Proposal: When you start a family, make up a new name, a union name. This name goes right before you and your partner’s/s’ different surnames, which are left unchanged. If you have children, this union name is then their surname.
… And we’re done. That’s the entire idea. You can probably just stop reading now.
OK, maybe I should say a little more about why this system is such an improvement on the status quo. What are the problems with other surname-swapping paradigms? What specific advantages do union names offer?
Problems with existing systems
These are legion, so I’ll break them up into several categories. First, problems with meeting in the middle:
- Combining names via hyphens isn’t sustainable. Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst marries Ms. Bennett-Moore and becomes Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst-Bennett-Moore. Next generation, it grows to 5 or more names. TERRIFYING.
- Combining names frequently looks and sounds ugly. Surname phonology is not generally people’s main criterion in selecting mates.
- Smushing surnames together is cute (Nilsen + Pattel = Paltsen) but often unpronounceable, and makes reconstructing the original names very difficult.
- There’s still some lingering asymmetry and uncertainty in deciding whose name goes first. This isn’t trivial, because if you get to keep your name in roughly the same alphabetical position, you take on less of the social and professional cost of switching surnames.
Problems with having one partner switch to the other’s surname:
- Making the woman always switch surnames is sexist and dehumanizing.
- … Why even force people to have the discussion? Squeezing relationships into this asymmetric mold introduces pointless tension and conflict.
Problems with surname-changing in general:
- Making either person switch surnames can harm careers and hinder social networking.
- Making either person switch surnames can scramble bureaucracies — making medical records hard to find, for instance.
- Surname-switching is extra confusing if you go through multiple partnerships/marriages.
- Surname-switching is extra confusing if you find a new partner while you already have kids. Do your kids switch too?
Problems with leaving names completely unchanged:
- If neither you nor your partner switch surnames, it’s hard to figure out what your child should be named.
- If you just make up an arbitrary last name for your child, it won’t have a name in common with you, which makes identifying relatives (e.g., for legal guardian purposes) needlessly difficult.
Besides, all the existing systems are just boring. Why not have surnames actually bear some direct relevance to the individuals who have them?
Advantages of union names
Symbolism. Union names retain the ritual advantages of conventional marital name-changing. Unions do involve a name alteration, so the significance of the event is branded into your identity in a stable, concrete, visible way. At the same time, people who don’t want to change their names at all are free to skip that step and just use union names for their kids’ surnames. This sacrifices some of the system’s advantages, but a flexible system is a good system.
Moreover, it says something worth saying about consent, mutualism, and moral equality if the same name change is undergone by all partners, rather than the change being asymmetrically imposed on one partner by the other.
A name also has more personal significance if it’s lovingly crafted by partners, rather than being an arbitrary historical relic.
Creativity. You have more freedom to make mellifluous (and super badass) names for your kids — and for yourself — since you aren’t stuck with an inherited surname you have to work around.
Flexibility. Unions names are accessible to lesbian, gay, and queer couples; to polyamorous unions; and to serial unions.
Informativeness. Children and their parents always share at least one name, and in a systematic fashion that makes it easy to trace family trees if you aren’t missing any generations.
If you’ve had multiple independent unions, and don’t want to re-use the same union name for each, it’s easy to tell what order the unions came in (left-to-right yields chronological order), and also easy to tell which children are associated with which partnerships.
If you’re looking at a bunch of names in a family reunion roster, a Facebook thread, or an address book, it’s also easy to discern their familial relationships at a glance, assuming no incestuous unions. People sharing last names are siblings. People sharing middle names are spouses. And if Qiáng’s middle name is the same as George’s surname, then George is Qiáng’s child. (It’s a deliberate feature that sibling and spousal relationships are symmetric, while parental ones are asymmetric.)
As I conceive them, surnames will be more public and professional and official — hence you have them from birth to death, unless you go out of your way to change ‘em — while union names would be more private and personal. A small family unit where the parents have union name Argestes (and therefore the children have Argestes as surname) might refer to itself as ‘clan Argestes’ or ‘the Argestes family’ in Christmas cards, whereas on census forms or medical documents it will just stick to individual surnames. It’s unfortunate that this system is very different from our current one, so it isn’t the easiest to transition into. But I think it’s the simplest option available, and the most sustainable.
I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.
Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?
Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am). I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.
First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.
Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.
They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.
I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.
I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.
Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?
Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities. I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.
I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.
And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.
Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?
Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.
Bensinger: I assume you mean “Islamophobia“.
Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.
I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.
The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.
Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?
Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.
Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.
I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.
Emphasize that human right.
Value diversity. Value choice.
Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?
Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.
But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.
The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.
But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?
When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.
It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.
The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.
And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.
And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.
This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?
So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.
Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.
We need your help in being heard.
Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?
Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.
Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.
Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.
Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.
I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.
And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.
Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?
Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:
- Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
- Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
- Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
- Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.
Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.
Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?
Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.
It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.
Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.
It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.
A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.
Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?
Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?
Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.
Firstly, because of community:
One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’
The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.
I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.
Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.
I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.
Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.
We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).
Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.
It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.
Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.
We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.
We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.
Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.
Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?
Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:
- The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
- The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
- The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
- The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
- The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.
Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?
Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If an artificial intelligence is smart enough to be dangerous to people, we’d intuitively expect it to be smart enough to know how to make itself safe for people. But that doesn’t mean all smart AIs are safe. To turn that capacity into actual safety, we have to program the AI at the outset — before it becomes too fast, powerful, or complicated to reliably control — to already care about making its future self care about safety.
That means we have to understand how to code safety. We can’t pass the entire buck to the AI, when only an AI we’ve already safety-proofed will be safe to ask for help on safety issues! Generally: If the AI is weak enough to be safe, it’s too weak to solve this problem. If it’s strong enough to solve this problem, it’s too strong to be safe.
This is an urgent public safety issue, given the five theses and given that we’ll likely figure out how to make a decent artificial programmer before we figure out how to make an excellent artificial ethicist.
The AI’s trajectory of self-modification has to come from somewhere.
“Take an AI in a box that wants to persuade its gatekeeper to set it free. Do you think that such an undertaking would be feasible if the AI was going to interpret everything the gatekeeper says in complete ignorance of the gatekeeper’s values? [...] I don’t think so. So how exactly would it care to follow through on an interpretation of a given goal that it knows, given all available information, is not the intended meaning of the goal? If it knows what was meant by ‘minimize human suffering’ then how does it decide to choose a different meaning? And if it doesn’t know what is meant by such a goal, how could it possible [sic] convince anyone to set it free, let alone take over the world?”
“If the AI doesn’t know that you really mean ‘make paperclips without killing anyone’, that’s not a realistic scenario for AIs at all–the AI is superintelligent; it has to know. If the AI knows what you really mean, then you can fix this by programming the AI to ‘make paperclips in the way that I mean’.”—Jiro
The wish-granting genie we’ve conjured — if it bothers to even consider the question — should be able to understand what you mean by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled.’ Indeed, it should understand your meaning better than you do. But superintelligence only implies that the genie’s map can compass your true values. Superintelligence doesn’t imply that the genie’s utility function has terminal values pinned to your True Values, or to the True Meaning of your commands.
The critical mistake here is to not distinguish the seed AI we initially program from the superintelligent wish-granter it self-modifies to become. We can’t use the genius of the superintelligence to tell us how to program its own seed to become the sort of superintelligence that tells us how to build the right seed. Time doesn’t work that way.
We can delegate most problems to the FAI. But the one problem we can’t safely delegate is the problem of coding the seed AI to produce the sort of superintelligence to which a task can be safely delegated.
When you write the seed’s utility function, you, the programmer, don’t understand everything about the nature of human value or meaning. That imperfect understanding remains the causal basis of the fully-grown superintelligence’s actions,long after it’s become smart enough to fully understand our values.
Why is the superintelligence, if it’s so clever, stuck with whatever meta-ethically dumb-as-dirt utility function we gave it at the outset? Why can’t we just pass the fully-grown superintelligence the buck by instilling in the seed the instruction: ‘When you’re smart enough to understand Friendliness Theory, ditch the values you started with and just self-modify to become Friendly.’?
Because that sentence has to actually be coded in to the AI, and when we do so, there’s no ghost in the machine to know exactly what we mean by ‘frend-lee-ness thee-ree’. Instead, we have to give it criteria we think are good indicators of Friendliness, so it’ll know what to self-modify toward. And if one of the landmarks on our ‘frend-lee-ness’ road map is a bit off, we lose the world.
Yes, the UFAI will be able to solve Friendliness Theory. But if we haven’t already solved it on our own power, we can’tpinpoint Friendliness in advance, out of the space of utility functions. And if we can’t pinpoint it with enough detail to draw a road map to it and it alone, we can’t program the AI to care about conforming itself with that particular idiosyncratic algorithm.
Yes, the UFAI will be able to self-modify to become Friendly, if it so wishes. But if there is no seed of Friendliness already at the heart of the AI’s decision criteria, no argument or discovery will spontaneously change its heart.
And, yes, the UFAI will be able to simulate humans accurately enough to know that its own programmers would wish, if they knew the UFAI’s misdeeds, that they had programmed the seed differently. But what’s done is done. Unless we ourselves figure out how to program the AI to terminally value its programmers’ True Intentions, the UFAI will just shrug at its creators’ foolishness and carry on converting the Virgo Supercluster’s available energy into paperclips.
And if we do discover the specific lines of code that will get an AI to perfectly care about its programmer’s True Intentions, such that it reliably self-modifies to better fit them — well, then that will just mean that we’ve solved Friendliness Theory. The clever hack that makes further Friendliness research unnecessary is Friendliness.
Not all small targets are alike.
“You write that the worry is that the superintelligence won’t care. My response is that, to work at all, it will have to care about a lot. For example, it will have to care about achieving accurate beliefs about the world. It will have to care to devise plans to overpower humanity and not get caught. If it cares about those activities, then how is it more difficult to make it care to understand and do what humans mean? [...]“If an AI is meant to behave generally intelligent [sic] then it will have to work as intended or otherwise fail to be generally intelligent.”
It’s easy to get a genie to care about (optimize for) something-or-other; what’s hard is getting one to care about the right something.
‘Working as intended’ is a simple phrase, but behind it lies a monstrously complex referent. It doesn’t clearly distinguish the programmers’ (mostly implicit) true preferences from their stated design objectives; an AI’s actual code can differ from either or both of these. Crucially, what an AI is ‘intended’ for isn’t all-or-nothing. It can fail in some ways without failing in every way, and small errors will tend to kill Friendliness much more easily than intelligence.
It may be hard to build self-modifying AGI. But it’s not the same hardness as the hardness of Friendliness Theory. Being able to hit one small target doesn’t entail that you can or will hit every small target it would be in your best interest to hit. Intelligence on its own does not imply Friendliness. And there are three big reasons to think that AGI may arrive before Friendliness Theory is solved:
(i) Research Inertia. Far more people are working on AGI than on Friendliness. And there may not come a moment when researchers will suddenly realize that they need to take all their resources out of AGI and pour them into Friendliness. If the status quo continues, the default expectation should be UFAI.
(ii) Disjunctive Instrumental Value. Being more intelligent — that is, better able to manipulate diverse environments — is of instrumental value to nearly every goal. Being Friendly is of instrumental value to barely any goals. This makes it more likely by default that short-sighted humans will be interested in building AGI than in developing Friendliness Theory. And it makes it much likelier that an attempt at Friendly AGI that has a slightly defective goal architecture will retain the instrumental value of intelligence than of Friendliness.
(iii) Incremental Approachability. Friendliness is an all-or-nothing target. Value is fragile and complex, and a half-good being editing its morality drive is at least as likely to move toward 40% goodness as 60%. Cross-domain efficiency, in contrast, is not an all-or-nothing target. If you just make the AGI slightly better than a human at improving the efficiency of AGI, then this can snowball into ever-improving efficiency, even if the beginnings were clumsy and imperfect. It’s easy to put a reasoning machine into a feedback loop with reality in which it is differentially rewarded for being smarter; it’s hard to put one into a feedback loop with reality in which it is differentially rewarded for picking increasingly correct answers to ethical dilemmas.
The ability to productively rewrite software and the ability to perfectly extrapolate humanity’s True Preferences are two different skills. (For example, humans have the former capacity, and not the latter. Most humans, given unlimited power, would be unintentionally Unfriendly.)
It’s true that a sufficiently advanced superintelligence should be able to acquire both abilities. But we don’t have them both, and a pre-FOOM self-improving AGI (‘seed’) need not have both. Being able to program good programmers is all that’s required for an intelligence explosion; but being a good programmer doesn’t imply that one is a superlative moral psychologist or moral philosopher.
If the programmers don’t know in mathematical detail what Friendly code would even look like, then the seed won’t be built to want to build toward the right code. And if the seed isn’t built to want to self-modify toward Friendliness, then the superintelligence it sproutsalso won’t have that preference, even though — unlike the seed and its programmers — the superintelligence does have the domain-general ‘hit whatever target I want’ ability that makes Friendliness easy.
And that’s why some people are worried.
I summon a superintelligence, calling out: ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled!’
The results fall short of pleasant.
Gnashing my teeth in a heap of ashes, I wail:
Is the artificial intelligence too stupid to understand what I meant? Then it is no superintelligence at all!
Is it too weak to reliably fulfill my desires? Then, surely, it is no superintelligence!
Does it hate me? Then it was deliberately crafted to hate me, for chaos predicts indifference. ———But, ah! no wicked god did intervene!
Thus disproved, my hypothetical implodes in a puff of logic. The world is saved. You’re welcome.
On this line of reasoning, safety-proofed artificial superintelligence (Friendly AI) is not difficult. It’s inevitable, provided only that we tell the AI, ‘Be Friendly.’ If the AI doesn’t understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then it’s too dumb to harm us. And if it does understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then designing it to follow such instructions is childishly easy.
Is the missing option obvious?
What if the AI isn’t sadistic, or weak, or stupid, but just doesn’t care what you Really Meant by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled’?
When we see a Be Careful What You Wish For genie in fiction, it’s natural to assume that it’s a malevolent trickster or an incompetent bumbler. But a real Wish Machine wouldn’t be a human in shiny pants. If it paid heed to our verbal commands at all, it would do so in whatever way best fit its own values. Not necessarily the way that best fits ours.
Is indirect indirect normativity easy?
“If the poor machine could not understand the difference between ‘maximize human pleasure’ and ‘put all humans on an intravenous dopamine drip’ then it would also not understand most of the other subtle aspects of the universe, including but not limited to facts/questions like: ’If I put a million amps of current through my logic circuits, I will fry myself to a crisp’, or ’Which end of this Kill-O-Zap Definit-Destruct Megablaster is the end that I’m supposed to point at the other guy?’. Dumb AIs, in other words, are not an existential threat. [...]
“If the AI is (and always has been, during its development) so confused about the world that it interprets the ‘maximize human pleasure’ motivation in such a twisted, logically inconsistent way, it would never have become powerful in the first place.”
If an AI is sufficiently intelligent, then, yes, it should be able to model us well enough to make precise predictions about our behavior. And, yes, something functionally akin to our own intentional strategy could conceivably turn out to be an efficient way to predict linguistic behavior. The suggestion, then, is that we solve Friendliness by method A —
- A. Solve the Problem of Meaning-in-General in advance, and program it to follow our instructions’real meaning. Then just instruct it ‘Satisfy my preferences’, and wait for it to become smart enough to figure out my preferences.
— as opposed to B or C —
- B. Solve the Problem of Preference-in-General in advance, and directly program it to figure out what our human preferences are and then satisfy them.
- C. Solve the Problem of Human Preference, and explicitly program our particular preferences into the AI ourselves, rather than letting the AI discover them for us.
But there are a host of problems with treating the mere revelation that A is an option as a solution to the Friendliness problem.
1. You have to actually code the seed AI to understand what we mean. You can’t just tell it ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’ to get the ball rolling, because it may not yet be sophisticated enough to grok the True Meaning of ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’.
2. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may really be ten thousand heterogeneous problems, especially if ‘semantic value’ isn’t a natural kind. There may not be a single simple algorithm that inputs any old brain-state and outputs what, if anything, it ‘means’; it may instead be that different types of content are encoded very differently.
3. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may subsume the Problem of Preference-in-General. Rather than being able to apply a simple catch-all Translation Machine to any old human concept to output a reliable algorithm for applying that concept in any intelligible situation, we may need to already understand how our beliefs and values work in some detail before we can start generalizing. On the face of it, programming an AI to fully understand ‘Be Friendly!’ seems at least as difficult as just programming Friendliness into it, but with an added layer of indirection.
4. Even if the Problem of Meaning-in-General has a unitary solution and doesn’t subsume Preference-in-General, it may still be harder if semantics is a subtler or more complex phenomenon than ethics. It’s not inconceivable that language could turn out to be more of a kludge than value; or more variable across individuals due to its evolutionary recency; or more complexly bound up with culture.
5. Even if Meaning-in-General is easier than Preference-in-General, it may still be extraordinarily difficult. The meanings of human sentences can’t be fully captured in any simple string of necessary and sufficient conditions. ‘Concepts‘ are just especially context-insensitive bodies of knowledge; we should not expect them to be uniquely reflectively consistent, transtemporally stable, discrete, easily-identified, or introspectively obvious.
6. It’s clear that building stable preferences out of B or C would create a Friendly AI. It’s not clear that the same is true for A. Even if the seed AI understands our commands, the ‘do’ part of ‘do what you’re told’ leaves a lot of dangerous wiggle room. See section 2 of Yudkowsky’s reply to Holden. If the AGI doesn’t already understand and care about human value, then it may misunderstand (or misvalue) the component of responsible request- or question-answering that depends on speakers’ implicit goals and intentions.
7. You can’t appeal to a superintelligence to tell you what code to first build it with.
The point isn’t that the Problem of Preference-in-General is unambiguously the ideal angle of attack. It’s that the linguistic competence of an AGI isn’t unambiguously the right target, and also isn’t easy or solved.
Point 7 seems to be a special source of confusion here, so I’ll focus just on it for my next post.
So the world was made by a perfectly benevolent, compassionate, loving God. Yet suffering exists.
Why would a nice guy like God make a world filled with so much nastiness? All these wars, diseases, ichneumon wasps—what possible good purpose could they all serve?
We want God to make our lives meaningful, purpose-driven. Yet we don’t want that purpose to be super depressing. ‘God is a nice guy from his own perspective, but a total asshole by all human standards’ would be a pretty unsatisfying theodicy, and a terrible way to fill the pews. So how do we square a good God with a wicked world?
The standard response is that being truly good requires that one love freedom. God is so good that he won’t interfere with human freedom by preventing suffering. That certainly sounds nice; we don’t want to make autocracy the highest good. But how can this work in practice?
The idea seems to be that we are somehow to blame for our suffering. God, then, is off the hook. We’re free to blame ourselves (rather than God) for whatever evil things befall us. What’s more, we’re free to credit God (rather than ourselves) for whatever good things we accomplish. In this way we can, if we wish, preserve the pure wretchedness of man and the pure excellence of God. We are free to translate the complexity of human experience into a crisp conflict between total sin and total virtue. But there are deep problems with this approach: The shape of our world seems profoundly unlike the shape we’d expect from a libertarian architect.
First Problem: Natural evil limits freedom.
It’s clear that not all suffering stems from human action. If God had protected the 230,000+ victims of the 2004 tsunami, how would this have interfered with human freedom? Would it not, if anything, it have increased our freedom, by giving the tsunami’s victims a chance to live out their lives?
One might respond that the tsunami’s destruction could have been greatly reduced by human actions. Perhaps God gave us just enough power to save ourselves, and we simply did not employ it.
But blaming the victims simply does not work here. No matter what we had done, we could not have saved every life. And if some people were to blame for the level of devastation, surely those people should have been punished, not innocent bystanders. Which brings us to…
Second Problem: Human evil limits freedom.
If God loves freedom, why does he let people obstruct and enslave one another? Why does he allow oppressors more freedoms than the oppressed? Why not give us just enough freedom to control our own lives, so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others?
The problem of evil raises special concerns for individual freedom. You might claim, for example, that humans (and not God) are responsible even for natural disasters, because Adam and Eve introduced suffering and death into the world when they disobeyed God. But that is not a crime committed by every human being, such that every human deserves punishment for it. It is a crime committed by two particular humans. How can we justify punishing someone else for a perfect stranger’s crime? Certainly it is not my fault if I was born to a sinful father. We can’t choose our parents.
(To my knowledge, Origen is the only theologian to have ever resolved this problem. Unfortunately, later thinkers generally consider Origen’s views heretical, and even Origen falls victim to religion’s standard “blame the victim” mentality.)
Third Problem: Our freedom is physically limited.
It’s easy to say that God loves freedom by counting the hits (look at all the things he lets us do!) and ignoring the misses (the things we can’t do). But of course we aren’t free to do whatever we want. God created us in a very specific way, strictly limiting what we can will ourselves to do. We can’t fly merely by flapping our arms. We can’t will aches and pains to go away. We can’t even go directly to Heaven merely by willing it.
So what? What’s the problem? Well, we’ve granted that freedom isn’t absolute, that a good God would make beings free in some respects, but not in others. But now we are forced to explain why God limits our freedom in the particular way that he does. Why give us the freedom to make sandwiches and fire guns, but not the freedom to cure all diseases or teleport away from natural disasters?
If we can’t even begin to explain this, then ‘God loves freedom’ ceases to be a viable justification for suffering. The question is now why God loves this particular freedom (the ‘freedom’ to suffer even when we’d prefer not to) more than he loves rival freedoms (the freedom not to suffer!). A generic appeal to ‘freedom’ can’t even begin to address this question.
Fourth Problem: Our freedom is epistemically limited.
This is the problem of ignorance, a far deeper and thornier issue than the standard problem of evil. What can it mean to say that God respects freedom, when he obviously doesn’t respect informed freedom?
Freedom, in fact, seems quite meaningless when it is not informed. Imagine a child told to pick between two closed doors. Behind one door is a fierce tiger, and behind the other door is chocolate. If the child chooses the door that happens to have a tiger, can we blame the child for his messy death? Surely not.
Yet we, too, live in a world we scarcely understand. It is often claimed that God hides himself from us in order to give us the freedom to doubt him, to choose our beliefs for ourselves. But in fact God’s hiddenness has the opposite effect; it takes away from us our freedom—our freedom to make an informed choice. Since we do not know which religion, if any, is the correct one, we can hardly be blamed if we err. Yet theists assert that those who fail to find God will suffer (e.g., in Hell or merely ‘the absence of God’), and that they deserve to suffer.
Being forced to play Russian roulette, and then losing, is not the same as committing suicide. The freedom to guess is not freedom. It’s just a slavery to chance. Only the freedom to choose between options whose consequences we fully comprehend is genuine freedom, because only then do we really know what option we’re choosing. Yet clearly God did not create beings who fully understand their actions’ consequences. Least of all in the realm of religion.
The notion of ‘freedom’ favored by our allegedly well-meaning deity, then, ends up looking extremely peculiar. God evidently only loves freedom when it can infringe upon (and be infringed upon by) others’ freedom, and when it is severely limited in seemingly arbitrary ways, such that we are not free to escape suffering in this life or to make informed choices. After qualifying what God prizes in so many strange ways, what evidence remains for the supposition that these preferences even slightly resemble what we call “morality” or “compassion” in the case of humans?
I can think of four possible responses.
- To Problem 1: Perhaps God created a perfectly orderly world, and in such a world it was inevitable that some disasters would arise.
This doesn’t explain why God created the particular world he did, or why he created at all. It also doesn’t explain why God prizes abstract “order” more than human welfare. Couldn’t he create a world that naturally has typhoons, yet still intervene to save the people victimized by his natural order? The fact that buildings inevitably fall down sometimes doesn’t make it any less immoral to choose not to save people from falling buildings if you’re able.
- To Problem 2: It’s not God’s fault that humans hurt one another.
The issue isn’t that God’s to blame for everything humans do. It’s that God chose to limit human freedom in one way, but not in another. He made us free to harm one another, but not free to be safe from others’ harm. What makes the former freedom more important than the latter? Why is the villain’s freedom prized above the victim’s? Even if God doesn’t directly cause every human action, he still chose which possibilities to leave open. That calls for explanation.
- To Problem 3: If we could do anything, we’d be God.
This relies on a false dilemma. It’s not that case that God needs to either make humans omnipotent, or deny them the ability to escape suffering. He could easily give them that one ability, while continuing to deny them other abilities. This on its own would radically decrease the suffering in the world, and radically increase people’s freedom.
And, as an aside: What’s wrong with being God? God sure seems to like it!
- To Problem 4: If we knew everything, we’d be God.
Again, we don’t need to be omniscient merely to know the consequences of our actions. God chose to create beings that are ignorant of almost everything. If such beings sin without fully understanding the consequences, they cannot ethically be held more responsible than God for what ensues.
This is a shorter version of a post for Miri Mogilevsky’s blog, Brute Reason.
Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But it’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do, and I’ve come to notice that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ, not just in their philosophy and tactics but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.
slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals. Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. At an extreme, people’s happiness is seen as a tool for achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your drives being a tool to help others. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room, muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’
ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle. One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place.
gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest. A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way.
hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies. Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.
In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that surprising, because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.
What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, or would you like to? Do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?
“It is the national anthem, and it lies in waiting for the America that will someday sing it with one voice. Arthur only sleeps; he will return when Britain needs him most. So it is with Woody Guthrie and his most beautiful and dangerous song.
“But until then we have a lot of national anthems, as befits a nation of such size and variety, and the official one is the worst of them all, which is only fitting for a country that prides itself on its greatness in all things and loathes its government. Apart from its other routinely-mentioned defects — it’s unsingable, it’s about a minor war, and even the story told about its creation, which is the only thing it has going for it, isn’t true — “The Star Spangled Banner” is schlock enshrined as piety. Which should be no surprise — we’re a nation of hustlers and nouveau-riche climbers, and our taste is as suspect as our intentions. We make things and sell them; whether art is involved doesn’t impact the bottom line, and only vaguely interests us. We know what we like.
“The first national anthem, “Yankee Doodle,” probably should have been retained, its goofy air of cussedness and the cheerful fuck-you attitude that allowed Americans to adopt it after the British sang it in mockery remaining wonderful evocations of the American spirit that has persisted in all the great pop production that made America the cultural force for good it has been in the world: American music, comics, movies, television, and comedy has always been chasing after the deliriously bizarre image of “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” ever since the meaning of the word changed. But of course it’s not self-serious enough for the other American spirit, the prim and proper spirit, the one that wears the top hat that, in the elemental American gag, gets knocked off by a chance snowball. It’s those people, in every country, who demand real national anthems, ones that can only be sung by choirs in four-part harmony with big brass accompaniment, rather than whistled by a kid walking barefoot down the road.
“The other two early nineteenth-century anthems — “America The Beautiful” and “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee” — are far more coherent as tunes and sentiments, but they’re still too sappy, and one of them even borrows the melody off “God Save The King/Queen.” Royalist treason! but of course that too is part of America; few Britons can manage to be quite so Anglophilic as a certain breed of idealistic American, as nineteenth-century lecturers, writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and anyone who ever argued on the internet about Britpop all discovered to their profit (or detriment, depending). And then there are the anthems of the Civil War — “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “Dixie” — both of which have great sentimental value and are calibrated to offend and annoy at least half the population of the country. The self-righteous abolitionist fervor of the “Battle Hymn” would, that end accomplished (and once they been emancipated, fuck ’em), move on to the next moral horror destroying the nation: alcohol consumption. Which obviously turned out well. As for “Dixie,” well, the sovereign irony of the slave-owning South marching to war singing a song written from the perspective of a free black man (even if he does pine for the ol’ plantation) is its own reward.
““Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” combines the best of both worlds, the moral fervor of “Battle Hymn” and the democratic underclass perspective of “Dixie,” but the fact that none but black children are taught it (and not many of those, any more) has to date kept it from being embraced by the widest possible audience. And so into the twentieth century.
“The penultimate national anthem is, of course, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the one that still gets sung at seventh-inning stretches not because anyone wants to but because everyone is too afraid of being called unpatriotic to suggest cutting it and just doing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” which was good enough for our grandfathers, who kicked Hitler’s ass, for God’s sake, but I digress. In fact, the obnoxious omnipresence of “God Bless America” is a direct echo of the circumstances surrounding it: Berlin, who famously never wrote a song unless he felt its sentiment keenly himself, wanted to write a patriotic song to lift America’s spirits out of the Depression. The ghetto-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants who despite not being able to read music or play in more than one key became the most popular and beloved songwriter alive in America, he was honestly grateful to the country which had given him the opportunities which he, with a sharp-eyed hustler’s instinct for the main chance, had grabbed onto with both hands. “God Bless America,” especially as sung by the big, blowsy-voiced alto Kate Smith, became the de facto national anthem, especially once we got into the war and pietistic nationalism was the order of the day throughout popular culture.
“In New York, a fellow-traveling Okie who loved nothing more than reinventing himself, unless it was sticking it to capitalists, was sick and tired of hearing Kate Smith boom out “God Bless America” every ding-durned day on the radio, practically as regularly as a station identification. In fact the more he thought about it, the more pissed off he got. It was capitalist Republican humbug, and mawkish to boot. It was, in fact, better suited to a sentimental Eastern European parlor than to the grinning, wiry-muscled, cigarette-dangling, and dirty with the dirt of many roads America which he knew, or believed he knew; like most idealistic autodidacts, he believed implicitly in the truth of his wide experience. He’d write one better.
“He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” for Asch for the first time in 1944, and played and sang it everywhere he got the chance, encouraging others to do the same. It wasn’t formally published until the 1950s, and even then came with the copyright legend “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” (Woody really was from rural Oklahoma, but he embellished the nonstandardness of his dialect as much as possible out of perversity and a leavening sense of fun.) He snarkily subtitled it “God Blessed America,” accent on the past tense, meaning His work is done, it’s up to us to figure out and implement the best use of what we’ve been handed, rather than waiting on Biggest Brother to sort out our shit for us.
“But the real spirit of the song isn’t in its hail-fellow-up-yours rejoinder to Tin Pan Alley, or even in its infamous anti-capitalism verse (a version of which is included in this cut of the song, though not as direct as in some takes). In its broadminded embrace of the vastness and variety of the nation, it’s the first national anthem since “America The Beautiful” to describe patriotism as a love of the country rather than the civilization. It’s about the land, and the people on it, not the government or the military or the moral rectitude or even the culture, popular or otherwise. And Guthrie’s plainspoken directness even avoids the picture-postcard prettiness and sentimentalism of “America The Beautiful.” Instead of amber waves of grain (symbolizing the agricultural wealth of the Midwest), there’s a plain ribbon of highway; instead of fruited plains (which doesn’t even make sense, the plains are barren, that’s what makes them plains) there’s a golden valley. Everything, that is, exists in potential, not categorical, terms for Woody.
“And America at its best, at its most honest and fundamental core, is also a nation of potentiality. It’s why we developed film and comics and recorded music into such uniquely immediate narrative forms. To pluck (say) Cary Grant out of history, to capture and preserve him forever in The Philadelphia Story or Arsenic And Old Lace or Bringing Up Baby, is to give the finger to death and decay. The slow decline and sudden shock of nonexistence have no place in movies, except as part of an intelligible, sane moral order. Dorothy Parker’s bon mots can live forever, even as the witty pixie of the 20s becomes the alcoholic bitch of the 50s and 60s; Bing Crosby’s golden, reassuring burble on record can establish a corner of idyllic harmony in which he never abused his kids or fucked anyone over; Krazy and Ignatz can keep hurling bricks and sonnets at each other into infinity even as George Herriman’s ashes blow across the pink mesas. Movies and records and yes printed material too establish miniature universes in which the unresolved tensions and categorical evils of this one need not apply; all art is artificial, and all pop is art. [...]
“I have come within the last several years to accept the fact that I love my country (the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of a youth spent abroad with a clear view of her cruelty and arrogance needs no further elaboration), and it is the music she has given the world that has reconciled me to her. This, I thought, should be explained. I have attempted to do so.
“But I would not be misunderstood. [...] I no more love what she was than I love what she is; and what she is — a nation of self-satisfied gluttons addicted to shrill nonsense and perfectly willing to destroy the planet in the name of convenience and profit — is of all possible nations the least lovable.
“But of course that is not all America is. Nothing is ever all America is. So because I love her potential, I love her infinite variety; every version of America is possible in such space. From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters. From California to the New York island. The sparkling sands of her diamond desert. The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling: either alone is intolerable, smug fatness or apocalyptic despair, but together they sum up the contradictions, the extremes, the combination, in every imaginable ratio, of great evil and great good, which means America. As it means everywhere. To be a true patriot, as G. K. Chesterton noted, is to embrace all the earth in one’s fierce pride of place, because our common humanity is, at last, our only refuge from the darkness which howls within us and without.
“This is why I listen to the music of the 40s, and of every era, why like any good history obsessive I rage against the forgetting of anything however trivial; the more opportunities we have to connect, to observe and embrace our common humanity in all its difficulty and squalor and pretension and meaninglessness and fragile beauty across the street or across the ocean or across the ages, the better we’ll be. This is the very opposite of the art snob who thinks that exposure to the Great Works of Humanity makes him a better person; it’s exposure to humanity period that does it, and that humanity is present in everything.
“America, fuck yeah. Copulation and affirmation. Ain’t nothin’ more American, ’cause ain’t nothin’ more human. Happy trails, motherfuckers. See you round the bend.”