Admit the conspiracy theory

When every normal person you know is telling you that you believe a conspiracy theory, don’t try to say “But no, mine isn’t a conspiracy theory, because mine is actually true!”

That’s what every person with a conspiracy theory says. It’s boring, and predictable. It’s sad. You might as well be wearing a literal tinfoil hat.

I’ve never met a conspiracy theorist who didn’t try to convince everyone around that their conspiracy theory isn’t actually a conspiracy theory. I’m always embarrassed on their behalf.

Why not just own it?

To me, that would be an interesting and fun approach. I personally agree with all the normies who feel like believing conspiracy theories is bad for the conspiracy theorist, bad for the conspiracy theorist’s friends and family, and bad for the entire society. So I get why you would feel shamefaced and try to hide the fact that you hold to a conspiracy theory.

But there are some interesting and daring arguments that people have made to say that it is good for society to have conspiracy theories swirling around.

Again, I don’t buy that. But if you believe a conspiracy theory (or more likely, multiple conspiracy theories) then you definitely should agree with the people who think conspiracy theories can be a good thing. You’re allowed to believe it, and you have no reason not to.

So own who you are. Admit it. Show some courage. You might as well be honest. You might as well be interesting, right? Break a stereotype for a change.

Extremes and the centre

I’m fascinated by the ideological extremes, the far left and the far right, and also in a different way, by the centre. For several years I’ve been on a long slow journey to find the purest, most “steel-manned” version of each.

I don’t really like the attempt to wrench all of ideology into a one-dimensional spectrum. “Centre” doesn’t really fit; it’s a distinct position, not an averaging or compromising of two extremes. At the very least it’s probably better to think of the three positions I’ve mentioned on a two dimensional plane, as the points on a V, or the ends of a capital T.

In a narrow sense, I think we’d say that the centre is what works. Now, if it loses elections, it’s not working all that well, even if its theories are great. But if we want our politics to be effective and lasting, we need to keep an eye to the centre. I think of the centre as being more or less libertarian: the night watchman state, where the market solves the problems and deals with differences. It’s ideally the economists’ consensus. There’s room for more or less government involvement in the economy, but some ways of getting involved are much better than others, and in all cases the government’s involvement aims directly or indirectly at preserving or improving the economy.

The far left wants the government ruling the economy, making all people more or less equal, equal in money and equal in status and equal in opportunities. Too much of an effort in this direction is bad for the growth and competitive advantage of a given economy, but the far left won’t care as much about that, since the economy isn’t the goal in itself, but is secondary to the society of people.

I personally don’t think that everyone needs to have exactly the same amount of money, but you don’t have to believe that to be part of the far left. I do love the idea of making poverty a thing of the past, so that everyone has a right to subsistence level financial independence, no matter who they are or what they do, and also of making sure that people shouldn’t be able to go beyond some level of wealth easily; if you accumulate enough wealth that you and your family can live comfortably without ever needing to work again, you really don’t need any more wealth. I also love the idea of saying that the economy isn’t the point, but is always subservient to the needs of the people of whom the economy is composed.

And yet a centrist will say, with some justice, that if you care about the fair distribution of the rewards of the economy, you do need to have a working economy, and the better it works the more (and better) the goods and services are that can be shared. So the left cannot reject or forget what the centre proclaims.

And then it can be hard to say quite what the best quintessence of the far right would be, even though this is a problem I’ve been working at for some time. It’s hard to see past all the garbage that really is out there. I’ll take a stab and say that it’s about the prioritizing of the cultivation of civic virtue, and in particular of martial virtue. I’m by no means averse to those things either. A leftist will interject that if some parts of the population are stuck, eg, in poverty, then we will miss some opportunities for virtue to develop in those places, that irrational bigotry of the sort found on the right today will have the same negative outcome, and that needless inequality will lead to divisions in a population where ideally we should see unity. The best version of the right will take all these objections into account and will thus learn the best lessons from the left.

In this way, I feel, it is possible and even sensible and fair-minded to be interested in the best versions of the political extremes and the political centre, even though at first blush it can only seem absurd.

A modest case for classical education

There’s a classical school opening up close to where I live, just as my eldest child is almost old enough to enter kindergarten. I’m excited about it, and at this point I imagine there’s a good chance I might send my children there. I even gave serious thought to applying to work there this year. But if someone challenged me on it, I might be a little hard-pressed to explain why.

I’m familiar with some of the arguments against classical education, and from what I’ve seen so far, they are largely fallacious or based on premises I don’t hold. However, I’m also more than a little familiar with the arguments used by proponents of classical education, and I find them to be of much the same quality. Rousing rhetoric, perhaps, for the person who wishes to be persuaded, but still riddled with fallacies and questionable assumptions.

Still, caught in this aporia, I lean decidedly in the direction of classical education. Practically speaking, in my own adult life, I have basically chosen to pursue something like a belated classical education: studying Greek and Latin and major modern languages, especially modern European languages, and literature and philosophy from antiquity to the present, with a special emphasis on what might be called the Socratic legacy. Once more I must admit that I generally can’t say precisely why I lean this way, or at least nothing beyond vague impressions.

Let’s set out some of those impressions. An emphasis on virtue is one of the things that’s most attractive to me about classical education. They speak about this quite explicitly, and I believe it is valuable for a young person to learn to think about morality in such terms. That conviction is about as deeply rooted in me as anything that I believe.

The emphasis on learning languages is also attractive to me. My sense is that there is still less of it in the curriculum than I would wish, but nonetheless it is more than children would likely get in any other available model. I think learning languages is really good for a person, and I believe childhood is an ideal time for beginning to gain familiarity with a variety of languages. Even if these first two emphases, on virtue and languages, were all that set classical schooling apart, this would be sufficient to make it my option of choice.

But there are still two more things to say. One is that I really do think there is value in studying ancient and originary pieces of writing, rather than learning primarily about the current state of knowledge as summarized in a textbook. Learning about the discoveries that led to our current situation, and the way they grew out of what came before, gives a much deeper understanding in my experience.

And lastly, the most straightforward, boring, unpoetic consideration. Standardized test scores. Apparently there’s statistical evidence suggesting that students of classical schools have better test scores than equivalent students of, say, public schools. Apologists for classical schools make much too big a deal out of this, because there are many lurking variables muddying how meaningful this fact might be. Still, at the very least we can say that classical schooling does not seem to make it impossible for students to do well in standardized tests. If there was good reason to believe that classical education would seriously disadvantage students on measures that contemporary society judges representative of erudition, then I’d have to weigh that soberly in the balance against the benefits I’ve listed. But if we can say that students perform as well, or possibly even better, on those metrics, it makes it easy to say: let’s give this a try and see how it goes.

Back to the gym

Since early in 2020, I’ve been away from the gym, for a number of reasons.

I’ve been very diligent during that time in keeping a high step count, which has surely been a benefit to my health. I also went through a phase of nearly a year when I was doing a lot of calisthenics.

But now that I’m back at a university, paying for classes, there’s a gym I can go to anytime. It’s been good to be back.

One of my favourite things since I’ve been back, that I had forgotten how much I appreciated, is getting to see people at different stages of their fitness journey.

You see some people like me, who haven’t been in a gym for a while. We have the smaller weights, the flabbier bodies.

But then you also see a diversity of people who have been at this for some years, lifting big weights and moving around with developed musculatures.

It’s inspiring. I perhaps can’t exactly say why I think it seems desirable to be strong and somewhat bulky. Is it something I’ve learned from the society I’ve grown up in? Probably that’s part of it. Is it something we’re born with or something we learn naturally without encouragement? There’s probably some of that, too.

But there’s nothing like seeing people in real life who are having success in these precise goals to remind you of what you do admire and what you do wish for yourself.

The urgency of living healthily

When I was young, I thought healthy habits were for old people without the benefit of youthful immortality. I knew that my poor choices at the time were going to haunt me later in life, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that much. Even then, though, my bad habits were already taxing me in ways that I couldn’t yet recognize.

Today it seems clearer than ever to me how important it is to make the decisions that promote health. The reasons that motivate me most are the ones that are least obvious, most subtle.

It’s amazing to me how unhealthy living can lead to a more shrunken existence, more pathetically, impotently angry. I speak from experience.

Being unhealthy isn’t just about future death and disability, though it does certainly have a bearing on that.

Being unhealthy affects your mood, your ability to think, your energy, your relationships, your strength, your resilience, your schedule.

Focus on that. There are immediate, urgent consequences hanging on decisions relating to health. To me that’s the best motivation there is.

I heard once that the most impactful health decisions we can make are to stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy BMI. Every one of those things can be a huge challenge for a person. But I think they are so worth it.

Marriage and happiness

Today I’ve been married for five years. I highly recommend it.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’ve heard there are statistics talking about how marriage increases happiness. I can well believe it.

It’s hard to come up with the list of reasons why married life is so preferable. It’s surely worth pausing to remember what the proverb maker said about how desirable a good spouse is and how miserable a bad spouse can make you. We have too much evidence ever to doubt the truth of that.

I should also clarify that in saying marriage increases happiness, I don’t mean to say that’s all it does. There are hard times too, of course. I always think of something a good friend told me many years ago, that marriage means higher highs and lower lows.

Still, the average, for me at least and doubtless for many others as well, ends up being considerably happier than the alternative, when I pause and take stock..

There’s something paradoxical about marriage. Your life becomes simultaneously freer and more limited. I think this is true of parenthood as well. It’s limited on the small scale and the large scale because suddenly it becomes necessary always to take the plans and the needs and the sensibilities of another person into account for all sorts of decisions that would once have been more straightforward.

But marriage is profoundly freeing as well. It settles a part of a person’s identity that was previously a question mark. It grounds a person, making it possible to focus on new goals that could previously never really be the focus.

I’m sure I still haven’t gotten to the heart of what it is about marriage that makes me so grateful for it. But there’s a start, at least.

An Inegalitarian Case for Equality

I’m not an absolutist about equality. I do believe that in a variety of ways it is possible for one person to be unequal to, or we might even say superior to, another.

However, with that said, I am supportive of some of the kinds of progressive efforts toward greater equality.

The reason is, I believe inequalities should be meaningful and justifiable, rather than arbitrary and senseless. If a person of great virtue has more of wealth or honour than a less virtuous neighbour, on account of that virtue and in proportion to it, then I’m not so bothered. But if one person has more because of and in proportion to the wealth of parents or colour of skin, then we should be working to change that.

That’s not to say the change should be sudden or clumsy. It seems most likely to succeed if it is both surgical and patient, but tenacious.

And the more we can succeed in it, the more we will open the way for the best sorts of inequalities to appear, for the great to rise and for the vicious to face the true cost of their vices.

Often, people who believe in greatness and virtue and honour and power will protest against projects to flatten out society. Their error is that they fail to recognize the different sorts of inequality, and to recognize that bad inequalities are a barrier to the best inequalities.

If they could recognize that error, then we might find common cause across the ideological aisle a little more often.

A gentle strategy for conversing with conspiracists?

I just had an idea and I don’t want to forget it.

The next time a ridiculous conspiracy theory sweeps across the land and infects many formerly reasonable people, I want to start researching Bigfoot.

It doesn’t have to be Bigfoot exactly. It could be UFOs, or Elvis still being alive somewhere, or aliens building the pyramids. Something that I’ve never cared to learn about before.

The goal is not to convince anyone that their pet theory is comparable to an older and more obviously risible conspiracy theory. That’s too obvious, and too easily resisted by someone determined to be believe in their own brilliance.

I want to do something more subtle. I want to spend my time trying to convince my conspiratorial friends that Bigfoot is real and the government is lying about it.

Maybe they’ll say they don’t want to talk about it and we can compromise by not talking about either conspiracy theory. That would be fine by me.

Maybe they’ll try to convince me that my conspiracy theory is wrong. They’ll fail of course. That will be a real treat.

Or maybe I’ll succeed in persuading them that mine is right. Somehow I feel that this would be the most just outcome of all.

Prejudice against the past

We have a prejudice against old ideas, generally. And in general, it’s a pretty reasonable prejudice for us to have.

An old idea that was well-known or even widely believed, that has since faded into obscurity, probably has problems. Or at least, it probably has an alternative that is more attractive in some way.

Once upon a time, older ideas, from the times of heroes and great prophets, seemed better, and novel ideas were deemed suspicious. Today, we think nearly the opposite.

But while our progressivism has given us many gifts, it also has its price.

Because old ideas aren’t necessarily worse. Sometimes an old idea dies not because it’s worse but because it is hard to understand and is easily strawmanned. Sometimes a new idea is more attractive not because it’s better but because it has better marketing. We can’t assume older is always and consistently worse.

But to fight the prejudice is not an easy task. If an old idea was difficult to understand in its own day, how much more is it today, listening in across centuries and changes of vocabulary and writing styles and societal opinions? This is a work that needs much time and effort.

The Cutting Edge

It’s valuable to be at the cutting edge.

The cutting edge is backward-facing and frontward too. It has an entire tradition of thought behind it, filtered through generations of capable thinkers.

And it looks for weaknesses of one sort or another in the prevailing consensus that could be improved upon.

These improvements could be something never before considered within the discipline. It could be a novel solution that finally connects the dots in the sort of way people have been looking for.

They could also be old, discarded ideas which need to be revived and brought back. Sometimes the old or the very old is an important source of present progress.

This is the assumption of the modern university. And I think it’s not such a bad approach.