Monday, March 20, 2017

On the Void

I’m sorry. 

I don’t do this on purpose. I’d like to write about nice things, positive things. I wish people could read my blog and come away happy, entertained, and enlightened.

But I can’t. 
Thank you DeviantArt
There’s a famous quote by Fredrick Nietzsche. In English it’s usually translated as: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” 

I’m not sure it applies here. Maybe it does.

One of the more interesting things about depression is the way it changes how you think. Everything spirals back around to feeling bad. Because (in a non-existential sense), experiencing happiness is entirely dependent on the chemicals in your brain. If your brain can’t (or won’t) release the right chemicals, then no matter what happens, you won’t be happy.

This tends to manifest as a search for the grey lining of every silver cloud. It’s easier and more comfortable to feel bad about something concrete, than to focus on the void itself.

These days, there are lot of things to feel bad about. I wrote about this a bit in an earlier post, but there was something almost empowering by the widespread depression and anguish following Trump’s victory. But because when you spend your life expecting the worst thing to happen, even if you don’t like the thing, you’re ready for it. The crisis becomes manageable. You can make a plan and follow through

One of the main treatments for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy, which assumes that depression is as much a consequence of negative thought patterns as it is a physical condition. Which is very likely true, the brain is a powerful organ, as the placebo effect clearly demonstrates. By replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones, people can break out of the depressive spiral.
This comes up when you Google "depressive spiral". It's a little on the nose.
But a counterpoint, and this is going to sound like an unhealthy embrace of depressive thinking, but why? Not just “why bother?” but “why do this thing?”. I’ve talked about the optimism bias several times, but it bears repeating. “Normal” thoughts and thought patterns are consistently and provably wrong, people live their lives with a surplus of optimism, constantly biasing thoughts and behaviors to place themselves in the best possible light, and generally assuming things will all work out ok, even in bad situations.

Frankly, it makes me very frustrated. And maybe I’ve stared too long into the void, but I don’t want to be that way. If things are bad, I want to believe things are bad. The world doesn’t hinge on my beliefs, but as my Cassandra posts so distressingly explain, there are many reasons to feel pessimistic. The world just isn’t a happy place right now, and while I wish it were otherwise, I have to tell the truth.

Edit: An addendum. The author is not wallowing in a depressive spiral. This is meant as a partial defense of coping mechanisms and thought patterns wrought by depression, and should not be taken as an endorsement of depression. It is extraordinarily difficult to live life without some delusions of optimism, and it is extremely unwise to try. If you or a loved one are suffering from depression, you should know that they have fantastic chemicals that will really help. Please do what is necessary to acquire them. Thank you.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Pandemic

C’est les microbes qui auront le dernier mot.
Louis Pasteur

Previous Cassandra Posts: A.I.Global WarmingAntibiotics

Continuing on my public health kick on the heels of my antibiotics-themed Cassandra post, I’d like to talk about another terrifying future threat:
Probably not
Now, apologies if I start shamelessly channeling Richard Preston, but it’s important to remember that diseases are one of the built-in controls on population growth. In many ways, disease acts on animal populations the same way predators do.

The point to keep in mind is that diseases are natural. And as the population density increases, so does the density of diseases, and the higher the chance for the disease to spread. Obviously humans are not the only animal whose numbers are similarly controlled, Hoof and Mouth disease in bovids comes to mind. I’m sure epidemiologists know more.

I’m assuming everyone is at least somewhat familiar with the history of the bubonic plague, aka “The Black Death”, but on the off chance that you’re not: in the mid 1300s, the plague spread throughout Asia and Europe, killing anywhere from 75 to 200 million people. Records are inconsistent both because it was 700 years ago, causes of death were harder to ascertain (or deliberately misrepresented to avoid quarantine), and the fact that over one third of the population was killed off (with some estimates as high as 60%).
There's a lot of bad-ass Black Death imagery to choose from
This is a staggering statistic to imagine, and really makes the people who thought the plague was god’s wrath and/or the end of the world seem a lot more reasonable.

The other important thing to remember is that disease and plague were a fact of life. If it wasn’t the black death, it was smallpox, and if it wasn’t smallpox, it was cholera. Or a hemorrhagic fever. Or any number of things. The black death was not the first and although the peak was in the mid to late 1300s, outbreaks (of varying sizes) continued to occur in Europe until the late 1800s, and still occur in many places around the world.

Obviously, the death tolls are not what they once were, even the worst modern outbreaks tend not to claim more than a few hundred lives at a time. Mainly because we’re better at quarantine, killing the fleas and rats that carry it, and we have various treatments for curing and preventing it. (Though, tying back into “On Being a Cassandra: Antibiotics”, there is serious public health concern about the possible spreading of an antibiotic-resistant bubonic plague. Luckily, at present only a few antibiotic-resistant strains have been observed.)

But while exotic tropical diseases like Dengue and Ebola are certainly exciting, from an epidemiology standpoint, they’re not the plague you should be most worried about. What you should be worried about is influenza.
JPEG artifacts are not a symptom of influenza
Now, there’s usually quite a bit of a fuss each year about bird flu, or swine flu, which I imagine is fairly puzzling to people who associate the flu with spending a few days feeling shitty in bed. So, let’s talk about the 1918 flu pandemic

In the span of a year, 500 million people were infected, and somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of them died. This amounted to about a 3-4% reduction in the worldwide population, and was at least three times the number of people who died in WWI.

Obviously, most flu strains are nowhere near as virulent as that one, and the flu is “incentivized” not to be that dangerous, as killing the host makes transmission more difficult. But, there is no reason why this year’s flu was not as dangerous, other than the fact that most flus aren’t that dangerous. That’s why the public health officials get so spooked when the latest H1N1 strain appears and kills a few thousand people, because a sufficiently virulent strain could do much worse damage. Also to note, the flu vaccine is not particularly effective against these pandemic flus, as they tend to be new and unaccounted for mutations.

Regardless of which disease you choose to concern yourself with, the simple fact is that our society is massively overdue for a pandemic. Our population is incredibly high, and incredibly dense in most places, with a shocking amount of interconnectedness (due to people traveling around via trains and planes). Not only is our society due for a pandemic, we are drastically unprepared for it. This is more than simple alarmism, according to the report I just linked: “the commission's own modeling suggests that we are more likely than not to see at least one pandemic over the next 100 years, and there is at least a 20 percent chance of seeing four or more.”

Nor are natural pandemics the only concern, just recently Bill Gates addressed the Munich Security Conference, warning of the risk posed by bio-terrorism. But whether natural or unnatural, if you’re looking for more things to worry about, don’t hesitate to add pandemics to your list.

P.S. Quarantine may be ineffective with certain dangerous diseases, as they are capable of drastically altering human behavior. See this study for more information.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Trump: Still Bad

Breaking news! Stop the presses!

Well, maybe not exactly. I wanted to review some of the points I made in “Don’t Be a Reactionary”, and talk about some of the unproductive mental habits that I’ve seen among family and friends the last few months.

Namely, there appears to be a near constant outpouring of outrage and shock, occurring whenever Trump/his people/the Republicans do anything. And I’m begging you, I’m pleading you, stop being surprised.

Or at least stop acting surprised. The reversal of the Obama mandate banning bathroom discrimination for transsexuals is a recent example, though I could name a dozen others. We’d be here all day. The important point is, this is not an unexpected outcome. You should expect him to take easy steps to undo anything democrats like and republicans hate, especially when there is no cost to do so. It’s a popular move that endears him to his base, and any public denouncements or protests just reinforce the divisive narrative.

As a mental exercise, I’d like my liberal readers to flex their pessimism muscles, and imagine bad political events that might happen, but haven’t happened (yet). Though many of these policies are in motion already (defunding planned parenthood, re-privatizing prisons, etc), it should not be too impossible to come up with some (realistic) things that have not yet happened. I’ve got a couple: passing laws to deliberately weaken environmental standards, starting a war with some middle eastern country, and formally withdrawing from the UN. I’m sure you can come up with more, especially if you take a few minutes to really think about it.

Now while most things you’ve just imagined are bad, or at least highly disagreeable, none of them should come as a true surprise. You should expect him to nominate pro-life justices, you should expect his appointees to do their best dismantle their various organizations, and you should expect him to act in ways consistent with what we’ve already seen. You can still be outraged, but please stop acting like every action is unforeseen and unprecedented (I’m knocking down a strawman here, but the point stands). It’s unproductive.

I read another blog post recently, and I’m going to quote most of it here, because it is highly relevant to the situation at hand:
The Angry Identitarian Left is the way it is, in part, because its practices are optimized specifically for college campus activism.

Within a university, the world is controlled by a nigh-omnipotent authority.  If you are a student, it is probable that the authority basically likes you and wants you to succeed; even if the administrators find you annoying, they fundamentally regard you as community members who should be receiving a good education, not as vermin or monsters or fifth-columnists.  If you are a leftist or liberal, it is probable that the authority basically shares your fundamental values; the administrators are basically you, thirty years down the pike.  But the authority is lazy and venal and (especially) worried about disruptions and embarrassments.  By default, you will be denied a lot of the political things you want, because that’s the easiest and cheapest thing, because the most convenient way to keep donors happy usually involves sweeping problems under the rug and not shelling out money.

Under these circumstances, the most flexible strategic plan seems to involve a two-pronged social assault, with the prongs consisting of “moral suasion” and “extortion.”  You speak with as much holiness and self-righteousness as you can muster, in hopes that you can guilt the administrators into acknowledging the merit of your points, which has a good chance of working because deep down the administrators probably do see the merit of your points.  (They really, genuinely don’t want to be racist or sexist either!)  And you make yourself as annoying and obstreperous as you can, with the implicit promise that you’ll stop as soon as you get what you want, in hopes that appeasing you becomes the easy way out.

There’s not much to be gained by persuading anyone of anything, or by looking to compromise with anyone, because there’s not really any principled opposition with whom to engage.  There’s also no real downside to using nasty rhetoric and dirty tactics.  In the wider world, that shit causes people to hate and fear you, it alienates potential allies and cements the resolve of your enemies…but within the college, you have no genuine enemies and you don’t have much use for allies.  All that matters is whether you can break through the sloth and self-interestedness of the decision-makers. 
And this, despite being an over-generalization, is the problem with your outrage and protests. Every half-baked protest and social disruption turns people away from the cause. This is not to say that you can’t be upset (I thoroughly enjoyed this article about “Bluexit”), but you need to think really hard before you act. If you’re protesting because it feels good to be an activist, good to be surrounded by other people who are morally indignant, and satisfying to preach from the moral high ground, I can say with certainty that you’re not helping.

If your protest would scare an uninformed bystander, or if it would not persuade someone on the fence, don’t do it. Trump’s administration is not and will not be swayed by protests, they see them as a sign that they are on the right track, and large scale civil disruptions make people long for a militarized police force. The Left needs a new playbook, and quickly.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Antibiotics

Just a quick aside, before I get seriously into today’s unfounded alarmism and moping about the future, I want to thank everyone who has been reading so far. Without all of you, this would be entirely pointless. On this note, if you enjoy the blog, please do share any articles on your social media platform of choice.

Previous Cassandra series posts: A.I.Global Warming

At the risk of cliché, it’s hard to overstate the importance of antibiotics. While it’s unimaginable to us, the children of the golden age, the medical advances we take for granted, such as organ transplants, surgery, and safe childbirth are all possible only because of antibiotics.

I’m not recusing myself from that group, if this NYT article is to be believed, 11% of skin infections were fatal back before antibiotics. Which doesn’t seem realistic to me, but I don’t have the standing to refute the datum. Maybe they just mean serious infections, not my acne and cat scratches, otherwise I’ve really beaten the odds.

At any rate, without antibiotics, many surgeries have a decent chance of being life threatening. Even with sterile conditions, you’re still making a big hole for bacteria to get in, with antibiotics consistently used during surgery to prevent infection. And even that’s not enough, the World Health Organization estimates that “Of every 100 hospitalized patients at any given time, seven in developed and 15 in developing countries will acquire at least one HAI [Health-care Associated Infection].”

I guess I kind of skipped over the major problem on this one, so let me rectify that: we are running out of antibiotics. Not just for the “MSRA” staph infections that occasionally make the news every now and then, but in general. We’ve already seen bacteria that are immune to every antibiotic we have, and the others are continually growing and refining themselves, actively working to develop resistances to treatment. Not only do bacteria acquire resistances through ordinary mutation, but they can also acquire resistances through plasmids. Essentially, a bacterium that develops resistance can spread it to other unrelated species of bacteria, making the development of any resistance a highly undesirable outcome from our perspective.

Like in any evolutionary arms race, bacteria that develop resistances are more successful. It takes constant progress on our end to maintain our superiority. At the moment, this is not happening, and scientists are predicting the practical end of antibiotics within a few decades.
It is difficult to justify investment in new antibiotics when they quickly stop being useful

One of the glaring problems is that the bacteria are developing resistance more quickly. Quicker than we can develop new drugs, at least. The reasons for this are likely due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, a topic for which a comprehensive accounting is beyond the scope of this short essay. One salient fact: the vast majority of antibiotics used are given to animals in their food, in order to keep them healthy in the foul conditions of factory farms. Use of antibiotics in this way also raises the percentage of body fat in the animals. Similar results occur when antibiotics are (over)used with children. Additionally, an estimated 50% of all antibiotics administered to people are used unnecessarily, to treat colds and flus. Suffice it to say, we are ever the architects of our own demise.

What will the future look like? The past, likely enough. Diseases once untreatable (Tuberculosis, Gonorrhea, Cholera, E coli, etc.) will be untreatable once again. I want to stress that this is not speculative, it is already occurring around the world. Species of gram negative bacteria have been the first to develop resistance to all known antibiotics, but more will inevitably follow. Our children will die from infections that our parents shrugged off, and, in one more way, the world will be darker and more dangerous.

Monday, March 6, 2017

On Hypocrisy

I wanted to take a moment for introspection.

I've been toying with the idea of writing a statement of purpose, a manifesto of sorts detailing why I'm writing, what I'm saying, and how I hope it benefits people and the world at large.

I don't think I can. At least, not without this preface. If it seems like I'm dawdling on purpose, trying to avoid saying whatever it is I'm about to say, then you're absolutely correct.

The problem with writing is that it's fundamentally narcissistic. All writing, with the possible exception of private diaries, is performative; it is meant to be read. Moreover, it's a one-way conversation — just the author talking at you, hoping and assuming his words have value.

I say all this, because I had a ready excuse for why perhaps my writing was worthwhile, or at least a germ of an idea. If I were to state it explicitly, it would be writing for the greater good, to educate, inform, and to provide a moralistic and humanist perspective.

This is, of course, hypocritical bullshit. I read a study recently that explained the process, and laid bare any pretense I could have mustered. I will quote from the abstract:
"Why do people express moral outrage? While this sentiment often stems from a perceived violation of some moral principle, we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity."
If this doesn't sum up nearly every single one of my posts to date, I'd be surprised. ( has a more detailed write-up of their findings that is not hidden behind a paywall)
Another dramatic gesture
In this case, the hypocrite is coming from inside the house.

I talk a big game about the sanctity of life, the virtues of compassion, the importance and moral weight of human existence, and other things. Unfortunately, it's all lies.

Not the moral principles themselves, as I'm pretty sure those are true, but in terms of any actual implementation. I say it, but it's clear that I don't mean it. I don't donate my time or money to charity, I don't help the less fortunate — heck, I'm not even usually kind or well-mannered. In short, I repeatedly and consistently act as if I am the only person in the world who matters. My "interest" in Effective Altruism seems purely theoretical.

Even this public flagellation reeks of false piety. Circling back to our narcissistic beginning, this is no less a demonstration of the same problem I'm moping about. I certainly don't blame any readers for giving up on this, my weakest post yet. If I wasn't actively writing it, I would have closed the tab long ago.

The only question I have at this point is: Is there a way to talk about the moral component of social issues without being a hypocrite? Is the selfish behavior inviolably baked into my/our brains? Does being thinking meat mean that we are inevitably shackled to biology, with our feelings and emotions directly regulated by chemical reactions? (this is not a new concern of mine. See: "On the Darkest Timeline: An Ode to Meat")

I can see the wall coming up, there's only so far to go on this topic; there's not a lot of subtlety to the philosophy of materialism. Issue of my personal hypocrisy aside, if our minds are intractably linked to the randomly designed meat that makes up our bodies, then that does not bode well for our future chances. If minds can even be considered to exist independent of our biological prisons (which is not at all certain), the link between them can hardly be beneficial.

Animals (of which humans are no exception) are obsessed with meeting their selfish needs: the four "F"s of biology. Very very little of what we think and do is unconnected to this. I just wish there was another way.

I don't have a pithy end-cap, a call to action, or even a real conclusion. I can't pull myself out of my own navel, and I've wasted enough of your time for one day. Try to be better, since clearly, I won't be.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Global Warming

Welcome back. Today we're continuing my more casual "Cassandra" series, where I ramble ineptly about various bad things that I'm worried about.

About a week ago, it was actually very nice outside. High 60s (18-19C), sunny. It reminded me of being back in LA, it was just lovely weather.

It was also the middle of February. Rarely is global warming so obvious. "Climate change" is a far better term, but Global Warming has a lot better branding. I'd also like to sidestep the human causes of climate change, as much as possible. Real quick: yes: the climate is changing, yes: CO2 resulting from human activity contributes, and yes: we've lost the possibility of a normal resolution to climate change (we passed the tipping point sometime during the most recent Bush administration).

Unfortunately, due to co-opting by various left-leaning environmental groups (not to mention the natural tendency of republicans to support business), climate science and science in general has become another casualty in the culture war (at least in the United States). So it goes.

What's more interesting is what's going to happen, assuming any of the predictions hold up. To my conservative and/or skeptic readers, please imagine as merely an outline of the (obviously incorrect and exaggerated) beliefs of the scientific community. Everyone else is strongly encouraged to take the following at face value (as I do).

Let's start with the physics. It will be warmer. Pretty ground breaking revelation, right? Well, kind of. This is a highly imperfect metaphor but imagine a still swimming pool as the atmosphere. As you add energy to it (say, by jumping in it), the pool will wiggle and ripple.

It turns out that the kind of energy doesn't matter as much as you might think. Hurricanes, and other tropical cyclones are created when warm ocean water evaporates (the circular winds come from the angular momentum of the earth's rotation). The warmer the water, the more energy the cyclone has.
This hurricane's name is Fran 
But, back to our swimming pool. Odds are, now that you've jumped in it, the water is moving around in an unpredictable and chaotic manner. And, the more energy added to the pool, the bigger the waves (waves are just energy moving through the medium). But it's fundamentally turbulent, there's plenty of quiet spots, places where the waves bunch together, and all sorts of things. But, as a rule, as you add more energy, the more waves you will get (even if the individual waves cannot be tracked with any accuracy).

So it is with the atmosphere. The more energy is added to it (this time in the form of heat), the more chaotic and turbulent it will become. This means that, though places will be warmer on average, some places will warm quicker, some may cool faster, some may change, and some may remain the same. This is normal for large chaotic systems. So what we're going to see is not just warmer weather (though we will and are seeing that), but more volatile weather. Cold waves, as well as heat waves. Stronger and more energetic storms. Places turning into deserts. Deserts turning into places. Deserts turning into even worse deserts, coral bleaching/loss of rainforest, and so on. Any prediction on the behavior of individual places is likely speculation, but the general behavior of the system (and the root causes) are obvious and knowable.

And that's... kind of bad. Not as bad of a problem as A.I. but still pretty bad. Not ideal, at any rate. But this problem is tiny compared to the problem of rising sea levels. There's a lot of ice on the planet, enough to raise the sea level 60ft (18.2m) or more if it were to melt. But that's hundreds of years out, and it's silly to plan for things hundreds of years in the future (this is sarcasm).

Luckily for people who need shorter term consequences to see the shape of problems, 60 feet sea level rise is not necessary for us to see calamity like we've never seen before (the panic in the Wikipedia article is palpable). A rise in sea level of less than a foot in the Bay of Bengal would be sufficient to create over 7 million climate refugees. Judging by how well we're dealing with the current refugee crisis (as touched on in "On France, Immigration, Islam, and Culture"), I'm not exactly optimistic of us handling another one very well. And this is not the only place impacted, obviously. Even the most wildly unsubstantiated optimistic estimates put the sea level rise at at least a foot (current estimates are somewhere on the order of 3 feet (1m) of sea level rise, though estimates in excess of 5ft are not unheard of). Coupled with the extreme storms from earlier, and you've got a pretty bad situation for any place near the coast.
IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
I'm not able to find good numbers on this (estimates vary wildly and tend to focus on the country running the study), but it's not unreasonable to assume that at least 10 or 20 million people will be effected due to sea level rise and climate change destroying arable land. The numbers could well be significantly higher on all of these estimates, and judging by the rate that scientists are needing to adjust their models (we keep warming faster than the models predict, which is bad), I would not assume the low end of these numbers.

Essentially, we are looking at one of the greatest displacements in human history, and we can expect it to begin within the next handful of decades. Hang on tight folks, because we're in for some chop.

Monday, February 27, 2017

On France, Immigration, Islam, and Culture

I started this blog because I had a lot of time on my hands, as I had just lost my job.

Actually, wait. Let me back up a second. I was working on contract for a Boston-based higher education company, writing emails and website content to entice foreign students to enroll in American universities. One day I will write about the higher education bubble, but that is not today.

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the last week I worked at this company ended on January 20th. Indeed, I would be extremely surprised if the travel ban didn’t adversely affect a company funded through student visas.

But my personal problems, inconvenient as they are, aren’t what’s at stake here. Instead, I’d like to talk about immigration, and France.

First off, I want to parenthetically state that I am not French, my spoken French is poor, and my understanding of French culture and politics is rudimentary at best. Nevertheless, France is an interesting case study, and many of its problems are same ones that the world is struggling to address. While there are no easy answers for their problems, their attempted solutions have implications which provide a snapshot for the next several decades of geopolitical activity.

Let’s start with the French concept of Laïcité. In short, “secularism” is not new in France. Since 1905, the state and religion have been officially separate (though the French history of secularism goes back at least to Napoleonic times). This goes somewhat farther than it does in America; the first article of the French Constitution is: La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale (“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic”). Traditionally, religiously motivated thinking on political matters was incompatible with reasoned political debate, and candidates who used religious justifications for their beliefs were marginalized and not taken seriously. Laïcité is, essentially, a political correctness that makes the mention of religion in political affairs taboo.

This has changed somewhat, in the last decade, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued for a "positive laïcité", specifically, one that recognizes the positive benefits of religion in society. (Of note, France was historically very Catholic — separation of the church, not just a church. More on all this a little later.) Which brings us to another Sarkozy-era policy: the French burqa ban. The ban (which was ostensibly not religious, by including helmets and other face coverings) was upheld in the European Court of Human Rights, which begrudgingly recognized that the French argument of “vivre ensemble” (translated as “living together”) was legitimate. The defense was literally that the ban helped protect French culture.

Culture is such a slippery thing. What makes a culture? Does it need protecting, and if so, from what? Is it even possible to protect? (Witness the death of France’s “monokini beach culture, and the recent banning of the burkini)

Myself, I have an inordinate fondness for French culture. My eyes well up at the thought of Paris in spring, I am overwhelmed with joy at the sight of a boulangerie, and my only happiness in life comes from consuming French food. Nor am I alone in my adoration, France is an incredibly popular worldwide tourist destination and culture plays an important part of it. If the world had a single homogenous culture, with everything the same everywhere, what would be the point of visiting places? I’ll come back to this, but first, let’s talk about Algeria.

Algeria is here
Ignoring much of the earlier history, Algeria was run as a French colony from 1830 to 1962. Algeria, along with the neighboring protectorates Morocco and Tunisia, was the center of interest for France in North Africa. Nor was Algeria merely a source of wealth, in February 1863, Emperor Napoleon III wrote a public letter to the Military Governor, saying: "Algeria is not a colony in the traditional sense, but an Arab kingdom; the local people have, like the colonists, a legal right to my protection. I am just as much the Emperor of the Arabs of Algeria as I am of the French."

The Europeans certainly took this to heart, gladly settling throughout the Maghreb/Barbary Coast, and enjoying the benefits of French citizenship. The French system of government is organized differently than the United States’, but it is a decent approximation to say that Algeria was a state (département), with full representation and voting rights, albeit with a large population of surly non-citizens. By the 20th century, more than 10% of the population was European (mostly concentrated in the cities, where they numbered between 30-40% of the population).

While the French policy was ostensibly to “civilize” the indigenous population, in practice this meant seizing their land and forcing them to learn French (this should not be surprising to anyone with a modest knowledge of history). And while they did offer a path to French citizenship, this required complete submission to the French legal system, and a formal renunciation of certain aspects of sharia law. This did not go over very well with the native Muslims, and only a few thousand Algerians took this path to citizenship.

The remainder mostly stayed mad, and the colonial period was marked by strained relationships with the native Muslims, the Jews (who became French citizens), and the colonists. There were too many uprisings to list here, but most of them ended with a lot of Muslim Algerians dead, and the Muslim population of Algeria developed a lot of justified resentment to French rule, culminating in the long and messy Algerian War. By the end of it, the French government had collapsed and had been replaced with the “5th Republic” under the Presidency of Charles Du Galle, Algeria declared its independence, and over 800,000 people fled Algeria for France. Many of those left behind, including the Harkis (Muslims loyal to the French regime), were butchered, and I mean that very literally.

Much of France’s modern Muslim population is directly descended from the repatriated Harkis (many of whom spent years in internment camps before being moved to housing projects), which is why I’ve spent so much time talking about this. A lot of immigration activity in the intervening years were Muslim families being reunited on French soil. And even if many of them were not technically citizens, their children are by virtue of being born in France.

So, bringing us towards the current year, we have a whole bunch of historically mistreated and mostly poor Muslims living in France, who have been given a rough deal over the last few decades and, understandably, have relatively little interest or opportunity to assimilate into French society. Also, as you might expect, the French were not especially welcoming to their refugees, even the ones that were ethnically European and spoke French. To sum up, it was a pretty bad situation all around.

Now it’s finally time to bring another big piece of the puzzle into play: Le Pen, and The National Front.

I would like to take a second to direct any readers interested in the history of far-right political parties to read my series on Fascism and Tribalism, as many of these movements share important commonalities. As one would expect, far-right Nationalist views have a long history in France, with clear ideological lines leading from the pro-monarchy faction opposing the French revolution (the original 1789 one, which is apparently still a force actively shaping French politics), to the Action Français (which supported the Vichy Regime and was an ideological cousin of Fascism), to the current Front National (FN). In the case of the FN, the FN party formed as a direct reaction to the war in Algeria, with many of the members, including Jean-Marie Le Pen himself (who reminds me strongly of Lyndon LaRouche), having fought against Algerian independence.

At any rate, the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen did not enjoy much electoral support, struggling until the 1980s, when they were able to form a coalition (the French political system is structured differently) with the center-right Rally for the Republic and centrist Union for French Democracy parties. Since then, they have struggled to maintain more than 10-15% of the vote in most places, with a crushing loss to Chirac in 2002 (Chirac refused to debate Le Pen on television, and won 82% of the vote, with polls indicating that over half the votes were cast specifically to block Le Pen).

In 2010, Le Pen (the “Devil of the Republic”) stepped down as president of the FN, and was succeeded by his daughter: Marine Le Pen. Since coming to power in the party, she has attempted to “de-demonizethe National Front, attempting to soften their image, dialing back their public xenophobia, and threatening to sue anyone who called the FN “extreme right”. This, coupled with the rise in right wing nationalism worldwide has led the FN to a projected first round victory in the upcoming election. Needless to say, Marine Le Pen has also benefited from the rise in anti-Islamic sentiment throughout France, as well as from a spate of high profile riots and terrorist attacks .
“The Immigrants are going to vote… and you’re not?!!”
There have been accusations of criminality, as well as investigations into Le Pen’s financial ties and support from Russia (with corresponding public statements), allegations of Russian interference in the election, money, and a mysterious visit to Trump Tower.

But it’s poor form to attack the arguer, instead of the argument. The issues (and contradictions) raised by Le Pen are worth discussing on their own merits, whether or not she eventually turns out to be a Russian plant. But I’m wondering at the central contradiction: we have an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim “France first” party, led by the daughter of a man who fought to keep Algeria as part of France. Issues of a “migrant waveaside, the Muslims the National Front is struggling against are the children of the Harkis, who fought for France against their homeland of Algeria.

And, since I started writing this piece, Emmanuel Macron, a "left-wing" candidate in the French presidential election, is dealing with backlash and falling poll numbers amid criticism of his statement that France’s history in Algeria was a “crime against humanity”. That the sharpest criticism has come from Le Pen should not be a surprise, but what is shocking (to me at least) is the degree to which this view is controversial at all. It would appear, judging by the reaction, that a sizable plurality of France has yet to come to an honest account of their colonial history.

Looking at it, I don’t see why it’s controversial that the French should apologize to the people they massacred. In fact, I’ll go on record and say that if you kill a bunch of people, you have to at least say you’re sorry afterwards. It just seems like common sense. Clearly, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this particular essay, because I haven’t even got to the part I really want to talk about: Déclinisme

It should not be surprising that the people who brought us Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida are heavily interested in the decline of civilization. Nor should it be surprising that Le Pen and the right are able to harness this national zeitgeist towards their own ends. But what I want to talk about is something my audience might find uncomfortable: what if they’re right?

What if France really is declining? More to the point, what if it’s already doomed? While there are severe demographic challenges lurking in Europe’s future, and although the French birthrate has declined past the point of replacement, they’re still doing better than most… right? Maybe not. Quick note on the stuff to follow, this isn’t as robust as the data I normally provide — a direct consequence of the fact that France has laws against racism that extends to the concept of race. As a result, there is no officially recorded data available tracking demographic changes in France. That means there is no easy way to know what’s happening, unlike in America, where there’s clear evidence of these trends.

This is the kind of headline that makes some people nervous and violent. At this point, most of the intelligentsia is familiar with the concept of white backlash, and the resulting long term political trends are eminently predictable (this link is from 2014). But, returning to France, neo-reaction blogger Steve Sailer has pulled together some data that I’m going to take at face value for this article (I don’t have enough French to adequately review his sources).

Steve, who is not off the hook for the race stuff (I’ll get to that in a second), found a way to estimate the percentages of births in France to parents of non-European ancestry. The French government tests newborn babies for sickle cell anemia if and only if both parents (or one if only one is known) come from regions with high genetic risk for the disease, or if there is a family history for the disease. He found a steady increase, from 25.6% in 2005 to 38.9% in 2015. He also noted that in the Paris region (Île de France), the rate was 73.4% in 2015. This, coupled with the falling birthrate, suggests a significant downward trend in births to European French.

Look. Please don’t get it wrong. I know racism is bad. And, more to the point, I know that discussing it is often taboo, and talking about race is extremely difficult, especially on the Left. But I also know that if the Left is going to seriously challenge the [alt] Right on issues like this, they need to provide a stronger case. Because a not-insignificant percentage of the population are worried that they and their culture are going extinct (14 words is a well known example of this). Really responding to this viewpoint takes far more than what the Left is currently doing (some combination of ignoring it, disinterest, and actively praising multi-culturalism). Telling someone who (rightly or wrongly) is concerned for their children’s future to get over it, and that they’re racist for thinking it, is not and cannot ever be a winning strategy. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we have to do better.

But back to culture. Now this is a very shallow and selfish argument, and almost certainly not germane to the discussion but I like French culture. I like walking through the arrondissements, carrying a baguette and whistling Aux Champs-Elysées. Yes, I might have a problem. And while I’m also interested in visiting the Maghreb (I hear Morocco is amazing), I don’t want France to lose whatever essential quality it is that makes it what it is. 

And, loath as I might be to admit it, the National Front has a point about Islamic culture being incompatible with secular western values. It is not difficult to see why conservative Muslim communities might have trouble adjusting to Laïcité — their views on women’s rights, gender segregation, homosexuality, alcohol, and Judaism put them far out of step with modern French society.

America is also dealing with these issues. And, places with higher concentrations of Muslims in America are seeing similar ethnic and political tensions. Places like Dearborn, Michigan get extreme attention from the right, who are using rhetoric and voicing concerns indistinguishable from the ones echoed by the National Front. I don’t claim to know how to effectively respond, but an effective response probably shouldn’t look like this one (from the huffington post).

My conservative readers are likely shouting at their screens about me missing the obvious conclusion to all of this, but I don’t think it’s that simple. At the risk of being wishy-washy, both sides make strong points, but the outcome is still very much in doubt (though, as I’ve mentioned before in “Don’t Be a Reactionary, conflict is part of the plan on both sides).

The most important takeaway I see, other than the fact that France is struggling right now, is that the left’s current definition of culture is woefully insufficient. At the very least, the long term consequences and implications have not been adequately explored. The toxic and dogmatic atmosphere surrounding “leftist” identity politics is more than amenable to right wing co-opting. As the penalties for being seen to transgress from the ideologically accepted lines become more severe (witness the backlash Uber has received, despite their protestations to the contrary), the more reasonable rightwing reaction movements will seem. 

This is slightly off the main topic, but in a world where #killallmen can trend, it’s not so surprising that a “men’s rights” should exist. A brief viewing of the “#whitepeople” hashtag will see (non-white) people talking about how they don’t like white people, and white people who are talking about white genocide and posting swastikas. Which is not to say that the two are equivalent, but neither one is making things better for the world. Is it a choice? Is this just the price we have to pay to hold back cultural homogeny?

I’m not sure, but writing about this already seems anachronistic, like I’m swimming against the tide of history. While I’d like to believe otherwise, I sincerely doubt that there exists some answer that can placate all sides. Eventually, we’ll have to choose.