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Discussion with Nassim Taleb about sexism and racism in the Declaration of Independence

Nassim Taleb points to this post from congressmember Ayanna Pressley linking to an opinion piece by Matthew Rozsa. Rozsa’s article has the title, “Fourth of July’s ugly truth exposed: The Declaration of Independence is sexist, racist, prejudiced,” with subttile, “How we can embrace the underlying spirit of the Declaration of Independence — and also learn from its shortcomings.”

Here’s what Nassim wrote in his post:

This is the very definition of anachronistic bigoteering, a violation of the code of political expression, in Principia Politica.
Soon we will ban every document written between the emergence of writing in Sumer and the Obama presidency as tainted with “prejudice”.

And here’s what I wrote in response to Nassim:

I’m confused by your reaction. I followed the link, and the article by Rozsa didn’t seem anachronistic at all. It seemed very historically grounded, explaining various aspects of the Declaration of Independence based on historical context.

Also I don’t see why your reaction is “Soon we will ban every document…”. Rozsa never suggested banning the Declaration at all! His article is subtitled, “How we can embrace the underlying spirit of the Declaration of Independence — and also learn from its shortcomings.” That seems fair enough, to say that the document is sexist, racist, prejudiced, but that doesn’t make it worthless, it’s just a product of its time.

Here’s the final paragraph of Rosza’s article:

Is any of this intended to suggest that we should not take pride in the Declaration of Independence? Not even remotely: It was — and continues to be — one of the most eloquent and morally moving political documents ever penned. That said, we must also remember that our Founding Fathers were not the living gods that many believe them to be. They were fallible human beings, and some of their flaws had terrible consequences for people who were not fortunate enough to be born into privileged groups. When we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, we should embrace its underlying spirit — as well as the courage of the men who were willing to risk “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” — and simultaneously learn from its shortcomings. This alone can make the spirit of 1776 relevant to the conditions of 2019 — or any other year, for that matter.

This doesn’t seem anything close to the “ban everything” attitude that you wrote about.

Nassim then replied:

No the article itself doesn’t call for banning. If my tweet implied that, it is miscommunication. The article does use accusatory terms: “The Declaration… is sexist, racist, and prejudiced.” My response is not to the article per se but to the general disease of anachronistic bigoteering (that I cover in Principia Politica), which does indeed lead to censorship.

It’s not fair to say that he document is sexist, racist, prejudiced, or to flow back “isms” in time with the negative connotation they convey. That is precisely my point. Moral values were different at the time; they progress just like knowledge progresses. Using “isms” is no different from blaming the ancients for not understanding germs and calling them “obscurantists.” The very accusation is equivalent to saying that moral values don’t evolve!

It is OK to say: there was inequality of sexes; using “sexism” (with its negative connotation from today’s meaning) is not OK.

And indeed numerous authors are being censored, removed from the curriculum because of anachronistic bigoteering. In hindsight, everything in the past will be tainted.

I guess we’re just drawing the line at a different place. I think Rosza’s framing is fair: the Declaration is racist, sexist, and prejudiced, but it’s also an eloquent and morally moving document. But I do think it’s unfair for you to call Rosza’s article anachronistic, as to me it seems very careful and historically aware, the opposite of anachronistic. Also seems unfair to me to connect Rosza, who’s talking about flaws in a document that he things we should “take pride in,” with other people who are censoring things. Critical discussion is not in any way a form of censorship.

I sent the above to Nassim, who wrote:

I totally agree that we should be critical of the ancients—so long as we do not engage in hindsight games and values via modern accusatory language. I for myself have been waging a war against Plato and his legacy.

The danger of censorship is real (just witness the calls for the removal of statues, texts from the curricula, and the trending bowdlerization of the discourse). And the fact that you yourself wrote “the Declaration is racist, sexist, and prejudiced,” with the “isms” and the accusation of “prejudice” scare me quite a bit.

Accusing every single ancient of “racism” (which you practically can) trivializes the attitude modern racists and, by cheapening the currency, hurts their victims. Because someone racist in 2019 is racist.

A war against Plato, huh? You’re in good company. Karl Popper famously started wars with Plato, Marx, and Freud. None of these targets were around to fight back, but that’s ok. Typically in a dispute we have little hope of convincing the other person anyway, and all these people left enough written material to serve in their defense.

Regarding the Declaration being racist, sexist, and prejudiced: Yeah, not much of a surprise given that it was written by a dude who bought and sold slaves. But I’m with Rosza that the document should be understood in historical context. Not banned or censored or bowdlerized.

110 Comments

  1. Daniel Rogoff says:

    His complaint amounts to “the short hand ‘sexism’ to describe ‘inequality of the sexes’ is too loaded with negative moral judgment for us to use it in any context other than [current year].” I’m… unconvinced.

    • Jacob says:

      That would be reasonable if it were accurate… but Taleb’s complaint is precisely that “sexism” is *not* merely a shorthand for “inequality of the sexes”, that in the contemporary context, using terms like sexism / racism / etc, smuggles in political / ideological commitments that are both anachronistic when applied to historical figures and dangerous in their practical implications with respect to free speech.

  2. yyw says:

    Were there any political writings from centuries ago that were not racist (unless completely unrelated to race), sexist (unless completely unrelated to sex), or prejudiced by today’s standard? This kind of ‘-ism’ exercise just demonstrates that the prevailing moral values of the WESTERN nations of today are different from those a few centuries ago.

    This kind of thinking implicitly assumes that the world would have been a better place if the moral values of today were adopted hundreds and better yet thousands of years ago. First, is there any point in this kind of thought experiment? Second, are you so sure that things would have been better if ancient humans were more “woke”?

    • Albert Hsiung says:

      While I can see Taleb’s point, I don’t see yours. If there’s something you want to say, then go ahead and say it, don’t talk around it.

      • yyw says:

        What I am saying is morals vary by time and place. Using our moral system to claim our moral superiority over people that didn’t/don’t subscribe to it is a meaningless exercise. We are not morally superior than our ancestors just like an average American are not morally superior than an average Pashtun.

        People that have lived under drastically different moral systems that struggled to reconcile them can understand my point. Those that haven’t think they are morally superior.

        • Albert Hsiung says:

          > Second, are you so sure that things would have been better if ancient humans were more “woke”?

          So you do not necessarily agree with the following statement: it would have been better for people in the United States to not engage in the chattel slavery of black people for two hundred years.

          • yyw says:

            Do you agree that the world would have been a better place if the west never colonized the Americas but instead left the native people alone?

            It would have been better if the western nations have not out of avarice used violence or threat of violence to force countries like China and Japan to change their ways?

            It would have been better for Africans if the west have left them alone to continue their ancient ways of living?

            It would have been better if humans never engaged in wars?

            My point is your statement is meaningless.

            • yyw says:

              To elaborate a little, because of my personal moral value, I wouldn’t want to live in US during the slavery time, or during the time of overt racism, or when women did not have more options. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to be a colonist taking lands from the natives.

              Can we really go beyond that and state for example that the world would have been better had the United States never existed (we wouldn’t have worried about the slavery in this country then either)?

              • Albert Hsiung says:

                Nobody knows what would have happened over the course of multiple centuries had some major event not taken place. Basing your morality on some omniscient-long-term-utilitarianism leaves you in a complete moral vacuum where no actions at all can be said to be good or bad because in the nonlinear real world you never know what happens.

                I feel quite comfortable saying “the American slave trade was morally wrong. If I, today, were transplanted into the late 18th century as I am now, I would condemn slavery.” Of course, people’s views in the late 18th century were caused by the environment they were born into and so calling George Washington an evil man for owning slaves is a bit vacuous, as you say. But we need to be able to make statements like “the American slave trade was morally wrong, and not abolishing it was morally wrong.”

                I also suspect with the examples you provided above, you meant to imply that the world would be worse had those actions not taken place. For some of your examples, I suspect you lack historical knowledge. For all of them, that implication rests on very shaky counterfactual assumptions.

                For an example of what I’m talking about, here, you pose the question

                > It would have been better for Africans if the west have left them alone to continue their ancient ways of living?

                The question seems to be a suggestion that Africa is better off with post-colonial Westernization than pre-colonial tribal culture. Therefore, while you morally object to imperialism, perhaps things are better because of it. That’s a very historically illiterate argument to me because:

                1.) Many African nations before Western colonialism or the slave trade were not engaged in “ancient ways of living.” There were tribal cultures in Africa, but Africa is a big continent. There had also been kingdoms and empires in Africa. Probably the best contemporaneous example is Ethiopia.

                2.) Even granting that African nations were engaged in “tribal culture”, you cannot assume that they would have continued to do so had Western colonialism not occurred. It’s just as fair of an assumption that African nations would be more industrialized had all the killing, oppression, and arbitrary restructuring of political entities not occurred. One could imagine a scenario more like Japan, which made an autonomous decision to industrialize itself. (Again, think Ethiopia)

                3.) Western colonialism did not generally modernize African countries. While some colonizers like the Portugese had a more settler-Colonial integrationist mindset, the British for example was single-mindedly focused on resource extraction, and did no more to industrialize their African colonies than was necessary to move material from mines to ports.

        • Will Marble says:

          I think it’s very fair to say that we are “morally superior” to people who exhibited blatant hypocrisy in their political philosophy, declaring that “all men are created equal” and yet subjugating people solely based on the accidental circumstances of their birth. There’s no contradiction to both understand why people believed what they believed in the past and also to condemn actions based on those beliefs as unjust.

          In other words, I feel quite comfortable saying American society today is, in many regards, morally superior to American society in 1776 (or 1976, for that matter). Our understanding of morality has advanced over the past 250, just as our understanding of engineering, math, medicine, and physics has advanced. We clearly live in a more technologically advanced society than we did then; I see no reason to deny that we live in a more just society as well. And if people in 250 years don’t think they live in a more morally advanced society than we do now, that’s a sad future.

          • Andrew says:

            Will:

            I don’t buy your argument. You’re comparing apples to oranges. I’m morally superior to Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves and we do not—but most people back in 1776 did not own slaves! So maybe you should be comparing me to an upper-middle-class person (or the equivalent) back then. In that case, I could well look like the moral inferior: for one thing, I’m consuming natural resources at an alarming rate, contributing to global warming, resource depletion, etc. Or you could compare me to my ancestors from 1776, who I expect were pretty damn poor, and consuming very little of anything at all, eating lots of cabbage and very little meat, etc.

            To put it another way: our understanding of morality may have increased, but that doesn’t make us morally superior. It’s actions, not understanding, that determine morality, and our actions today are not all so wonderful.

            • Phil says:

              I don’t agree at all with Andrew and certainly don’t agree with yww’s statement that we are not morally superior [to] our ancestors.

              I don’t agree that it’s actions, not understanding, that determine morality. I think our ancestors would have been even worse than us in terms of resource depletion, global warming, etc., if they had had the means to do so. We’re talking about people who not only denuded forests and wiped out a bunch of species even with their meager resources to do so, they also (in the case of European-American ancestors) committed genocide, including, in some cases, offering a bounty for the scalps of Native Americans. Sure, we’ve used atomic bombs to kill hundreds of thousands of women and children, but I don’t see any reason to believe our ancestors wouldn’t have done that, and worse, if they could have.

              Over the past several years I have spent too much time contemplating the distinction between individual actions and societal norms. “Too much” because it’s a pretty fruitless exercise and I don’t see that I can actually get anywhere or even develop any insights, but it’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Some cultures are superior to others. A culture that believes it is OK to enslave people is, all else equal, worse than one that thinks it isn’t. A culture that believes women have the same rights as men is, all else equal, superior to one that doesn’t. (There are also plenty of cultural differences that have little or no moral component, but I’m not talking about those). There may be some ways in which contemporary mainstream US culture is worse than it was 200 years ago, but in most ways it’s better.

              It is evidently very, very hard for people to overcome the moral deficiencies of their culture. I would agree with the proposition that we shouldn’t condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves to the extent that we should condemn someone who does so in our current culture. I’d be kidding myself if I thought that I would have been more principled than Jefferson if I had been raised in his culture. Maybe I’d say Thomas Jefferson’s capacity for moral thought and expression was superior to mine, but that his understanding of morality was inferior because of the times he lived in. (Try it this way: Isaac Newton’s capacity for mathematical thought and expression was superior to mine, but his understanding of physics was inferior — hey, he didn’t even know Schroedinger’s Equation and had no chance of calculating the energy levels of a Rydberg atom in a moderate electric field.)

              Basically I think we should judge people’s morality relative to their own culture rather than our own, but that we absolutely should judge cultures against each other. The founding documents of this country were racist — that’s just a fact. They were the products of a racist culture (another fact). I don’t really see how anyone could argue to the contrary. The question of how much to condemn the Founding Fathers for failing to transcend their culture, that’s where I can see how reasonable people can disagree.

              I see Jim H makes the same point (somewhere below) in more compact fashion.

            • Daniel says:

              Suppose that if one’s morality is less than some critical value x, ones goes to hell. As moral understanding improves, thereby excluding a greater number of actions whose negative consequences become accounted for, and we apply morality backwards, the certainty that everyone before us went to hell goes to 1. If it seems absurd, maybe we shouldn’t hold everyone in the past to today’s standard. Calling for a model.

              Also, intentions very much seem relevant to moral reasoning. Consider intentionality in criminal proceedings.

              At the same time, it also seems easy to say we are morally superior to many in the past at least on some dimensions. But Taleb’s point that we can debate the main issues without leveraging connotations seems helpful from an argumentation point of view.

              • Dan F. says:

                One should distinguish between two different points of view:

                1. We should not now celebrate the text of the Declaration of Independence as indicative of moral, social, or political goals applicable now, because it explicitly espouses ideas that are now rightly considered sexist, racist, classist, and bigoted in other ways. This document should not serve as a model for our contemporary conceptualization of the organization of our society and its institutions as it expressly promotes an anachronistic vision wholly inadequate to contemporary norms.

                2. In the context in which it was written the Declaration of Independence was a racist, sexist, bigoted, etc. document.

                Claim 1. seems correct and clearly so (although certainly there are those who debate it – but they are generally consciously promoting a vision of contemporary society I would consider sexist or racist). Claim 2. seems more debatable. Judging the document relative to the norms applicable when it was written is not easy, particularly as what was then the normal social organization appears to us now impossibly primitive and violent. The article by Rozsa seems mainly to address 2, taking 1 as obvious, and tries to argue that Jefferson explicitly ignored contemporary indications that what he was writing was bigoted. One can certainly debate fine points of his argument, and some of the language used to frame it perhaps sometimes conflates points 1 and 2, but doing so is not easy, the more so because most of us are far more ignorant about the historical context than we think.

            • Ian says:

              Our task isn’t gathering acclaim from actresses and pamphleteers it’s to find eternal truths that expand the universe of the known.
              I feel that to redefine “racism” and “sexism” to include any document that doesn’t contain a full endorsement of current identity politics is nonsensical.
              And Nassim has articulated his point poorly, the issue with the cult of progressivism is that societies are ruled by what he terms “the tyranny of the minority”. And everything the academic left has called for in the last three generations they’ve gotten. And now they have the nation itself in their sights.

              Do you think the outcome of this will be South Africa or Switzerland? Do you think Mr. Rozsa has an outcome in mind at all once he tears down the fence of patriotism?

              Also Mr. Rozsa’s use Jefferson as an example smacks of laziness or lack of knowledge of history, if people wanted to understand racist opinions from founding fathers Benjamin Franklin spells it out in his AutoBiography. No need to infer from purported actions or deduce from imagination. He writes it all down.

              • Andrew says:

                Ian:

                “Everything the academic left has called for in the last three generations they’ve gotten,” huh? I thought the academic left has called for the nationalization of the means of production, something close to the disappearance of the U.S. military, opening all the jails, the elimination of TV advertising . . . hmmm, I think I’m missing a few things, but I don’t think they’ve gotten any of these things. The academic left hasn’t even succeeded in eliminating college football! I think the academic left has had some successes and some failures over the years.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Ian said, “Also Mr. Rozsa’s use Jefferson as an example smacks of laziness or lack of knowledge of history, if people wanted to understand racist opinions from founding fathers Benjamin Franklin spells it out in his AutoBiography. No need to infer from purported actions or deduce from imagination. He writes it all down.”

                Having never read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I tried looking up information about it, and came up with the following interesting website that mentions that Franklin’s autobiography only covers the first few decades of Franklin’s life, and that gives an account of how Franklin’s views on slavery and racism changed over the years.

                https://www.austincc.edu/history/cronin.html

    • JFA says:

      “This kind of thinking implicitly assumes that the world would have been a better place if the moral values of today were adopted hundreds and better yet thousands of years ago. First, is there any point in this kind of thought experiment? Second, are you so sure that things would have been better if ancient humans were more “woke”?”

      In answer to your first question: probably not, but counterfactuals are fun.
      In answer to your second question: if by ‘woke’ you mean seeing value in all people’s autonomy leading to slavery being jettisoned much earlier, then yes… things would almost certainly have been better.

      You can call a spade a spade, and you can call Aristotle a misogynist because he was. Doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him. Distinguishing the good from the bad is how progress is made. Rosza’s article is pretty balanced and is in contrast to the tendency of some on the left to say anything written by a racist or sexist (even if it has nothing to do with race or sex) is suitable only for the furnace.

      • yyw says:

        Better in what way? Would there have been an Athens and all the subsequent progress without slavery? Maybe things would have been even better, but an honest answer is we don’t know.

        One also has to remember at those times whole peoples were slaughtered not because of ‘-ism’ but because of desperate fight for survival.

        • JFA says:

          Hmmmm… presumably no-slaughtering would go along the past having modern morals. And rarely was slaughter a desperate fight for survival; more for political power (Mytilenian Debate. anyone?). If they had had our ideals/morals, trade would have been the likelier outcome. Might massive enslavement have led to the unsustainability of any local economic growth? More than likely.

          Would we have had Athens? To a certain degree, who cares. I think Aristotle and Plato wrote some interesting things. Sophocles was pretty dope. Archimedes had some good ideas. Would that progress have come along if there was less enslavement and slaughter and allowing women to take an active role outside the household? Pretty much all of human history suggests that giving people freedom and allowing more people to contribute ideas of their own leads to increased innovation in all realms of life.

          I guess you would also withhold judgment about Jim Crow as well; I mean we did get the blues from keeping black people on the farm in Mississippi.

          • yyw says:

            Until the past couple centuries, most societies were one bad harvest away from mass starvation. If you think our ideals and morals would have worked, you certainly have a lot more confidence in humans than I do.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      yyw said,
      “This kind of thinking implicitly assumes …”

      The notion of “implicitly assumes” is so vague, subjective, and iffy that I’m skeptical of any argument that includes that phrase.

    • Rik says:

      “This kind of thinking implicitly assumes that the world would have been a better place if the moral values of today were adopted hundreds and better yet thousands of years ago.”

      This is a remarkable comment. First, using prescriptive terms to describe an old document (“This kind of thinking”) does NOT assume any stance on whether “the world would have been a better place if the moral values of today were adopted hundreds and better yet thousands of years ago.” Why do you assume that?

      It seems to me that you believe two things. First, that complex utilitarian calculations are a prerequisite for using moral concepts. That is not true. There is, for example, no contradiction in believing that Hitler was racist and that the world is “morally superior” today than if WW2 had not happened. Second, that people use moral concepts only to claim moral superiority over other people. That is also false. I can very well point out other peoples’ flaws without claiming any superiority over them. Heck, I could even have those flaws myself.

      Most of our moral vocabulary is made up of terms that have both descriptive and prescriptive elements (“racist,” “sexist,” and “prejudiced” all are) and we need to be able to talk and argue about our views and actions using terms like that without having to resort to some “all considered” utilitarian calculation about “moral superiority”. Your comment displays the dangers of not doing that. Instead of talking about the difficulties in applying such concepts to people who lived or live in communities that hold very different moral values from ours, you start talking about some complex counterfactuals that are not really relevant (what does “It would have been better if humans never engaged in wars?” have to do with racism, sexism and prejudice) and posing false dichotomies (“It would have been better for Africans if the west have left them alone to continue their ancient ways of living?”).

  3. Thanatos Savehn says:

    Taleb may shun nuance but thank goodness expert cancer researchers don’t: “Again, the P value here was 0.0238, but to be positive, it had to be 0.017.” And: “Statistically, this is actually a very likely result that is clinically very meaningful. Sometimes you see a P value around 0.07, but that CI goes over 1. Here, the CI is less than 1 so it’s a fairly tight result.“ H/t Andy Grieve https://www.targetedonc.com/news/expert-discusses-impact-of-survival-outcomes-in-keynote240-trial-for-advanced-hcc

  4. oncodoc says:

    The Declaration itself makes many assertions about the world order and is quite critical. It even asserts a right of rebellion which is surely a sharp rebuke to the history of the times. In clear and often lofty language it describes many things that should have been done differently by the empowered authorities of that and previous eras. When we criticize the Declaration we simply adopt its spirit of looking to improve the world.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “When we criticize the Declaration we simply adopt its spirit of looking to improve the world.”

      +1 It’s essentially acknowledging an error and suggesting an improvement — like saying, “Our bad.”

  5. kyle says:

    ” “Fourth of July’s ugly truth exposed: The Declaration of Independence is sexist, racist, prejudiced,” with subttile, “How we can embrace the underlying spirit of the Declaration of Independence — and also learn from its shortcomings.” “

    — so how exactly does that opinion piece enable us to embrace the “spirit” of the Declaration of Independence?

    — what exactly do we “learn from its shortcoming” in this opinion piece?

    — what do you think Matthew Rozsa’s primary purpose was in writing that article?

    — what do you think Congressmember Ayanna Pressley’s primary purpose was in publicizing that article?

    — do you think Rosa/Pressley view themselves as neutral, objective observers of American history or ideological persons engaged in public persuasion?

    • anonymous says:

      Why did the NYT publish an article praising the Soviet Union for promoting ‘equality’, over the US space program?

      https://twitter.com/nytimes/status/1151854186386153473

      Why are these people moral relativists across space and moral absolutists across time?

      • somebody says:

        Who are “these people?”

        More pertinently, people and societies are multifaceted and perform a large number of actions and speech acts over the course of their existence. Some of those are worthy of praise and some are worthy of condemnation.

        It seems like you want to divide up history into good people and bad people, such that nobody ever says anything bad about the good people and nobody ever says anything good about the bad people.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          +1

          I don’t know for sure, but it is quite likely that I had ancestors on different sides of my family facing off against each other at the battle of Lundy’s Lane in the War of 1812. Who were the “good guys” and who were the “bad guys”? Each side slaughtered a lot of the other side.

        • anonymous says:

          ‘These people’ are the media commentators, activists and propagandists, who denounce the behaviour of the most free and liberal societies of their time. Meanwhile, any attempt to point this same critical analysis and societies who don’t meet these standards even today, will be met with cries of ‘Orientalism’.

          • Andrew says:

            Anon:

            Seems a bit unfair to criticize Rozsa for saying (or “crying”) something he didn’t say, just because you want to lump him into a “these people” category that includes those others.

            For a homely example, there are Bayesians out there who recommend some procedures such as Bayes factors that I really hate. I’m a Bayesian, but do I recommend Bayes factors? No.

            Or, for another example, there are Americans out there who support torture. Do I support torture? No. So I don’t want to be criticized on that basis just because I’m an American. Or I guess you could criticize me for not campaigning against torture—and, similarly, you could criticize Rozsa in his article for not speaking up against various activists and propagandists who make unreasonable statements. But that’s a second-order criticism: then you’d be criticizing Rozsa not for what he said, but for what he didn’t say.

            Also, I think your above paragraph puts a lot of burden on the word “denounce.” Take Jefferson buying and selling slaves. Maybe you don’t want to “denounce” this behavior. But would it be ok to say it’s unfortunate? Or that buying and selling slaves wasn’t cool, even in the 1700s? After all, there were people in the 1700s who thought that slave trading was a bad thing? Is Rozsa allowed, in your calculus to say anything bad about Jefferson’s slaveholding? Would it be ok to criticize slaveholding if he were then to devote twice as much space saying nice things about the guy?

  6. Jim H. says:

    I think it’s perfectly OK to say that historical documents are racist, sexist, etc. with respect to today’s morals. As long as we remember that future commentators will look back on our own writings and claim that they’re something-ist with respect to some future moral position that we might not even be able to imagine today. That should help keep us from getting too righteous about everything. That’s what Rozsa is saying. i.e., yes these documents have problems by today’s standards, but those problems shouldn’t keep us from admiring the parts that are admirable and inspirational.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “I think it’s perfectly OK to say that historical documents are racist, sexist, etc. with respect to today’s morals. As long as we remember that future commentators will look back on our own writings and claim that they’re something-ist with respect to some future moral position that we might not even be able to imagine today.”

      +1

    • Slavery was regarded as immoral before, during, and after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Read through the Wiki on Abolitionism. As it now stands slavery is not a practice of the past, given the extent of sex-trafficking and other sales of labor, which has disproportionate effects on non-whites.

    • I would speculate that there is a great deal of history that is not recorded. I am not sure that we can deduce that the moral standards have advanced substantially. We have today over 68 million refugees as consequences of wars and conflicts largely. No?
      It is a consequence of many factors, chief among them ethnocentrism and racism.

  7. Albert Hsiung says:

    > Using “isms” is no different from blaming the ancients for not understanding germs and calling them “obscurantists.”

    I can see Taleb’s point that the pejorative nature of “racist” and “sexist” make their use kind of a cheap shot. However, words like “racist” and “sexist” function not only as pejorative condemnations in public discourse, but also as useful language for sociological analysis.

    I think I’m more trusting than Taleb is of a reader’s ability to tell the difference given context. I’m also a fair bit more optimistic than he is on the negative critical analysis -> censorship pipeline. I think the disagreement here essentially hinges on the clarity of the distinction between calling a 2019 neo-nazi a racist and calling George Washington a racist.

  8. pwyll says:

    The Founding Fathers were, of course, the good progressives of their day, so we see here another example of the left condemning previous iterations of itself as it moves more leftward over time. Taleb is not immune to this either, he just isn’t quite as far along. But if you want to see a critique of the Declaration *from the right*, see here: https://radishmag.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/american-rebellion/

    • Andrew says:

      Pwyll:

      From my limited reading on the topic, it’s my impression that the founders of the U.S. had a mix of political views, so I don’t think it’s correct to label them as “the left” or “the good progressives of their day,” let alone to modify this with “of course.”

      • Gene Callahan says:

        From my extensive reading on the topic, including my research for my PhD, pwyll is quite correct. Just because they had a “mix” of views doesn’t mean the mix wasn’t well left of center! “Conservatives” existed at the time, of course: they were known as “Loyalists.”

        • It’s worthwhile to examine the Abolitionist movement which certainly had provided considerable influence even before the Declaration of Independence was written. The Founding Fathers would have had to been exposed to its charter.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionism

        • Clyde Schechter says:

          I think it is hazardous, at best, to attempt to characterize positions taken in bygone eras as liberal (or progressive) or conservative. First of all, as I understand it (maybe I misunderstand it) the modern notions of conservatism and liberalism really arose after the French Revolution, so they would not really apply to 1776. Moreover, even within my lifetime, the political factions that designate themselves as progressive or conservative have sometimes swapped positions on analogous issues. For example, environmental conservation was once predominantly the concern of conservatives, whereas today it is predominantly an issue for progressives. Similarly, in the 1970’s and 80’s it was the radical left that was taking up arms and the Right was calling for restrictions on access to weapons; today it is the opposite.

    • Dalton says:

      Has the “left” moved really more “leftward” over time, though?

      Compared to 100 – 150 years ago, today’s left are comparatively and by-and-large pussy cats. There isn’t a whole lot of talk, at least in the United States, of abolishing private property. For all the Lindsey Grahams of the world criticize the Democratic party of being socialist and communists, there is a world of difference between modestly raising taxes and a bit more spending on social welfare and the complete nationalization all industry. With the exception of the true fringes, I think you’d find the vast majority of today’s left highly critical of Lenin’s ends (and certainly his means).

      • pwyll says:

        I’d say that defining terms more specifically would help answer that question, e.g. are we talking “radical” left or “establishment” left? I’m not sure the US *establishment* left ever did support nationalizing all industry. It also seems that the left’s focus since the 1960s/1970s has shifted from economic to cultural; even if the left hasn’t moved much since then in terms of state control of the economy they’ve certainly shifted dramatically on questions of race, culture, and sexuality.

        • Dalton says:

          It’s interesting that you think today’s coalitions of social and economic platforms make up the “left” in someway that is historically stable. Historically, the Republican Party in the United States was economically conservative but was the progressive party in matters of race (and in protection of the environment). Go way way back and you’ll find the conservative forces (meaning protective of existing power structures) we’re comparatively progressive in matters of sexual properiety. Let’s not forget that Hadrian erected statues of his male lover throughout the Empire.

      • jim says:

        “There isn’t a whole lot of talk, at least in the United States, of abolishing private property. “

        ??? almost everything progressives do either abolishes private property or confiscates private resources. It’s just a question of which door the thief is behind. Minimum wages and diversity requirements are two prominent themes from the last few election cycles.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Jim said,

          July 24, 2019 at 6:39 pm
          “There isn’t a whole lot of talk, at least in the United States, of abolishing private property. “

          ??? almost everything progressives do either abolishes private property or confiscates private resources.”

          Please note that the statement “almost everything progressives do either abolishes private property or confiscates private resources” could be true if progressives did nothing to abolish private property.

  9. Terry says:

    It is interesting to actually read all of the Declaration of Independence. There is a whole long list of specific complaints. Some sound kind of odd.

    It is also interesting to read the critique of the complaints by Thomas Hutchinson. Some of those complaints may have been exaggerated. (Its a long read … it wasn’t written for the internet age.)

    https://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/1776-hutchinson-strictures-upon-the-declaration-of-independence

  10. gdanning says:

    The Salon piece is pretty shoddy, IMHO. I’m not sure that combing all of the published works of the author of a document and cherry-picking particular items is a particularly fruitful method of discerning the meaning of the document itself, even when the person was the sole author, which Jefferson was not. Which is not to say that Jefferson was not racist by current standards, nor that the Declaration was not racist. You just can’t base those claims on the methods this guy uses.

    But, more important, although the Declaration of Independence included philosophical statements, it was not a philosophical document. It was a political document, with two main goals: 1) Uniting the colonies; and 2) justifying independence to third parties, including the British govt, the British public, and the French and other potential allies. Given that context, I don’t know what it even means to call it “racist” or “not racist.”

    • jharvey@fastmail.com says:

      “The Salon piece is pretty shoddy, IMHO.”

      Badabing.

      Lots of sensational trashing that does more to mislead readers than enlighten them.

      But here’s the really funny one: for any serious historian to claim that whites took advantage of innocent Indians requires a friggin’ boatload of chutz. Indians were routinely at war with one another and regularly used alliances with the whites to accomplish their own territory ambitions. Moreover, Indians also regularly captured slaves from one another – but I guess the fact that they were of the same race makes Indians not racist :) Too funny.

    • jim says:

      “The Salon piece is pretty shoddy, IMHO”

      Agreed. More sensationalism and misleading readers than clarifying and enlightening readers.

      Here’s the best one though: Indians routinely fought one another for territory, so the whites were hardly taking advantage of innocent Indians who only wanted to peacefully tend their crops. Indians also regularly used alliances with whites to gain the territory they wanted. and of course Indians also routinely took slaves from one another, but I guess since they were all the same race, Indian slave holding wasn’t racist and therefore benign. :)

    • Andrew says:

      Jharvey, Jim:

      You seem to be doing the thing that Martha discussed elsewhere in this thread, of thinking that things are all good and bad, and that good things go together and that bad things go together. For example, you don’t like Rosza’s article and you don’t like people who “claim that whites took advantage of innocent Indians.” But Rosza’s article never says anything about innocent Indians. Rosza quotes a historian who describes settlers “taking over Indian land” but he doesn’t label the Indians as innocent. Nor did Rosza ever say that Native Americans were not racist.

      In short, what you are labeling as “a friggin’ boatload of chutz . . . Too funny” is not what Rozsa’s writing. You’re arguing with someone, just not him.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        “You’re arguing with someone, just not him.”

        Well put.

        • jim says:

          Hilarious,

          After I replied to Andrew I was thinking about Rosza’s piece and I thought of capuchin monkeys.

          I read a paper about capuchin monkeys where the researcher had done an experiment putting two monkeys in cages adjacent to one another, then consistently giving one of the monkeys an extra treat, so that the other monkey would surely see what was going on. The “untreated” monkey became irate after only a few repetitions of this procedure.

          In Rosza’s paper, the “treated monkey” are the minority groups, all of who’s negative behaviors are excluded from the discussion. They get the treat of having their faults ignored. The founders of the constitution are the untreated monkey. All of their negatives are brought up, examined and condemned.

          Even a capuchin monkey would find that unfair.

      • jim says:

        “In short, what you are labeling as “a friggin’ boatload of chutz . . . Too funny” is not what Rozsa’s writing”

        Seriously Andrew? :)

        As I noted in my post, it’s what he’s not writing :) He’s arguing with only the facts that support his thesis and excluding relevant those that don’t.

        He repeatedly points out the ulterior racist and sexist motives of whites, never once pointing out similar motives on the part of other groups. According to Rosza, Jefferson’s motives are “selfish and bigoted”, and he acts “To the disadvantage of Native Americans…”, implying from a potential motivation, but offering no proof, that Jefferson acted intentionally to swindle native americans.

        He takes the founders out of temporal context. The entire world was racist and almost every race practiced slavery over other races. He puts racist words in their mouths and imbues them with motivations that he has no evidence to support, despite the voluminous correspondence of the time.

        That’s misrepresenting the period and the actions of the framers to readers.

        • Carlos Ungil says:

          “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could”, writes Abigail Adams in that leter to John Adams. “That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute”, leaving no doubt about who “Men” refers to precisely.

          I don’t think one should read much into the reference to the “merciless Indian savages”. The declaration of indepenence is against the King of England, not the Indians, and saying that the King was bringing on them “brave Indian warriors” or “peaceful Indian people” would not work as well in this context. Jefferson has kinder words for Indians elsewhere.

  11. paul alper says:

    Let us note that the Declaration of Independence includes this less-than-noble sentence about the indigenous people of this land which was soon to be ours and not theirs:

    “He [King George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

  12. Dalton says:

    I have to say, I kind of agree with Nassim. The headline is certainly inflammatory given that sexism, racism, and prejudiced are loaded terms that can sound (to some quarters) like an attack. That point aside, I think it’s inaccurate to state that the Declaration of Independence *itself* is sexist, racist and prejudiced. To make his point, Rozza does not use the text of the Declaration itself. Rather he is making the case that the authors of the document are sexist, racist, and prejudiced by invoking their actions and quotations outside of writing the document. Of course they were: they were individuals raised in a world that had a very different view of the relation between sexes and races then we have today. But just because the authors were racist/sexist, does not ipso facto make the document racist.

    The Declaration of the Independence contains nothing in the text itself that is racist or sexist. Sure it uses the word “Man”, but that term is capitalized and can easily be understood to mean all of humanity, women or third (fourth, etc.) genders. Rather, the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence were sufficiently ambitious and amenable to reinterpretation that they probably contributed to the emergence of (somewhat) more just world that we inhabit today.

    Let’s put this another way: can a bad person do a good deed? Suppose there is a jar put out to feed orphans (or some other unambiguously good deed – this is a thought exercise use your own moral standards). In that jar are two dollars. One dollar came from the most conscientious, kind, un-racist, un-sexist, un-prejudiced person ever to walk the face of this earth. The other dollar came from the conceivably the worst person in the world that you could ever pick to be the President of the United States (in an ideal world the actual President of the United States and this person would be two separate people). Both individuals saw the jar, knew of it’s purpose and of their own free will deposited the dollar. Does one dollar have less value than the other? In one dollar somehow tainted just because it came from a bad person?

    Or maybe all dollars are bad because they arose from and perpetuate a fundamentally unjust economic world order. In which case, the thought experiment fails.

    • Andrew says:

      Dalton:

      You write, “The Declaration of the Independence contains nothing in the text itself that is racist or sexist.” But what about that bit from the Declaration quoted by Paul Alper in the comment above? That sounds pretty racist to me! Again, I agree with Rozsa that there’s lots of value in the Declaration, and that we should understand it in a historical context. Part of the historical context is they didn’t have cars or planes back then, part of the historical context is a high level of ambient racism at the time, there’s lots of context that I think is helpful in understanding things.

      • Dalton says:

        Fair point. The “merciless Indian savages” is pretty racist. (I clearly skimmed Rozsa article and the Declaration). I’ll note tha Rozsa files this under prejudiced.

        So it’s fair to say “the text of the Declaration of Independence is prejudiced towards Native Americans, the subtext is racist regarding sub-Saharan Africans in so far as slavery was very hypocritical and morally repugnant exception to ‘all men are created equal’, and the social context is inherently sexist given the more restricted gender roles of the society in which was written.”

        That’s not a headline that will generate a lot of clicks. I still disagree with the claim that “the Declaration of Independence is racist, sexist, and prejudiced” except in so far is it calls Native Americans “merciless savages.”

        It seems to me I’m arguing the meaningless points of nuance though. You, Rozsa, myself and Taleb all agree that their is much to love about the Declaration. We’re just arguing how much our moral judgments on the authors and the culture of time should influence how we interpret the document. Or rather were arguing about how much of the context and subtext are present in the text.

        I still think it’s important to point out that ignoble people can express noble concepts, bad people can do good, and our current moral judgement on a past author/artist/statesmen character can be separated (to a degree) from the quality and lasting relevance of their works. Michael Jackson was a very bad person. Thriller is one of the best albums of all time. Probably the best thing to do is pirate it so that his estate gets no money, but you still get to jam out Billie Jean.

        • Andrew says:

          Dalton:

          I’m not such a fan of Thriller but I agree with your general point.

          Quick summary from my perspective: Rozsa’s article was good, the headline writers at Salon went over the top, Taleb then went way over the top.

          • Kien says:

            Hi, thank you for this blog post, and the very interesting discussion by your readers who seem to generally share the same values of racial, gender equality and attention to historical context.

            A lesson I take away from your succinct summary is that headlines can provoke a “noisy reaction” (which may be the intention!), and we ought to read the article itself and try to ignore the noise!

        • wrd9 says:

          But they were “merciless Indian savages”. It was not a racist statement, it was a historically accurate statement. The later romanticization of Native Americans completely ignored their extreme atrocities. Staking out captives and mutilating them, roasting them alive, scalping victims, and slavery were entrenched customs long before Europeans showed up.

          • Dalton says:

            I’m sorry, but YOUR statement is bullshit, racist, and historically inaccurate.

            First, there was no “later romanticization”, rather there were people in the era who recognized the Native Americans as a civil society with different customs but no less barbarous than white settlers:

            “The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and Fashionable Wants, the sight of so many rich wallowing in Superfluous plenty, whereby so many are kept poor and distressed for Want, the Insolence of Office … and restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust [the Indians] with what we call civil Society.” — Benjamin Franklin, marginalia in a pamphlet entitled: Reflections, Moral and Political on Great Britain and Her Colonies, 1770

            Also Benjamin Franklin “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.” – Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, 1784

            Second, if all Native Americans where “merciless savages” why did the rebelling colonies ally with several tribes, such as the Oneida and Tuscarora nations of the former six-nation Iroquois Confederacy?

            And what are we to think of contemporary white atrocities against Native Tribes, such as the 1763 Paxton Massacre where white settlers murdered and scalped twelve adults and eight children of the Conestoga tribe, many of whom had converted to Christianity and lived for decades as neighbors of settlers near present day Lancaster?

            Brutality was not the province of Native Americans alone. The Pontiac War (probably the most relevant conflict relating to the “merciless savages” line in the Declaration) indeed included atrocities on both sides, including torture and murder of prisoners by both sides, including the murder of children by both sides. Both cultures were capable of producing deplorable individuals: the Paxton Boys for the whites and for the Native Americans: the Delaware braves that perpetrated the Enoch Brown massacre. But cultures are not monoliths, and the worst members of each culture are not representative of the whole.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “given that sexism, racism, and prejudiced are loaded terms that can sound (to some quarters) like an attack”

      Just about any kind of criticism can sound to some quarters like an attack. (e.g., some people consider criticism of a statistical analysis to be an attack, and refer to the people doing the criticism as “methodological terrorists”)

  13. jd says:

    “Typically in a dispute we have little hope of convincing the other person anyway”
    Is this a personal observation? A generalization to all people? Do you include yourself in this “other person”?
    That’s an interesting statement.

    • Andrew says:

      Jd:

      It’s been my experience. People typically have lots of reasons, good and bad, for their beliefs, so it’s no surprise that beliefs are hard to sway. Most of the time people have tried to convince me of something I don’t believe, I’m not convinced. For example, no, I don’t think that Daryl Bem’s ESP study was truly successfully replicated many times, despite Bem’s claims to that effect. Often I have been convinced, though: for example, Josh Miller convinced me of the error of my anti-hot-hand position, an error I’d committed to print. I make mistakes all the time, so there’s lots of room for people to convince me. Still, if I think of all the zillions of times that people have tried to convince me and failed, I’d have to say the probability of being convinced in any particular occasion is low.

      I don’t see this as a particularly surprising statement. Most of the time, I think, we’re arguing for the benefit of third parties.

      • jd says:

        Not surprising, but interesting.
        My own generalization is that this may be more characteristic of academia (perhaps based on blogs ha) than in general experience I’ve had with people. Also depends on what those beliefs are, and how much of an expert one considers themselves to be.
        I guess I’m typically a third party in lots of blog posts, so indeed it seems useful in that way.

  14. Koray says:

    A sentence like “a document is sexist” may cause a reader to infer that:
    1) at the time there were people who weren’t sexist/racist
    2) the author was conscious of his/her sexism/racism and wrote the document with that agenda

    People who already know that moral views were different back then won’t make this inference, but people who don’t know (and won’t read the whole article) may.

    Unfortunately, it takes longer to write something like “some moral views were very different back then and they were shared even by the founding fathers.” instead.

  15. chrisare says:

    Pretty worthless piece. Firstly, the author does not establish that an omission of something explicit positive reference to a subgroup qualifies as an -ism. Is the Declaration of Independence also homophobic because it doesn’t advance their cause?

    Secondly, every school boy and girl knows that the Declaration of Independence did not right the wrongs against black, women and native Indians. How is this non-revelation feature worthy in 2019?

    Thirdly, the authors space allocation to the trite positives and the negatives reveals his motives. One paragraph on why its an important document. 18 on why it’s not.

    • chrisare says:

      * Firstly, the author does not establish that an omission of an explicit positive reference to a subgroup qualifies as an -ism

    • Andrew says:

      Chrisare:

      I disagree with your claim that Rozsa gives 18 paragraphs on why the Declaration of Independence is not important. In his article, Rozsa places the Declaration in historical context and does offer some criticism of the founders. But nowhere do I see him saying or implying that the Declaration is not important.

      • chrisare says:

        Important was a poor word choice. “Valuable” or even simply “good” are probably better. The point is that the author dedicated nearly 95 percent of his effort to establishing the known-for-ages shortcomings of the DoI. (And Saloon attempted to make the hackneyed criticism fresh by attaching a clickbait title.)

        • Andrew says:

          Chrisare:

          I read the article not as being an empty establishing of known-for-ages material, but rather as putting some known-for-ages material into historical content. I agree with you that the headline didn’t help.

  16. Michael Nelson says:

    It is in no way anachronistic to call documents from 250 years ago racist or sexist. There were people who were calling them that 250 years ago. The convictions that Native Americans are not savages, and that blacks are not chattel, and that women can have an identity independent of men, are all ideas that predate the founding of the US.

    I see some in the comments making an argument equivalent to “what we call bigoted now was not viewed by the culture then as bigoted, so it is unfair to apply that label to the people and documents of the time.” First of all, would these same commenters be willing to apply such moral relativism to any other group? Is it wrong to say that Saudi Arabian law is sexist? Or that Chinese law isn’t oppressive? Or do we only give the benefit of the doubt to those who were in power 250 years ago? You know, like the British?

    Second, even if you say that the culture in a particular time and place gets to set its own standards that we have to respect, culture is not a monolith: Maybe the majority of Western European-descended, land-owning males felt a certain way, and saw that cultural artifacts of the time reflected those views, but it’s hard to dispute that the cultures among black Americans defined racism differently (and not all one way), the culture among female Americans defined sexism differently (and not all one way), and so on and so on. Even whites had diverse views–heck, Americans of Italian and Irish descent weren’t even considered white!

    So what’s the formula for computing the “true” or “prevailing” cultural view of bigotry in Colonial America, the one we’re obligated to use as a standard for judgment? Whatever formula we use, we’d better make sure it gives us answers that we can live with when we apply it to other historical cultures with oppressed populations, like the post-Reconstruction South or the Soviet Union. Eventually, every culture can be described as residing in a distant past when they didn’t know any better and so they did the best they could within the norms of the time.

    • Dalton says:

      This blog once again is the best place on the internet for the comment section. You have a wonderful rejoinder here. But I’ve got to ask:

      Is morality absolute, fixed and eternal? Are there actions and views we can say are absolutely immoral no matter the culture or time period? If so, how do we measure morality and where is it codified?

      Which culture was morally superior: 1950’s America with segregation and income inequality and unequal gender roles or 1950’s Soviet Union with more gender, social and racial equality but an unfortunate tendency to put political dissidents in the Gulag?

      You could make a (damned compelling) argument that no culture is less moral than our current one (as Andrew did above). For the first time in history, we know that our collective actions have very much non-zero probability to permanently reduce the viability of future societies through exhaustion of resources and alteration of the climate and biological systems which have given us a pretty good 20,000 year run at the whole civilization thing. Sure previous cultures were violent, repressive, and immoral, but at least they left their descendants a chance to do better. So were do we rank on the spectrum of absolute morality?

      • Michael Nelson says:

        I think the question of the degree to which morality is absolute is a good one, but it’s not one I intended to answer. As I see it, Andrew’s post raises two questions: 1. Is it sensible use terms like sexist and racist to describe views and behaviors from a place and time when those terms did not exist in the language and the distribution of opinions about sexism and racism was very different from the distribution in our culture? 2. Is it fair to make the same kind of value judgments about racism and sexism about other cultures that we would apply to people in our culture? One need not determine the universality of morality to answer these questions.

        My answer to the first question was that it is sensible to use these terms whenever their definitions accurately describe beliefs and actions. If the definition of sexism is something like “basing one’s treatment of another on that person’s gender to inequitable effect,” then that definition is applicable to any such treatment in 1776, regardless of the cultural context. The arguments of critics of the post imply the addendum: “…but only to a degree greater than others in one’s contemporary social class find acceptable or warranted.” At best, that’s a very specialized definition, one that, if applied universally, would excuse not only the actions permitted under Saudi law but also those tacitly approved of by one’s peers in any social group.

        My answer to the second question is that, for purposes of judging a belief or action, removing it to another time is not meaningfully different from removing it to another place. Regardless of how you judge racism and sexism, if you judge it a certain way here and now, it’s not unfair to judge the same thing in the same way there and then. Certainly the immorality of an action can sometimes be mitigated somewhat by context, but that’s an issue of degree of culpability, not a binary choice of right or wrong.

        Finally, it may well be that “no culture is less moral than our current one,” but that’s another issue entirely: if someone says that the Declaration is a racist or sexist document, they are making no claim about which culture is morally superior. Plus, as I argued before, the “culture” of a nation is a distribution views, not a viewpoint. To conclude from historical records that 1776 America had “a” culture that held sexism and racism as acceptable is like saying that Americans in 2019 have “a” view of sexism and “a” view of racism and that valid estimates of those views can be obtained by surveying a self-selected sample of wealthy white men.

        Parenthetically: Something I loved about the show “The Americans” is how it illustrated that Soviet ideals, as ideals, dovetailed frequently with those of the equal rights movement.

        • My impression of the argument here is that Taleb seems to be operating under the idea that a “sexist” or “racist” document is one espousing the idea that it is *proper* to treat women worse than men, or black people worse than white people etc, as opposed to simply having done it because it was the norm without really having a strong moral stance on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.

          Mein Kampf is very clearly a racist anti-semitic propaganda piece. The person who wrote it thought it was a good and moral idea to round up Jewish people and mass murder them. This is very different from some random writing by someone who was living in a world where superstitious beliefs taught from a young age that Jews are actually agents of the devil, or that women are constitutionally incapable of walking more than a few hundred feet at a time while retaining their fertility or some such nonsense.

          So, I think intention has a lot to do with it. If you intentionally discriminate against others because you think it’s a good thing to do in and of itself, like eradicating mosquitos or destroying rat infestations, vs you go along with norms and don’t think too hard about them, the degree of moral culpability is different.

          I’m not saying it’s ok to be a sexist or racist ignorant jerk as long as you don’t think too hard about it, I’m just saying it’s not quite the same thing as being a Nazi who actively espouses terrorizing other races and sexes.

          Taleb seems to reserve “racist” or “sexist” for people who actively proselytize racial or sexual superiority.

          • When framed this way, all Taleb suggest is that we should use word “quality-ism” to describe only conscious discrimination, as being different mindlessly-follow-a-societal-norm discrimination. We, apparent, need another set of words for these types of discriminations.

            Like, we should not say that “Odyssey” was sexist because it glorifies male infidelity while condemning female infidelity. We should say that “Odyssey” was sex-descrimination or something.

            I can agree with this. But I can also disagree with this. This looks like a matter of personal preferences in the vocabulary.

            • Yes, personal preferences. You mention the ‘Odyssey’. I recall asking my 6th-grade teacher why we were reading works that contained so much violence toward people. Even the value of the Greek and Roman myths which seemed to highlight the sociopathic tendencies of the gods and goddesses.

              It is curious that so few somen post their viewpoints on this blog.

              There are quite interesting legal commentaries on originalism & common law interpretations. The notion of the Constitution as a Living Document is visited by a small minority of legal scholars. Maybe they comment on the Declaration specifically too.

    • yyw says:

      I did say that an average American is not morally superior to an average Pashtun. By the logic of most commenters, today’s white people can self congratulate for being the most morally superior people in the history of human race. Brown and black people in the third world often have moral values considerably more sexist and racist than even the so-called deplorables in this country.

      One could try to change their beliefs by showing that they could improve their living by learning from the west or just throw contempt and disdain at them.

    • jack says:

      “First of all, would these same commenters be willing to apply such moral relativism to any other group? Is it wrong to say that Saudi Arabian law is sexist? Or that Chinese law isn’t oppressive? Or do we only give the benefit of the doubt to those who were in power 250 years ago? You know, like the British?”

      No, because temporal differences are different than geographical ones. The point of history is to understand the motives and actions of its players as they themselves understood it. In other words, history is psychology in action.

      The notion that Native Americans were peaceful people is pure fiction. There are multiple stories of Indian allies of the colonists gleefully torturing prisoners of war before getting bored and just murdering him. If you saw something like that happen, you too might very well call them savages.

  17. AJK says:

    This passage is bizarre…

    “A war against Plato, huh? You’re in good company. Karl Popper famously started wars with Plato, Marx, and Freud. None of these targets were around to fight back, but that’s ok. Typically in a dispute we have little hope of convincing the other person anyway, and all these people left enough written material to serve in their defense.”

    You criticize Taleb for engaging in an extensive critique of a writer and, crucially, the writer’s consistently influential ideas…then admit that doing so is ok, anyway. Unnecessarily passive aggressive.

    As far as Popper goes, his critique of Karl Marx the person was as much a critique of his self-anointed disciples, historical determinism, and a tendency for top-down social planning (not confined to the “left,” of course). Thus, implying Popper’s (or Taleb’s) intellectual work is somehow inferior or dubious because a central figure of his critique is not able to reply is either disingenuous or based on a lack of understanding. It’s also illogical. Is the only reasonable way to critique a writer is to ensure they are able and willing to reply to critiques? Clearly not.

    • Andrew says:

      AJK:

      You write that I “criticize Taleb for engaging in an extensive critique of a writer.” That is not correct. I criticized Taleb for what I considered an inaccurate post on twitter.

      Taleb labeled the article in question as “the very definition of anachronistic bigoteering.” That’s hardly “an extensive critique.” I just thought Taleb’s reaction didn’t make sense, hence my post.

      You write, “implying Popper’s (or Taleb’s) intellectual work is somehow inferior or dubious because a central figure of his critique is not able to reply…” I never said that Popper or Taleb’s work is somehow inferior or dubious nor did I ever imply that. I’m a huge fan of Popper, as you can see by reading some of my articles (for example, this one with Shalizi) or by searching this blog. I’m also a fan of Taleb and have been so for awhile (see for example here). I’m surprised this wasn’t clear to you from the above post, but just to clarify: I think it’s just fine to criticize dead people.

      • Nassim Taleb’s seems to arouse the prospect there was no moral salient question about slavery in the colonies. Therefore the characterization ‘anachronistic’ attached to ‘bigotry’ seems to be constituted from base rate neglect. What can be ventured is that terms like ‘racist’, sexists’ etc were not in vogue to the extent that they are today. But that doesn’t mean that bigotry wasn’t being challenged energetically during the time of the Founders. They were, I believe, exposed to the British and European abolitionists movements.

  18. Mark Samuel Tuttle says:

    Great post!! And, very timely …

    I’ve sent it to a colleague, professor of philosophy (who loves Plato), who will be teaching a required ethics course this fall for computer science majors (which shows how time does move on).

    Here’s another data point – the Internment of the Japanese-Americans during WWII. I had this precise argument with a boss I had years ago. He was a PhD, MD, WWII veteran, torpedoed in the Pacific, etc. To net it out, he used the “things were different” argument justifying internment, I said “No, we knew better, even then.” We never resolved this …

    Since he died I’ve discovered that there were zero or one Japanese spies in the mainland U.S. before and during WWII, or so we think from decodes of various messages. There were spies in Hawaii, obviously, and, less obviously, in Mexico, but none in the continental U.S. that anyone knows of. But, of course, that’s hindsight.

    Interestingly, especially in light of the slavery thing, we have apologized and paid reparations to those Japanese interred – too little, too late (1988), but we did it.

    Anyway, just another talking point.

    — Mark

  19. Peter Dorman says:

    Interesting comment thread. For (some) contemporary attitudes about slavery in the UK, check out Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild. Also note that the reference to “merciless Indian savages” is not simply a pejorative racial description but a dishonest framing of the larger story taking place — that Europeans were streaming into lands historically occupied by other people and suppressing them through fraud and violence.

    The question of how to apply ethical standards to times and places not one’s own is, of course, one of the great questions of the past hundred or so years of social science. It is not resolved by judgments one way or the other about whether our current standards are superior, since we have an ethical obligation to be guided by our best standards, even though we realize they may be flawed in unknown ways. (Uncertainty needs to be embraced and managed in all realms.) My suggestion for the Founders in 1776 is to ask whether they added to, withdrew from or roughly maintained the “stock” of racism etc. they encountered in their world. Was North America a somewhat more ascriptively unequal place because of the Declaration, somewhat less or about the same? I guess this could be seen as an economist’s recourse to marginal analysis.

    • I think that the sources for your questions point to American responses to the waves of immigration to the US. I gleaned that from Huntington’s Who Are WE? In that book, he goes into the policy responses to immigration from East Europe to 5h3 US an illustration. I don’t have my copy of the book handy at the moment to post an accurate quote. I was only suggesting that we tend to apply & elaborate monistic arguments. Serge Lang a mathematician took Huntington to task on this score. But as I mentioned to one of Serge’s colleagues that this is also a habit of scientists and mathematicians.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Peter Dorman said:

      “the reference to “merciless Indian savages” is not simply a pejorative racial description but a dishonest framing of the larger story taking place — that Europeans were streaming into lands historically occupied by other people and suppressing them through fraud and violence,”

      and

      “The question of how to apply ethical standards to times and places not one’s own is, of course, one of the great questions of the past hundred or so years of social science. It is not resolved by judgments one way or the other about whether our current standards are superior, since we have an ethical obligation to be guided by our best standards, even though we realize they may be flawed in unknown ways. (Uncertainty needs to be embraced and managed in all realms.) My suggestion for the Founders in 1776 is to ask whether they added to, withdrew from or roughly maintained the “stock” of racism etc. they encountered in their world. Was North America a somewhat more ascriptively unequal place because of the Declaration, somewhat less or about the same?”

      Both are well-put points.

  20. steven t johnson says:

    The Declaration of Independence endorses the right of revolution, which puts it far to the left of the vast majority of supposedly respectable people, even eminent ones like Karl Popper. It is in that respect much closer to Lenin than a Rosza. I don’t know whether Taleb’s is really more upset about disrespecting authority or simply the absurdity of using trendy expressions from today to falsify the true but unwelcome import. If the first, I don’t care. The true slavery apologists explained away or openly criticized the idea all men were created equal. Even so, every one who cares to read the words and take them seriously, can (and some did) turn the Declaration into a critique of slavery, etc. Reading the Declaration as, well, apparently creating the modern US, and that it must be condemned because the modern US is racist, ect. is false. Calling this procedure an anachronism seems entirely supportable to me. For what it’s worth, I do not in the least believe Rosza supports the right of revolution.

    But there is a double anachronism, not just projecting back today’s notion of liberalism into a revolutionary manifesto. Yes, the Declaration of Independence explicitly criticizes the King for preventing colonists from acquiring Indian lands. But ever since the days of the Athenians, democracy was about us, the polity instead of the tribes and aristocratics families, versus them, the foreigners. Pretending that democracy then was supposed to be internationalist and pacifist is nonsense. Those are socialist and communist ideals, which liberals pay lip service to. In practice, making an anachronistic critique of democracy in the American Revolution, a la Gerald Horne or William Hogeland, would in practice support English imperialism. Even in 1776 the great Bengal familne was the precedent everyone should have heeded. I don’t blame any slaves who gambled on the English and I believe it would be shockingly purist to do so. But if I were a Rosza perhaps I should have.

    Racism as an unfalsifiable theory of political behavior is an offense against the open society by the way.

  21. paul alper says:

    Why is it that the phrase, “merciless Indian savages,” in the Declaration of Independence comes as a shock to participants of this blog? It has “literally” been around for over a couple of centuries. There is no question regarding the authenticity of the phrase. None the less, I suspect some of the participants would like to wish it away, an unfortunate Jeffersonian typo.

    • It is curious though that if we consider our current norms so superior, why then can’t we change the wording of the Declaration of Independence to reflect the current moral prerogatives. For example, change ‘all men are equal’ to all individuals are equal’, etc. Would the change be warranted given that even men are not deemed equal today? We are divided by class, status, and wealth.

      • Rahul says:

        There’s a trend in India to rename every town and street with the vaguest association with the erstwhile colonial masters.

        Modifying the declaration of Independence to make it politically correct sounds like an equally silly enterprise.

        • As you may know, the Constitution is referred to as a ‘Living Document’. It can be amended through a process, albeit a difficult one.

          I do not understand the precise analogy you are drawing between the renaming of towns/streets with modifying the Declaration to make it politically correct. The Declaration is a manifesto against British colonial rule.

          My thought was that people are not born into equal circumstances. So how can we word the Declaration to reflect current realities? Does the UN Charter better reflect them?

      • Rahul says:

        What do you mean by “even men are not deemed equal today”?

        As opposed to what point in time? Do you mean to say that men were more equal back then? Are class, status and wealth inventions of the 21st century?!

        • I think it should say “even men are still not…” that is we haven’t yet overcome prejudice and inequality among say white men, much less women or gay people or dark skinned or Asian or other groups.

        • The sentence was awkwardly worded. Sorry about that. I don’t think that people have experienced equality at any time. The Founders’ pronouncements were aspirational, as part of an effort to detach from British colonial rule.

          Class and status are not inventions of the 21st century. They ensue from hierarchical framing of groups and individuals throughout the centuries.

  22. Ecoute Sauvage says:

    “Man is descended from an ape” isn’t exactly in dispute – labeling it as sexist would be laughable. As to those claiming that “Indian savages” is racist, I wonder whether they could possibly contradict Mark Twain’s factual description of the “Noble Red Man”:
    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/HNS/Indians/redman.html
    “…He is little, and scrawny, and black, and dirty; and, judged by even the most charitable of our canons of human excellence, is thoroughly pitiful and contemptible. There is nothing in his eye or his nose that is attractive, and if there is anything in his hair that–however, that is a feature which will not bear too close examination…”
    And of course Taleb is right that destruction of statues is censorship – indistinguishable, to my mind, from burning books, destroying papyri, or handing to aborigines skulls of their ancestors dated at 50,000 years BC, so they can bury them in their own cemeteries.

    But it gets worse, and infinitely more dangerous:

    Labeling Anders Breivik “far-right”, Brenton Tarrant “Islamophobic”, Robert Bowers or John Earnest “antisemitic”, Stephan Ernst “neo-Nazi”, Luca Traini or Patrick Crusius “racists” completely fails to capture the demonstrable fact all are united in a single belief, most recently elegantly expressed by Samuel Huntington, and of course countless others before him: the defense of Western Civilization. Unless this fundamental unity is understood, and understood quickly, by supporters of Rep. Ayanna Pressley & Co., I see no peaceful resolution to culture wars.

  23. Ecoute Sauvage says:

    I am a product of MIT trained by frequentists in years when statistics included such – nowadays – quaint concepts as pattern recognition, signal-to-noise ratios, Laplace and Fourier transforms. Even then, though, we were taught Bayesian calculations can provide enormously useful shortcuts IFF we always carefully distinguish priors from whichever posteriors we were hoping to come up with.

    Prof. Andrew Gelman is indeed a Bayesian, but I have never yet seen him make the mistake of ignoring the data in order to fudge this prior-posterior distinction criterion. Certainly prof. Ben Bolker is free to belong to whichever school of induction holds that anyone who suggests the possible existence of a pattern containing potentially useful data is a troll/Nazi/Russian spy/racist/ Chinese hacker, whatever other intersectionalist label is in fashion. I only wonder why his label only applies to alleged “hateful” murderers – as opposed to which other kind? Sympathetic ones? Thank you in advance for the courtesy of a reply.

  24. Ecoute Sauvage says:

    Today someone else also remarked on the possible existence of a discernible pattern, based on the data:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/07/us/great-replacement-el-paso-shooting.html
    “…“White nationalism isn’t new, but what we need to recognize is that from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway to El Paso, these aren’t outliers on a scatter plot,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “These are data points on a trend line…”

    Another troll?

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