All posts by anomalogue

Meditation on the ten-thousand everythings

….it was said that one god, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variously estimited number of books (42, according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000, according to Iamblichus; 36,525, according to the priests of Thoth, who is also Hermes), on whose pages all things were written. [Anomalogue: From what I’ve read, Hermes Trismegistus was not a god; the god Hermes is a different being.] Fragments of that illusory library, compiled or forged since the third century, form the so-called Hermetica. In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” — Borges, “Pascal’s Sphere”

The universe is made entirely of absolutely unique particles, each constituting the very center of the universe. Only from the vantage point of one of these myriad centers can any of the other myriad particles be understood as identical to any of the others.

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“The ten-thousand things” of the Tao Te Ching are also ten-thousand everythings.

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Myriad is a quantitative quality; it means uncountably many. Ten-thousand was traditionally used to represent myriad, but computers have rendered ten-thousand too puny, so now we say zillions or gazillions.

We should not confuse myriad with infinity. Infinity challenges reality at the definitional — de-finition — level, the category level, which alone makes quantity possible. Only a particular viewpoint can render unique things identical.

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Some spiritual people view Liberalism, the coalition of the unique, as shallow and dry, but this has more to do with the prejudices of conventional spirituality than with the depth or richness of Liberalism itself.

The deepest things are cloaked by myopia. Only looking deeply can reveal depth.

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Horseshoe Overton Window

Normally the Overton Window defines a range of discourse between left and right that is considered acceptable. When things get so extreme, however, that we start experiencing the Horseshoe effect, the Overton Window functions differently. Suddenly the Overton Window defines completely disconnected extreme forms of discourse, and the radical disconnect becomes normal whichever socially acceptable extreme you embrace. Liberalism moves outside of the frame, and is viewed on both sides as stupid cooperation with the other extreme. On the contrary: the extremes are in stupid cooperation with one another, serving as justification of extremism

 

Recognizing possibilities of transcendence

There are positive metaphysics which make assertions about reality beyond what can be experienced, and there are negative metaphysics which deny the possibility of making such assertions.

A person who has worked at thinking through problems that started out unthinkable — who had to begin with confronting unthinkability and overcoming it by finding new modes of thinking capable of rendering the unthinkable thinkable — will gradually come to see “beyond experience” differently.

Beyond experience stops being an object of thought, a truth, and rather becomes a zone of indeterminate possibility — with distinctive characteristics one can recognize and about which one can make positive assertions:

  • It compels: we are attracted to it by something within us to transcend our current way of thinking.
  • It repels: the exits from our limitations fill us with anxiety and engulf us in dread.
  • It demands intuition: It can be navigated only by a wordless intelligence that knows, does and values without any ability to explain or justify itself.
  • It demands sacrifice: how we used to think is the chief obstacle to the new way of thinking.
  • It demands rethinking: much of what we once knew will have to be understood anew (metanoia).
  • It generates rebirth: the rethinking changes one’s basic experience of everything, all at once.
  • It is fruitful: it produces new ideas, understandings, interconnections and possibilities that were imperceptible, and in fact, unthinkable prior to transcendence. (Added July 16, 2020. Thanks to Nick Gall.)
  • It increases truth: what came before was not false, but what comes after is more true.
  • It is radically unexpected: with each transcendence truths come into view that were literally unimaginable prior to transcendence.
  • It intensifies expectation: experiencing the radically unexpected assures us that the unimaginable is entirely possible.
  • It is ubiquitous: once we learn to recognize these characteristics, we start noticing them everywhere we look. Existence is pregnant with shocking possibility.

This is why I love philosophy.

This is why I have become religious.

Letter to an angry friend

One reason I have chosen to be Jewish is because the Jewish people has been on both sides of power so many times. This back-and-forth experience is instructive. The change from being dominated to being the dominator is a shock — the totality of being transfigures, apparently permanently. But then dominator becomes dominated, and, shockingly, the totality transfigures again.

If this keeps happening, and a people is miraculously able to survive it, it has a chance to start making connections between these two pseudo-omniscient states and working these insights into its tradition. From where I stand at this point in my life this is the kind of wisdom I care about most.

People often think the goal of spiritual pursuits is apotheosis. I see overcoming apotheosis as more difficult and valuable. Being of God, within God, toward God, without accidentally becoming God, or falling into Godless nihilism, or (as so often happens) doing both simultaneously, is devilishly difficult. 

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.'”

Enworldments

I move around in a world of enworldments.

When I meet a person, their enworldment is what I am trying to intuit. When an artifact — object, environment, artwork, anything — attracts my attention, it is because it implies an enworldment with a person at its center.

At times I’ve wanted to call a particular enworldment an instance of “everything”. Applying the pragmatic maxim, roughly “the meaning of a belief is everything that follows from believing it”, an enworldment is the particular totality implied when a particular person says “everything”. Some people might prefer some related words: worldview, lifeworld, totality, philosophy, or, simply, world. I like enworldment because, for me, it implies an attempted embracing and gathering toward a creating/discovering instaurating center.

Some enworldments include within it an awareness and concern for the existence of fellow enworldments. An enworldment of this kind can be called pluralist.

Some pluralist enworldments hold pluralism itself as a supreme value, and wish to respect, cultivate and protect a plurality of pluralistic enworldments, as the very locus of value in the world. This kind of pluralism can be called liberalism.

Some liberal enworldments believe that even the most liberal, most pluralist enworldments contain partial incompatibilities and conflicts, and that entering these conflicts with fellow liberals is not only unavoidable, but valuable. This kind of liberalism can be called agonistic.

However, liberalism of even the most agonistic kind cannot be indiscriminately open to every enworldment. It cannot enter into and grasp from within every enworldment that presents itself, because some enworldments are explicitly opposed on principle to liberalism. Some others claim to be liberal, but function illiberally. While it is not necessary or even good  to reject an illiberal enworldment wholesale, it is necessary to isolate and reject illiberal elements within it. Unfortunately, challenging its illiberal elements threatens the enworldment as a whole, and will provoke its defense systems, which are themselves aggressively illiberal. Countermeasures progress from avoidance, to emotional, to social, to material and finally bodily tactics for protecting the illiberal ideology from what it correctly views as an existential threat.

But it is important to remember that the line between liberal and illiberal is not sharply or clearly drawn, and each liberal must use his own judgment to determine which enworldments to respect or even accept as collaborative partners, which to ignore, which to actively oppose as adversaries, and which to go to war with as true mortal enemies of liberalism. These boundaries are some of the most contentious controversies among agonistic adversaries. The cost of drawing them too hastily and too intolerantly is succumbing to illiberalism.  It is tempting to refuse to draw any lines at all, or automatically draw them as broadly as possible, and, in effect, to default to a tolerant acceptance of all views as valid, but this is a mistake. The risk cannot be avoided.

Liberal enworldments can flourish together; illiberal ones will dominate and suppress all others, liberal and illiberal, alike, often in the name of peace — a peace of utter dominance.

Hannah Arendt on who and what

Two quotes on who and what from Hannah Arendt:

No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.

and

The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a “character” in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us. This frustration has the closest affinity with the well-known philosophic impossibility to arrive at a definition of man, all definitions being determinations or interpretations of what man is, of qualities, therefore, which he could possibly share with other living beings, whereas his specific difference would be found in a determination of what kind of a “who” he is.

 

 

Coalition of the unique

God lives in the uniqueness buried in the center of every soul.

God is precisely what is not identical — yet, this very uniqueness is what we most have in common.

The connection between our unique centers gives life value.

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This center-to-center intimacy alone nourishes us. Without it, we starve. Like starving people, we lose our appetites, and eventually nourishment itself becomes life-threatening. If all we are is identity and our relationships are with instances of identity, we can never feel fulfillment, only an engorged emptiment.

The Buddhists describe hungry ghosts as having have tiny throats and huge hollow bellies they cannot fill. Hungry ghosts are identical.

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Liberalism is the coalition of the unique.

We are the ones who value the unique, and want to protect and cultivate uniqueness in ourselves and in every other person.

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Liberalism is politics of protecting each and everyone one of us from politics and its imposition of  unwanted, unchosen identities.

We might have to join together temporarily to oppose the imposition of identities upon us, but in the process we must take care not to lose our uniqueness.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

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The ideal liberal wants to overcome identifications as soon as possible, and to invite out the strange and surprising being hidden inside the stranger. This is not done through “good listening” where we sit in receptive silence while the other talks. It is done through a collaborative act of conversation, through which uniqueness meets uniqueness, and creates uniqueness.

My best voice

I believe I’m finding my best voice for this time. I have to say something, and I have to say it the right way.

A sample of this new voice, which I sent a friend of mine, explains why I need to speak up.

Who-respect vs what-respect

Respect is a universal need.

Everyone wants and needs respect.

We need self-respect, and we need respect from others. Many of us are too proudly individualistic to admit it that we need respect from others, but we absolutely need to be respected. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. It’s bad for everyone.

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Some people have learned to view everything and everyone in terms of power, and this is unfortunate.

Seeing the world through the lens of power invites comparisons, confrontations, competitiveness, defensiveness. A powerful person threatens the power of another.

Respect is different. A respected, respectful person is no threat to anyone. A respectful person gives respect, wins respect and makes respect increase everywhere respect is exchanged.

People with healthy self-respect who are deeply respected by people around them are rarely ruthless power-seekers. But power-seekers often do disrespectful things to gain an advantage or defend a vulnerability, and are more often resented or feared rather than respected.

We are better off understanding each other as respect-seeking beings.

Seeing the world through the lens of respect-seeking makes us more respectful and more respectable.

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The best kind of respect is who-respect: the respect for who we are as a person.

If we feel that we cannot be respected for who we are, we will seek what-respect: a respect for what category of person we think we are.

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What-respect, however, cannot substitute for who-respect.

What-respect can alleviate social starvation, but not much more than that.

When our self-respect is mostly what-respect, and whatever respect we get from others is mostly what-respect, we cannot be satisfied with ourselves, with anyone we know or with the world. A diet of too much what-respect and too little who-respect leaves a soul irritable, anxious and resentful.

What-respect is empty calories for the soul.

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The only thing worse than what-respect is what-disrespect, a withholding of all respect on the basis of what someone is said to be.

Sadly, what-disrespect functions like an appetite suppressant. If you are starving for respect and lose all hope that you will ever get it — or worse, if you have never experienced who-respect and are blind even to its possibility — disrespecting others can dull the pain and replace it with a hot rush of ecstasy. There is no nourishment in it, but at least you aren’t the only one starving, and it doesn’t feel nearly as bad.

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Respect means caring what another person is seeing when they look back at you. Etymologically, it means back-look. When I look at you, I don’t only care what I see, I also care what you see looking back.

Respect is an empathic disposition to try to understand not only how you feel, or what you think, but also for why you think and feel what you do. It does not mean I have to uncritically accept everything you say. Respect is exchanged, and that means we must expect to have our thoughts and feelings respected. For some people an argument is one of the best opportunities to show respect.

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When we meet someone for the first time, we start a delicate respect process.

No matter how much we regret the fact, a new person arrives packaged in whats. Some people try desperately to shut out these whats and whatever implications they carry for us. Many of us think this is the point where we battle our racism. We try to force ourselves to think all the right things and produce all the right gestures and we get all tight and tangled and calculated like an over-scripted politician. This is forced what-respect, and it interferes with the real goal: letting this new person be who they are. That won’t happen when you are too terrified to let them know who you are, because what you are trying to be is a good what. Just give up on the what, and ask questions until you can calm down enough to be who you are.

Even the kindest what-respect obstructs who-respect.

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For heaven’s sake, don’t attempt to mirror the contempt you imagine this what you are attempting to think and do all the right things for. Seeking affirmation by producing what-disrespect is no way to exchange who-respect with another person.

And if this other person you are trying to know does seem to require you to what-disrespect yourself as a condition for approval, you are in a difficult situation. It is likely they are addicted to what-respect and what-disrespect and might know nothing else.

A moral genius might know how to summon up enough self-respecting humanity to overcome the dynamic. More of us will fuck it all up by giving them the self-denigration or self-abasement we think they want, or attempt to defend our own honor by confronting and insulting them, or if we are wise we get out of that situation and avoid further contact with them.

Nobody should ever demand anyone to compromise their self-respect.

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There is lots more to say, but this hits the main points.

I’ve been looking for a better way to represent why I care so much about liberalism, and why I believe it must not continue to be confused with selfish individualism.

When I cast liberalism as about producing optimal conditions for who-respect I feel that I am getting very close to why it matters to me.

We can argue over what those conditions are. But before I will even have that argument with anyone, I first have to know they share my commitment to liberalism.

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I don’t think I have said this even close to perfectly.

I am asking my best-spoken and most socially smart friends to rewrite whatever parts they think they can improve. If this turns out well, I might have to make a book.

OOO: why?

Wow, I’m two pages into Graham Harman’s Tool-Being, and I’m already exasperated with its uselessness. What could drive a person to embrace a philosophy whose focus is on precisely what is least relevant to human life? Yeah, yeah — the apeiron is radically mysterious — but wow, guys, what is fascinating and consequential about the hiddenness of material reality is how entities constantly emerge from it, seemingly ex nihilo, and form relationships with us, not the simple, blunt fact that infinitely more remains submerged in nothingness.

Like with the Mandelbrot Set, it’s’s the edge region that is most interesting. But OOO guys are interested only in the points in the M-Set that escape to infinity, because no matter high the values go, they can go even higher. “Dude, that’s a really big number. Pass me the bong.”

Object-oriented ontology should be called crypotonomenology. Where phenomenology brackets what is ultimately beyond our experience, in order to make clear sense of what is within our experience, OOO brackets everything within experience in order to savor how impossible it is to make sense of what is beyond our experience.

Conceptual Integrity and Empathic Anticipation

In the late 90s and early 2000s, designers used to repeat the mantra “learn once, use everywhere.”

It appears to me that this ideal has been waning for the last ten years or so, in favor of a different ideal, which involves understanding what people will be thinking, feeling and trying to do at each moment of an experience, in order to anticipate their needs and likely responses.

The first ideal emphasizes working systematically to develop and maintain conceptual clarity, consistency and coherence. The goal is to help people understand how the system works so they can learn it and control it easily. Let’s call this ideal Conceptual Integrity.

The newer ideal emphasizes empathizing with people and understanding their experience so that learning or understanding the system is unnecessary. The system shapes itself around their needs, their wants and their desired actions. Let’s call this newer ideal Empathic Anticipation.

It is clear that the two ideals conflict to some degree, which means tradeoffs must be made. Perfect Empathic Anticipation requires flexibility from systems to conform to the momentary needs of a moment. Conversely, perfect Conceptual Integrity would limit the repertoire of interactions to a small and learnable set, and would not support arbitrary deviations to address needs a person might have in only one moment of an experience.

Of course, no design is fully one or the other. Most designers try to strike a balance between the two ideals. The best solutions manage to minimize tradeoffs and cleverly conceal the tradeoffs that are made so people don’t even notice them.

But to make these kinds of tradeoffs designers need at least three skills and toolsets to support those skills.

First, to design with conceptual integrity, designers need to know how to think and work systematically, both conceptually and concretely, so that the relationships between the whole and its parts are perfectly clear and logical.

Second, to design with empathic anticipation, designers need to know how to develop deep insights into the people they are designing for, what they are trying to accomplish and how this need fits into their lives as a whole, so that each moment of the experience accurately anticipates and effectively responds to their needs, both functionally and emotionally.

Finally, to pull together the right experience for this particular person in this particular situation, we need to know how to think about design problems and make the best tradeoffs. We must never automatically apply our own favored skills and best-mastered tools, but rather select our methods intelligently in response to our understanding of the problem. To do this, we need to draw on both ideals and bring them to bear on design approaches themselves.

The politics of design

The biggest milestones in my design career as a designer have been changes in my attitude toward politics — that constant need to persuade other people, to overcome objections and obstacles, and to build alignment around decisions.

I’ll tidy this process up into a simple timeline:

  1. When I was first out of school, I resented politics: “I put a lot of effort into building my design judgment and skills, and you’ve hired me to apply them to solving this problem, so get out of my way and let me work.”
  2. This attitude evolved into a grudging acceptance of politics: “Politics suck but they are unavoidable, so deal with them, so you can do your job.”
  3. But slowly I began to see that design is largely political: “Politics are an uncomfortable but necessary aspect of design that are best mitigated through human-centered practices.”
  4. Now I see the most important part of my job as political: “Human-centered design is a massive opportunity to democratize the workplace.”

In an effort to work the democratic spirit into how teams work together, I’ve been working on a Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights. Like all documents of this kind, they anticipate the need to assert rights when they are infringed. As I am usually in the role of team lead, this means I am the most likely to do that infringing. So, this is the document I am giving to my teams, in the case that I step on their toes and fail to lead the way I aspire to. Here is the list as it stands today:

  • The right to a brief: every team member has the right to request a clearly framed problem to solve autonomously (as opposed a specification to execute).
  • The right to clarity: every team member can request a detailed explanation for any aspect of the project, and keep requesting elucidation until the matter is completely understood.
  • The right to argue: every team member can dissent or raise concerns with decisions, and expect to have the concerns addressed.
  • The right to propose alternatives: every team member is free to conceive and communicate different approaches to solving problems.
  • The right to be heard: every team member’s voice will be actively welcomed in discussions, meaning that opportunities to enter the conversation will be offered and space to communicate without interruption will be protected.
  • The right to be fully understood: every team member can expect active listening from teammates, which means they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.
  • The right to have pre-articulate intuitions: every team member can expect to have pure (pre-articulate) intuitions respected as valid, and to be assisted in giving the intuition explicit, articulate form.
  • The right to learn: no team member is expected to have perfect knowledge, judgment, grace or foresight, as long as imperfections are detected, acknowledged and used for learning, growth and improvement.

In the spirit of democracy, I’ll now turn it over to you. How would you change this list? What would you change? What would you add? What would you remove?

Useful usable desirable

My next book, Philosophy of Design of Philosophy, is still forming in my head. I know what I want to convey, but the conceptual ingredients are evolving. Some new ingredients I’m entertaining are liminality, conceptual integrity and multistability. These new concepts will help me simplify my system and link my thinking to other bodies of work. But incorporating them requires some demolition and reconstruction work. I am also struggling with some perplexities regarding the precise relationship between engineering and design, a heavily contested, linguistically and conceptually confused strip of turf — a true liminal zone. Consequently, I am finding it hard to write short pieces, and I am abandoning most posts I start, because they immediately diverge and get out of control.

What I plan to write about is already a reality for me, and has been for some time: the subject of the book is my praxis, which I use not only in my professional design work, but also in my private practical and theoretical life. My friend Tim joked that I am a design-centered human, and that is entirely accurate. I have come to see everything in terms of design, including philosophy.

Yesterday I interviewed design research legend Liz Sanders on her useful-usable-desirable framework. I am planning to extract the content of the interview into a second letterpressed chapbook, honoring the core concept of human-centered design. Pending Liz’s approval, I plan to call it just Useful / Usable / Desirable.

This framework is profoundly important to me. It was through this framework that design took over my entire life.

At some point, which I can no longer remember, I caught myself thinking about philosophy in a new way, which I never consciously chose.

I was reading, and I suddenly realized I was evaluating what I was understanding in terms of its usefulness, usability and desirability. And I realized I had detected an unconscious habit I’d acquired long ago.

I want to clarify something. I was not evaluating the form, expression or presentation of the ideas (though these are also subject to the same criteria) — I was evaluating the effect of understanding the philosophy. And when it comes to philosophy, understanding does not primarily mean being able to explain the concepts. In philosophy, understanding means being able to enter the conceptual system and to understand from it. Philosophical understanding is an act of intellectual empathy.

I found myself asking: When I enter this philosophy and understand from it — when I view a philosophical worldview instrumentally and assess it as something that can be adopted, lived from and used I ask: Is it useful? Do I become better equipped to make sense of what is happening around me so I can respond more effectively? Is it usable? Does it make it easier to get clear on what is most relevant, and does this sense of relevance help me avoid becoming confused or overwhelmed or cause me to make mistakes? Is it desirable? What does it do to my overall sense of meaning? Does life seem valuable and worth the effort? Or does it make life seem ominous and dark, or worse, empty, pointless and not worth working to improve?

So, Liz’s framework is very likely to be the backbone of my next book. The useful/usable/desirable framework will not only provide a framework for evaluating and generating philosophical worldviews, but will also serve as an exemplar of a successfully designed philosophical worldview.

Ezra Klein’s evolution

I’m not sure what happened to Ezra Klein between his infamous 2018 spat with Sam Harris and the publication of his book this year, but it seems to be a move in the right direction.

During his debate with Harris — especially toward the end as mutual frustration heated it up — he continually accused Harris of a form of false consciousness. Harris kept insisting that his political ideals were essentially left-liberal, not protecting the interests of the categories to which Klein assigned him, namely white, male, cis, heterosexual.

“All politics,” Klein asserted, “are identity politics.”

Which is true, but only if you will permit those identities to be dynamic and creatively shaped by the process of politics itself, not pre-existing, fixed and determinist, controlling the political process in ways only those in the know can fathom.

And the latter was the position Klein took in the debate. For those who subscribe to Klein’s identitarian worldview, it looked like Klein was simply repeating, with admirable patience, and just the right amount of combativeness, what social psychology has taught us about how politics really works, versus how it appears to work.

But for those who take the former position — that participants in politics form group identities that they themselves collaboratively instaurate — what Klein was doing was infuriatingly hubristic and unreflective. Klein was essentially saying that he knew what Harris’s real identity was, because he, Klein, possessed expertise on which identities are real and effective and which are delusions that conceal the political actor’s true motivations. This expertise authorized Klein to take an asymmetrical position in the debate and tell Harris objectively why Harris was making the arguments he was making, where Harris was speaking from such naivety that every claim Harris made could be diagnosed rather than addressed substantially.

In other words, Klein was imputing motives to his opponent. And he was doing so, on the basis of belief that his expertise afforded him privileged access to objectivity. These two moves are anathema to liberal-democratic dialogue. It is a technocratic form of illiberalism, and it exemplifies what has turned half of our nation against all claims to expertise.

This display of technocratic, classist arrogance ended my admiration for Klein. I couldn’t even hear his voice without bristling.

However, since Klein has started promoting Why We’re Polarized, I’ve been hearing him not only include political identity in his schema of legit identities, but considering them to be among the most important.

This makes me wonder if he would debate Harris differently today, especially if Harris were to do what he should have at the time: insist that his primary identity is liberal-democratic. And that his liberal-democratic identity is being attacked when members of other political groups scoff at his ideals and dismiss them as a vehicle for his true racist, sexist, etc. identity interests. It is a double-attack, because it is denying the very existence of his identity in a manner that violates the principles of liberal-democracy.

I think I would feel better about Ezra Klein if he would explicitly acknowledge that he has changed his position to allow identity based on political ideals, and admit that this is a departure from the position he took when he debated Harris.

And I would re-enlist as a fan if he would add to this that when he did these things he was doing so, not as an objective egalitarian, but as an impassioned member of a very powerful political identity, whose power was acting on him unconsciously and made him feel entitled to dictate what is true and good to a member of a socially inferior political identity.