There has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion

Friday, May 20th, 2022

The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period, Marten Scheffer et al. suggest, when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning:

To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.” Interpreting this synchronous sea change in book language remains challenging. However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction. Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed. Finally, we show that word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms, supporting the idea that changes in book language do in part reflect changes in interest. All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The authors blame the change on the failure of “neo-liberalism” which seems dubious and without plausible mechanism to Alex Tabarrok:

A more plausible explanation is more female writers and the closely related feminization of culture.

Spengler was not so humble

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history — say, Socrates or the Buddha — and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight, T. Greer suggests, but how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honor?

One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.[2]

Now Erskine’s list is not perfect; it has not perfectly weathered the centuries. The fame of William James has sunk with time; today we usually think of Joseph Conrad, not Thomas Hardy, as the supreme English novelist of that era. But the broader point holds: only a decade or two after these men’s deaths intellectuals confidently spoke of them in the same breath as Shakespeare and Plato. And not just subjectively, in the sense we might today (“I think Urusala LeGuin is as good as Shakespeare” or “I think Hayek is better than Plato”) but with full knowledge that the broader public already knew that these people and their works belonged on the list. It was obvious to even those who disliked Nietzche that he was a seminal figure in Western thought; it was obvious even to those who disagreed with Ibsen that he claimed a similar place in Western literature, and so forth. Their ideas might be argued against, but their genius and their influence was undeniable.

Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?

How about for the last two decades?

The last three?

Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

In the realm of science, perhaps. But in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind. Most “great books” curricula stop right around World War II and its immediate aftermath. St. John’s recently added Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir to their curricula, but their works are almost 70 years old. Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.

These ideas depend on unusual people

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

The biggest problem for governments with new technologies is that the limiting factor on applying new technologies is not the technology but management and operational ideas which are extremely hard to change fast, Dominic Cummings says:

Project Maven shows recurring lessons from history. Speed and adaptability are crucial to success in conflict and can be helped by new technologies. So is the capacity for new operational ideas about using new technologies. These ideas depend on unusual people. Bureaucracies naturally slow things down (for some good but mostly bad reasons), crush new ideas, and exclude unusual people in order to defend established interests. The limiting factor for the Pentagon in deploying advanced technology to conflict in a useful time period was not new technical ideas — overcoming its own bureaucracy was harder than overcoming enemy action. This is absolutely normal in conflict (e.g it was true of the 2016 referendum where dealing with internal problems was at least an order of magnitude harder and more costly than dealing with Cameron).

As Colonel Boyd used to shout to military audiences, ‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’

The Project Maven experience is similar to the famous example of the tank. Everybody could see tanks were possible from the end of World War I but over 20 years Britain and France were hampered by their own bureaucracies in thinking about the operational implications and how to use them most effectively. Some in Britain and France did point out the possibilities but the possibilities were not absorbed into official planning. Powerful bureaucratic interests reinforced the normal sort of blindness to new possibilities. Innovative thinking flourished, relatively, in Germany where people like Guderian and von Manstein could see the possibilities for a very big increase in speed turning into a huge nonlinear advantage — possibilities applied to the ‘von Manstein plan’ that shocked the world in 1940. This was partly because the destruction of German forces after 1918 meant everything had to be built from scratch and this connects to another lesson about successful innovation: in the military, as in business, it is more likely if a new entity is given the job, as with the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons. The consequences were devastating for the world in 1940 but, lucky for us, the nature of the Nazi regime meant that it made very similar errors itself, e.g regarding the importance of air power in general and long range bombers in particular. (This history is obviously very complex but this crude summary is roughly right about the main point)

There was a similar story with the technological developments mainly sparked by DARPA in the 1970s including stealth (developed in a classified program by the legendary ‘Skunk Works’, tested at ‘Area 51’), global positioning system (GPS), ‘precision strike’ long-range conventional weapons, drones, advanced wide-area sensors, computerised command and control (C2), and new intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities (ISR). The hope was that together these capabilities could automate the location and destruction of long-range targets and greatly improve simultaneously the precision, destructiveness, and speed of operations.

The approach became known in America as ‘deep-strike architectures’ (DSA) and in the Soviet Union as ‘reconnaissance-strike complexes’ (RUK). The Soviet Marshal Ogarkov realised that these developments, based on America’s superior ability to develop micro-electronics and computers, constituted what he called a ‘Military-Technical Revolution’ (MTR) and was an existential threat to the Soviet Union. He wrote about them from the late 1970s. (The KGB successfully stole much of the technology but the Soviet system still could not compete.) His writings were analysed in America particularly by Andy Marshall at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) and others. ONA’s analyses of what they started calling the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in turn affected Pentagon decisions. In 1991 the Gulf War demonstrated some of these technologies just as the Soviet Union was imploding. In 1992 the ONA wrote a very influential report (The Military-Technical Revolution) which, unusually, they made public (almost all ONA documents remain classified).

In many ways Marshal Ogarkov thought more deeply about how to develop the Pentagon’s own technologies than the Pentagon did, hampered by the normal problems that the operationalising of new ideas threatened established bureaucratic interests, including the Pentagon’s procurement system. These problems have continued. It is hard to overstate the scale of waste and corruption in the Pentagon’s horrific procurement system (see below).

China has studied this episode intensely. It has integrated lessons into their ‘anti-access / area denial’ (A2/AD) efforts to limit American power projection in East Asia. America’s response to A2/AD is the ‘Air-Sea Battle’ concept. As Marshal Ogarkov predicted in the 1970s the ‘revolution’ has evolved into opposing ‘reconnaissance-strike complexes’ facing each other with each side striving to deploy near-nuclear force using extremely precise conventional weapons from far away, all increasingly complicated by possibilities for cyberwar to destroy the infrastructure on which all this depends and information operations to alter the enemy population’s perception (very Sun Tzu!).

Indonesia could end up with a semi-stealthy aircraft

Friday, May 13th, 2022

The U.S. State Department has approved an Indonesian request to buy F-15EX Fighters:

Critics claim the F-15EX is based on an old design and can’t survive against advanced defenses. Yet with a large bombload that could include hypersonic missiles, conformal fuel tanks to smooth out its shape and confer some degree of stealth against radar, as well as 21st Century avionics and radar, the F-15EX appears to be a formidable platform. Indonesia could end up with a semi-stealthy aircraft based on a proven design that may avoid the cost and reliability problems that have plagued the F-35 and F-22.

One does not simply walk away from religious beliefs

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

No, the Revolution isn’t over, N.S. Lyons warns:

One does not simply walk away from religious beliefs. What is called “Wokeness” — or the “Successor Ideology,” or the “New Faith,” or what have you (note the foe hasn’t even been successfully named yet, let alone routed) — rests on a series of what are ultimately metaphysical beliefs. The fact that their holders would laugh at the suggestion they have anything called metaphysical beliefs is irrelevant — they hold them nonetheless. Such as:

The world is divided into a dualistic struggle between oppressed and oppressors (good and evil); language fundamentally defines reality; therefore language (and more broadly “the word” — thought, logic, logos) is raw power, and is used by oppressors to control the oppressed; this has created power hierarchies enforced by the creation of false boundaries and authorities; no oppression existed in the mythic past, the utopian pre-hierarchical State of Nature, in which all were free and equal; the stain of injustice only entered the world through the original sin of (Western) civilizational hierarchy; all disparities visible today are de facto proof of the influence of hierarchical oppression (discrimination); to redeem the world from sin, i.e. to end oppression and achieve Social Justice (to return to the kingdom of heaven on earth), all false authorities and boundaries must be torn down (deconstructed), and power redistributed from the oppressors to the oppressed; all injustice anywhere is interlinked (intersectional), so the battle against injustice is necessarily total; ultimate victory is cosmically ordained by history, though the arc of progress may be long; moral virtue and true right to rule is determined by collective status within the oppression-oppressed dialectic; morally neutral political liberalism is a lie constructed by the powerful to maintain status quo structures of oppression; the first step to liberation can be achieved through acquisition of the hidden knowledge of the truth of this dialectic; a select awoken vanguard must therefore guide a revolution in popular consciousness; all imposed limits on the individual can ultimately be transcended by virtue of a will to power…

The mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility

Sunday, May 8th, 2022

Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers includes an attack on Momism:

During World War II, Wylie went to work for the Office of Facts and Figures (later known as The Office of War Information) in Washington, DC, but resigned when his superiors rejected his plan to tell Americans about the Bataan Death March and other atrocities committed by the Japanese, in an effort to stir their patriotic commitment to the war effort. Dispirited by this experience, Wylie returned home to Miami Beach, where, from May 12 to July 4, 1942, he hammered out a series of splenetic essays that comprised “a catalogue of what I felt to be wrong morally, spiritually and intellectually with my fellow citizens.” These essays would eventually be gathered into Generation of Vipers, whose 18 chapters skewered a range of supposedly sacrosanct American beliefs, groups, and institutions, such as organized religion, business, Congress, doctors, and the supposed goodness of the common man. But the chapter that ignited a firestorm of controversy and rocketed the book to bestsellerdom was “Common Women,” Wylie’s caustic attack on Americans’ sanctification of motherhood, a cultural syndrome Wylie dubbed “Momism.” This was tantamount to spitting on the flag.

Generation of Vipers (whose full title is Generation of Vipers: A Survey of Moral Want • A Philosophical Discourse suitable only for the Strong • A Study of American Types and Archetypes • And A Signpost on the two Thoroughfares of Man: the Dolorosa and the Descensus Averno • Together with sundry Preachments, Epithets, Modal Adventures, Political Impertinences, Allegories, Aspirations, Visions and Jokes as well as certain Homely Hints for the care of the Human Soul) sold terrifically when it hit bookstores in January 1943, thanks to the endorsement given it the week before publication by popular columnist Walter Winchell. The first printing of 4,000 copies sold out in a week, and the book just kept selling. Vipers went through 11 printings in 1943 alone and went on to sell 180,000 copies in hardcover by 1954. In 1950, the American Library Association named Generation of Vipers one of the 50 most influential and important books of the last 50 years.

“Mom,” Wylie begins the chapter “Common Women,” “is an American creation. Her elaboration was necessary because she was launched as Cinderella.” Here Wylie refers to an earlier chapter in which he explained how American women were inculcated in a distorted version of the fairy tale that conditioned them to expect material wealth, not because of virtuous activities but merely because they were female. “The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift — an idea promulgated by every medium and many an advertisement — has defeated half the husbands in America,” Wylie wrote. “It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. […] It long ago became associated with the notion that the bearing of children was such an unnatural and hideous ordeal that the mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility.”

I haven’t read Generation of Vipers, but I have read Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, which many argue is the original inspiration for Superman, The Savage Gentleman, which likely inspired Doc Savage, and When Worlds Collide, which he co-wrote with Edwin Balmer, which (along with Armageddon 2419 AD) inspired Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon.

The Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well,” T. Greer explains, but outside of its own borders, post-Deng China has a poor record selling the intangible:

Most observers place fault exactly where Dan does: the claustrophobic cultural environment of enforced political orthodoxy. A common ancillary argument is that party-state calls for innovative cultural production are themselves the problem. Cultural innovation happens at the level of the individual artist, this argument goes. Steven Speilbergs cannot be produced on demand.

I do not find this logic totally convincing. After all, China’s neighbors have done the exact thing Western critics and artists claim cannot be done.

Consider the “Korean wave.” What Ford was to the automobile, the Korean companies SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment are to pop. The stars and starlets of Korean popdom are selected, trained, choreographed, and publicized with a Tayloresque efficiency that would make the manager of any Amazon warehouse proud. The founder of the first of these companies famously declared that “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology.” In the ‘90s he reversed engineered this technology with methods that mirror Korea’s famous chaebol: he began by consciously breaking down the constituent parts of successful American and Japanese pop hits, simplified these parts into scripts that could be easily replicated, hired foreign expertise to shepherd the design process, and then secured government funding to jump start his new export industry. From the beginning, South Korea’s pop record labels positioned themselves as “national champions” of the same mold and make as Samsung and Hyundai.

The success of K-pop hinged on two connecting tissues that bound together the South Korean music industry with Japan and the West.

[…]

To replicate the success of Michael Jackson, SM Entertainment hired a producer of a Michael Jackson’s albums to work with their stars! This was standard during the genre’s rise: throughout the aughts and early 2010s, the most famous K-pop performances were arranged, composed, choreographed, and produced by Western composers, mixers, choreographers, producers, and videographers.

K-pop was not entirely the work of foreigners: after delivering a new composition or developing a new choreographic routine, the Western expert would retreat to the background. Record executives would then review songs beat by beat, dance move by dance moves, making adjustments and reworking material until they were satisfied they had created something the masses would clamor for. K-pop was thus not just a self conscious appropriation of foreign music styles, but an attempt to create the next iteration of those very styles. If art can be thought of as a conversation, K-pop succeeded in part because its creators presented their music as the next turn in an existing dialogue.

[…]

My two younger sisters became K-pop fanatics in their middle school years. Day after day I would walk in the front door and see the two of them flopping about in front a computer screen, mimicking the choreography of their favorite bands. As with “Gagnam Style’s” viral rise, YouTube was the main mechanism of transmission.

These are not anomalous anecdotes. K-pop was the first musical genre to intentionally embrace streaming. From the beginning, K-pop labels sought to save on costs and circle around foreign gate keepers by bringing their product straight to Youtube. The website was popular in Korea early; as users of Youtube themselves, the executives at the big three record labels quickly realized that it was the shortest route to the foreign mass consumer. The Korean Wave would not have been possible without American social media. Silicon Valley built the highway that connects Korean producers and fans with audiences abroad.

This gets to heart of China’s problems—and these are not problems of cultural sterility. In my experience, Chinese intellectual life is often more vital and vibrant than what I see in the West.

[…]

My sisters became K-pop fanatics under the swayof Youtube channels and Facebook groups. Where are the center points of Chinese fandoms? Websites like Bilibili, Tieba, and WeChat. There are few bridges to link these Chinese sites with their counterparts in the West.

To the natural obstacle facing any logographic language in a latinate world, the Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind. The seal is permeable. In fact, it is breached every day — but these breaches are not free. The transaction costs of jumping the firewall and moving between platforms put Chinese producers at a disadvantage. The cyber infrastructure of the global commons is simply not as intuitive to Chinese executives and artists as it was to the Koreans who engineered the Korean Wave. Even most of the Chinese who live abroad interact with it surprisingly little; they bring the homegrown ecosystem with them in their pockets, and have no reason to leave it.

This is the first, and probably most important, challenge to building sustainable cultural hegemony. The Party-state’s decision to strengthen its hold on the discourse inside China came at the direct expense of its own discourse power abroad.

Elections are to a large extent bad showbiz

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

America, like the rest of the West, is mostly run by permanent bureaucracies, Dominic Cummings reminds us:

Elections are to a large extent bad showbiz. The noise is high but the stakes often amazingly low. The parties scream about each other but generally whether X or Y wins changes an amazingly small fraction of policy, money, or real power — and has little effect on the permanent bureaucracies. (One of the reasons the Brexit referendum was different is it led to much actual weeping across Whitehall on 24/6/16 as the permanent bureaucracies faced something new — real change for them. Trump’s victory was sold as the same but clearly was not.)

The governments don’t control the governments. Conservative parties don’t want to control the governments and don’t know how to even if/when they do want to. Anti-conservative parties largely support the permanent bureaucracies and want more of them more than they want to escape the effects of being bogged down by them. The permanent bureaucracies certainly don’t want anybody elected controlling the governments, and they don’t even run themselves themselves! — nobody ‘runs’ them, everybody can veto everything but nobody has the authority to run them in the way effective organisations are run. The media portrays a ‘conservative’ government actually controlling the government as proto-fascist. And in the US/UK the courts increasingly use administrative law and judicial review to make it impossible for the government to control the government (‘the rule of law’ is now often used as a slogan to justify judges deciding political issues, which is a novel idea and an excellent device for Harvard/Oxbridge/media/officials to control/slow any executive acting outside their Overton Window of acceptable behaviour).

When nobody is in charge, you have chaos. Nobody is in charge of western governments. We see chaos everywhere. We see a chronic inability to think about hard problems under extreme uncertainty, decide and act at speed and scale. We see governments unable to escape the delusion that government largely involves chasing the media all day then cocktails with them by night. The political media is dominated by a subset of graduates who, like Oblonsky in Anna Karenina, largely cannot think for themselves and simply absorb and emit leftist political ‘views’ like clothes fashions.

He has some showman skills, a good nickname game, and a sporadically good Twitter game

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

Trump made a lot of noise, Dominic Cummings notes, but got very little done:

And Trump showed:

1. He does not understand power in Washington.

2. He doesn’t have a CEO mindset or skillset in the Bezos/Gates/Jobs/Musk sense of being able to execute at scale and speed.

3. Like Boris Johnson, his insecurities mean he can’t face his lack of skills and trust/empower anyone to build the team to run the administration for him.

4. He has some showman skills, a good nickname game and a sporadically good twitter game. But like Johnson, he prefers to spend his time babbling about and at the media rather than the (often mind-numbing) problems of institutions and incentives you need to focus on to change big things.

This combination meant Trump made a lot of noise but got very little done.

He could not control the government. He was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes idiotic, often right in his complaints that the media were lying, but very little he said mattered because his words did not connect to power. He annoyed the swamp but he couldn’t drain the swamp — not the tiniest corner. From the intelligence services to the public health bureaucracy, he ranted and threatened but he could not persuade them to change, he could not appoint people to make them change, he couldn’t close them, he couldn’t replace them. He could not even force the deep state to vet his appointments some of whom were given the run around for over 18 months by the FBI before giving up in despair. If you can’t force the FBI to vet your appointments, you can’t do much of anything. And though he hated the media, was seriously weakened by them, and wanted to weaken them he actually flooded his enemies with a wave of energy and money! As the boss of CBS said, Trump ‘may not be good for America but he’s damn good for CBS’.

It inevitably ends with subversion

Monday, May 2nd, 2022

The rule-abiding nature of genre means that there is an internal logic to its artistic progression:

It inevitably ends with subversion. When a genre’s possibilities have been depleted, the last trick left is to invert the tropes. This is a sign that the genre is out of new things to say. Since the professional class is rewarded for telling genre fiction, those who rise to the political class can only communicate in tropes. Increasingly, all political stories are told as inverted genre.

Author one tells a story about a good knight who slays an evil dragon. A trope is born. Author two is influenced by this story, but can’t write the same one, so writes about a knight struggling to be good who slays a sympathetic dragon. The genre is made complex, and the trope is expanded. Author three has to contend with both of his antecedents, and so he has less space to write a dragon story. The obvious remaining choice is to write about an evil knight who slays a good dragon. Perhaps this is done with a wink that pokes fun at the fantasy genre as a whole. Inverting a trope may seem like “subver­sion,” yet this process strengthens the genre and allows it to continue after it has exhausted itself. Author three’s story only works if the audience is familiar with stories one and two.

This process explains many of the popular political narratives of our time. “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” Political stories have to change with changing circumstances, but our leaders only know how to tell genre. In order to tell a new story, they would have to abandon false certainty and set off into the unknown. Instead, old genre stories get inverted, and forms of authority which no longer hold value are kept alive through faux subversion.

The entire phenomenon of the nonconformist bureaucrat can be seen as genre inversion. Everyone today grew up with pop culture stories about evil corporations and corporate America’s soul-sucking culture, and so the “creatives” have fashioned a self-image defined against this genre. These stories have been internalized and inverted by corporate America itself, so now corporate America has mandatory fun events and mandatory displays of creativity.

In other words, past countercultures have been absorbed into corporate America’s conception of itself. David Solomon isn’t your father’s stuffy investment banker. He’s a DJ! And Goldman Sachs isn’t like the stuffy corporations you heard about growing up. They fly a transgender flag outside their headquarters, list sex-change tran­sitions as a benefit on their career site, and refuse to underwrite an IPO if the company is run by white men. This isn’t just posturing. Wokeness is a cult of power that maintains its authority by pretending it’s perpetually marching against authority. As long it does so, its sectaries can avoid acknowledging how they strengthen managerial America’s stranglehold on life by empowering administrators to en­force ever-expanding bureaucratic technicalities.

Inverted tropes also define the relationship between the Left and the Right. Rather than tell a new story, the Left and Right tell genre fiction that depends upon their mutual opposition for meaning. Pope Benedict XVI once argued that modernity brought the believer and the atheist closer together because the believer is tempted by doubt while the nonbeliever is tempted by “perhaps it’s true,” and both stories are linked by fundamental uncertainty. A similar dynamic ex­plains why our politics is simultaneously divisive and homogeneous. The Bass Pro shopper tells a story in which patriotism is expressed through the consumer choice to wear an American flag T-shirt. The Bushwick woman tells a story in which getting an ugly haircut makes her “nonbinary.” These stories don’t make sense unless they are told in opposition to the story of the libtard, or the patriarchy, respectively. Polarization makes political actors dependent on their political opponents, which increases divisions because any area of agreement threatens to erode entire political identities. These lazy stories find their apotheosis in our politicians.

Our politicians, their staff, and their political consultant remoras are the worst storytellers in society. Mass democracy has become a selection process that rewards politicians for being as shameless as possible. Indeed there is nothing more embarrassing and pathetic than the way politicians try to be cool or relatable. From wearing flannel to the Iowa State Fair to live streams in which they make a big deal out of drinking beer, politicians are constantly relying on the dumbest tropes.

The professional class tells a variety of genre stories about their jobs

Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Genre fiction is any story created to explicitly appeal to fans of existing stories, John McElroy notes, and it often refers to sci-fi, fantasy, noir, and westerns, but also includes novels about novelists struggling to write novels:

Genre is the storytelling technique of the managerial class because its rule-abiding nature resembles a bureaucracy, and part of the reason members of this professional class seem increasingly out of touch is because they tell genre stories which expect the audience to accept recycled tropes.

The professional class tells a variety of genre stories about their jobs: TED Talker, “entrepreneur,” “innovator,” “doing well by doing good.” One of the most popular today is corporate feminism. This familiar story is about a young woman who lands a prestigious job in Manhattan, where she guns for the corner office while also fulfilling her trendy Sex and the City dreams. Her day-in, day-out life is blessed by the mothers and grandmothers who fought for equality — with the ghost of Susan B. Anthony lingering Mufasa-like over America’s cubicles. Yet, like other corporate genre stories, girl-boss feminism is a celebration of bureaucratic life, including its hierarchy. Isn’t that weird?

[...]

Forty years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that “modern industry condemns people to jobs that insult their intelligence,” and today employers rub this insult in workers’ faces with a hideously infantilizing work culture that turns the office into a permanent kindergarten classroom. Blue-chip companies reward their employees with balloons, stuffed animals, and gold stars, and an exposé detailing the stringent communication rules of the luxury brand Away Luggage revealed how many start-ups are just “live, laugh, love” sweatshops. This humiliating culture dominates America’s companies because few engage in truly productive or necessary work. Professional genre fiction, such as corporate feminism, is thus often told as a way to cope with the underwhelming reality of working a job that doesn’t con­tribute anything to the world.

[...]

This is, of course, a little dramatic, yet it’s interesting to note how genre is constructed primarily from prior stories, and so is always plodding away from realism. In entertainment, this creates clichés. But in the bureaucratic world, this creates stories that everyone repeats, yet no one truly believes. The stories serve a purpose, and so to criticize them as being phony, or not accurate, is always to miss why they are told. The professional class is susceptible to these stories because this is how communication functions within a bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies have established paths to power, and genre fiction is used to signal status along those routes. The key format is the résumé: a document designed to get as close to a lie as possible, while main­taining enough plausibility for the applicant to avoid laughing during job interviews.

Bureaucrats always feel that they are “in on the game,” and so develop a false sense of certainty about the world, which sorts them into two groups: the cynics and the neurotics. Cynics recognize the nonsense, but think it’s necessary for power. The neurotics, by con­trast, are earnest go-getters who confuse the nonsense with actual work. They begin to feel like they’re the only ones faking it and become so insecure they have to binge-watch TED Talks on “im­poster syndrome.”

These two dispositions help explain why journalists focus on things like impeachment rather than medical supply chains. One group cynically condescends to American intelligence, while neurotics shriek about the “norms of our democracy.” Both are undergirded by a false certainty about what’s possible. Professional elites vastly overestimate their own intelligence in comparison with the average American, and today there is nothing so common as being an elitist. Meanwhile, public discourse gets dumber and dumber as elitists spend all their time explaining hastily memorized Wikipedia entries to those they deem rubes.

The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

As I recently mentioned, Marc Andreessen shared a “very interesting piece on the current thing” by James McElroy, and I found it had too many interesting bits for one post:

In an influential essay on how traditions solve questions of truth, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that instrumentalism appears when a tradition can no longer explain its older practices. The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education. Everyone agrees with practical concerns about reading, writing, and the need for future doctors, but there is no justification for the vestiges of our older tradition. Why teach Shakespeare instead of compilations of top-notch corporate memos? At the high school level there is no answer, and so the way English is taught circumscribes how society views storytelling.

When high school students read novels, they are asked to identify the theme, or moral, of a story. This teaches them to view texts through an instrumental lens. Novelist Robert Olen Butler wrote that we treat artists like idiot savants who “really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it.” The purpose of a story becomes the process of translating it into ideas or analysis. This is instrumental reading. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent years meticulously outlining and structuring numerous rewrites of The Great Gatsby, but every year high school students reduce the book to a bumper sticker on the American dream. A story is an experience in and of itself. When you abstract a message, you lose part of that experience. Analysis is not inherently bad; it’s just an ancillary mode that should not define the reader’s disposition.

Propaganda is ubiquitous because we’ve been taught to view it as the final purpose of art. Instrumental reading also causes people to assume overly abstract or obscure works are inherently profound. When the reader’s job is to decode meaning, then the storyteller is judged by the difficulty of that process.

[...]

College is characterized in two contradictory ways: it is the only firm path to the upper-middle class, and it is a time of Animal House antics. This is so familiar that we often forget it doesn’t make sense. Want to be a respectable member of the upper class? Quick, bong this beer. Campus decadence is a sorting mechanism that elevates people who pay lip service to permissiveness, but don’t fully participate — a preparatory performance of the fake counterculture.

[...]

College has become a reputational Ponzi scheme, and the effects of this can be seen across culture. Upper-class fashion once tied back to luxury activities: sailing, tennis, polo. Now, it’s $300 cotton T-shirts and $400 sweatpants. Status is being a willing patsy.

Conformity is draped in the dead symbols of a prior generation’s counterculture

Friday, April 29th, 2022

Marc Andreessen recently shared a “very interesting piece on the current thing” by James McElroy, and I found it chock-full of interesting bits:

“Any educational system aiming at a complete adjustment between education and society will tend to restrict education to what will lead to success in the world, and to restrict success in the world to those persons who have been good pupils of the system.”

This professional managerial class has a distinct culture that often sets the tone for all of American culture. It may be possible to separate the professional managerial class from the ruling elite, or plutocracy, but there is no cultural distinction. Any commentary on an entire class will stumble in the way all generalizations stumble, yet this culture is most distinct at the highest tiers, and the fuzzy edges often emulate those on the top. At its broadest, these are college-educated, white-collar workers whose income comes from labor, who are huddled in America’s cities, and who rise to power through existing bureaucracies. Bureaucracies, whether corporate or government, are systems that reward specific traits, and so the culture of this class coalesces towards an archetype: the striving bureaucrat, whose values are defined by the skills needed to maneuver through a bureau­cracy. And from the very beginning, the striving bureaucrat succeeds precisely by disregarding good storytelling.

In America, the first cultural product of modern bureaucratic (and specifically “meritocratic”) sorting mechanisms was the managerial class of the postwar period. Although a subject of derision now, the rise of the “organization man” in the 1950s was accompanied by a huge demand for high culture. In 1955, more Americans paid to attend classical music concerts than baseball games. In 1956, fifty million tuned in to Richard III on NBC. And at the height of the ’50s great books boom, fifty thousand Americans a year bought collections that included Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel. High culture was always the domain of the upper class, but suddenly the GI Bill and mass media opened it to large swaths of the population.

Not coincidentally, high culture lost value as a signifier of status, and the upper class began to complain about the stifling conformity of the organization man. This was a form of status anxiety; someone ridiculed as a soulless cog is not a status competitor. Not too long after, Susan Sontag helped create a new cultural status hierarchy. The new “aristocrats of taste” were those who embraced camp, the love of artifice, in order to dethrone the serious. The upper class no longer had to try to elevate their taste. They simply had to have the right attitude. These trends have been institutionalized. Today’s upper class is raised on a steady diet of pop culture that valorizes nonconformism; elites learn to signal their status through attitude.

Professionals today would never self-identify as bureaucrats. Product managers at Google might have sleeve tattoos or purple hair. They might describe themselves as “creators” or “creatives.” They might characterize their hobbies as entrepreneurial “side hustles.” But their actual day-in, day-out work involves the coordination of various teams and resources across a large organization based on established administrative procedures. That’s a bureaucrat. The entire professional culture is almost an attempt to invert the connotations and expecta­tions of the word—which is what underlies this class’s tension with storytelling. Conformity is draped in the dead symbols of a prior generation’s counterculture.

You can believe all of those things and still find the current state of the discourse to be disordered and unhealthy

Wednesday, April 27th, 2022

People just want to feel good about war again, Freddie deBoer notes:

I want to suggest that you can think that Russia is clearly acting in an unjustifiably aggressive manner and that Ukraine has a right to defend itself, as I do; you can support sending further American arms and money to the Ukrainian government; you can think that NATO and EU behavior have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia’s actions; you can think that Russia’s motivations are pure mustache-twirling evil with no justifications in national security or realpolitik; you can pray for a swift and decisive Ukrainian victory; you can even argue that the United States should send troops and get into a hot war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf — you can believe all of those things and still find the current state of the discourse to be disordered and unhealthy. You can believe all of that stuff and still argue that the intense social mandate against dissent and hard questions is ugly and unhelpful.

[...]

So, to follow along, Americans focusing on America’s role in the world are guilty of insularity and self-obsession, but also only America stands in the way of victory for Putin. Does this make a lick of sense to you? You can’t simultaneously say that Americans are being self-obsessive when they discuss Ukraine while you demand that America do more and more for Ukraine. Calls for the United States to deepen its involvement in this conflict are definitionally the business of each and every American, including Chomsky, other left critics of prolonging the war, and me. It is nonsensical to claim that an American has no right to an opinion on conduct by America’s government.

[...]

It’s also worth saying that it is of course not 100% Ukraine’s decision how much of their territory and their people to surrender to Russia because that’s not how the world works. Russia has had and will continue to have something to say about how much territory Ukraine keeps and how many people it loses. Is that fair? No. But that’s life. Russia possesses a large and advanced military, as well as the world’s largest nuclear armament. Those facts have consequences, no matter what American pundits think is fair. Sometimes the world is like that. I thought the fact that bad actors sometimes do bad things, and that our efforts to change this will often simply make things worse, was a shared lesson of recent history. I think that living as part of the hegemon has led many Americans to chafe at the idea that there are any obstacles to implementing their will at all, that the world is an entirely pliable entity that will bend to our preferences if we just want it enough. But there has never been a time in post-agrarian history when there was not some sort of conflict between peoples or powers, and the ongoing devastation in Yemen demonstrates that bad things are happening in the world all the time. Whether they’re seen as major challenges to international norms is a matter of publicity.

I suspect that Chomsky’s deeper sin, in that interview, was to make the sensible observation that you shouldn’t think of foreign policy in the exact same moral terms that you think of the behavior of individuals. Foreign policy and warmaking are not easily mappable onto the ordinary moral intuitions that we apply to day-to-day life and the people around us. Chomsky is asking us to think less about simplistic considerations of good and bad and to instead practice some hardheaded cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, he’s suggesting that perpetuating the conflict by enabling short-term Ukrainian victories will ultimately only increase the risk of a truly ruinous war between NATO and Russia and result in greater destruction to Ukraine, without much changing the eventual outcome. Could he be wrong? Absolutely. Is he so wrong that he deserves days of bipartisan rage? I don’t think so. And I also don’t think that rage can be explained in rational terms. I think it speaks to the emotional miasma that has developed regarding this issue.

I think supporting Ukraine in 2022 has become like supporting the troops in 2002 because people are desperate for a morally simplistic contest in which the Goodies will nobly defeat the dastardly Baddies. Americans grow up surrounded by World War II nostalgia and feel denied their birthright of ethically uncomplicated and heroic wars. There’s also a deeper desperation to be positively inspired. I think most people in 2022 are profoundly disillusioned, in politics yes but also in a broader overriding sense, and feel beset by convincing critiques of every idea, party, movement, and institution in American life. In recent decades it’s felt like everything has been undermined and nothing has been built. We churn out college graduates who can critique everything yet create nothing. Even the most dedicated partisans seem to have a jaundiced view of their own side, saving all of their passion and energy for excoriating the other. You look at the discursive inroads the socialist left has made in the last decade in this country, and it’s the perfect example: we’ve achieved no power and little representation, but the leftist critique of conventional liberalism has infected liberals, they’re stung by it, they preemptively work to address it, they feel exhausted by it. I find it very difficult to locate genuine, uncomplicated, positive feelings about the broad left-of-center project anywhere. The migration of political discussion to social media has helped extinguish optimism as a factor in political life. Briefly with Ukraine it seemed that there was finally consensus on a major political issue, and broad American ignorance about foreign policy facilitates superficial unanimity. But the cost of enforced consensus is too high; the stakes here are life and death, and in such a context the need for robust and unrestrained argument is greater than ever.

Geopolitics is the struggle not to control territory but to create the territory

Monday, April 25th, 2022

As J.R.R. Tolkien would put it, the superpowers are trying to build a secondary world that everyone else can inhabit:

Inside it, what the world contains is true: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The great game is indeed a game, but a game with a purpose of creating the rules of the game.

Think about it as a clash between two versions of the world. Or, more graphically, imagine a simulated landscape in which two or more computer programmers are fighting to redesign what appears on the monitor. The pixels keep changing from moment to moment. One second, the landscape looks like a mountain scene; then the mountains grow smaller and smaller until the landscape becomes a grassy plain. Some back and forth ensues until one of the programmers gives up and the other vision wins. Geopolitics is the struggle not to control territory but to create the territory.

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In his recent book, Jacob Helberg writes that the new wars are now less about who controls some piece of territory in Europe or East Asia than about who “controls the information networks and communications technologies that shape the distribution of world power by shaping the daily lives of billions of people.” He fails to draw an obvious but fascinating conclusion: what changed was that technology has rebuilt the world to such an extent that these networks are now the territory.

[...]

Just as new technologies slowly raised the destructive potential of direct conflict, a new avenue was opened: states can now fight one another not by winning in a direct battle but by setting the rules under which other states must operate. Call it a form of indirect government: perhaps your opponent will even assume the rules are natural or given—but in reality, you have moved one level up in the great game. Your opponent is playing a video game. You are coding it. I would reserve the term superpower for those states engaged in a battle to shape the rules. Everyone else is competing under the rules.

Listen to Russian president Vladimir Putin or any of the thinkers orbiting the Kremlin and all you hear is the same geopolitical dread: will Russia be forced to play by Western rules, or can it rise to the role of world-builder? Putin seems to believe that an independent and Westernized Ukraine would reduce Russia to a subordinate status. His is the classical gamble of someone who attempts to change the rules of the game but risks achieving no more than being punished under the existing order. The danger for the Western order is that the tools used to punish and constrain Russian power will erode the legitimacy of that order.

The Ukraine war is a revealing moment in the history of world-building. The global system suddenly appeared as a tool of power rather than a neutral framework of rules. There is some danger in this moment of revelation because a number of state actors in the developing world may themselves stop playing by the existing rules or even start looking for alternative systems of play.