The collective Vanilla Ice

Some of the comments at the Black Gate on yesterday’s post regarding the decline and fall of the fantasy novel really have to be read to be believed. There has been a great deal of what appears to be willful obtuseness and a determined inability to understand standard definitions on display, but there’s not much that needs to be said against an argument that relies upon the idea that the basic concept of Western civilization has no intrinsic meaning… although it would certainly make for an amusingly meta defense of post-modernism in modern fantasy.

In any event, I replied thusly: Matt and [B], there appears to be little to discuss with either of you on the subject of Western civilization, still less its observable decline in demographic and other terms, as your knowledge of the concept clearly doesn’t even rise to the level of Wikipedia. Nor is this the proper venue to explain the principium contradictionis, so I suggest you read up on what the “Western world” and “the Occident” are and how they have been defined for decades, if not centuries. What you have presented, Matt, is not a rebuttal, but rather a collection of contorted wordplay and suppositions which attempts to avoid the manifestly obvious. Let me put it in terms you might be willing to acknowledge. Suppose you were to write a modern fantasy set in America circa 2010, but completely leaving out all science and technology. Don’t you think that would create a ludicrously false image of both the setting and the basic mindsets of the characters? Then suppose that people began claiming this omission of science and technology as well as scientific modes of thinking actually presented a more realistic understanding of the period than its inclusion. That would border on the insane, wouldn’t you agree?

Read the rest of my reply at the Black Gate. And if you feel moved to comment there, be considerate and polite. Playing hardball is completely fine here, but it is not the way things are done there.

Matt has also written what I consider to be a more relevant post on the moral aspect of the subject that you should find interesting.

Mailvox: no harm, no foul

The ElusiveWapiti is offended on the blog’s behalf:

Pharyngula makes the list of “Top 100 Blogs” but VP does not. Blasphemy, I’d say.

Actually, that was a pretty good list. I’m delighted to see Karl, Susan, Roissy, Athol, and Ferdinand all receiving well-deserved notice. Ritzholtz’s blog is a good choice too, although I would have liked to see Mish and Steve Keen in the Economics category. Scalzi’s blog used to be quite good when he had the time to post daily, and although I don’t read it now that it’s mostly authors writing about their own books, I can see where that would be appealing to many readers. The list is a bit dated and lefty, since as Instapundit noted, Wonkette is all but dead and Boing Boing is stultifyingly boring.

As for Pharyngula, it is the home of the moderately intelligent, college-educated, angry, and unpopular. Since there is no shortage of such creatures, I think it eminently merits its recognition as a top blog. I wouldn’t characterize it as “smart”, but then, I don’t have an IQ of 100 either. Of course the readers of this blog don’t find it to be intelligent since most of you are more intelligent than PZ, but from the average perspective, it is pretty smart. One can’t be an idiot to get things that completely wrong.

I would be very surprised if VP was ever named on such a list, since even after the publication of RGD you won’t find it on a list of top 100 Economics blogs. Nor do I mind that it isn’t. This blog is too esoteric for the mainstream and too iconoclastic for the moderately intelligent; I would tend to consider it a failure if it was not. What I said about women is also true of men. I don’t expect most people to agree with me because I don’t expect them to be able to understand me.

The problem is that when you make a habit of dealing in the realm of the unthinkable, few can fathom it. So, even when I’m correct about some previously outlandish possibility, I am unlikely to receive any credit for it because such things are considered to be, by definition, black swans. Since no one can possibly have imagined it, no one could have predicted it, therefore any claims to have done so are inherently false. This is but one of the many examples of modern/medieval logic that has, ironically enough, returned to supplant the empiricism that previously usurped its primacy.

The wisdom of Tucker Max

You wouldn’t imagine one could write that without irony, and yet there it is. I’ve always rather liked Tucker Max despite knowing that there is an element of, shall we say, inventive color to be found in all the satyrical shenanigans. As with Roissy, if you only pay attention to the sordid details of his controversial subject matter, you will completely miss the intelligent insights he has to offer:

Why do you think my writing is so popular? It’s honest. That’s what all the idiots who try to imitate me don’t get. It’s not about the drinking or the fucking or the crazy stories. It’s not even about the funny, as much as it’s about the honesty. No one is ever honest, but when you are, when you say the things everyone knows but won’t admit, it’s so shocking and amazing that the world can’t help but stop and look.

But here’s the thing about being honest: All the liars HATE you for it, and most of the people in the world are liars. They lie to their bosses, they lie to their families, they lie to themselves, they lie so much they don’t even know they’re lying anymore. If you have the courage to be honest–even a little bit–all those people will hate you, because your honesty reflects their lie back on them.

Oscar Wilde wasn’t kidding when he said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

I think the reason I like writers like Tucker, Roissy, and Jonah Goldberg, and why I tend to view them as something more or less akin to peers despite our varying levels of public visibility, is that we are all essentially doing the same thing in different areas. Of course, far fewer people are interested in economics and history than politics, much less sex and dating, but my approach to mainstream economics isn’t really all that different than Tucker’s approach to American sexual mores, Roissy’s approach to male mating rituals, or Goldberg’s approach to left-wing political ideology.

She’s back

Welcome back to the Internet, Rachel Lucas. It’s nice to see she’s posting again, even if she has come out of the closet as a belated mobile Macintosser:

On my birthday this past spring, Rupe surprised me with an iPhone. He quickly regretted it because I spent the first day staggering around the house clutching the phone a foot from my face, sporadically bursting into loud improvised songs of praise.

On a tangential note, I was ever so happy to have the chance today to tell a game developer that no, I absolutely would not check out his new, just-released iphone game app. Android, dude. iPhone is so… 2008.

So stop writing schlock

Women continue to whine about writing. Apparently it’s not enough to have driven men away from the fantasy genre, it seems they want to win awards while destroying science fiction too:

I take the absence of women on the Hugo ballots (the major award in the field) very seriously. I think it’s possible to make an argument that the SF world as a whole is actually less welcoming of women than it was twenty years ago.I don’t mean that men don’t read women, or discriminate against them consciously, but that too many men, when asked about good SF, don’t remember women (and I have evidence of this from the reader survey I undertook which can be found at the back of my most recent book, The Inter-Galactic Playground). This takes place at all levels: take a look at your local mass market bookshop or local library shelves. How many of the sf books stocked are written by women? For the purposes of this exercise, ignore the fantasy. In the UK, one publisher has decided it’s ok to produce nice repackaged sets of SF “classics” which include not a single woman: I am well aware that their argument is that they are repackaging their bestselling authors, but the effect is geometric and long lasting. It perpetuates the idea that women don’t write SF, and so makes it more of a “surprise” that they do, and hence reduces the chance of their work being bought. Women writing SF should be normal by now, but it actually feels less normal in the bookshops than ever.

The salient point isn’t that women don’t write science fiction, it’s that they don’t write hard science fiction and, for the most part, they don’t write GOOD science fiction. Other than Lois McMaster Bujold, who is there? The award-winning Catharine Asaro writes strong independent woman space romance schlock. Sheri Tepper writes feminist narcissism in space. Elizabeth Moon writes horrible space romance schlock with risible military pretensions: “Now combat-blooded and well on her way to the admiralty, young Kylara Vatta commands 40 far-future spacecraft…. surrounded by a convincing supporting cast, from feisty fruitcake-baking Aunt Grace, who runs Slotter Key’s defenses, to dashing Rafe Dunbarger, acting CEO of InterStellar Communications, who has lost his heart to Ky despite his best efforts at stoicism.” Of course he did. Now, Barbara Hambly has written some excellent fantasy with overtones of science… but apparently fantasy is off limits here because there are too many women being too successful writing good, bad, and awful fantasy for a feminist to get away with complaining about it.

The truth is that women usually write the same novel over and over again underneath the guise of a thin genre veneer. The action, the plot, the world-building, the style, and the suspension of disbelief are all secondary to the feelings of the young, attractive female protagonist and her relationship with the dashing, accomplished man who is alternately threatened by her and attracted to her. It’s boring. It’s unoriginal. It’s intellectually stultifying. It’s not the sort of thing that any male or female reader with half a brain is going to respect.

Tangential note: I particularly liked this sentence, which demonstrates why feminist writers have such a difficult time creating believable alternate worlds; they can’t even accurately describe the world they presently inhabit. “this would be my cue to explain how we do too have ‘honour killings’ in Britain, and they happen in nice white families all the time.

Ah, perhaps that explains the absence of all the great female science fiction writers. They were obviously all massacred very early in their careers by their nice white British families.

Mailvox: on method

JB thinks he’s figured out my approach to developing defensible positions:

Here’s an outline based on my observations of your learning to thesis process. Is there anything I’m missing?

1. Select narrow topic.
2. Ask experts to ID sources.
3. Scan and jot occasional note.
4. 2nd reading, pursue suspicions deep into the material.
5. Make minimal positive public statements and destroy opponents using their own illogic.
6. Gradually increase positive suggestions and assertions to keep pace with finished thesis.
7. When challenged on an iceberg tip, unload thesis for maximum credibility transfer.

I can’t say that I’ve ever thought through how I approach this sort of thing, really, but I suppose that’s actually a fairly accurate description of how I go about the process of learning something new that is likely to be contentious in some way. The most important thing is to resist the urge to engage in any debate or do anything but ask questions when you have not yet mastered a sufficient amount of the best material that is reasonably accessible to you, especially the best material from the contrary side. For example, in writing RGD, I went back and read three of Keynes’s works, as well as Samuelson’s original 1948 textbook and five of Paul Krugman’s books, in addition to about fifty or sixty of his columns, in order to ensure that I had the Keynesian position correct. (I still somehow managed to miss the one in which he first calculated the need for a stimulus that was smaller than the one he later criticized the Obama administration for not making larger.) I then read several Austrian criticisms of Keynes, beginning with Hayek and Hazlitt. Why? Because I know that every Keynesian economist who reads the book is going to do his damndest to attack my understanding of Keynesianism, Neo-Keynesianism, and Post-Keynesianism in order to use even the slightest error as an excuse to dismiss my conclusions. It’s entirely possible – in fact, it’s probable – that they’ll find something, but I’m not going to make it easy for them. The monetarists, of course, will be too busy having hissy fits over my characterization of Milton Friedman as a Keynesian heretic who nonetheless remains a Keynesian to notice that they have completely abandoned the core of his monetarist theory.

The fact that I know Krugman’s work, or Dawkins’s work, or Marx’s work much better than the vast majority of their fans always gives me a massive advantage in discussions, especially when those on the other side haven’t bothered to read a speck of anything that criticizes their point of view. My feeling is that you can best understand something by reading both the source material and the critical material, which for some reason most people seem loathe to do. Conversely, the worst thing you can do is what many atheists do so often and so foolishly, which is pretend to knowledge that you do not have and which the other side almost certainly possesses.

This segues nicely to Sloo’s complaint about my etiquette:

I really tried to get into this debate. But as I read Vox’s replies, his condescending sneer works its way into my head and replaces my mental reading voice. It really is off-putting, surely you guys have to admit. He is clearly an intelligent man, but 60% of everything is the delivery. Work a little on your tact and social manners Vox, you have already proven your intellect. Oh, and why the smokescreen still? ‘Refer to my book’, ‘as Thomas Aquinas says’, ‘again you [Luke] have made an incorrect assumption/have demonstrated your ignorance/are ill-prepared etc. etc. Clearly we’re all just complete idiots in your presence Vox, so why don’t you just spell out your points for us.

Tone is not truth, and neither tact nor manners are the issue here. I didn’t select the tone of the discussion, which was set by Luke’s second letter. I’ve made it very clear that I will always respond to others in the manner they address me. If you don’t want me to mercilessly expose your errors, your ignorance, and your lack of intelligence, then I strongly recommend that you avoid attacking me, launching passive-aggressive assaults, or informing me that I am wrong/stupid/uninformed without being able to conclusively demonstrate it. If you can show me I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. I have done it before, I will do it again, and I have no problem doing it. But, if you incorrectly assert that I am wrong, I also don’t have any problem with demonstrating, in excruciating and humiliating detail if that’s what you require, that your assertions are false.

As for smokescreens, the fact that you think I have engaged in any says far more about your own approach to debate than it does about anything I’ve written here. I think it’s absurd to expect me to cut-and-paste numerous pages of text that I’d previously written into what is already a three thousand-word letter. If you can’t bother to read something that is supposedly of interest to you, well, you’ll have to find someone else to hold your hand because I’m not going to waste my time.

King Prawn, meanwhile, takes exception to my assuming a literate readership:

Your explanation of the Silent Planet reference was both enlightening and helpful to furthering the discussion. I don’t understand why you couldn’t have just laid it out before. It’s a bit unreasonable to expect everyone to have read all the same books you have and therefore to have the background information to come to your “obvious” conclusion. You also seem to think your dimissals are warranted, but I think maybe you misunderstand the purpose of dialogue. You communicate your thoughts, then recieve feedback. Regardless of the intelligence level of the recipient, one should strive to make themselves understood. You are running the risk of appearing not to have entered this discussion in good faith.

Let me get this straight. I get invited to a discussion about my religious beliefs which the other party immediately attempts to turn into a conventional bait-and-switch on evolution. He then makes numerous false claims about both his knowledge and my own, and engages in passive-aggressive attacks while demonstrating a near-complete lack of understanding of something he claims to understand very well… and you think I’m running the risk of not having entered the discussion in good faith?

As for not walking Luke through the Lewis metaphor, I can only say that if he was genuinely a sincere former Christian possessed of great familiarity with the wide variety of Christian theologies that he claimed to be, there is simply no chance that he would not immediately recognize the “Silent Planet” metaphor or fail to grasp its connection to the temptation of Jesus Christ in the desert. Even an intelligent non-Christian with no theological knowledge at all could probably have figured it out with or without the aid of a visit to Wikipedia. I cited the title of the first book in the most famous Christian science fiction trilogy, not an obscure bit of text buried somewhere in Aquinas or Augustine that no one can reasonably be expected to know. Since I recently wrote reviews on books by Shermer and Bernanke, it should be readily apparent that I don’t expect most people to have read what I have read. But if you haven’t even read C.S. Lewis, then I have absolutely no time or regard for you.

As for dismissal, what else can one possibly do with feedback that is illogical, incorrect, and based on a false understanding of what was written? I once interviewed Umberto Eco and was a little surprised at how vehemently he engaged with my questions and disputed the interpretations of his texts that lay underneath them. It wasn’t until later, when I saw him deal very kindly with a petrified interviewer who was in well over her head, that I realized he had responded to me as an intellectual equal and was taking my questions seriously. I don’t mind walking people through things when they genuinely want to learn – that’s what Voxiversity is for – but if you want to be handled with kid gloves, then you’d best not come here demanding treatment as an equal, much less a superior.

Now THIS is a book review!

PJ O’Rourke, at his cruel best, reviews Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals:

Journals is so much more than gush. Its pages also crack open a hellgate to give us a peek at the eternally consuming fires of egotistic solipsism to which the soul of a liberal is forever condemned. Not even the undying love that Arthur Schlesinger felt for Kennedy money, power, and prestige could redeem poor Art from the perdition that awaits the bien pensant. His is the sin of pride, such that produces the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society. It manifests itself in the deeds of the mighty. Or in the case of Arthur Schlesinger, it manifests itself in mighty bad taste.

Sometimes I love PJ O’Rourke so much that it makes Umberto Eco’s mad passion for Charles Schultz look like a mere passing flirtation. This is one of those times.