Author: Ezra Jones

A man who likes cheese. Born and raised in southeastern Massachusetts, Mr. Jones found no sense of meaning to the existence of the area (nor saw a future for his generation there), and left at the first opportunity. After spending a couple quiet years at Ithaca College, he traveled for a year before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area for five years. Among other things, he worked in the tech industry, served in the trenches of the Occupy movement (and witnessed its triumph and immediate collapse in Oakland firsthand), rediscovered art, and wrote for the news and views. The last person of a creative mass exodus who also forgot to turn out the lights, Mr. Jones now lives in the Chicagoland area, where he may or may not be teaching.

Exits, the left, and liberalism

Earlier this week, my colleague Mark Lutter attempted to make an impassioned case for the left to embrace the political practice of “exit,” while not making much of an effort to define it in a way that a leftist could make much sense of it.  I say this not because the practice itself is incomprehensible to the left, but because leftist ideas of mass “exit” are already in existence in so many places.  The Scottish National Party leans heavily to the left, as do the Bloc et Parti Québécois*.  The current efforts for Catalan independence are being spearheaded by a leftist party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, with backing from the pragmatic Convergence and Union. SYRIZA, the leftist coalition in Greece led by Alexis Tsipras (above), is pushing hard for a general election after success in European elections last month, so as to set up a possible exit from the European Union after being under severe austerity in recent years. The list goes on.

Of course, with the exception of SYRIZA (which we’ll get to in a moment), one could argue that most of these secessionist efforts are ethnically oriented, and perhaps not what is meant by “exit” in Lutter’s mind. So, let us look at the more basic terminology, the act of free dissociation. Lutter rightly points out that exit was previously associated with the classical left. The Paris Commune of 1871 could be framed as one of the better leftist representations of that from the time period: A dissociation from the nascent Third French Republic in order to protect the interests and livelihoods of the city’s workers from the political machinations of the majority-rural French population.

However, Lutter is not interested in the left of modern times, even though it still exists — albeit as a marginalized fringe group — in American politics.  Liberalism and progressivism, strains of political thought that are often haphazardly associated with the left, are Lutter’s true concern. Yet, both those philosophies are completely incompatible with the concept of “exit.” Why? The answer falls on the basis of what purpose “exit” serves. Lutter’s use of the term “survival” nails the principle: “Exit,” in his mind, serves as an act of self-preservation from change, or from the pressure to change. It serves as a means to survive upheaval of one’s way of life because of these changes.

The important thing to understand about liberal thinking, be it economic liberalism or social progressivism, is that its purpose is to instigate change itself, or at least embrace it. In the liberal’s mind, to allow any and all persons** to opt out of these changes defeats the purpose of making changes to begin with. Their primary act of self-preservation, and often their means of advancing change, is accommodation and compromise. In essence, “exit” by Lutter’s terms is a defense against liberalism, even if one were to create liberal communities as he and Scott Alexander suggested.


What we talk about when we talk about vaccines

Recently, the CDC posted new, sobering numbers on the recent outbreaks of measles, a disease previously thought eradicated by mass inoculation efforts over the course of decades.  Like the spots found in the mouth of a patient, it’s not pretty:

Two hundred and eighty-eight cases of measles were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States between Jan. 1 and May 23, 2014. This is the largest number of measles cases in the United States reported in the first five months of a year since 1994.

The cause is equally disgusting:

“The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC’s National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases.

Keep these thoughts in mind. I’m going to tell you a little story.

As some of you are aware, polio, the debilitating disease that renders a person physically disabled for the rest of their life, still continues to persist in parts of the Middle East, especially the northern provinces of Pakistan. This is mainly due to efforts by the Taliban and related organizations, as well as tribal leaders, to prevent vaccine distribution. Now, from an untrained standpoint, some would suspect the motives of the Taliban’s anti-vaccine efforts have at least some backing in Islamic thought. But that is not really the case: Inoculation has long been used in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, predating Western introduction of the practice. While there were previous concerns surrounding the religious validity of modern vaccines, the use of Muslim medical workers alleviated this problem. There is not much religious justification going on against the vaccines themselves.

Rather, the problem is not so much the vaccines as it is the source:

Anxieties and distrust about the polio vaccine and its western providers were rampant in some communities, and suspicions about CIA links with the polio vaccination campaigns, and rumours they were a front for the sterilising of Muslims, had been around for a decade after 9/11.

Given all the attention Pakistan got after 9/11, that the CIA would be rumored to have some sinister involvement in polio eradication did not seem far-fetched for the average Pakistani. Then came the revelation that a Pakistani doctor led a fake vaccination drive as a CIA cover operation to confirm Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abottabad in 2011, which caused the whole thing to fall apart. Two years after the fact, the region remains the largest endemic source of polio and continues to grow.


On middle classes and vote disposal

The situation in Thailand is now reverted to what is essentially a standard practice since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932: Absolutist military rule with backing from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, because direct absolute monarchy is so unmodern. The country did not have a stable democratic government for about 60 years until approximately 1992, after the tenth coup since 1932 forced civilian elections without military meddling. That lasted only 14 years, before another coup forced the one Prime Minister to complete his term, Thaksin Shinawatra, out of office and out of the country.  Since then, there has been either military rule or military-backed rule, with some attempts at neither in between.

What is interesting is that, for all the factionalism in Thai politics that is built on either complete support or less-than-complete support of the sclerotic Royal Family, the main factor in this situation is a middle class that is either indifferent or actively antagonistic to the principles of democracy. This much is particularly clear with the leading supporters of the coup, a People’s Democratic Reform Committee made of middle-class figures in Bangkok and the southern provinces, calling for an unelected “people’s council” (whatever that means) to reform the Thai government.

Uri Friedman argues that such coups happen because the middle class seeks stability:

In both Egypt and Thailand, the protest movements that prompted military intervention enjoyed support from middle- and upper-class citizens. These aren’t isolated cases. Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that around the world, a growing middle class “is choosing stability over all else,” and embracing “the military as a bulwark against popular democracy.”

However, to say stability is the primary interest lacks a lot of nuance. In both cases, but particularly Thailand’s, the governments that were toppled won significant majorities or at least a majority coalition in (mostly) fair elections, and were at least initially stable.  Seeking stability by agitating and overthrowing a government that has done little to destabilize the country sounds, well, counter-intuitive.

The greater interest of the middle class, in Thailand and in similar countries, is not so much stability but a belief of wanting their side to be the rulers at all costs, even if it means throwing away their votes (which they literally did in 2006, instigating the coup that got rid of Thaksin). The middle class in Bangkok and the south has long been supporters of the Democrat Party, whose electoral strategies seem to follow a pattern of simply placating to those voters, and hoping that the multiparty nature of Thailand will play to their favor. Consequently, even in elections where they have earned the most votes, they have never earned more than a quarter of the electorate, and a third of the legislature.


Getting rid of commencement speakers

Why do we still have commencement speakers?

It is a question that is certainly worth asking as we approach the end of college graduation season, in the wake of the recent “scandals” involving several important figures who, for some reason, needed to speak to college graduates as part of the ritual known as commencement. A few figures were denied a chance to speak to speak at one college or another, others withdrew voluntarily. Most were being given useless honorary doctorates.

The reasons vary for each speaker’s removal, all of which skirt the real problem: The idea of a commencement speaker itself. There has never been a more useless source of bloat in any sort of event in recent times than that of some possibly self-important figure, speaking to college graduates who are already sick of the ceremony about… something. Whatever the traditional intent of the commencement speech, that intent is long gone, replaced with a scattershot approach of “talking about what it’s like to be an adult.”  Of course, should not these graduates already have at least a vague sense that already, even in the coddled walls of the campus?  Or has helicopter parenting gotten that bad?

As it stands, almost all commencement speakers tend to not to be memorable. If I were to ask you if you remember your commencement speaker, and/or that person’s speech, could you say with a straight face that yes, you do remember them? I doubt it. There are good reasons for that. For one, the speeches tend to be long affairs, probably the longest aspect of a commencement ceremony outside of the actual handing of the diplomas to graduates.  One would be better off giving a lesson on Russian history, for it would have the same effect.