What Can the French Revolution and Austrian Economics Teach You About Learning Japanese?

So, I’ve been reading about politics and history lately. Voltaire’s Bastards, Amaury de Riencourt, David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity), stuff like that.

And I came upon something of a…how can I put this…

It’s fashionable — and even justifiable — to roundly dismiss many of the heroes and products of the English-speaking world. Stop riding Newton’s nuts, Leibniz was just as good if not better — better calculus notation and a kanji lover. Stop cupping Darwin’s eye…balls, he was just kind of OK; he had a theory but no mechanism to explain it in his time. You know, the usual.

Frankly, it’s one of my favorite pastimes, and I engage in it on a regular basis.

But there are many pieces of Anglophone — and specifically British — triumphalism that are actually triumphs; one in particular rarely gets the exposure and credit it deserves 1. And that is the weird, heterogeneous institution that is modern constitutional monarchy and how it evolved.

Um…like, I don’t know enough about the topic to actually discuss it intelligently; I don’t have the vocabulary or background knowledge. So, I’ll just tell you how this applies to learning Japanese. It’s basically the whole “starting dirty” idea, just expressed using political and economic metaphors rather than biological ones.

Good economists like Hayek and Friedman would probably explain it like this: there is implicit knowledge and wisdom embedded and distributed in the market that no central plan or central planner is capable of articulating let alone equaling in quality, precision, quantity and effectiveness.

This same insight was reflected in British culture and politics: there is knowledge and wisdom embedded and distributed in tradition that no overarching manifesto, no theory, no single political ideology is capable of articulating let alone equaling in effectiveness.

Was this insight always right? No. British culture tends to respect tradition to the point of fetishistic worship. But it put the brakes on nice-sounding theories like the French Revolution, Communism (the Russian Revolution) and even the American Revolution, which, for all its big talk, has not truly delivered on the goods; America isn’t nearly as free a country as it likes to think it is, existing in glaring contradiction with its own loudly proclaimed founding standards. Like Subway marketing itself as health food, America is the best freedom brand of all time — it has all the cool commercials — but far greater freedom and far healthier food remain, ironically enough, unadvertised, unmarketed and available outside the Estados Unidos and Subway.

The British constitution is unwritten. You can’t find it anywhere, any more than you can “find” your blood — it’s all over the place. There’s the Magna Carta and a Bill of Rights of some kind somewhere, but, as I understand it, it’s mostly just implicit — precedent and all that. Or so I’m told, I dunno.

Taken at face value, this kind of brazen vagueness seems like a rather delicious recipe for disaster by corrosive, incremental tyranny. Interestingly enough, though, many of the 18th century English colonists on the American continent who seceded from the mother country thought that individual rights were more or less unlimited and should thus remain unwritten so they could stay unlimited. This anti-codification opinion lost out and the USA grew into a famously legalistic, codificious culture — witness the proliferation of “mission statements” in American business training and personal development; in American religion, you see it in the Mormon insistence on making up explanations for things that could have safely remained unexplained and thus prevented a whole lot of bad PR.

Since we’re here, this isn’t a put-down of all things American. The truth is that America, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect — not even from Americans. And when it does get respect, it gets them for the wrong reasons (freedom it doesn’t have, interethnic harmony that only exists on television, and a nationhood built on a foundation of, what’s the word I’m looking for…oh yeah — genocide 2). American marketing techniques and personal development literature are, by far, the best in the world. Yet, as it happens, they tend to be mocked or — more often and perhaps worse — simply ignored, to the great detriment of the ignorers and mockers. William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson were the dog’s bollocks, but brooding, emo, Old World “artists” seem to get all the glory.

Mindsetwise, American optimism continues to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the belief that things can be changed for the better makes people take the actions necessary to make that belief come true. Many countries have more entrepreneur-friendly laws, better infrastructure, gorgeous weather and a better-educated populace, but Silicon Valley is still in California, in no small part because that’s where you’re allowed to believe in ridiculous things and act out those beliefs during the day, while sober, using real tools and money. And here’s where it get’s crazier: if you mess up, it’s a good thing and you just try again!

This optimism, combined with an almost talismanic reverence for America’s founding documents produces a steady stream of John Browns, Ralph Naders, Martin Luther Kings, Larry Flynts and countless other entrepreneurs and true believers, ready and eager to bring the documents to life. So there’s that.

As for marketing, whatever their artistic shortcomings, Hollywood movies are the best sold in the world, a great deal of thought and skill goes into making them make money and the lack of cognizance of and respect for this fact only underscores the intellectual laziness of intellectual snobs — it’s childish (not child-like, which would be good, just bratty) to expect a movie to sell well simply because it “deserves” to.

By that logic, my mother’s orange peel chocolate cookies should be the most popular food in the world, but they’re not, McDonald’s (OK, rice, but, whatever) is. And, crap product notwithstanding, McDonald’s marketing, distribution and quality control systems are massive achievements of human thought 3, deserving of measured respect and admiration. You try to make billions of servings of food always taste the same and not (instantly) kill people.

Plus, be honest. Do you really want to see some sad, artsy French film with no plot and no closure? Really, bro? Really?

Where we? Oh yeah. Learning, sorry, getting used to, Japanese.

The thing about Marxism, the Communist Manifesto, the French Revolution, all these things, is that they seemed so reasonable. So logical. So cogent. So well-structured. So linear. So obvious. So architectonically beautiful. Edifices of the mind. Had I been alive in the right place and time, I would have fallen for and gotten behind every single one of these ideas. 4

But they were all wrong. Very badly wrong. Why? Because for all their superficial complexity, they were actually rather crude and blunt and simplistic. They were all straight lines and rectangles: no circles, no curves, and definitely no fractals. No fuzzy bits. No warmth, no character, no squishiness, no personality. No soul. Sort of like replacing all the plants in the world with well-drawn pictures of plants. 5

To put it unoriginally: life is…organic. It’s crooked, cyclical, elliptical. It doesn’t like your neat little boxes and categories. It sprouts weeds through your perfectly paved concrete. It doesn’t make Euclidean shapes. It’s chaotic, in the Lorenzian sense. It refuses to be tamed, to submit to your dictatorial, “top-down, Soviet-Harvard” rationalism.

Your Japanese learning methods, to work well, need to reflect life’s organic nature. The temptation is and always will be to make violent changes — not bold changes (those are good), violent ones — to perfectly format your SRS cards, to make everything look and act the same, to make one size fit all, to use schedules and neat little boxes and straight lines, to not even consider trying any idea that hasn’t appeared in at least three peer-reviewed journals (“no respected scientist says that listening while you sleep helps, therefore it cannot help, unless and until she says so!”) — the same journals that said the exact opposite thing last year.

The temptation will be to respect authority over experimentation, to denigrate all empiricism — especially any arising from your own experience — to do away with your personal traditions (i.e. habits and preferences), to burn it all down and built it back up from scratch instead of renovating, extending or just removing furniture. To try revolution before evolution, to be imperious instead of incremental. To write up decrees and manifestos instead of just tinkering and trying stuff out.

And what’ll happen? You’ll be a “republic” with your constitution and your rules and your perfect-on-paper methods and systems…for about five minutes; you’ll be a zealot, a monk of your new, perfect religion…for about three days before devolving into suffering and despotism and forcing yourself to do ridiculously boring things like slogging through some premade Anki deck made from some textbook.

You’ll write down what you believe and get into endless, bitter arguments about the minutiae of what you believe, your precious little articles of faith — as if your opinion mattered — instead of just living it. Like arguing about what to eat instead of just eating it. Or when chicks spend more time discussing, dissecting and defining their romantic relationships than, well, actually experiencing them and actually relating to the person they’re supposedly “with” (see my new book: Baseless Remarks About Complex Social Phenomena III, for more details).

You’ll do all that…

When you coulda just had fun and figured stuff out as you went along and added some parts and removed others. And yeah, you end up with a “hodge-podge” of ideas and tools and methods that doesn’t look smooth and pretty and is hard to even articulate, but it’s your hodge-podge, man, and it works for you (WhoTF else matters?!) and it’s good and you’re happy and isn’t that all that really effing matters?

Hard to articulate. But easy to live and do.

The funny thing about constitutional monarchy is that it wasn’t planned out from the beginning, if at all. It’s the result of a lot of winging it, a lot of fighting and arguing and pressuring and complaining and compromising 6. In many ways, its development was motivated and accelerated as much by other systems as in spite of them — royal heads in Europe were rolling with somewhat alarming frequency, and not for the usual royal reasons, either; colonies were seceding. And things did get ugly. In short, it’s the result of a lot of trial and error. A hodge-podge 7. It’s like a nine-hundred-year-old house with fiber-optic Internet access, indoor plumbing, modern insulation, wall-to-wall carpeting, double-glazed windows and, of course, electricity. It’s warm and alive and clunky. It sounds terrible — as an idea — it looks terrible on paper; surely a brand new house, a brand new world, designed and built from scratch, would be better. Supreme hereditary authority that can’t be exercised?! WTF?!

But it works well…And not despite how messy it is but because of how messy it is. 8

If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ll have noticed that the whole story I’ve just told is riddled with plot holes. Even more so than usual. I can’t even make fun of Stargate SG-1 any more, that’s how crazy it’s gotten. I don’t really know what “the” truth is, what “the” right answer is. Maybe the truth is more a matrix than a point, more of an inequality than a single value. Here’s an attempt — an essay within an essay — it may well be the case that it’s not that CM is a good idea per se, but that the kind of phlegmatic, gradualist, one-step-at-a-time, “slow down, we’re in a hurrymindset that produces CM is. And so CM is just a surface manifestation of a deeper good idea. CM is the bowl but the real idea is the emptiness, the negative space that the bowl produces — objective and subjective freedom.

AJATT isn’t a good idea. It’s just a vessel. A bowl. The real idea is: “let’s just try stuff out and keep trying stuff out and whatever works, works, and whatever doesn’t…doesn’t”. And there’s nothing to agree or disagree with, to believe or disbelieve in, because you can’t agree with nothing any more than you can successfully punch water. Or whatever hackneyed, deep-sounding metaphor you can come up with. Whatevs. The real idea is the emptiness, the absence of a fixed idea, the openness to experimentation.

Anyway.

Hard to articulate. But easy to live and do.

Kevin Kelly calls it protopia. Deutsch, if I recall correctly, calls it perfectibility, but distinguishes it from the rationalista kind that produced so many a failed utopia. The idea is not that you or your situation will ever be perfect. The idea is that you can keep improving indefinitely, keep getting even more and more awesome; all your current problems can and will go away — replaced (mind you) by newer, better, higher and higher quality ones.

History has spoken. Pick your path.

Notes:

  1. Hint: The answer is not any of the world wars; these were pan-European civil wars whose sole victor, no matter what the textbooks and treaties tell you, was the United States. Without her involvement, they would probably still be fighting in Europe right now. The US literally prevented Europe from “eating itself”. Twice. And no one ever said “thank you”.
  2. You could say the same thing about Australia as well, and that’s also a constitutional monarchy/”crowned republic”, so…this whole silly article becomes moot.
  3. And animal cruelty so…yeah…awkward.
  4. No contest. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” versus…despotic, blingy, in-bred monarch? Are you kidding me?
  5. Ironically, of course, Marx was a big fan of Darwin; he saw Communism as a societal evolutionary theory and even wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles, but Darwin was like: “I just wanna be friends, mayn”.
  6. Even now, some people see it as merely an unfinished republican revolution — vestigial despotism — instead of the accidentally clever and sophisticated separation-of-powers that it is (Spain actually re-instituted CM after shedding its fascist dictatorship…then again, Italy had a fascist dictatorship with CM, so…you’re literally witnessing everything I just said contradicting itself). Just to confuse things even further, Switzerland’s a republic and it runs like clockwork.
  7. As our our cells: “…several key organelles of eukaryotes originated as symbioses between separate single-celled organisms…mitochondria and plastids (e.g. chloroplasts), and possibly other organelles, represent formerly free-living bacteria that were taken inside another cell as an endosymbiont, around 1.5 billion years ago.” [Endosymbiotic theory – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
  8. Arguably by placing absolute power beyond the reach and use of any human being. You have to be born into it to have it, but you can’t use it if you do.

  6 comments for “What Can the French Revolution and Austrian Economics Teach You About Learning Japanese?

  1. David
    October 11, 2014 at 02:06

    Glad to see you back, Khatz.

  2. Fearlessdreamer
    October 11, 2014 at 05:33

    Khatz there you go owning again:

    “Your Japanese learning methods, to work well, need to reflect life’s organic nature.”

    Awesome shizz, like always!

  3. October 18, 2014 at 02:14

    Khatz, you need to read Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions” if you haven’t already. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Conflict_of_Visions

    You’re welcome. And thanks for making that link to language learning — yes.

    • Russ
      January 5, 2015 at 05:49

      Love Sowell (in a platonic way). I will read that too. Also, George Gilder’s Knowledge & Power, in which he maintains that Capitalism is an INFORMATION system not an INCENTIVE system. The language application for that would be, I suppose, that free markets are messy, with lots of changes, adjustments, failed experiments and “unapproved” innovations that deviate from experts’ & leaders’ prescriptions. It’s bottom-up, not top-down.

      That’s why I love Khatz’ approach, by the way. He has enough influence and power to seize the language-learning throne, declare himself king, and tell us exactly what to do, but he keeps refusing it, like George Washington, or (Shakespeare’s) Julius Caesar.

  4. Torabisu
    November 30, 2015 at 10:35

    Is this blog dead? It’s been ages since something’s been posted… 🙁

  5. May 30, 2016 at 00:29

    Achieving personal mastery with one skill and behavior can produce remarkable results.

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