“There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld
I picked the Rumsfeld quote because it fit one of the topics of this blog post, but I now see that it’s even more appropriate than I’d thought.
Is he a war criminal? In my opinion, yes. But he’s also a very smart guy, typical of the type. He’s accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, or at least thinking he is. He knows a lot. He has unrealistic confidence in his own judgment, both on matters of fact and of morality.
He’s confident that if he thinks an idea will work, then it will. He bet American soldiers’ lives and a trillion taxpayer dollars on his belief that conquering Iraq would make it a Western-style democracy and a staunch American ally. Oops. No such luck. It was a catastrophe for everyone but Iran and ISIS.
Which brings us to another very smart guy who is also, thank goodness, a much better guy than Rumsfeld. Eric Kaplan is a blogger I read regularly. He’s probably best known as the author of the book Does Santa Exist?, which I found both entertaining and thought-provoking. His blog writings are similarly good, though often whimsical and obscure. Since he’s funny, I’m never sure if the obscure parts are meant as a joke, and whether I’m acting as his interlocutor or as his straight man.
One of his recent blog posts (“Crazy Males”) seems whimsical, but it raises some serious issues. Because he didn’t pursue the issues, I will. You’re welcome. I am, after all, the smartest guy in the room. Sure, I’m the only guy in the room at the moment, but I’m still the smartest.
Are men unfit for political office?
Eric argues as follows:
- Traditionally, men have been fathers, husbands, providers, and protectors.
- Those roles are now obsolete. Contraception lets women avoid pregnancy, while physically undemanding office jobs let them provide for themselves.
- As a result, men suffer from “anxiety which in turn creates neurotic, anti-social behavior.”
- Therefore, men should not hold positions of power until they adjust to the new situation.
What are we to make of this argument?
The first point to note is that in the aggregate, people do not need a special reason to engage in neurotic, anti-social behavior. A certain amount of it is baked into human DNA, though it varies from one person to another and from one group to another. Some exhibit high levels of neurosis and aggression, while others have less. Moreover, such behavior is not confined to a single sex. A man might shoot you or punch you in the face, while a woman similarly inclined might poison your tea or falsely accuse you of child abuse.
The second point is that by historical standards, men of European and Jewish ancestry are much less violent and more tolerant than their predecessors. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker devoted a whole book to the subject. Of particular interest are the dramatic declines in violence since the 1960s, when contraception became widely available and feminism began its long march from fringe ideology to social orthodoxy.
Men commit most homicides and rapes. If altered social roles were causing an increase in male misbehavior, we’d expect to see exactly the opposite of what Pinker’s graph shows. Indeed, many men in the West are now so thoroughly domesticated, passive and weak that they invite ridicule and contempt — not least from those heterosexual women who in theory approve of gelded metrosexuals but in practice prefer to hook up with “bad boys” who treat them like dirt, which might also explain their support for Islamic invasion of their own countries. Those are, by the way, some of the neuroses suffered by women as a result of social change.
Matriarchy, novelty, and smart-crazy ideas
Be that as it may, there’s no disputing the fact that most wars are started by men, and that men’s decisions in government are frequently awful. Maybe it’s time, as Eric suggests, for men to step aside and give women a chance to run things.
At the individual level, it wouldn’t be much of a change. My father told me that when he was growing up, my grandfather made all the major decisions for the family — but the decisions he made were always the ones my grandmother wanted him to make. “We men don’t care if we really run things,” my father explained, “as long as our wives let us think that we do.” Women have always exercised power, but less obviously and directly than men. Feminists are confused on that point, since they think that they’re not exercising power unless they’re barking orders like a Parris Island drill sergeant.
My maternal grandmother was an illuminating example of how women can exercise power — that is, power as the ability to identify goals and then get them done. She founded a successful national business in an era when feminists claim that women couldn’t do things like that. A family story describes one of her characteristic methods. She’d have a casual conversation with a business associate and then go on her way. An hour or so later, the associate would get a brilliant idea. He’d take the idea to my grandmother, who would say, “That’s great! Well done! Go do it!” Of course, she had subtly planted the idea in the person’s mind. She not only got the job done, but she also ensured that her associate was fully committed to the goal because it was “his” idea.
At the national level, on the other hand, major decisions usually have been and still are made by men. In the highest levels of government, “the patriarchy” actually exists. Should we dump the patriarchy in favor of a matriarchy?
Leave aside the obvious problem of persuading people with power to relinquish it. Assume we can do that. Why not give it a try?
I don’t think there’s only one correct way to run a country, so if a majority voted for a matriarchy, it would be okay with me. I have my doubts about its viability, but to some extent a country is like a club: if you don’t like how it’s run, you can leave and join a different club. If I didn’t like it, I’d leave. As long as the majority doesn’t want violations of basic human rights, the majority should get what it wants — “good and hard,” as H.L. Mencken said.
However, the suggestion that we should abandon the normal practice of human societies — political patriarchy — is an example of what psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa calls “the intelligence paradox.” It’s the kind of idea advanced by very smart people who have unrealistic confidence in their own judgment and who pay scant attention to human history. They’re confident that if they think an idea will work, then it will. “This time, it’s different” is a refrain that’s heard often through the centuries, and it usually presages disaster.
Matriarchy is less implausible than a lot of smart ideas. Some of the ideas are so loopy, so utterly off-planet, that only extremely intelligent people could ever believe in them. One such idea recently surfaced in Britain: that schools should use pornography to teach five-year-olds about sex:
“Jenni Murray, BBC Radio 4 journalist, said children should analyse porn like a Jane Austen novel: ‘You put boys and girls together in a class and you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read all the other cultures around them.'”
The difference between matriarchy and porn-for-children is one of degree. Only very intelligent people advocate such ideas, because only very intelligent people can know enough to argue for them with even the slightest amount of credibility. The less intelligent cannot argue well but are more likely to have common sense that embodies both biological intuitions and the experience of the human race.
Bruce Charlton gives an excellent and more extensive analysis of smart-crazy ideas in his article “Clever sillies: Why high-IQ tend to be deficient in common sense.”
Intelligent or less so, male or female, human brains were not adapted by evolution to cope with the complexities of our modern technological society. Kanazawa calls it “the Savanna principle:”
”The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. We are stuck with the stone-age brain which assumes that we are still hunter-gatherers on the African savanna, and responds to the environment as if it were the African savanna.”
That’s why pornography excites people and why they form emotional attachments to TV characters. Photos and video did not exist in the ancestral environment. Despite conscious awareness that what they see is “not real,” stone-age brains cannot distinguish between the images and real people. Their emotions react accordingly.
The point is not that hunter-gatherer societies would or wouldn’t endorse matriarchy. The point is that when we try to analyze complex technological, social, and political situations, we are intellectually out of our depth. Our thinking is error-prone. We must be very careful. Just because something seems in the abstract to be a terrific idea does not mean it won’t be a terrific disaster.
In 1999, it seemed like a terrific idea to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and deregulate investment banks: the result was the worldwide economic catastrophe of 2008. After the invention of modern antibiotics, it seemed like a terrific idea to prescribe them for almost any minor illness: the result was the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria that kill people and are impervious to treatment.
The medical example is a good one, since it recalls a traditional principle of medicine:
“First, do no harm.”
The idea that a doctor’s first job is to do no harm is frustrating when we’re sick and there’s really nothing sensible to do about it. “Take aspirin, drink plenty of fluids, and you’ll feel better in a few days” isn’t what we want to hear. But there’s a lot of good sense behind that prescription.
Disorder increases because there are many more ways for things to be chaotic than for them to be organized in useful ways. As a result, the probability of disorder is greater than the probability of order. Applied to human society, it means that there are more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.
Thus, other things being equal, the overall result of any social change is more likely to be bad than to be good. If we want to make such changes, we should be very sure that we know what we’re doing — and we very rarely are. To minimize the risk of harm, we should make social changes slowly, in small increments, and then assess the results before going any further.
This goes to the very heart of political and moral conservatism. Conservatism is not mainly a set of doctrines, such as lower taxes or traditional marriage. It’s mainly an attitude of caution about social change. It’s the belief that if certain practices and institutions have worked well for thousands of years in many different kinds of societies, then we shouldn’t carelessly trade them for new ones that sound good but might be catastrophic. Political philosopher Michael Oakeshott explains:
”The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.”
Proposed social change should be evaluated carefully:
”Innovation entails certain loss and possible gain. Therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change will be on the whole beneficial, is with the would-be innovator. The conservative prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. He favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, with pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments.”
Ironically, Hillary Clinton was in one sense the conservative candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She opposed the change championed by Donald Trump. She wanted to conserve the current system, albeit a system aimed at the very un-conservative goal of remaking America into a third-world dystopia from which only the super-rich and their client groups would benefit. Trump, on the other hand, was a radical candidate who vowed to change the current system and replace it with one favorable to the American majority.
But what of matriarchy?
But what of matriarchy? I think that “Dilbert” writer-cartoonist Scott Adams got it right: Ms. Clinton won that battle, not for herself, but for a qualified and less unsavory female candidate in the future:
”Clinton deserves credit for breaking the glass ceiling for the highest office, at least in our minds, and that’s where it matters most. In 2016, no thinking person believes gender is a job requirement for president. That isn’t even a thing anymore. And Clinton did that for the country. You have to respect that.”
It’s a novelty but a reasonable risk. Disastrous female leaders such as Angela Merkel are balanced by disastrous male leaders such as Barack Obama, as well as by great female leaders such as Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. Sexually, it’s a wash.
Women can run things. Men can run things. However, not all women or all men are qualified. We’ll have to assess the candidates on merit, not on the basis of their sex.
And if you think that is sexist, then you don’t know what “sexist” means.