Thursday, July 29, 2021

Following in Russia's Footsteps

The revolution of Peter the Great replaced the obsolete squirearchy of Russia -- with a European bureaucracy; everything that could be copied from the Swedish and German laws. everything that could be taken over from the free municipalities of Holland into our half communal, half absolutist country, was taken over. But the unwritten, the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth, could not be and were not imported.

Aleksandr Herzen, From the Other Shore (1855)
Russian reformers did not (or could not) recognize the intangible values and beliefs that represented the essential underpinnings of the liberal West and its modern economy. This, ironically, is a fairly common modern bias. Scholars and bureaucrats focus on what can be counted, graphed, and diagrammed. Those things that do not yield easily to those modes of analysis are ignored, dismissed, and disparaged.

But this is not about Russia's failure to become a liberal nation or modern society.

No, what is striking about the West in 2021 is that we have, for a variety of reason, forgotten and discarded so many of those habits and principles that are the foundation of our liberty and the engines of our economic success. What is wrong with our civilization can be said with one word — unreality. We are in no danger either from the vices or the virtues of vikings; we are in danger of forgetting all facts, good and bad, in a haze of high-minded phraseology.

G. K. Chesterton
Herzen was a Russian intellectual, an exile, and a socialist. Yet his diagnosis of Russia's problem is almost identical to that of Astolphe-Louis-LĂ©onor, Marquis de Custine – a French aristocrat and enemy of the Revolution. When Custine travelled to the Tsar's realm he was struck by the pervasive, active unreality of the place. Truth was something to be feared and avoided.

For all the Romanovs's evident piety and the Tsar's public orthodoxy, the Russian regime was soul-crushing. Custine meant this literally: To him “the two greatest gifts of God” were “the soul and the speech that communicates it.” In Russia honest speech was dangerous, hence rare. As a result souls withered.

Theodore Dalrymple:

People became hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel, and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover, the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies: indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer.

If Custine were among us now, he would recognise the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people’s souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.

A century passes. Russia has its own Revolution. The Tsar is no more. And yet some things remain the same:

Sir Isiah Berlin was an often astute observer who spent time in FDR's Washington and in the Soviet Union during the peak of Stalin's Terror. As historian John Lewis Gaddis notes the contrast was stark and immediately discernible:

America and Russia differed, he could now see, not just in geographies, histories, cultures, and capabilities, but also, critically, in necessary ecologies. One thrived on cacophony. The other demanded silence.
As Dalrymple notes, a great number of ostensible leaders in the West seem eager to create a regime in which everybody must either affirm lies or remain silent.

Custine was scathing about the public art and architecture of St. Petersburg. The city had its grandeur, but it was built on an inhuman scale. By design the individual was made to feel insignificant and isolated. Many of the governmental offices were magnificent but to Custine that meant they were “temples erected to clerks”.

Exhausting the resources of the country, they only bolstered the power of the state without elevating the self-confidence of the people.... The state swelled up; the people grew lean.

Vasily Klyuchevsky
In the West the clerks have gradually morphed from public servants to a privileged Mandarin class.

It was not always so.

Making (Big) government work

La Guardia the crusading and compassionate liberal was also in the habit, when he witnessed city workers great or small behaving incompetently, of firing them on the spot. (Sample story: He finds a group of park workers lounging during working hours. He fires sixty of them for "loitering.") The city is to be run tautly, seriously, and whining drives La Guardia the crusading liberal crazy. I pay no attention, he declares, to "political whiners." Merit is a sacred idea to La Guardia the compassionate liberal.


When do disasters become catastrophes?

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Warning from a disillusioned Old Bolshevik

True literature can only exist where it is created not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, misfits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and sceptics. When a wrtiter must be sensibly and rigidly orthodox, when he must make himself useful today, when he cannot lash out at everyone, like Swift, or smile at everything, like Anatole France, there can be no bronze literature, there can only be a paper literature, a pulp literature read today and used for wrapping bars of soap tomorrow.

Yergeny Zamyatin I am Afraid (1921)

Friday, July 16, 2021

Gulags, guillotines, and iconoclasts

Perhaps the best proof of the excellence of the Claremont Review of Books is how well the articles hold up over time. For instance, this article from last summer by Agelo Codevilla:

Millenarian Mobs
An old and dangerous story.

Destroying symbols, however, has had no place within Christian civilization. As the equivalent of torturing dead men, it has always been the work of cowards likelier to run from living enemies. On the other hand, war against statues, paintings, books, biographies, etc., has been a defining feature of civilization’s revolutionary enemies, consistent with their chosen identities as alien tribes.
Codevilla agrees with the New Left that the “issue is never the issue.” For the leaders of the woke mobs the goal is revolution guided by noble and pure leaders (i.e. them). Like McLuhan, Codevilla locates the source of their moral fervor, not in intrinsic righteousness, but in those leaders mediocrity:

Almost invariably the leaders have been outcasts, or what Marxists call “lumpen-intellectuals.” In the Middle Ages they were half-educated, dissident or apostate lower clergy. Their initial focus was some obvious evil. As often as not, they claimed heavenly messages or apparitions as their authority. Their audience was twofold: those who saw themselves as the evil’s primary victims and those who wished to shed their responsibility for it. To the former, the prophets promised redress and immediate relief, while to all, and especially to the latter, they promised a role in a holy enterprise. Some sort of confession of sin and cleansing ritual would follow. Some of these—the Flagellants’ self-abuse, for example—were bloody impressive. Most ritual cleansing, however, was symbolic.

Those who had undergone cleansing believed themselves so pure that they were no longer capable of sin. These elect believed they could, and even should, engage in the very practices that they had decried in others. Ridding the world of misbelief and misbelievers motivated the ritually purified elite.
He offers an equally dark view of what drives many of the foot soldiers:

But the masses to whom they transmitted their mission dispensed with self-cleansing. They reduced the mission to killing their enemies. They would cleanse themselves as well as the world while entitling themselves to primacy and vengeance by wreaking destruction.
These movements “held out the prospect of long-sought vengeance—of taking power over the evil ones and destroying them utterly. At the very least, they offered a justification for the robbery, rape, and murder they had always dreamt of committing. “Soon we will drink blood for wine” was a common refrain.

As Codevilla notes, one thing united Robespierre, Hitler, and Stalin: a hatred of established institutions, especially the Christian church.

Hitler, in his published table talk, claimed that he and Stalin were the only true revolutionaries because, unlike Mussolini, they were tearing down their countries’ intellectual and physical ties to the past. Mussolini, he noted, had done nothing to cut Italy off from its past. He had neither destroyed buildings and statues nor burned any books. The king still reigned, and the priests ran the educational system. Hitler was proudest of the Nazi party’s burning of bad books.
On Stalin's war on Christianity:

No one will ever know how many Russian Orthodox priests Stalin ordered either to be shot outright or murdered in the Gulag—350,000 is a low estimate. Few Ukrainian Catholic priests escaped murder. Eradicating knowledge of Russia’s past while denigrating Christian civilization as the enemy of the proletariat became the focus of the Soviet regime’s educational system. Ostentatiously, it desecrated churches or simply razed them. The 1931 demolition of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior—by some measures Christendom’s biggest church—was Stalin’s boldest statement in support of Marxism’s contention that all previous history had been an abomination, and of the Communist Party’s right to crush its enemies. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of civilization’s symbols.
Readers of the CRB are not surprised by the wave of church burnings sweeping Canada.

Chris Bedford: Media Are Activists That ‘Want To Destroy Christianity’ While Egging On Church Attacks
More importantly, they understand the sources of the violence and what may yet come.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Hard truths about cyber-security

We Already Know How to Stop SolarWinds-Like Hacks

We currently have a situation where users expect software to have bugs, and programmers are encouraged to rush software out the door first and fix it later. Instead of penalizing the manufacturers for security bugs, we treat them almost as natural disasters—no one’s fault. The way that updates are easily distributed and automatically installed over the Internet encourages this, but it’s a major problem when it comes to security. Until this situation is changed, we can expect to keep hearing about security breaches despite PUFs and other exciting new technical tools.
Millions of computer users have paid a high price so that Bill Gates could become insanely rich and hangout with Jeffrey Epstein.

The Threat

Back in the early 1990s, for example, if you visited the Microsoft campus in Redmond and you pointed out that something people were working on had a flaw or could be done better, they’d say, “No, we’re going to ship it Tuesday and get it right by version three.” And that’s what everybody said: “Ship it Tuesday. Get it right by version three.” It was the philosophy. IBM and the other established companies were really down on this. They were saying, “These guys at Microsoft are just a bunch of hackers. They don’t know how to write proper software.”

But Bill had understood that in a world where markets tip because of network effects, it’s absolutely all-important to be first. And that’s why Microsoft software is so insecure, and why everything that prevails in the marketplace starts off by being insecure. People race to get that market position, and in the process they made it really easy for people to write software for their platform. They didn’t let boring things like access controls or proper cryptography get in the way.

Once you have the dominant position, you then put the security on later, but you do it in a way that serves your corporate interests rather than the interests of your customers or your users.

Bill Gate’s most brilliant coup was to export the ethos of a hobbyist sub-culture over to the business and consumer marketplaces.


The 100 billion dollar idea

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Everything old is new again... and again... and again...

From the June 2021 Sloan Management Review:

Why Good Arguments Make Better Strategy

Great leaders create ways of engaging their teams that can cut through this strategic fog. They may adopt frameworks to guide their analysis, but they expect participants in strategy discussions to contribute coherent reasoning and defensible ideas. Amazon is well known for its requirement that major initiatives be proposed in the form of a six-page memo. The virtue of the memo — versus a slide deck — is that writing in full sentences and paragraphs forces leaders to clarify how their ideas connect to each other. Similarly, Netflix has driven stunning transformations in the media landscape in part through its success at encouraging its leaders to debate ideas frankly and its willingness to empower them to take risks without waiting for an annual strategy planning process. It is no surprise that CEO Reed Hastings views working from home as “a pure negative” for the company, in part because “debating ideas is harder now.”

The emphasis on vigorous debate at Netflix and Amazon clarifies a truth that many approaches to strategy obscure: At their core, all great strategies are arguments. Sure, companies can and do get lucky; sellers of hand sanitizer, for instance, have done very well during the pandemic. But sustainable success happens only for a set of logically interconnected reasons — that is, because there is a coherent logic underlying how a company’s resources and activities consistently enable it to create and capture value. The role of leaders is to formulate, discover, and revise the logic of success, making what we call strategy arguments.

Amazing discoveries by Amazon and Netflix. Cutting edge insight – breakthrough thinking.

Or something

The war on Powerpoint isn't measured in years; it's measured in decades.

Soon we will refer t it as a multi-generational struggle.

Louis Gerstner started shaking things up at IBM in 1993 by banishing slides and bullet points. He recounted his triumph in his 2002 book.

Before that the Harvard Business Review hailed 3M for reinventing strategic planning by using prose.

Strategic Stories: How 3M Is Rewriting Business Planning (1998)
Imagine how much time, effort, and money could be saved if B-schools assigned real books instead of ephemera.

Reading makes a full Man, Meditation a profound Man, discourse a clear Man.

My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. He continued to argue to the end. . . . I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and never once quarrelled. Perhaps the principle objection to a quarrel is that it interrupts an argument

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man; and, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend


Fortune and fashion

Imperial power

Power is a far more complex and mysterious quality than any apparently simple manifestation of it would appear. It is as much a matter of impression, of theater, of persuading those over whom authority is wielded to collude in their subjugation. Insofar as power is a matter of presentation, its cultural currency in antiquity (and still today) was the creation, manipulation, and display of images.

Jas Llmer The Art of the Roman Empire: 100-450 AD