties and condemn those who “take the law into their own hands.” For offenses like theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame. But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious but accidental personal injuries…. The ideal in dignity cultures is thus to use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible. The growth of law, order, and commerce in the modern world facilitated the rise of the culture of dignity, which largely supplanted the culture of honor among the middle and upper classes of the West…. But the rise of microaggression complaints suggests a new direction in the evolution of moral culture.

Highly “evolved” settings are encouraging the culture of victimhood, where one maintains one’s status and reputation by competing to be recognized as a victim — the victim Olympics, it is sometimes rudely called.

C) A Culture of Victimhood
Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all. Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.[p.714-715]

A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. … Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.[p.715]

The culture of victimhood is currently most entrenched on college campuses, where microaggression complaints are most prevalent. Other ways of campaigning for support from third parties and emphasizing one’s own oppression – from protest demonstrations to the invented victimization of hate-crime hoaxes – are prevalent in this setting as well. That victimhood culture is so evident among campus activists might lead the reader to believe this is entirely a phenomenon of the political left, and indeed, the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially congenial to the leftist worldview (Haidt 2012:296; Kling 2013; Smith 2003:82). But insofar as they share a social environment, the same conditions that lead the aggrieved to use a tactic against their adversaries encourage their adversaries to use that tactic as well. For instance, hate crime hoaxes do not all come from the left. [gives examples] … Naturally, whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it. As clinical psychologist David J. Ley notes, the response of those labeled as oppressors is frequently to “assert that they are a victim as well.” Thus, “men criticized as sexist for challenging radical feminism defend themselves as victims of reverse sexism, [and] people criticized as being unsympathetic proclaim their own history of victimization.”[p.715] [In this way, victimhood culture causes a downward spiral of competitive victimhood. Young people on the left and the right get sucked into its vortex of grievance. We can expect political polarization to get steadily worse in the coming decades as this moral culture of victimhood spreads]

I’ll point out that these environments tend to be artificially maintained — they are not natural outgrowths of business and commerce, where every participant has to cooperate with others to thrive and make a living. They are more like cloistered institutions of the past, supported by exterior economies, like convents and monasteries, or royal courts. When we say something is “academic,” we often mean it’s not important in the real world. And the money supporting it all is partly from parents, but mostly from government, which pays for research and subsidizes the loans that have allowed the schools to charge more than ever and hire all the administrators that make work for themselves by policing student activity.

So I suspect we’re seeing peak influence of the culture of victimhood, and natural corrections — like the refusal of businesses to degrade their competitive edge by further kowtowing to identity politicians — will push back. Part of this may be a repudiation of the Democratic party, which has co-opted much of the third-wave feminist and identity politics sentiment. Having used it through several election cycles, they are now so identified with it that any backlash will damage them. Trump’s current support is a result of decades of suppression of populist speech, and his un-PC style is actually being rewarded in polls.

Lastly, I’ll point out some similar classifications in Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival. She identified two syndromes — we might call them meme-complexes, systems of ideas that are internally consistent and self-supporting:

Moral Precepts
Guardian Syndrome Commerce Syndrome
  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largesse
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor
  • Shun force
  • Compete
  • Be efficient
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Respect contracts
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Be optimistic
  • Be honest


The Guardian Syndrome roughly corresponds to the culture of honor, and it naturally evolved in a state where roaming bands of warriors — warlords — compete to control territory which (through agricultural populations or hunter-gatherer bands) generates food and wealth. As agriculture advanced, the warlords became a separate military and governing class, and cities began to develop. Trading and commerce flowered, and the ethos of the Commerce Syndrome developed as technology and trade overtook the produce of the land as a source of wealth. Cities grew, and classes of scribes, accountants, and religious orders became important. Law as a codification of wise rule, and then as recognition of individual rights, became a reliable way of settling grievances without taking up arms. And in the US, the idea of regulating the state itself via a Constitution allowed a free people to coexist with others who believed quite differently by enforcing a neutral code of law.

Interactions between victimhood activists and others are especially vicious because of the mutual misunderstandings of the importance of honor, dignity, and truth to the older cultures. Any disagreement with the claim of victim status is recast as another microagression, and only complete submission to their claims is accepted. When action is taken to address their concerns, it is only satisfying for a brief period before new outrages are identified — there must always be something to complain about, or they would be required to justify their existence and self-esteem via some real accomplishment. Meanwhile, lies and personal character assassination of those deemed incorrect or of the class of oppressors make people who are steeped in the honor or dignity cultures violently angry, and their angry outbursts are used as more evidence of the need to suppress them.

The culture of complaint and victimhood thrives only in those insulated bubbles where government supports institutions detached from customer demand. This includes government itself, especially those bureaucracies which have gained the power to maintain themselves regardless of party in power, but also includes public schools and all the universities which derive most of their funds from government grants and student loans — which is nearly all of them. One way of reducing this detachment from reality and accountability is to cut funding for these institutions and encourage individual and entrepreneurial solutions to the problems they were assigned to address. What we have now is sometimes called the clerisy — a quasi-religious governing structure of scribes and functionaries who act to increase their own power from some protected perch of authority, directing the lives of others with what they think is superior intellect and morality. And there are now so many of them living well on the borrowed and taxed dollars taken from the real economy that their rules and demands are strangling the economy that supports all of us.


Vox just ran a piece by Oliver Lee, who’s quitting his job as a professor to find more meaningful work:

All of these issues lead to one, difficult-to-escape conclusion. Despite all the finger-pointing directed at students (“They’re lazy! They’re oversensitive! They’re entitled!”), and the blame heaped on professors (“Out of touch and irrelevant to a man”), the real culprit is systemic. Our federally backed approach to subsidizing higher education through low-interest loans has created perverse incentives with disastrous consequences. This system must be reformed.

He suggests a smaller, more accountable higher education system, stripped of the excess federal loan funding.

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


“Red Queen: The Substrate Wars” First Part

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars, Cover

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll have noticed my rate of posting has declined lately. This is because I’m working on a novel, my first venture into fiction in years. It’s science fiction and adventure; my effort to write a good story the kids will both enjoy and learn from, as I did in my youth.

I have criticized modern “politically correct” science fiction for its grim view of progress and its conformist political content. This is my answer to books for young people like Pills and Starships. And the resemblance to Hunger Games is intentional — what Hunger Games gets right is that young people can remake the world to be a better place.

The world of Red Queen is post-terrorist disaster, repressive and regimented — rather like China today, but poorer. In that sense it is a dystopia, though not so far from our own day and time; only a few steps beyond where we are now. The kids are cowed but not unaware, and they seize the opportunity to make a difference when their smarts and courage allow it. And so they change the world.

I’m putting the first section out for beta readers. I’d appreciate any thoughts and error corrections you might have. The science gets more fully explained in the next section, for those of you into physics.

I’m doing a Hugh Howey and publishing this myself. I’d be most interested in hearing from agents or publishers who are interested, but I expect to finish in three months and the legacy publishing timetable is simply too slow, even though a good editor would be very helpful.

So I’m counting on you folks. If you read the first section, send me your comments at, and also email me if you want to be on the beta reader list for the full draft version. I apologize in advance for getting you interested and involved in the story, then making you wait to finish it!

[edit: removed drafts since full book is available]

The Curriculum of Freedom

The Library

The Library

I’ve put up a permanent page with suggested readings on how to think about economic and political questions. Just a start so far:

While I went to some great schools like MIT, I was primarily self-educated. Anyone can pick up the ability to think through problems independently and do the research needed on the Internet, but it helps to have a base of organized knowledge to give yourself a head start on your individual contribution to the world’s knowledge. A great book on a subject area will allow you to quickly reach the level of understanding needed to start your own research; then a bit of reading on the more recent research results available online will catch you up to the current edge of the field and where you can contribute.

If you or someone you love want to have a deeper understanding of how the world works, these books are a great way to start. I’ve read all of them and guarantee that reading them will boost your understanding of what you may have learned in school, where textbooks are watered-down, homogenized committee efforts and subject to political bias.

Many of these authors are prolific and have written more than one book amplifying their thoughts. If one turns you on to a topic, you may want to go on and read others they’ve written. I’ll be filling in my take on each book later, but for now you can read the Amazon description to get an idea.

The Morality of Glamour

Karl May

I recently read and reviewed Virginia Postrel’s excellent The Power of Glamour, in which she touches on the issues of positive and negative uses of glamour in persuasion — advertising, propaganda, entertainment and branding. She is primarily interested in defining glamour and determining how it is produced by the careful editing of reality to cast a spell on susceptible audiences that has the power to motivate actions — from purchases, to career choices, and even emigration and warfare.

I recently wrote my own book, Bad Boyfriends, which addresses an analogous phenomenon — limerence, or being “in love,” a powerful neurochemical-emotional state that also casts a spell over the observer.

Of course the typical glamours of fashion photography, Hollywood star photographs, or cinema adventures are today so common that most observers are largely immune to their effects — while caught in the spell and enjoying temporary immersion in it, they know it is neither real nor readily attainable. But the effect of both glamour and limerence depends on the susceptibility of the observer, and the construction of a dream of the future self by either glamorous presentations or a few sightings and encounters with the object of limerence can become obsessive for the observer who is starving for that dream.

And as with glamour, age and experience reduce limerence’s power. While a young person might give up his home and job to pursue either a dream career or the fantasy mate, the older and wiser have seen this play before, and know how to enjoy the fantasy and pursue it a little while not irrationally sacrificing the advantages of their current life.

Postrel writes, “Glamour fuels dissatisfaction with the here and now, even as it makes present difficulties easier to endure by suggesting the existence of better alternatives…. By tendering the promise of escape and transformation, glamour feeds on both hope and hardship.” So one’s already drab, boring life looks even worse by comparison, if you are say a German young man around 1900 reading the then-popular Western pulp novels (like those of Karl May); but then you start to obsess over your plan to escape to the Klondike to strike it rich in the new gold rush, and you have goal to work toward and a plan that fills your heart with joy in anticipation. The writer Karl May had never visited the West or met a cowboy, but he still spun an illusion strong enough to motivate thousands.

Similarly, limerence has launched its victims toward both achievement and destruction, sometimes both. Postrel cites Helen of Troy as one of the earliest documented cases of glamour, and it could be said that her power was to induce limerence in nearly everyone who observed her, leading to her kidnapping, war, and the destruction of Troy.

So we come to the question that every sensitive person whose job is to persuade via glamour in advertising or marketing considers: is what I am doing moral? When I create a glamour, I am setting a trap for the susceptible members of my audience that will create inside their heads a persuasive and persistent model of a future they dream of being part of. As always in persuasion, to feel that it is moral one must have a sense that on the whole you are doing those who are persuaded a favor; that they will be better off having purchased that new BMW or party dress, or taking up a career in the Navy.

Critics of persuasion by glamour can cite many examples where slick advertising and presentations caused victims to do harm to themselves — as mild as buying something they did not need and did not use, in which case they traded some money for a brief sense of pleasure in the having of the object. Or as serious as the spell cast over many of the German people by the Nazis using filmed propaganda, with revived pseudoclassical symbols and theories of Aryan mysticism, to justify their expansion and the demonization of “subhumans.”

Similarly, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the “father of PR,” (and father of my Harvard fiction writing teacher!), began the use of mass market persuasion techniques that included what today would be called “viral marketing,” by creating images and narratives designed to be picked up by the mass media and so persuade millions through a combination of advertising and free publicity. His “Torches of Freedom” campaign, which in hindsight seems evil, used a staged demonstration of actresses pretending to be freedom-fighting women demanding the freedom to smoke cigarettes. The National Post comments:

On Easter Sunday, 1929, about a dozen female socialites marched along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, ostentatiously smoking cigarettes. Their mission: to fight the stigma against public smoking for women. According to The New York Times, the women insisted that they weren’t holding mere cigarettes but “torches of freedom.”

The march was choreographed by Vienna-born PR pioneer Edward Bernays, then on retainer with the American Tobacco Company. The story is vintage Bernays: a quintessential example of his knack for manipulating public opinion with evocative images and phrases. Bernays had learned from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, that people were basically irrational, driven by instincts. The enterprising nephew unabashedly exploited this insight, appealing to emotions and not intellect whether he was selling Ivory Soap or Calvin Coolidge. The approach revolutionized consumer culture.

Bernays influenced political communication, too. He was dismayed to learn that his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, was in Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ bookcase. Still, in another context, Bernays would likely have approved of Goebbels’ claim, that “in the long run basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.” Both men knew well: The public opinion battlefield is the heart, not the head.


If we are thinking morally, this is usually where we get off the persuasion bus. Let’s suppose that we believe what we want to persuade the public to do will be good for them, on the whole; but we are going to elide the details that might “complicate” their evaluation of our proposals, leaving out the real-life problems that may come up, and make simplified assertions that anyone who understands the situation well will know cannot possibly be the whole truth.

And, voilà! Obamacare!

By a series of steps it is possible to convince an otherwise well-meaning and honest person (or entire political party) that lying over and over again to persuade people to give you permission to spend a trillion dollars on a complex program (too complex, it turns out, to actually be executed well or as planned) that benefits a few people a lot, somewhat more people a little, and harms the balance, sometimes significantly. A billion dollars was spent on duplicative software, mostly wasted; hundreds of millions more on advertising which also left out any significant problems the plan might create for some; and hundreds of millions of dollars more on foot soldiers to promote and assist (and remind the beneficiaries who gave them the gift.) The President was an unusually glamourous figure and supported by both Hollywood and the glamour of rhetoric and dream-spinning. But alas, behind the glamour there was a lack of competence in execution, despite good intentions.

Destruction comes to those who believe the glamour they have spun around themselves. To make this a nonpartisan roasting, note the Bush administration in Iraq, who very successfully used the US’ competent and overwhelming military to bring down Saddam Hussein in only a few days with the least loss of life and property of any major war in history. Hubris was achieved shortly thereafter, when the occupation dismantled existing police and government functions to (they thought) create a brand new government and society based on US models of representative government and modern freedoms. The resulting chaos and civil war more than wiped out any advantage gained for either the US or the Iraqi people. Good intentions did not magically create good results.

The greater the risk being taken with the audience’s lives or fortunes, the less justifiable is any misleading persuasive technique, including glamour. We should always be asking, “What if I am wrong? What is the downside of what I want them to do if they are not successful? How painful and destructive is disillusionment from the illusion I am trying to create?”

This article from MarketingProfs discusses the new world of marketing where there are so many sources of information and eager writers among the public that creation of lying spin is much harder (despite the example of Obamacare, which was enabled by a certain uniformity of background — and lack of economic knowledge — of most media reporters.) To quote:

Today, people who want to make great stories can use technology to influence public perception, rather than shape public perception around a lie. Think of it like this: Consumers no longer buy out of a fear of not having something; they buy because the product has the potential to enhance their personal story. Progressive marketing companies such as SHIFT Communications and TGPR talk more about how we make and share real stories—rather than “tell” them.

Dreams of being beautiful and admired (fashion, cosmetics, jewelry…) or powerful, wealthy, and admired (luxury cars, watches, ski houses in Aspen…), competent and skilled and admired (Olympic athletes, dancers, musicians…) are all worthy. One question to ask when you are spinning up a glamour aimed at young people is: how many of them can actually achieve it? Say you have written a script about a ghetto kid who takes up basketball and makes it to the big leagues, suffers one crisis when he takes his new position and love interest for granted, and (heartwarmingly) learns to wisely value those who care for him. What happens to the kids who focus on basketball and neglect other things? While we know most will be disappointed, we also know any kind of focus on achievement is better than no focus. What are the offramps along the way for those who fail to get the brass ring? Going to a good school on a scholarship gives the kid a chance to pick up other skills and find other dreams. Being on a team and showing up regularly for practice teaches the most important skills of holding any job.

It’s clear that people need their dreams, and glamour can lead them in directions they did not expect or know of, but were ready for. The mass marketing of glamour has accelerated the dissatisfaction with what is, and the motivation to create the “what ifs” we call progress. The increasing availability of information uncontrolled by one or a few sources means the future is being created by a glamour with more realism, tucked just out of sight but known to be there. But it can still excite the mind and make the heart beat faster, and move the dreamer to take the chance on the dream.

For more on pop culture:

The Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
“Mad Men”
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family

The Power of Glamour

Power of Glamour

Power of Glamour

The Power of Glamour, by Virginia Postrel.

One of the duties of our public intellectuals is to mine the culture for fresh new ways of seeing and describing the world, bringing together seemingly disparate examples and finding regularities and order in what had only been vaguely understood before. Virginia Postrel has been at this for years, and her latest work is a wonderful read that will help anyone in design, advertising, photography, publicity, or any of the arts of persuasion understand at a deeper level how this dream-making works.

When I was living in Vancouver, I had a friend — Clark Candy, a cousin of John Candy’s — who had recently moved from Toronto after a career in advertising. A motorcycle accident had crushed his knee, and during the long rehab process he decided not to go back to work in advertising, which he felt had little meaning — persuading people to buy things they did not need by trickery and slick lies, eliding ugly realities. He later went on to help produce glamorous TV productions like Once Upon a Time, so he ended up doing much the same work as he did before; perhaps if he had read this book then he might have seen more meaning in his advertising work. Mad Men‘s Don Draper is a character who creates glamours for a living, and is himself a crafted image hiding a troubled soul; but without glamour and aspiration, life would be drained of the spur to progress and self-actualization of these imagined futures.

Glamour, she writes, exists between the viewer and the viewed. It is a subjective illusion of an effortless life, a higher and better self that you might become if only you could put yourself into the picture. A glamour is a spell, like a reverie or dream of your future created by images and ideas. She points out that glamour has always existed — Homer’s epics recited in ancient Greece produced yearnings for lives of heroism and unforced grace in listeners not dissimilar to today’s comic book heroes; artists were commissioned to create paintings of idealized existences to reinforce and inspire the real models, as well as present their favored image to others.

But the enormous increase in mass-produced imagery in the last century has given glamour a new importance, as more and more high-powered images are present in even the poorest people’s lives. Like any tool of persuasion, glamour can be used for good (inspiring young people to work toward careers they might otherwise have never achieved) or ill (politicians use glamour in propaganda — Nazis, Italian fascists, and the USSR, for example.)

With a wealth of examples, the reader is able to make generalizations and follow along as she lays out a new vocabulary for discussing glamour: Sprezzatura, the effortless grace of achievement, a stylish performance without apparent sweat or concern (which of course conceals endless practice and polishing;) theatrical grace, the kind of glamour produced by the artifice of hiding the effort to produce it behind the stage scenery; darkroom grace, created by editing and eliding the flaws and selection of what to leave out (as of a photo) to produce an image with the emotional power to fuel a dream unencumbered by the details of its production.

She casts her net wide in the cultural landscape and brings in examples from every part of high and low culture: Hollywood, comic book heroes, cowboys, Gibson Girls, Star Trek, Princess Di, Che Guevara, Helen of Troy and Achilles, theater, industrial design, Mad Men, and Apple. The examples and photographs are delightful and consistently entertaining.

The hardcover itself is an example: perfectly laid out, a sensual pleasure to read and feel. I rarely read anything but ebooks these days, but for this work about a primarily visual phenomenon, the hardcover is the wise choice. It’s the ideal coffee table book.