Scott Alexander, the disappointed lover
"But the devil knows what they think, and is satisfied."
I usually don’t link to LibGen—I may be a grifter, but I still believe in karma—but Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind is one of the great books of the century, it’s 65 years old, and the rights must belong to some worthless, pink-haired granddaughter. But if you think it’s as good as I do, buy a copy anyway.
I am sure a lot of Gray Mirror readers feel, in some sense—alone. Maybe even like this guy. (Will there ever be a commission, one wonders—to which his widow can apply?) Well—not only are you not alone—at least not in this stupid world of fake we call the Internet—we are not even alone in time.
Here are the opening paragraphs of Milosz’s chapter 3, Ketman, lightly edited. 1955:
Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people's democracies. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors.
It is hard to define the type of relationship that prevails between people in the East otherwise than as acting, with the exception that one does not perform on a theater stage but in the street, office, factory, meeting hall, or even the room one lives in.
Such acting is a highly developed craft that places a premium upon mental alertness. Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences. A smile that appears at the wrong moment, a glance that is not all it should be, can occasion dangerous suspicions and accusations.
A visitor from the Imperium is shocked on coming to the West. In his contacts with others, beginning with porters or taxi drivers, he encounters no resistance. The people he meets are completely relaxed. They lack that internal concentration which betrays itself in a lowered head or in restlessly moving eyes. They say whatever words come to their tongues; they laugh aloud. Is it possible that human relations can be so direct?
Acting in daily life differs from acting in the theater in that everyone plays to everyone else, and everyone is fully aware that this is so. The fact that a man acts is not to his prejudice, is no proof of unorthodoxy.
But he must act well, for his ability to enter into his role skillfully proves that he has built his characterization upon an adequate foundation. If he makes a passionate speech against the West, he demonstrates that he has at least 10 percent of the hatred he so loudly proclaims. If he condemns Western culture lukewarmly, then he must be attached to it in reality.
Of course, all human behavior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people’s democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one's role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training.
After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one's self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one's vigilance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic.
This happens in literature as well. A poet writing a piece of propaganda does not confine himself to a purely rationalistic approach. Imbued with the thought that poetry ideally should be suited to recitation in chorus at a meeting, he begins by tuning himself to an appropriate pitch of collective emotion before he can release himself in words.
Poetry as we have known it can be defined as the individual temperament refracted through social convention. The poetry of the New Faith can, on the contrary, be defined as social convention refracted through the individual temperament. That is why the poets who are most adapted to the new situation are those endowed with dramatic talent.
The poet creates the character of an ideal revolutionary and writes his verses as the monologue of this character. He does not speak for himself but for the ideal citizen. His results are reminiscent of songs written to be sung on the march, since the aim is the same: the forging of the fetters of collectivity that bind together an advancing column of soldiers.
A constant and universal masquerade creates an aura that is hard to bear, yet it grants the performers certain not inconsiderable satisfactions. To say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one’s adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one)—these actions lead one to prize one’s own cunning above all else. Success in the game becomes a source of satisfaction.
Simultaneously, that which we protect from prying eyes takes on a special value because it is never clearly formulated in words and hence has the irrational charm of things purely emotional. Man takes refuge in an inner sanctuary which is the more precious the greater the price he pays in order to bar others from access to it.
Acting on a comparable scale has not occurred often in the history of the human race. Yet in trying to describe these new mores, we happen across a striking analogy in the Islamic civilization of the Middle East. Not only was the game played in defense of one’s thoughts and feelings well—known there, but indeed it was transformed into a permanent institution and graced with the name of Ketman.
What is Ketman? I found its description in a book by Gobineau, entitled Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. Gobineau spent many years in Persia (from 1855 to 1858 he was a secretary in the French legation, from 1861 to 1863 he was French minister), and we cannot deny his gift for keen observation, even though we need not necessarily agree with the conclusions of this rather dangerous writer. The similarities between Ketman and the customs cultivated in the countries of the New Faith are so striking that I shall permit myself to quote at length.
The people of the Mussulman East believe that “He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error.” One must, therefore, keep silent about one’s true convictions if possible.
“Nevertheless,” says Gobineau,
there are occasions when silence no longer suffices, when it may pass as an avowal. Then one must not hesitate. Not only must one deny one’s true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one’s adversary. One makes all the protestations of faith that can please him, one performs all the rites one recognizes to be the most vain, one falsifies one's own books, one exhausts all possible means of deceit.
Thus one acquires the multiple satisfactions and merits of having placed oneself and one’s relatives under cover, of not having exposed a venerable faith to the horrible contact of the infidel, and finally of having, in cheating the latter and confirming him in his error, imposed on him the shame and spiritual misery that he deserves.
Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king; to him who uses Ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!
I feel like every time some fool has the courage to link to Gray Mirror, there should be some kind of automated disclaimer, like the one Milosz gives Gobineau: “we need not necessarily agree with the conclusions of this rather dangerous writer.” By the way, the Tocqueville-Gobineau letters are amazing and I happen to have them right here:
Not to digress, but here is one conclusion of this rather dangerous writer. 1856:
If I am corrupting at all, I corrupt with acids and not with perfumes. Believe me that this is not at all the purpose of my book. I am not telling people: “You are acquitted” or “You are condemned”; I tell them: “You are dying.”
“Far from me to pretend that you are incapable of conquering or unable to be moved and transported by sporadic spurts of energy. I neither impede nor do I push you. This does not concern me in the least.
“What I say is that you have spent your youth and you have now reached the age of decline. Your autumn is more vigorous, undoubtedly, than has been the decrepitude of the rest of the world, but it is autumn nonetheless; the winter will come and you will have no children.
“Establish kingdoms, dynasties, whatever you want; these things may be possible. I am not opposing you. Go disturb the Chinese in their home, polish off the Turks, drag the Persians into your schemes; these things may be possible and even inevitable. I shall not contradict you, but in the final account, the causes of your enervation are gathering and they will continue to gather by these very actions.
“And no one will replace you when your degeneration is completed. That thirst for material pleasures now tormenting you is a positive symptom. It is a sure symptom, like the rosy cheeks of those who suffer from maladies of the chest. All civilizations in decline before you had it and, like you, they seem to have enjoyed it.”
And yet: unlike Gobineau and Milosz, you are not dead. And yet: you are not alone.
One does feel one would like to visit this “West” Milosz keeps talking about. But the experience of his vanished “Imperium” is invaluable to us. While the similarities to that world are easily overstated—we keep running into them over and over again.
For example: anyone been over to Scott Aaronson’s lately? Back to Milosz:
Professional Ketman is reasoned thus: since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish, leaving no trace behind.
If I am a scientist I attend congresses at which I deliver reports strictly adhering to the Party line. But in the laboratory I pursue my research according to scientific methods, and in that alone lies the aim of life. If my work is successful, it matters little how it will be presented and toward whose glory. Discoveries made in the name of a disinterested search for truth are lasting, whereas the shrieks of politicians pass. I must do all they demand, they may use my name as they wish, as long as I have access to a laboratory and money for the purchase of scientific instruments.
If I am a writer, I take pride in my literary achievements. Here, for example, is my treatise on Swift, a Marxist analysis. This type of analysis, which is not synonymous with the Method or the New Faith, makes possible a keen penetration into historical events. Marx had a genius for observation. In following him one is secure against attack, for he is, after all, the prophet; and one can proclaim one’s belief in the Method and the New Faith in a preface fulfilling much the same function as dedications to kings or tsars in times past.
Here is my translation of a sixteenth-century poem, or my novel whose scene is laid in the distant past. Aren’t they of permanent value? Here are my translations from Russian. They are viewed with approbation and have brought me a large sum of money, but certainly Pushkin is a great poet, and his worth is not altered by the fact that today his poems serve Him as a means of propaganda. Obviously I must pay for the right to practice my profession with a certain number of articles and odes in the way of tribute. Still, one’s life on earth is not judged by transitory panegyrics written out of necessity.
These two examples of professional Ketman should demonstrate how little discomfort it creates for the rulers. It is the source of considerable dynamic force and one cause of the tremendous impetus toward education.
The object is to establish some special field in which one can release one’s energies, exploit one’s knowledge and sensibility, and at the same time escape the fate of a functionary entirely at the mercy of political fluctuations. Chemical experiments, bridges, translations of poetry, and medical care are exceptionally free of falsity. The State, in its turn, takes advantage of this Ketman because it needs chemists, engineers, and doctors.
From time to time, it is true, there come from above muffled grumbles of hatred against those who practice Ketman in the realm of humanistic studies. Fadeyev, Moscow’s literary overseer, attacked the University of Leningrad because one of its students had written a dissertation on the English poet, Walter Savage Landor. “Who needs Landor? Who ever heard of him?” cried Fadeyev. So it would seem that moderation and watchfulness are indicated for those who espouse this form of Ketman.
Any tradcaths in the audience? Or even leftcaths? Back when I was still an idiot and trying to get good press, I made the mistake of talking to journalists. While obviously this was a mistake (actually it’s fine to talk to journalists—off the record, and without giving up a particle of dirt—just don’t let them write about you), this was one way to tell whose soul was or was not fully decayed—only the former saw print. One of the latter was Liz Bruenig—then at the Post, now the Times. Leftcaths, Milosz has your number:
Certain practicing Catholics serve even in the security police, and suspend their Catholicism in executing their inhumane work. Others, trying to maintain a Christian community in the bosom of the New Faith, come out publicly as Catholics. They often succeed in preserving Catholic institutions, because the dialecticians are ready to accept so-called “progressive” and “patriotic” Catholics who comply in political matters.
The mutual game is rather ambiguous. The rulers tolerate such Catholics as a temporary and necessary evil, reasoning that the stage has not yet arrived at which one can utterly wipe out religion, and that it is better to deal with accommodating bigots than with refractory ones.
“Progressive Catholics” are, however, conscious of being relegated to a not particularly honorable place, that of shamans or witch-doctors from savage tribes whom one humors until one can dress them in trousers and send them to school. They appear in various state spectacles and are even sent abroad as shining testimonials to the Center’s tolerance toward uncivilized races. One can compare their function to that of “noble savages” imported to the metropolis by colonial powers for state occasions.
Their defense against total degradation is metaphysical Ketman: they swindle the devil who thinks he is swindling them. But the devil knows what they think and is satisfied.
These examples show us that Count Gobineau is indeed a dangerous writer—for his Ketman (Orientalism of this period is always at least half invented) is anything but a harmless pastime. It is the most serious and dangerous of sports. Not only does it risk the player’s material destruction—but also his spiritual destruction. “But the devil knows what they think, and is satisfied.”
Yet the wages of victory too are great. As long as one is not actually making oneself a tool of the devil, there is nothing in principle wrong with Ketman; one can even serve God or the gods with it—one may even know what the devil thinks, and be satisfied. But whatever the devil knows—you should certainly know it too, eh?
Milosz—without ever telling you what he is doing; there is a reason this fucker won the Nobel—keeps free-diving us into the darkness where real sharks hang out:
Informing was and is known in many civilizations, but the New Faith declares it a cardinal virtue of the good citizen (though the name itself is carefully avoided). It is the basis of each man’s fear of his fellow-men.
Work in an office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labor required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears. The people one talks with may seem relaxed and careless, sympathetic and indignant, but if they appear so, it is only to arouse corresponding attitudes and to extract confidences which they can report to their superiors.
In effect this cult of the community produces something which poisons the community itself. The mentality of the Party’s sages is, indeed, rather strange. They make concessions to physiological human weaknesses, but they refuse to admit that man has other foibles as well: that he feels fine when he can relax, and unhappy when he is afraid, that lying is bad for him because it creates internal tension.
These weaknesses, together with others like the desire to better one's own lot at the expense of one’s fellow-men, transform the ethic which was originally founded on cooperation and brotherhood into an ethic of a war pitting all men against all others, and granting the greatest chances of survival to the craftiest. Victory in this new struggle seems to belong to a breed different from that which was favored to win in the battle for money in the early days of industrial capitalism.
If biting dogs can be divided into two main categories, noisy and brutal, or silent and slyly vicious, then the second variety would seem most privileged in the countries of the New Faith. Forty or fifty years of education in these new ethical maxims must create a new and irretrievable species of mankind. The “new man” is not merely a postulate. He is beginning to become a reality.
Ethical Ketman is not rare among highly placed figures in the Party. These persons, no matter how capable they are of murdering millions of people in the name of Communism, try to compensate for their professional severity and are often more honorable in their personal relations than people who affect individualistic ethics. Their capacity to sympathize and help is almost unlimited. Indeed this very feeling of compassion pushed them onto the road of revolution in their youth, and in this they reiterated the experience of Marx himself.
One finds this Ketman chiefly among the old Communists. Conflicts between friendship and the interests of the Revolution are matters they weigh at length in their conscience; and they are pitiless only when completely convinced that, in shielding a friend or in refraining from denouncing him, they are injuring that cause which is most precious to them.
One can never foresee when and in whom this Ketman will appear, which makes for an element of surprise. Individuals who give one every reason to suppose that they do not denounce others turn out to be inveterate informers; individuals who are apparently most indifferent to “prejudices,” show themselves inexplicably loyal toward their friends and even toward strangers.
The inhabitants of Western countries little realize that millions of their fellow-men, who seem superficially more or less similar to them, live in a world as fantastic as that of the men from Mars. They are unaware of the perspectives on human nature that Ketman opens.
Life in constant internal tension develops talents which are latent in man. He does not even suspect to what heights of cleverness and psychological perspicacity he can rise when he is cornered and must either be skillful or perish. The survival of those best adapted to mental acrobatics creates a human type that has been rare until now. The necessities which drive men to Ketman sharpen the intellect.
Obviously, people caught up in this daily struggle are rather contemptuous of their compatriot political emigres. A surgeon can not consider a butcher his equal in dexterity; just so a Pole, Czech, or Hungarian practiced in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or twenty ateliers depends.
They do not know how one pays—those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.
But I think we know now! Well—we know something. And we learn more every day.
(BTW, don’t read too much into the coincidence between Milosz’s word “West” and the way it might be used on an American campus today. Unlike “progressive,” which is a true homology, “West” is just a geographical coincidence. The Imperium of the East very much considered itself the heir of what we now call “Western” civilization.)
The genius of Milosz is that, in one breath, one line, often one word, he can both condemn and sympathize. Having shown how the ideological marijuana of Ketman, the pleasure of fooling the strong and stupid, can become the captive mind’s gateway to the ideological heroin of collaboration, betrayal and delation, he is ready to guide you like a Virgil into the hellish souls of his friends—Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, the captive minds, the prewar Polish literary men who became postwar Party stooges.
But first, he ends this amazing chapter with a challenge:
In short, Ketman means self-realization against something. He who practices Ketman suffers because of the obstacles he meets; but if these obstacles were suddenly to be removed, he would find himself in a void which might perhaps prove much more painful. Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness. What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure.
He who practices Ketman lies. But would he be less dishonest if he could speak the truth? A painter who tries to smuggle illicit (“metaphysical”) delight in the beauty of the world into his picture of life on a collective farm would be lost if he were given complete freedom, for the beauty of the world seems greater to him the less free he is to depict it. A poet muses over what he would write if he were not bound by his political responsibilities, but could he realize his visions if he were at liberty to do so? Ketman brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.
But suppose one should try to live without Ketman, to challenge fate, to say: “If I lose, I shall not pity myself.” Suppose one can live without outside pressure, suppose one can create one’s own inner tension—then it is not true that there is nothing in man. To take this risk would be an act of faith.
It would be! I recommend this act of self-abnegation to—only those who have already mastered the art. I do try to write without ketman. I have a lot of practice and a lot of support systems; I was literally Internet famous 30 years ago; I own more books than will fit in my house, and am older than a lot of rocks; I am not sure I have quite taken this act of faith, or am ready to; and I have made plenty of mistakes!
It is always important to understand and accept the ketman of others, no matter how dark it is. Even when you see the highest levels of cynicism and apparent malevolence, the energy is coming almost exclusively from the structure; it is the way the individual reacts to the pressure of power, an almost chemical reaction, that creates both the art and the evil that we associate with the fate of man under these regimes.
Of course, some people are really psychopaths—very few, and such people seldom really matter. There are also sociopaths, more; these matter more; but still, in a normal social structure, sociopaths will be basically normal—just because they have no choice.
Four personas of the captive mind
In figures like Noah Smith and Glen Weyl, we see a very obvious reflection of the old Imperium; such persons, so far as I can see, are well into Ethical Ketman; Smith has more of a sense of humor, more of a soul; Weyl seems more brilliant, but in Bunting’s words more “welded to his vulgarity.” It is unfortunate that both of these literal, unironic geniuses were taught to think so badly—and given such bad reasons to think.
Everything about Weyl and Smith is cynical; Smith can’t help letting you in on the joke, while it’s not even clear that Weyl gets the joke; both are cousins of Milosz’s Gamma (the Slave of History).
Someone like Bruenig might be Alpha (the Moralist). Alpha and Delta (the Troubadour) are not so interesting to vivisect, though. These types, less emotionally involved with power, are more used by it and less implicated in it; they are at worst accessories, whom power can wield, but of whom power cannot be made. And also, the portrait needs the least updating—for the type is so well-preserved across time.
Any Ivy League school is stuffed with them, intact as if they’d just walked out of the ‘30s with a quick costume change. Read John dos Passos’ Adventures of a Young Man, his novel of bohemian communists in the Depression. It was written after he broke with the Party and was cancelled, so to this day you can only get a pirate OCR edition. Every character in it is someone you met in, like, 2005, at a party in the Mission.
No: we have only one to go. All of Milosz’s four examples are superbly talented human beings. Beta stands out. Beta (the Disappointed Lover) is a world-class writer. You can still buy a Penguin Classics edition of his most famous book—in English—in print.
Our subject today (finally!) is in most ways not at all like Beta. For instance, he is not a Holocaust survivor, nor a professional propagandist. He is still a world-class writer. He is still a disappointed lover. Let’s give it up for…
Scott Alexander, the disappointed lover
The wages are literally great in the case of the great Scott Alexander, who recently joined Substack—and I’m pretty sure instantly reduced our little party to dust.
Gray Mirror can chase the likes of Bari Weiss for a little while; it’s a good gig, which will last as long as it can last; it’ll be a while before it catches my old day job. But Scott, I think, literally topped the chart on day one. What a magnificent bastard! What a king!
Scott deserves it. Unironically. You should go over there and subscribe yourself—even pay him, if you can. Frankly, as a grifter—these takedown posts are a huge draw. No one seems to care about my best, hardest work—but the public loves this shit. But if you expect me to take down a king—you’d best unsubscribe, my friend. Unfortunately there’s no Substack button I can insert for this, so I’ll put a subscribe button instead:
Scott Alexander has two superb qualities which fully qualify him for the shit ton of money he must already be making (in fact, he is probably thinking about hiring).
First, he is profoundly sincere—a quality he shares with Scott Aaronson. I have never seen either of these somewhat different Scotts say anything that was insincere. Any conscious ketman in either is entirely one of silence—the most basic and praiseworthy form, and one that is almost impossible to fuck up. I am simply aghast at the sheer sincerity of both these people—unlike mine, their honor will not even bend for a joke. Anything they write is something they believe, at least right now. Unfortunately, this does not always make them right. But note to readers: this is how you bring the bucks. Leave the ketman to the Gammas and Betas—it is they who deserve to labor under it.
Second, he is the bunny slope of the dissident nerd—a sort of dissident Disney. Scott’s blog is and always has been a great way to learn that you can think for yourself. And while thinking for yourself can be scary—especially for the first time!—you know that, if you’re reading Scott’s blog, and you zig where you should have zagged, you won’t go shooting down a thousand-foot double-black-diamond off-piste chute that ends in a thirty-foot cliff, only for the author to laugh maniacally, be like, “psych,” and leave you there at the bottom with just the tip of one ski sticking out of the drift—they’ll find you in the spring, buddy, don’t worry about that—
Or to be more concrete: you know that, when you’re reading a Scott Alexander essay, the narrator is not going to suddenly ask you to believe something that will destroy your life if State Security catches you believing it. Fine! Helicopter skiing is not for everyone. Maybe the best ketman of all is the ketman of blissful ignorance—no one can judge anyone who takes that route. Which indeed flourished under the Soviets.
The disappointed lover
The disappointed lover wants to believe. He is always disappointed.
He is anything but a cynic. He can see “a new and better order within his grasp.” He “believes in, and demands, earthly salvation.” Yet in the end he is too sincere, and too intelligent, to stay convinced that what he is getting is what he wanted.
Milosz’s Beta experiences this fall in a single long rush:
I would often think how like a smooth slope any form of art is, and of the amount of effort the artist must expend in order to keep from sliding back to where the footing is easier. The inner command that forces him to this effort is, at the core, irrational. By refusing to recognize disinterested art, the New Faith destroys this inner command.
Beta was a real writer in his stories about the concentration camp; though he questioned all man's inner imperatives, he counterfeited nothing, he did not try to please anybody. Then he introduced a single particle of politics and, like a supersaturated solution, his writing crystallized, became thereafter transparent and stereotyped.
But one must not oversimplify. Many great authors, among them Swift, Stendhal, Tolstoy, wrote out of political passion. One might even say that political conviction, an important social message a writer wants to communicate to his readers, adds strength to his work.
The essential difference between the great writers who criticized the political institutions of their day and people of Beta’s type seems to lie in the total non-conformity of the former. They acted in opposition to their environment; he, writing, listened for the applause of his Party comrades.
Beta goes all the way to rock bottom. He becomes a one-dimensional Party hack, compulsively spewing the tritest SJW-tier propaganda:
He quickly realized that all his concern about “art” was superfluous. On the contrary, the harder he stepped down on the pedal, the more he was praised. Loud, violent, clear, biased—this is what his writing was expected to be. As Party writers (he entered the Party) began to outbid each other in an effort to be accessible and simple, the boundary between literature and propaganda began to fade.
He started to introduce more and more direct journalism into his writing. He discharged his venom in attacks on capitalism, i.e. on all that was happening outside the sphere of the Imperium. He would take an item from the news about warfare in Malaya or hunger in India, for example, and turn it into something halfway between an article and a snapshot.
I saw him for the last time in 1950. He had changed a great deal since the days before his arrest by the Gestapo. His former shyness and artificial humility were gone. Whereas once he had walked with a slight stoop and a lowered head, he was now a straight backed man with an air of self-assurance. He was dry, concentrated on his work. The bashful poet had become a thorough homo politicus.
At that time he was already a well-known propagandist. Every week one of his malignant articles appeared in a government weekly. He visited Eastern Germany frequently to gather news stories. No reporter can serve a cause as well as an author with a period of disinterested writing in his background; and Beta used all his knowledge of the writer’s trade in his poisonous articles against America.
Yet there is nothing even slightly cynical in this fellow:
For all their violence and precision of language, his articles were so dull and one-dimensional that this debasement of a gifted prose-writer stirred my curiosity. He was certainly intelligent enough to understand that he was wasting his talent.
In conversation with several literary authorities whose word determines a writer's place in the official hierarchy, I asked why such measures were being applied to him. Surely the interests of the Party did not require it to reduce him to a rag. He was certainly more useful as a writer of stories and novels; to force him to write articles meant bad management of available artistic resources.
“No one makes him write articles,” came the reply, “that’s the whole misfortune. The editor of the weekly can't drive him away. He himself insists on writing them. He thinks there is no time, today, for art, that you have to act on the masses more directly and elementally. He wants to be as useful as possible.”
This was a somewhat hypocritical answer. The Party constantly stresses its desire for good literature; at the same time, it creates such a tense atmosphere of propaganda that writers feel compelled to resort to the most primitive and oversimplified literary techniques.
Yet it was true that Beta himself wanted to devote all his time to journalism; although he was a highly qualified specialist, he seized upon work that was easy for the most ordinary drudge. His mind, like that of so many Eastern intellectuals, was impelled toward self-annihilation.
For the author of This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is only one way out:
He was found one morning in his home in Warsaw. The gas jet was turned on. Those who observed him in the last months of his feverish activity were of the opinion that the discrepancy between what he said in his public statements and what his quick mind could perceive was increasing daily. He behaved too nervously for them not to suspect that he was acutely aware of this contrast.
I hasten to say, as when the doctor diagnoses you with some mild version of a terminal condition, that this is not the only prognosis for the disappointed lover—only the most spectacular. Really we are all disappointed lovers. It is human to throw ourselves at dreams, and miss. There are so many dreams: how many lovers did Trump disappoint?
To steal a line from Randall Jarrell, Beta fell into the State. He went all the way. And indeed they washed him out of the turret with a hose. Most of our disappointed lovers, though, do not follow this monotonic prognosis, but oscillate. They throw themselves at a dream, miss, bounce off, pick themselves up, think for a moment, and do it again.
For some these dreams are dreams of loyalty; for others, dreams of rebellion. The direction of anyone’s dreams is the most personal possible matter, certainly not unlike what used to be called “religion”—would you try, seriously, to argue one of your friends into your own religion? Or would you not have friends from another religion?
We have gotten in the habit—a bad habit—of judging men by the dreams they choose. First, this is a terrible habit and has little correlation with personal or political virtue. Second, if we have no choice—we should judge the dream, not the reality behind it.
When you have a friend (and why can’t we all be friends?) who believes in some reality which you find unappealing or even actively repulsive, you need to remember precisely this: no one has ever dreamed a reality. It is the dream which your friend is dreaming.
If he is dreaming of rebellion, he is not dreaming of an inglorious and brutal shitshow. If he is dreaming of loyalty, he is not dreaming of an eternal and servile tyranny.
It is his Kantian duty as a good citizen, at least abstractly, to objectively assess and/or predict the real correlates of his dreams. If he neglects this duty, this may make him less than a perfect citizen. It may even make him, in some sense, “unfit for democracy.” What it will not make him is anything other than a normal, healthy human being.
A person whose dreams are always accurate is not a normal person. He is a prophet. If you demand that all your friends be prophets, perhaps you are a prophet yourself—but prophets can’t expect to have friends.
And everyone who is not a prophet is, in some measure, a disappointed lover. When they are forced to see that their dream is not real and cannot be made real, they rarely fall into like Beta. They usually bounce off it—sometimes with bruises—and back into space; back in space, they realize that space is cold and all our other dreams are ugly.
As Milosz’s fellow Pole, Ryszard Kapuscinski, wrote, in one of his usual fake quotes (all of which sound like Kapuscinski himself, which somehow is not bad but just a mood):
The dolphin, desiring to sleep, floats atop the water; having fallen asleep, he sinks slowly to the floor of the sea; awakened by striking the bottom, he rises again to the surface. Having thus risen, he falls asleep again, descends once more to the bottom, and revives himself anew in the same fashion. He thus enjoys his rest in motion.
Which is perhaps not as cetaceans are. Is it not as they should be?
What we talk about when we talk about rationalism
But perhaps all this has been no more than an exercise in Bulverism—analyzing the flaws of one’s interlocutor so as to explain his errors—without refuting the errors. We are doing the work in the wrong order—but let’s do it. Let’s talk about rationalism. There’s already been enough digressing today! On the other hand…
One way to talk about rationalism—from one guy who knows how to win the Internet:
Looks like at least… 14 people take it seriously? And I love the word “denounce.” It is simply too pure. Incidentally, while I’d never stalk anyone on Twitter or elsewhere, Weyl’s profile links to his wife—a professor of government at Idaho State. Just kidding—I mean Harvard. Looks like he’s not the only democracy fan in the house:
In this heaven of pure mind, our players relate to each other in one of four ways: back-scratching, bullying (what Weyl is doing at Scott), ostentatiously ignoring (what Weyl is doing at me), or denouncing (what Weyl has done elsewhere at both Scott and me). (Obviously, I could no more “denounce” someone, than order him deported to Mars.)
Sorry. This is what we don’t talk about when we talk about rationalism. My point is that since I am not an academic, I can try not to do any of these four things. And you shouldn’t either. I will not even scratch a back if I don’t think it needs scratching. (If you are an academic—I wouldn’t go quite that far.)
Even with characters like Smith and Weyl, my mindset is always an intervention—I am truly trying to help these people. Yet with such vulgar and hardened souls, the only way to help is to hit as hard as you can—if you think that was too hard, be glad T. H. Huxley isn’t in the room.
(Also: Scott’s example, in publishing Weyl’s rebuttal on his own stack, is a classic move of the gentleman scholar. I should repeat the same offer. Anyone I criticize by name is invited to publish a response right here, whenever they want. I’d even be delighted to host Professor Holland for a special guest lecture on her unique vision of democracy—which clearly, like her husband’s, transcends the banality of “one person, one vote.”)
Rationalism, on the other hand, is a delicate and beautiful flower. We are not here to maul it—but to pluck it lightly, and press it in the pages of history where it belongs. Any such flower must be framed only through its finest paragon, and Scott—while he did not invent 21st-century rationalism—is unquestionably the best it has to offer. He may not be trying to write for posterity—he may be doing it anyway. But so was Beta.
On the uniqueness of rationalism
Every rationalist is a disappointed lover. The rationalist becomes a rationalist because he has one simple dream: he wants the world to be ruled by reason. This dream always lets him down and always will.
It’s easy to fault the rationalists for the semiotic arrogance of their self-selected label. As if no one in history had ever thought of being rational! This is uber cringe.
And yet there is a way in which rationalism, historically cringe as it is (its original inventor, really giving life to Cicero’s wisecrack, had presumably never heard of the original Cult of Reason—not at all unsurprising, when we remember that this New Faith was born in a pastiche of a children’s book, written by a prophet barely old enough to drive—though great cults have had odder origins, and founders; at least “Big Yud” isn’t Joseph Smith; but he isn’t Scott Alexander, either), is unique.
Rationalism is historically unique because rationalism exists in a world that already pretends to be ruled by reason. The “rationalists” of the original Enlightenment—from Diderot to Rousseau to Robespierre—return us to Milosz, nice enough to quote twice:
The essential difference between the great writers who criticized the political institutions of their day and people of Beta’s type seems to lie in the total non-conformity of the former. They acted in opposition to their environment; he, writing, listened for the applause of his Party comrades.
Remember that Beta too lived in an Imperium which pretended, and pretended most vehemently, to be governed scientifically for the benefit of all. He too loved this dream—and how could he not? It’s a supermodel of a dream. This dream is hot.
Yet as we saw above, it can be dreamed in two ways. It can be a dream of rebellion, or a dream of loyalty. It can be a dream in opposition to its environment; it can be listening for the comrades’ applause. This decision depends not on the dream, but on the age.
The “rationalist” philosophes of the 18th century acted in an environment of decaying medieval ritual, both spiritual and temporal: the ancien regime. Their every action was tinged with opposition to this regime; and any collaboration with it instantly expelled the collaborator from their Olympus.
Indeed it was an often-beleaguered Olympus; it was doomed to be the Olympus of the future. And since every bone in their body knew that, every bone in their body acted in opposition to their present environment—which was the musty stereotype of lisping, degenerate kings and hypocritical, canting Jesuits. (At least to some extent.)
Scott Alexander is a disappointed lover because, when he does act in opposition to his environment, it is only because his inflexible philosophical principles require it. Scott is too honorable to be listening, as Weyl so plainly is, for the applause of the comrades. He still obviously fears them—and who could blame him for that? But it is not this fear alone which makes every bone in his body dream a dream of loyalty.
Nothing could be more transparently reasonable than Scott’s attitude, which is: that we live in a society that purports to be ruled by reason, but in certain irritating ways—ways that deeply puzzle him, ways that seem recurrent enough to keep him blogging indefinitely, with a salary growth curve that may soon intercept Tom Brady’s—it fails, and does stupid stuff. So we need a way to bridge this gap, and fix the reason machine.
It is easy to connect these views back to Weyl’s. While everything Weyl says is wrong and his proposals are ridiculous, his energy—like the energy of a Pizzagate or Q man—springs from his knowledge that he is intuitively 100% right. Which, in fact, he is.
Weyl is right that “technocracy” cannot work and the reason machine cannot be fixed. The problems are that (a) his alternative purports to cure cancer with garlic butter; (b) any dream of loyalty which intersected with his own relevance would satisfy him. Still, I suspect he’d be a great guy if you could keep him away from power for a year or ten—and no one could possibly call him stupid.
So let’s reconcile these two seemingly reasonable, but ultimately flawed, viewpoints, by revealing them to be imperfect impressions of the same unbelievably grim reality.
On reason and rationalism
If anything, I am an irrationalist. I believe that the natural state of man is unrational. I believe that we are surrounded by irrationality—permeated by it—that irrationality plays an essential and unavoidable part in every thought we think.
And everyone who believes he can expel irrationality, or has expelled it, has in fact succumbed fatally to it. It is not even slightly rational to be a rationalist. In fact it is extremely dangerous. To see why, we’ll have to become rationalists—for a moment.
What is rationalism, anyway? Look at the slogan of Scott’s Substack—where mine says a portal to the next regime. His says
P(A|B) = [P(A)*P(B|A)]/P(B), all the rest is commentary.
This is Bayes’ rule. Let us examine this curious belief, not Scott’s alone but really the heart of the rationalist movement, that reason itself can be reduced to Bayes’ rule.
Like most of the ideas we like to look at around here, this idea is both true and false. It starts as some really, really basic math which everyone should understand intuitively—yes, I’m talking to you, English majors.
Bayes’ theorem, which is not debatable, is a rule for updating existing beliefs (A) based on new facts (B). I think it makes more sense written as
P(A|B) = P(A) * [P(B|A) / P(B)]
After some learning some new evidence B, how do you update your hypothesis A? Bayes’ rule says: that depends on how surprising B is to anyone who was expecting A.
In slightly more detail: you update your “prior” belief in A—P(A)—after learning some cool new fact B—to generate your new belief in the probability of A given B—P(A|B)—by multiplying your prior belief by a learning update L:
P(A|B) = P(A) * L
where all these numbers are probabilities on a scale from 0 to 1 (0% to 100%). L, the learning update, is:
L = P(B|A) / P(B)
L measures how surprising B is to anyone who was expecting A. P(B|A) is the chance of B given A. P(B) is the chance of B just happening whether or not A.
We can split P(B) up into those two parts—depending on whether A or not A (~A).
P(B) = [P(A) * P(B|A)] + [P(~A) * P(B|~A)]
To use Bayes’ rule we have to know P(A)—how likely A is to be true—which means we know P(~A)—how likely A is to be false—and P(B|A)—how likely B is, assuming A is true. So the only other thing we need is P(B|~A)—how likely B is, assuming A is false.
How true did you already think A is? If you knew A was true, how much would B surprise you? If you knew A was false, how much would B surprise you? Answer these three questions, and plug the numbers into the formula. English majors, you can do it.
Let’s do a quick trial run. Suppose A is the hypothesis that alien spaceships are visiting earth, and B is the evidence that you just saw a UFO.
P(A) is your estimate of the probability that aliens are here—as of yesterday. P(A|B) is your estimate of the probability that aliens are here—as of now.
What happened? Exactly one of X, Y or Z. X is: aliens are here, and you saw one. Y is: aliens are not here, and you imagined one. Z is: aliens are here, but you imagined one. P(B|A) is X + Z. P(B|~A) is Y.
As in most real-world problems, these numbers are not actually numbers. Let’s pull some out of our butts. Suppose P(A) is 3%—you think there’s a 3% chance of aliens being here. Given that, how surprising was it that you saw an alien vessel on Tuesday?
If there are aliens, how good are they at hiding? They’re obviously good, because we don’t see them all the time. This determines the chance that you would see one last Tuesday night. Let’s say that chance, X, is 10^-12 (one in a trillion).
If there are no aliens, how likely is it that you saw one on Tuesday? That depends how wasted you were on Tuesday.
Suppose you were stone cold sober and generally in the pink of neurological health. You could never, 0%, hallucinate an Idiran light space-frigate of the Hand of God class. So Y and Z are both zero. So Bayes’ rule tells us:
P(A|B) = 0.03 * (0.0000000000001 / [0.03 * 0.0000000000001) + (0.97 * 0)]
P(A|B) = 0.03 * (0.0000000000001 / 0.03 * 0.0000000000001)
P(A|B) = 0.03 * (1 / 0.03)
P(A|B) = 1
I’m not saying it’s aliens. But, it’s aliens.
Now, suppose it was 3AM, and you’d just watched the Lakers game with your buds, knocking back a few White Claws and sharing a doobie, then spent a few hours eating shrooms and doing Robo shots, then banged your head really hard on a streetlight on the way home. Oh shit, that hurt! Why did they put that thing there!
Let’s say the chance of you hallucinating an Idiran fast probe is one in ten thousand (0.0001). In that case, X + Z is 10^-4 + 10^-12.
P(A|B) = 0.03 * (0.0001000000001 / [0.03 * 0.0000100000001) + (0.97 * 0.0001)]
P(A|B) ~= 0.03 * 1.0000000000001
P(A|B) ~= 0.03000000000000003
P(A|B) ~= 0.03
So your wild night hasn’t changed your rational opinion of the Fermi paradox. In fact, it’s surprising that you only spotted one Idiran scout. Okay—let’s try Bayes out for real.
But note that when we tried to use Bayes’ theorem in the real world, for a purpose that wasn’t some kind of drug-approval trial or other statistical haruspication—we found that we had to pull numbers out of our ass. Even the drug-approval trials do this—though they only have to pull one number. This number is 0.05—I hope you loled at that. It is an old number and has been vigorously scrubbed, but you still see some brown streaks.
Since most of us are not FDA examiners, when we use the logical power of Bayes’ rule, we are not actually doing math. We are thinking intuitively; but intuition is still subject to reason, and the rule still works—if applied correctly. Remember the three questions:
How true did you already think A is? If you knew A was true, how much would B surprise you? If you knew A was false, how much would B surprise you?
Note that Bayes’ rule—if applied correctly—works with incomplete evidence; it works the same in any order you apply the facts; it is really quite resilient. It’s just good stuff. I am not sure it is the philosopher’s stone, though, as we’ll see.
Rationalist birther showdown
We’re going to use Bayes’ rule on an oldie but goldie—a question that once consumed the nation, but which no one cares about anymore—as Coventry Patmore wrote—
The truth is great, and shall prevail
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
That’s right. We’re going to apply Bayesian inference to Barack Obama’s birth certificate. They’ll find you in the spring, buddy—don’t worry about that. (Lol you thought this afternoon was going to be all cross-country skiing—Polish poets, super classy… waah! Actually it never hurts to scream. Someone might even hear you.)
Our hypothesis A is that there is something hinky about Obama’s birth certificate. Note that this is a weaker “birther” hypothesis than you might expect—it is not the “strong birther” hypothesis that Obama was born in Kenya and was hence ineligible. (Even if he wasn’t ineligible then, he is now—so this question is of no conceivable relevance.)
(Despite his publisher’s biography—which says more about the publishing industry than anything—the probability that Stanley Ann Dunham traveled to Kenya in the early ‘60s, to give birth, is vanishingly tiny. A Kenyan birth certificate for Barack Obama, printed in proper British Empire format on authentic Kenyan jute paper, would be exactly like the UFO I saw on Valencia Street, or like one of Hume’s miracles: however apparently authentic, still most easily explained as artificial.
Stanley Ann’s wild journey would be unusual now. In the early 1960s, a Kansas girl marrying a Kenyan and giving birth in Nairobi would be far past unusual—it might well get local press. It would have left all kinds of microhistorical ripples. It is the surprising absence of these expected ripples which wrecks the Kenyan hypothesis. Apologies to those expecting an IRS refund for tax years 2009-2016.)
Let’s accept that the state of American vital records is just plain terrible. Therefore, we’ll start A at some low but nonzero probability—like 0.01%. In theory I know what hospital I was born in, but do they really have a piece of paper with my footprints, or whatever? It’s paper. I would not be blown away if it had ceased to exist, and hardly anything was strange about the circumstances of my birth.
Hardly anything isn’t strange about about the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth. Besides an accident by some file-folder clerk, there is another way something hinky could have happened to his papers. His mother’s extremely brief, almost completely unattested marriage with a Kenyan student in Hawaii—while by no means implausible—is also nowhere near the common case. Let’s call this fact B.
The plausible interpretation of Barack Obama’s hinky birth certificate, if hinky it be, is just that Stanley Dunham set up a straw marriage with an African student to conceal the fact that his black communist friend, poet Frank Marshall Davis—author of Sex Rebel: Black—had knocked up his hot teenage daughter. This “Dreams From My Real Father” hypothesis is all over the Internet—I won’t link to it, since who actually cares.
I especially like this version because it has no legal or even moral implications for the 21st century. No one in the 21st century would go through this charade. No one in the 21st century would care if this was how some human being became a fertilized egg. You’re accusing the candidate of being a… bastard? Lol what century is it again?
Yet in the early 60s, this is the kind of little “conspiracy” that could actually happen. It wasn’t that the Rothschilds had bred young Obama to rule. It was that Stan Dunham panicked and threw a Hail Mary pass to avoid massive public humiliation. Believe it or not, in 1961, letting a “Negro” communist pornographer-poet knock up your daughter was not at all unlike being exposed as, like, a total racist is now. Especially in Kansas!
What would Stan have had to do? Find a friend of a friend with good friends, who knew an African student willing to oblige; send her to school with him; file the papers; stick a birth announcement in the newspaper. Obama would have been born a few months earlier, probably in Kansas (which, like “Klan,” also starts with a K).
And for anyone who wasn’t going to end up as President, that would be fine. Again—this sort of caper happened back then. Imagine yourself in Stan Dunham’s position! But then—when Obama, the rising star, needs his own BC—it’s not there. (Compared to the citizenship database of India, American vital records [offensive analogy elided].)
So, after considering fact B, let’s conservatively put hypothesis A at a 5% chance. Out of 20 marriages shaped like Stanley Ann’s, we are saying, 1 of them is probably fake. For a number pulled out of my ass, I think this is quite defensible and conservative.
The likelihood of this hypothesis greatly increases when we add the fact that Obama released his birth certificate in 2011—over two years after being elected. (That was the long-form, original document—they had started with the short-form printout, as though the proper level of scrutiny for a presidential election was the same as applying for a driver’s license.) Even in the then-nascent state of the right-wing undernet, the amount of buzz and chatter about our nefarious Kenyan president was enormous.
Not only that, Obama’s lawyers spent serious time and money—surely well into seven figures—insisting on the President’s privacy right to not produce the document. Not only that, American journalists spent serious time and energy explaining that anyone demanding that the man prove his legal qualification for the job was a racist. Then once the document was produced—having asked for it was proof positive of that crime. Kafka much?
As a Bayesian, this always sat poorly with me. I went directly to P(B|~A). If there was nothing hinky about Obama’s vital records, why would he do this? As a uniter, not a divider, the first time he even heard that anyone questioned his eligibility, why not just ask the government of Hawaii to release everything they have? What will they say, no?
There is a somewhat plausible explanation of P(B|~A), which I don’t want to believe both because intuitively it feels wrong, and because it reflects too badly on Obama. The explanation is that he intentionally dragged out the controversy as a sort of cynical, Machiavellian “boob bait,” then set the hook once it was fully exploited.
But P(B|A) makes perfect sense. Of course, if the paperwork was hinky, you’d stall by any means necessary. Hawaii having been a one-party state for much longer than even California—would you have much trouble getting someone to run off a printout? On the right paper, with the right stamp? Then, when the hicks began asking for more…
The best part
Here is the truly amazing Bayesian fact about the Obama birth certificate. In the end, finally, in 2011, what they released was—a PDF. In 2008, at least, the FactCheck.org journalists got to handle the short-form printout. In 2011, nobody at all saw the original document—not even journalists. Again: why else would you do it this way? If you have the 50-year-old piece of paper…
Here is what you have to believe to believe something is hinky about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. You have to believe that someone would shoop a PDF. Then, you have to believe that a minor state official would fib on behalf of the Lightworker. That’s all. Even that is a bridge these kinds of people would resist crossing—less out of honor, than out of cowardice—but if they had to do it, they would do it.
They would do a minor thing to solve a major problem with the narrative’s continuity. For this, you reject everyone who disagrees with you as (a) insane, (b) evil, or (c) both. Super rational!
Let’s get Bayesian again. Either the original record is hinky, or it isn’t. If it’s hinky, the probability that the Obama team would solve the problem by forging it is—well, why wouldn’t they? What could have gone wrong? Could someone—investigate the PDF? Would the DOJ look into it? The media? Would—someone leak? Lol on all four.
And of course, if the original record is real, so is the PDF. What this tells us is that the PDF, from a Bayesian standpoint, tells no one anything. If A was true and the certificate was hinky, Obama’s team would be making an obvious decision by shipping a forgery. If A was false and the paper was real, of course they would release it. So in this case,
P(A|B) ~= P(A)
QED. While I realize that I haven’t proved Obama is a Kenyan born on the inside of the Hollow Earth (which must subtend an equal and opposite para-Kenya), Bayesian rationalism can only do so much.
The rationalist birther army
Since this analysis is not just reasonable, but rational—at least, it depends exclusively on the favorite tool of the rationalists—and since the great thing about reason is that it works the same for everyone else, we would expect all rationalists to already be birthers.
Before Weyl gets all hot and bothered—I’m pretty sure I’m the only rationalist birther. And I’m not even really a rationalist. I just make a special effort to, as Whitman put it, “contain multitudes.” (Also, my birtherism is disappointingly low-calorie.)
Now, why is this—if all of reason is contained in Bayes’ theorem? Which anyone can apply, as I just did? Why was it that not every polyamorous rationalist in every group house in Oakland in 2011 looked at that PDF, and was like: what? But of course a PDF can’t possibly prove anything to either side of this dispute?
Bayes’ rule tells us that when our expectations are violated, reasonable people rethink the hypothesis that led to those expectations. In 2011, rationalists had all the rational tools they would need to become rationalist birthers. Yet roughly none of them did. Clearly, although these tools may always work—they may not work automatically.
Irrationalism and rationalism
While I hate to pick on my older brother, he once taught me an important intellectual lesson. I was in college, studying computer science; he was in grad school—studying applied math. We were in our grandparents’ house in Great Neck, trying to get a sofa through a doorway. I said to him: “this is really a numerical-optimization problem.”
“In numerical optimization,” said my brother, “we say two things. One is that every problem can be approached as a numerical-optimization problem. The other is that this is always the worst way to approach any problem.”
Being reasonable is hard. What is Bayes’ rule, in the end? It is one way to check that you are being reasonable. Technically, like numerical optimization, any problem can be answered by feeding all your facts and hypotheses through Bayes’ rule.
However, if this is your only way to think reasonably, your toolkit is extremely limited. Actually, since Bayes’ rule was invented (by the Rev. Bayes) 250 years ago, rediscovered 70 years ago, and repopularized in Silicon Valley about 15 years ago, we can be pretty sure it is hardly the only way to be reasonable.
What would Plato say if you showed him Bayes’ rule? Plato would be like: okay. That’s kind of obvious. It’s like logic—but with numbers. I gotta say—it’s pretty cute. But if then, you were like—all the rest is commentary—
Plato, who I like to think had a heavy Queens accent, would be like: kid, you got a lot to learn. Only geometers may enter here. Maybe you want to try boning up on your geometry? You seem a goodly youth. Pedocrates, here, will tutor you for a summer…
As an irrationalist, my view of the matter is simple. I have already stated it; let me state it again. I believe that, like Jonathan Edwards’ sinners, we are in the hands of unreason. We are tossed in its waves; we are clinging to its spiderweb; we are idiots, grifters, perverts, addicts, madmen and beggars; how could we possibly afford to be choosers?
Rationalism is extremely dangerous because it focuses you on only one way of thinking reasonably. In theory, this or any way of thinking reasonably can reason out anything. In practice, the only way to be reasonable is to think reasonably in every possible way—and realize that even then, you will probably fail.
Here is an example. Another technique I like is the dialectic or adversarial technique. Before I express any opinion on any dispute myself, I want to make sure I have heard the best possible arguments from both sides—and I am alert to situations in which these optimal arguments are not being made, or not being communicated.
If I failed to do this, I would be in the position of a juror who volunteered a verdict after hearing only from the prosecution, or only from the defense—a profoundly careless and irresponsible, and certainly unreasonable, way to think. Do you think we’ll be able to catch any rationalists thinking in such an unreasonable way?
If you think you have one magic formula that makes you a prophet of reason, and “all else is commentary,” then go around with your brain puffed out like a pigeon’s chest, declaring yourself the second coming of Spock—kid, you’re cruising for a bruising.
Bayes is a good tool. If it is the only tool good enough for you—I expect you to drown. Let’s look at how it fails the great Scott Alexander.
The captive and dissident minds
If Weyl wants to know the difference between rationalism and neoreaction (these days I prefer just “nihilism,” but probably that won’t stick), here is what it is.
A thoughtful and energetic person, finding himself tossed in the waves of unreason, has a choice. He can decide to drown; he can try to swim. If he tries to swim, he has another choice; he cannot just tread water; he must pick a direction.
Rationalism swims toward loyalty. Rationalism is drawn to power. Nihilism swims toward rebellion. Nihilism is drawn to reason. Obviously, if power and reason were aligned, rationalism would equal nihilism; no rebellion would be possible, or needed; no one would need to believe in anything.
Contra Weyl, it is always the loyalty of rationalism that betrays it. Because it does not push back against power, it must be sucked into power’s orbit. While this submission is why Weyl, who reads me as a dangerous heretic, can talk almost civilly with Scott, it is also the cause of most if not all of the differences between nihilism and rationalism.
The dissident has an advantage over the rationalist. Since the dissident has a theory of why so many smart people are so unreasonable these days, he knows where to look for unreason. He is like a dog long practiced in finding balls under blankets. You will not see him running around the room yelping wildly, “where’s the ball? where’s the ball?” He knows this kind of a ball very well, and what sort of a person might put it where.
The rationalist’s problem is that loyalty is not a direction in which one can swim. One is loyal to the water one swims in—but one keeps getting dunked by the increasingly savage waves of crazy. (Witness Weyl’s weird bullying behavior—even before I butted in, his tone toward Scott lacked, I felt, the respect befitting a scholar or a gentleman.)
The rationalist is not loyal to crazy. The rationalist is loyal to a calm blue sea, on an inflatable mattress, with a margarita. The rationalist would like these nice things back. The nihilist would like to get out of the water—but fears the land is a long ways away.
The rationalist is a Disney dissident—a G-rated nihilist. Disney, wisely, always worked with formulas, and there is a certain formula for a Scott Alexander post. It starts with: why can’t we have nice (nerd) things? Where’s the ball?
Then Scott goes through four or five reasons we can’t have nice things, and steelmans them (he may have invented the term “steelman”) convincingly. One of these may or may not be the true (dissident) reason. Then he’s like: as we see, nerds, the whole thing is a big beautiful mystery. You find the ball!
This formula is to the lonely, curious nerd as the romance novel to the unsatisfied frau. It’s beautiful—like watching a boxful of kittens roll around in catnip. And it doesn’t leave you anywhere but where you started—which is what you want in a bunny slope.
Disorders of the captive and dissident minds
If we have seen nothing else today, we have seen the unbridgeable gulf between the dissident mind, which “acts in opposition to its environment,” and the loyal mind, which “listens for the applause of the comrades.” (And applause is not the comrades’ only option.)
If you think you can split the difference between these things, you can’t. You just fall into the gulf. It gets harder and harder to oscillate, like Kapuscinski’s dolphin, offering sporadic and recurrent opposition, falling into and out of the arms of the comrades.
It is only fair to note that, just as there are characteristic disorders of the loyal mind, there are also characteristic disorders of the rebellious mind. If you are loyal, you know them all—they are your stereotypes. Let’s talk about them first.
Perhaps we could summarize them all by saying that it seems to you that to be a rebel is to be immature. This is very true; it is a potent theme in much of the literature of the Imperium; it recalls Zanussi’s film Camouflage (Poland, 1977), as sharp a picture of the academia of the East as I know. (I am not actually obsessed with Poles! Coincidence!)
To act in opposition to one’s environment is indeed inherently immature. What else do children do? For the dissident, this inherent bias means that, while youth will always be his advantage, immaturity will always be his danger. My own writing is certainly quite immature—is it not? And I was born in the Nixon administration.
The dissident is done with the present. He dreams of a new historical era. The current era, the era he lives in—the old era—this era is tinder, dry as a bone. One spark will set off its brown and papery leaves. Such is his bias; such is his surprise, to see it one more day alive—even sporting some green here or there, a flower or two. Nonetheless—
The rationalist has just the opposite dream, and the opposite bias. His dream is not that the era will change, but that it will heal. In fact, he is there to help heal it. His services, Bayes’ rule and all, are cheerfully offered, at no charge, to the powers that be. Maybe Scott can even tell how much Harvard and the Times appreciate his assistance.
The disappointed lover keeps being disappointed. And he keeps coming back: like the dolphin, he enjoys his rest in motion. The dissident is trying to get out of Plato’s cave. The rationalist is trying to furnish it. Tough when the trees are so drippy, and the sun is so weak—the upholstery gets moldy so fast…
Late in any empire, there is an air of dismal futility to all these efforts at reform. Since talking about what should be done is a pastime, a profession, a pretense that will never cease before they stop having Super Bowls, the discourse continues. Everyone really knows the real answer: nothing can be done. Nothing will be done.
The curate’s egg
Some Victorian wag at Punch invented the marvelous analogy of the curate’s egg, which now needs explaining since no one now knows what a curate is. A curate is an Anglican minister—an exceedingly polite and deferential figure. Served a rotten egg, he tastes it and cannot avoid making a face. “How is the egg?” someone asks.
“Most parts of it are excellent,” says the curate. This is a masterpiece of what Orwell called crimestop. The curate, needing to avoid the bad, stressful chain of inference
part of egg is bad
eggs go bad all at once
whole egg is bad
someone served me bad egg
goes directly to the magnificent evasion
part of egg is bad
no information about rest of egg
no evidence that rest of egg is bad
rest of egg is good
The curate’s egg is the whole narrative frame in which we live. The primary difference between the rationalist, who is still listening to the comrades, and who hopes to heal his world and make it reasonable again, and the nihilist, who acts in opposition to his environment, and who hopes to see this world replaced by a new and reasonable one, is the fallacy of the curate’s egg.
The rationalist still gives the powerful institutions of his era the benefit of the doubt. Does he taste the egg? Scott will tell you, straight up: this part of the egg is bad.
Scott is not Candide; he does not believe that he tastes a good egg here. Scott is not the curate; he is anything but insincere. Scott is not Beta; he is anything but a fanatic. And yet… at what point would a reasonable person… just throw the whole egg away?
This is especially curious for a Bayesian thinker. If we believe in the infallibility of the prestigious institutions of the second half of the 20th century, how can we not be very, very surprised when we see them get it very, very wrong? And how many times does this have to happen before we propagate these surprises back to the hypothesis, and realize that we can no more trust the institutions of the West than those of the East?
There were certain fields in which even the mind of the Eastern Imperium was sound. Math; physics; chemistry and rocketry; biology, mostly… but after a few harsh Bayesian updates, why would you believe anything else? What has lasted of Soviet psychiatry? Of Soviet history, or literary criticism, or sociology, or Marx-Lenin Studies? It is all so much paper-dust for the moths—and think of how many shining minds it consumed.
Again, the dissident has the opposite bias to defeat. His nature is to act in opposition to his environment; his instinct is to throw the egg away, without even tasting it. This is indeed the act of a child; my children will decide they dislike the title of a movie, then, if begged to give it a chance, grimly and resolutely hate it.
The rebellious reflex is to throw away even the physics—which the Nazis literally did. Well—even with “Jewish physics,” they probably didn’t have enough uranium. On the other hand, we can’t deny that their space program put Neil Armstrong on the moon—it’s past time we admit that the “N” in NASA is a euphemism. Win some, lose some.
Somewhere amidst all these savage ironies is the true value of the past, and the true meaning of the 20th century—which, obviously, we have yet to put to bed.
But how could anyone, even in 2021, take any 20th-century tradition, any 20th-century institution, at its face value with full benefit of the doubt—not necessarily presuming it infallible, just infallible until proven fallacious? Knowing Bayes’ theorem, applying it as cleanly and unconsciously as Tom Brady throws a football, what sincere thinker would lay the foundation of his worldview on the rotten ground of this curate’s egg, accepting each of its assertions as a priori infallible until individually disproven?
We know that these institutions are not always wrong. We are not astounded when the 20th century turns out to have gotten something right. This event is not even rare. Yet is it even more common than the converse? Which is more surprising?
Because if we find that, at least outside hard science and engineering (which even the Nazis and the Soviets did fine at), the ideas and institutions and ideologies of the 20th century are more often wrong than right, Bayes’ rule leaves us no choice.
As rationalists, we must reverse the burden of proof. Rather than revering our 20th-century idols, until proven hollow—we must revile them, until proven sound. Every 20th-century idea, institution, or ideology, if it wishes to avoid abomination and oblivion, must present itself to the crucible; it must be melted, assayed, and recast.
Such of course was the trial of Germany in 1945. Who can say it didn’t work? The occupation policy of 1945 even included the destruction of buildings “of a National Socialist character.” This too was clear, beautiful Machiavellian thinking—with the purity of intention that only the most ruthless of wars can generate.
Or we could scale this attitude back a little. Rather than considering the 20th century and all its works as an abomination, a scar upon history, one vast sin whose penance will still be sending us bills in the 2200s, we could take it as—a normal part of history.
We could parse the 20th as not inherently better, worse, or different from any century in history—the 17th, say, or the 3rd BC. We could say with Ranke—every age stands equal before God. (Except that we’re still too good to believe in God.)
It’s great to be a Disney dissident. The world needs Disney dissidents. Scott Alexander doesn’t just need his own Substack—he needs his own TV channel—his own media empire. You laugh! As Dr. Emilio Lizardo put it, “laugh while you can, monkey-boy.”
Yet once you break the shell of the curate’s egg, your reality is not just the last century—it is all of history. You were up above it! Now you’re down in it. Most people can’t handle that, psychically. It’s fine—can most people handle DMT? Even just shrooms?
The codex in the crucible
All this—and we have yet to see one fallacy that loyalty has led Scott Alexander into. This is surely Bulverism. Am I just wasting your time? Rhetorically tiring you out?
Here is what happens when your honor and sincerity are above reproach—yet your dream remains a dream of loyalty. I say “here is what happens,” but almost everyone will see this as a win. But we’ll see about that.
Scott, perceptively assaulting the incoherence of Weyl’s definition of “technocracy,” is presenting a list of “good [technocratic] decisions that went well.” Now: clearly Scott is speaking to Weyl and his respectable ilk, not me and my filthy henchmen of the hills. Weyl would hardly judge his arguments as we will. Yet Scott is an honorable man. He never says things he doesn’t believe. So we can analyze his words as his beliefs.
Here is one good decision that went well, from Scott’s list:
2. School desegregation: Nine unelected experts with Harvard and Yale degrees, using a bunch of Latin terms like a certiori and de facto that ordinary people could not understand let alone criticize, decided to completely upend the traditional education system of thousands of small communities to make it better conform to some rules written in a two-hundred-year-old document. The communities themselves opposed it strongly enough to offer violent resistance, but the technocrats steamrolled over all objections and sent in the National Guard to enforce their orders.
Here is another:
4. Climate change: In the second half of the 20th century, scientists determined that carbon dioxide emissions were raising global temperatures, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Climatologists created complicated formal models to determine how quickly global temperatures might rise, and economists designed clever from-first-principle mechanisms that could reduce emissions, like cap-and-trade systems and carbon taxes. But these people were members of the elite toying with equations that could not possibly include all the relevant factors, and who were vulnerable to their elite biases. So the United States decided to leave the decision up to democratic mechanisms, which allowed people to contribute “outside-the-system” insights like “Actually global warming is fake and it's all a Chinese plot.”
Obvious, right? I think it goes without saying that everyone here agrees with Scott… about both these things… about all of them… right?
Does not a certain tension enter the room when we read these paragraphs—a chill, such as Gandalf and Frodo feel when they first read the glowing letters on the Ring?
Are we not hearing the tongue of Mordor—spoken through the lips, indeed through the brain, of one of the smartest, wisest, and most sincere writers in the world? If Sauron can speak through Scott Alexander—Sauron can speak through anyone.
But this is a completely intuitive and aesthetic impression. You may not even share it. Heck, you probably don’t. Also, you have to remember: Sauron is sometimes right. In fact, this is his worst, most dangerous trick of all.
Let’s handle these paragraphs as carefully as they deserve. Either these are genuinely true, telling and obvious observations, or they are—not. We’ll start by observing a few obvious, inarguable attributes of both these interesting propositions, 2 and 4—and their presumptive converses, ~2 and ~4.
First: in both cases, Scott is taking sides in a dispute. This is true by inspection.
Second: in both cases, Scott’s side is the powerful side. This is also true by inspection.
But in case it’s not: anyone could be fired from any job for believing ~2—and from any serious job for believing ~4. If you believe both ~2 and ~4, a cursory Bayesian analysis suggests that your occupation is “disability,” your residence is “uh, my van,” and your accent, attire, odor and demeanor are roughly those of a former Tom Petty roadie. “‘Cause I was born a rebel…”
Third: Scott—whether or not he invented “steelmanning”—could not steelman either of these disputes. Unless he counts “global warming is fake and it’s all a Chinese plot.” When you take sides in a dispute that you only know one side of, you are delivering a verdict in a trial in which you have only heard from the prosecution. Like I said earlier, this just isn’t reasonable. Scott wouldn’t withhold a steelman; so he must not have one.
Scott does not give us his strawman for 2, only for 4, but he lets us think it’s at least as weak. If, for each of 2 and 4, I can present a steelman which is at least an order of magnitude stronger than Scott’s strawman—hopefully two orders of magnitude, or even three—I convict Scott, even if he is completely right about both propositions, of careless and unreasonable thinking.
If he is going to sound so certain—nay, be so certain, because he is always sincere—it is his job to go and find those steelmen. If he does not have time for that—well, the great Scott Alexander has no shortage of subjects he knows about.
This carelessness does not make him wrong about these points. Rather, it illustrates a flaw in his epistemology. This flaw is a security hole whose result is that the Party gets to post under his name, using his account, his fingers and even his brain. The cause of the flaw is that Scott’s dream of loyalty leaves him unreasonably trusting of the Party.
An easy way to state a steelman is a book. For decision 2, my steelman is The Burden Of Brown, by Raymond Wolters. For 4, it is The Hockey-Stick Illusion, by Andrew Montford. I like these books, which are both easy to find. If Scott disagrees with my assessment of the relative quality of these steelmen and his original strawmen, I can’t imagine that my judgment of his sincerity is at fault—but I don’t know what else could be.
If Scott has the time to take this test, it seems most likely to me that he will agree with my results—probably without converting to ~2 and ~4, though there’s really nothing wrong with posting to Substack from your van—while excusing himself for not having sought out obscure sources of such quality. Which is perfectly excusable, of course.
Yet it brings us back again to the fundamental contradiction of the rationalist. While his raison d’etre is to struggle against the waves of unreason, he is not actually trying to get out of the water. The rationalist and the nihilist are both swimming for our lives or at least our sanity, but only one of us has somewhere to go.
So only one of us looks for the bad parts of the curate’s egg. Both Scott Alexander and Scott Aaronson can be incredibly bold and forthright when they taste part of a bad egg. Nothing, it seems, could make these fine curates question the quality of the whole egg.
The department of fear
And who can blame them? How the hell did we get here, anyway? After roughly 14,000 words “outside the patrolled area,” dodging intellectual bears, cliffs and avalanches, the sun is going down. And we are not home. Cold? Maybe it’s time to stop worrying about rescuing other people.
Why would I tell you to think for yourself about climate change, or worse—segregation? These are mass enemies to which literally billions of people have devoted their hatred. Who wants to be hated by a billion people? Not all fear is paranoia.
Some wag on Twitter operates a cute account called @feardept—“The U.S. Department of Fear.” With a letterhead and everything. As a boomer, I am not and nor will I be on any “Twitter,” nor can I vouch for this account—which may even be “racist.” However, the branding seems promising and the execution, on first glance, is strong.
Submission to power is always ultimately built on the two strongest and most visceral human emotions: fear and hate.
The comrades can do more than applaud. They do not do it while applauding—so who can help listening for their applause? It’s just a step from fearing the Party to loving it.
And once you love the Party, how can you not hate its enemies? But—what enemies? Not to worry. The Party gives you the enemies—in the same packet as your textbooks. Even as a small child you were vaccinated against these awful thoughts, ~2 and ~4, which have done such bad things to the world already, and will do many more if we don’t support our Party in speaking bravely against all kinds of heresy and badthink.
Obviously, an enemy worth hating is worth fearing; so the circle of loyalty is closed. Ultimately all the fear is transferred to the enemy. You know the Party is strong, even dangerous; so are its enemies; on any such battlefield, is fear anything but rational? Thus is your Stockholm syndrome cemented in an ironclad anosagnosia. You feel the stress and the fear—but fear of the Party? You love the Party!
Structure of the intellectual retention device
The sophistication of this trap is easily understated. It is both fence and pitfall. While the fence invites anyone over the age of nine to climb it, anyone who climbs the fence with the spirit of a child—which, as we saw, is the natural spirit of any rebel—then goes skipping blithely forward, will fall in the pit and just be gone. Somewhere at the bottom of a hundred-foot limestone shaft is a very old, very tall pile of little bones.
The problem is that you actually don’t want ~2 or ~4, “global warming is fake and it’s all a Chinese plot,” either. Once you smell the sinister, carnivorous nature of 2 and 4, your immediate impulse is to rebel as hard as you can—to push back. After all, weren’t you taught every day in school that rebelling is always good and rebels always win?
But what weapons can you rebel with? Well, you have them right there—~2 and ~4. Didn’t they come in your packet? They did come in your packet. And who put that packet together? Wait a minute… did you think the Party would give you a rifle that worked? It’s okay, kid—just put that thing down and come with us. Looks like you’re due for another session at the regional training and guidance center.
Actually, when you go for ~2 or ~4—you are still in the trap. Just deeper in it, actually. It is the very polarization between 2 and ~2, 4 and ~4, that keeps you from transcending the narrative and regarding the present world maturely as a continuation of history.
Academia in the 20s has a lot of problems, and it’s only getting worse. Yet there are still history nerds out there, right now, who are seriously studying the Wars of the Roses—as though George Floyd had never existed!—and if any such historian has any kind of an axe to grind in that conflict (perhaps as a distant relative of John of Gaunt), he is not a historian but a joke.
And yet does no one doubt that there was a day, in London, when you could get your neck wrung for spreading seditious Yorkist rumours? And there will also be a day, in America, when you can talk about the history of the 20th century, not like a PR flack but like a historian—and not get your neck wrung. But until then—keep up the ketman.
Scott is a master of the type of ketman at which, clearly, I am a mere tyro—the ketman of silence. Yet there is a type of ketman that Scott, it strikes me, uses less than he could. This is the ketman of confidence. I am bad at silence, but he is good at confidence.
As we attain a mature perspective of the world, we rise above childish hates and fears. I am always extremely diligent in asking my readers not to hate the powers that be, at least not in their human forms. They are just people with jobs. They did not even invent those jobs; the people who did are dead; these people just inhabit the machine. When the machine is finally turned off, they will come out, and just be normal people.
And our fears, too, can diminish with maturity. When we contemplate the enormous hates and fears of the 20th-century political story we grew up in, we can easily do it from the perspective of a child; we are simply awed by these titanic figures, events, victories and disasters, heroisms and crimes.
Was anything titanic lacking in the Wars of the Roses? Well—I guess you had to be there. But it is a certainty that the future will learn to regard the present with the same objective distance with which the present regards the past, or in darker times at least the distant past; it is a certainty that the future will know and understand us better, far better, than we know ourselves.
The idea that a normal person, not a sociopath or psychopath, would even have the gall to think unemotionally about issues as titanic, relevant, and burning as 2 and 4—who would do that? And why would they do it? I’m not sure even I have an answer. And yet, people have been writing pretty good history since Thucydides.
How do you play this game? Suppose you are writing your PhD thesis on the Wars of the Roses. It goes without saying that you know how to think like a Yorkist, and how to think like a Lancastrian. You could drop by a Yorkist cocktail party and come across as a totally normal and sensible person—then five hours later, you’re dancing naked on X at a Lancastrian rave. You could write a Yorkist speech—or a Lancastrian speech. You contain both; yet you are neither.
Imagine trying to understand World War II without knowing how to think like a Nazi. Or the ‘60s without knowing how to think like a segregationist. I know both these things. Does that scare you? Maybe you should be scared. (How did you get here, anyway?) And yet: I am neither. I also know how to think like a liberal; I am certainly not a liberal.
Now, this feat can be performed in an entirely mechanical and parrotlike way. GPT-3 can parrot progressive discourse, or Nazi discourse, without any problems at all. This is one way to become a competent historian—but not a good one.
To be a good historian, one must become a Nazi. And a liberal. And a segregationist. And a communist. The historian must contain the whole human experience of the era. And none of it, of course. But it doesn’t take much work for any citizen of the ‘20s to become a liberal or a communist, so…
I could try to explain what it means to be both a Nazi and a liberal, a segregationist and a communist. It’s really not possible. It’s like trying to explain acid to someone who’s never done acid. You end up being like “a complete oneness—you’ll feel, like, a deep spiritual unity—with the whole human experience—it’s really far out, man…”
Zen is like this too. You can’t talk about it—you have to do it. Zen sitting is painful and can cause serious joint and tendon damage, but old books never hurt anyone.
From this altitude of historical enlightenment, the hates and fears of the 20th century seem petty indeed—like traffic lights when you’re high. Actually, the lights are real and you should obey them. But are they petty? Yes—they are petty.
And it is this dismissive attitude, toward reality itself, which is only a hairsbreadth away from the kind of careless, arrogant Alain Delon dominance which women love, that constitutes the ketman of confidence.
We see this ketman all over some of the most iconic Western artists of the second half of the 20th century—David Bowie, Salvador Dalí, Philip Johnson, John Milius—men who seemed totally oblivious to all the world’s demands for submission. Houellebecq has it, of course—there are not many like him. Scott Alexander would look not at all out of place on a list like this—and apparently, like Houellebecq, he is also a pervert. Or at least, a polyamorist. My guess is that he doesn’t care what you or I think of this.
Not all the consequences of fear are the result of caring. Some of them aren’t; and you have to know which. Usually most of them are, though. Most but not all of the cliffs and crevasses of Plato’s cave are pure projections. If you know where you’re going, you can walk right through them and take the stairs to the exit—no clambering around in muddy tunnels. But have you ever walked through a wall in VR? Stepped off the edge of a building? It’s harder than you think.
Scott gets it right
In case anyone is really keeping score—after approximately 15,000 words—the sick owns I have managed to score on Scott Alexander are: he is not a segregationist; he is not a climate change denier. What? Didn’t I tell you the man was a king?
My hope is that our friend whose name sounds like “whale”—having a busy career to attend to, and all—has long since stopped reading. So it’s a great time to show you how Scott understands and agrees with everything important I have to say.
You do realize, dear reader, that you’ve stumbled into a monarchist blog—don’t you? Double black diamonds are all very well—we all know the Internet is full of Nazis, birthers, etc—but imagine accidentally getting convinced of monarchism. Sorry! They’ll find you in the spring!
But Scott can do it too. Here he is, making the case for monarchy over oligarchy:
This is about, well—in 2015, if you and a few of your weird friends beat the experts, it was new and exciting. You would prance around, singing "We beat the experts! We beat the experts!" In 2021 it's just depressing. Are the experts okay? Do they need help? Blink once for yes, twice for no...
I can't tell you how many times over the past year all the experts, the CDC, the WHO, the New York Times, et cetera, have said something (or been silent about something in a suggestive way), and then some blogger I trusted said the opposite, and the blogger turned out to be right. I realize this kind of thing is vulnerable to selection bias, but it’s been the same couple of bloggers throughout, people who I already trusted and already suspected might be better than the experts in a lot of ways. Zvi Mowshowitz is the first name to come to mind, though there are many others.
There are all sorts of places you could go with this. Maybe expertise is a sham, and a smart guy thinking for five minutes can outdo a decade of working on a PhD. Maybe Joe Biden is an idiot for not appointing Zvi the Secretary of Health. Maybe the whole system is a plot to keep good people down, and we need to burn it down and start over again. Or maybe I’m dumb and biased, and actually the experts are doing much better than Zvi but I’m selectively misinterpreting evidence until I think they aren’t.
Probably all of these have a grain of truth in them. But I find myself settling on a different explanation, which is something like this:
When Zvi asserts an opinion, he has only one thing he's optimizing for—being right—and he does it well.
When the Director of the CDC asserts an opinion, she has to optimize for two things—being right, and keeping power. If she doesn’t optimize for the second, she gets replaced as CDC Director by someone who does. That means she's trying to solve a harder problem than Zvi is, and it makes sense that sometimes, despite having more resources than Zvi, she does worse at it.
I don’t know if I have ever seen a better summary of my most important contribution. You can read more about how power distorts ideas in an oligarchy here.
But does Scott even know he is making the case for monarchy over oligarchy? Here we must draw a veil over the ketman of silence. Maybe he even stole the idea from me—but the great are always more than welcome to steal from the small. And usually, when you think this is happening, it just turns out that both of you live in the same reality.
(And who is this Zvi Mowshowitz character, anyway? Will he do, as our new king? The Internet tells us: he is a 42-year-old professional Magic, The Gathering player, and, of course, polyamorist—who has reached Planeswalker level 47 (Archmage). From his name—he sounds like a Jew. [CORRECTION—Zvi Mowshowitz is NOT a polyamorist—I had him mixed up with someone else. Gray Mirror regrets the error.]
On the left—the Experts. On the right—King (and Archmage) Zvi I. Sold, to King Zvi! Honestly, completely unironically—I can’t wait.)
Here is Scott’s nearly perfect explanation of the three forms of government:
I think [whale] thinks of the world like this: some experts make a plan. But experts are often biased or corrupt. So if we expose the plan to lots of democratic feedback, then ordinary people, who aren't biased or corrupt, will drag it in the direction of being better.
Sometimes this is true. But other times I use a different model. Some experts make a plan. Experts are sometimes unbiased and not-corrupt, at least insofar as it's possible for anyone to be unbiased and non-corrupt in this world. If you expose the plan to politics, the politics will drag it in the direction of being worse. Every feedback channel you open up is a way for somebody to attack you.
If you're planning the coronavirus response, maybe the best thing you can do is lock Zvi in a cave completely incommunicado and make him write one for you. The moment there's a gap in the cave, thousands of lobbyists and activists and politicians will rush in, trying to sue him or bribe him or threaten him or guilt him into changing it to favor their constituency. If he has the slightest shred of self-preservation, the end result will be some balance between the good plan he would have written earlier, and the stuff he needs to include to avoid getting sued or fired or cancelled or universally-loathed or mobbed.
There are approximately zero intellectuals who actually believe in actual democracy, which is just “populism.” Not only does actual democracy suck, it sucks especially for intellectuals. Why would any intellectual believe in it? Because Socrates? What? And if our cetacean friend believes in it—he needs to have a good talk with his wife. Because it sure seems like she’s on my side.
Also, all experts ancient and modern agree that democracy cannot even function, much less function well, without an energetic and virtuous population. As a political force it may yet have its part to play, but we cannot imagine democracy as a political engine. Not in the present world or anything like it, for that world is a world of techno-slobs.
Now, everyone from Pyongyang to Redmond has a democracy-branded product for you. But in terms of functioning political mechanisms, now and for the foreseeable future, there are only two available forms, which are: monarchy and oligarchy. Historically, these are the most common of the three forms anyway—so it’s chill.
Scott, right here, is making the case for absolute monarchy—in such an elegant way that I almost feel bad about exposing it. But obviously, if Zvi I does not need to listen to the lobbyists and activists and politicians—if he can just send them away, or even have their heads off, if he is just in charge of the government—like—say—FDR—well, there’s no problem, then, is there? Was there a problem with—FDR? Say it loud, so we can hear…
The Zvi system
I don’t even feel so bad about outing Scott, because he goes on to say it himself:
Obviously the best case scenario would be that Zvi or whoever was the expert, and could have done what they did, only earlier. But this is assuming away the entire problem.
What’s the best form of government? Benevolent dictatorship, obviously, just get the best person in the country and let her fix everything. But everyone realizes this is easier said than done; the procedure to pick the best person is corruptible. At one point we tried a very simple best-person-picking procedure that really should have worked and ended up choosing Donald Trump as the best person. I'm still not really sure what went wrong there, but apparently this is really hard.
It is really hard! So are, like, airplanes. And yet: we fly. As for “really should have worked,” maybe Scott is not as unfamiliar as I have suggested with the ironic arts. (Maybe we could just agree on Zvi I? Polyamory is really good, for dynastic purposes…)
The most irritating element of this line of discourse—which again, if he wanted to get out of the trap, a mind as sharp as Scott’s would instantly detect—is that everything in the world that actually works, works on this strange “Zvi system.”
Big companies work on the Zvi system. Drive a car? It was made by the Zvi system. Small companies work on the Zvi system. Little family sushi restaurants work on the Zvi system. China works on the Zvi system. Movies are made by the Zvi system. Federal Express works on the Zvi system. Things that don’t work on the Zvi system? The post office, the public schools, and the CDC. Oh, the rest of history used—the Zvi system. Is this Bayesian? Sir, we’re getting calls from the Bayes Department…
Finally, we get Scott’s real steelman case for oligarchy. As strong as he can make it. Which is strong:
I’m not that radical. I continue to support gradual change. Isn’t that weird?
What I sometimes call Marx’s Fallacy is that if we burnt down the current system, some group of people who optimized for things other than power would naturally rise to the top. Wrong. People who most brutally and nakedly optimized for power would gain power; that’s what “optimize” means.
What we can call Alexander’s Fallacy is that the only way to switch systems is by fire. East Germany wants a word. And did people who most brutally and nakedly optimized for power gain power in—Czechoslovakia?
I like to tell people that I interviewed at Google in 1997. If they catch me and point out that Google was founded in 1998, I confess—it was not actually Google. It was at SGI (Silicon Graphics), which was the Google of its day (if a bit overripe—and they thought they could get me for 70K, which was weird)—and whose palatial headquarters, along with many of its top-tier engineers, wound up as Google HQ. None of which titanic organizational changes involved even a little fire—maybe some redecorating, though.
If all you have is a plan to “burn down the current system,” you do not actually have a plan at all. There are certain things, like making an apple pie, that will basically come out okay whether you have a plan or not. There are others, like launching a satellite, or swimming the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, or regime change, for which your plans can’t be either too detailed, or too complete.
The interesting thing about the current system is that, after millions of very smart and altruistic people have contributed to it over generations, sometimes gaining and keeping power within it is modestly correlated with being good and right.
Very true. But the thing is—that correlation is very unevenly distributed.
As Scott points out, the CDC despite its immense Covid fuckups is still pretty with-it, by DC standards. For instance, just botching a few tests, or something, makes the whole US foreign-policy apparatus look pretty good. While, if you believe Nicholson Baker—and I do—the US public-health apparatus may have caused Covid (via the infamous EcoHealth Alliance)—the US national-security establishment would probably have found a way to cause it twenty years ago. At least we got Afghanistan.
When we go looking for arms and tentacles of the USG that work well, the best parts we find are the humblest and most technical—things like the Coast Guard. I actually know very little about the Coast Guard. I am sure that, if you put Elon Musk in charge of the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard would be improved. Would it be—revolutionized?One feels that it would not be—that it would still be, basically, the Coast Guard.
One cannot say this for, say, the Department of Energy. And before anyone rushes to remind us that Trump, a CEO (same job as a king), was “in charge” of the Department of Energy—well, my mother did budget and policy at the Department of Energy. (Also, Trump basically ran a branding firm—which never actually did anything.)
The Congress is in charge of the Department of Energy, and the rest of the legislative branch—often misdescribed as the “executive branch.” The White House appoints a few suits and calls some BS meetings. Even in a normal Republican administration, let alone one built around a 280-pound six-year-old, the extent to which the President is even in control of the White House is debatable. Yes, it was different in FDR’s day!
If we imagined putting Elon Musk in charge of the whole “executive branch,” with just the same powers he has over Tesla or SpaceX, we can imagine humble, technical arms like the Coast Guard surviving almost intact. We cannot imagine anything like the State Department, the Pentagon, or the national-security world empire in general.
If these things did not exist, who on earth would invent them? The occupation of Afghanistan? NATO? Africa Command? Would Zvi I come up with any such thing? Some arms of Washington are like the Coast Guard, or at least the CDC; they may not be perfectly run, but they basically make sense; but many more are more like State or Energy, in which even the existence of the agency seems contingent and historical.
In the end, here is the best Scott can do:
Making it better should still be our top priority, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how much we’ve already got. This means experts can play an important role; they're people who are legibly mediocre.
Nor should we lose sight of how much we are missing. Mediocrity is inherently in the eye of the beholder. Czechoslovakia, too, was mediocre. Did they understand what they were missing? Mediocrity makes that hard.
From “legibly mediocre” we slide easily to “consistently incompetent,” which is already the new normal in many parts of the US and its government—and, since we have the Third World, we know exactly where this future goes. Caracas anyone? Do you know what Caracas was like 75 years ago? What about—Detroit?
Furthermore, the question of what will actually make these oligarchies/bureaucracies work better is completely unanswered. “Making it better” may be “our top priority,” but only by “supporting gradual change.”
How do “we” make it better? At present, is it getting better—or worse? When we “make it better,” will that be using the same people—or different people? What about the same structures? Orgcharts, funding, etc?
These are extremely basic questions and they have no answers. They circle back to the basically loyal urge of the rationalist to heal a world that pretends to be reasonable, by urging it—somehow—to—be reasonable. Like Hunter Thompson’s psychedelic doctor, he is trying to hum a better world into existence.
The sausage sends an email
Ultimately, we are all programmed to ignore evidence that our dreams are impossible. Perhaps, without this programming, we could not function—or at least, dream. But a Bayesian goes one better: he ignores evidence that would lead him to infer that his dreams are impossible. Take this remarkable post about how the world works:
I heard from a journalist yesterday after writing yesterday's post on WebMD. They’ve been trying to write a coronavirus article worthy of Zvi or any of the other illegibly smart people writing on the pandemic. Apparently the bottleneck is sources.
In most journalistic settings, you can't just write “here’s what I think.” You have to write “here’s what my source, a recognized expert, said when I interviewed them.” And the experts are pretty sparing with their interviews for contrarian stories.
The way my correspondent described it: sources don’t usually get to approve the way they're quoted in an article, or to see it before it gets published. So they're really cagey about saying anything that might get misinterpreted.
None of these people actually think for themselves. It is not their job to do so. They are not in fact allowed to do so. If they do in fact do so, they keep it to themselves. The experts are allowed to take risks by thinking for themselves—very rarely. Maybe once or twice in a career (unless you’re, somehow, George Church). The journalists—never. They cannot compete with Zvi because they are not even playing the same game. No one is (except Zvi, and Scott, and me, and maybe a few other such jackasses).
But the sources are thoughtful people. These journalists who write the stories are thoughtful people. So they sound thoughtful. They create a narrative that sounds—if you’re not listening too closely, which too many of us were forced to do in 2020—like the pure rule of thought and expertise. It makes a great curate’s egg.
There is a bit of good egg in the shell—in the most technical fields. Always less and less. Always, it is crowded out by scheming, backscratching, ass-covering and process—process, process, process. Didn’t we just spend a year waiting for a—process? And let’s not even get started with the ideology…
And you’re going to make this system work? How? How, exactly? I don’t want to burn it down—I just want to replace it with something reasonable. My reasonable thing is not exactly popular. Reason doesn’t exactly care about that, does it?
A chat with State Security
Speaking of journalists… as I prepared to put this piece to bed, I got mail from one:
Hello Curtis: My name is [elided], and I'm a reporter with The New York Times, based in its San Francisco bureau.
We are publishing a large story tomorrow about the Slate Star Codex blog and the Rationalists tomorrow morning (in the paper on Sunday). It mentions you in a few places.
Can you chat today? Just want to run it by you, give you the chance to comment etc.
Would need to happen by 3pm Pacific today.
Would I have a chance to be… born yesterday? Alas, I once was. But not today. You know those videos on how to talk to the cops? With journalists, it’s not too different:
You can send me a list of questions if you want.
Sent from my iPhone
He did! One thing worth remembering about journalists: in my experience, they always follow their own rules. Oligarchies are good at that. I’ve corrected some typos, etc:
Thanks. The story just mentions a few things:
it mentions you and other “neoreactionaries”
it says that you decried American democracy and held racist beliefs
it describes the neoreactionaries as an anti-democratic, often racist movement
it points out that Peter Thiel invested in Urbit, as did the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, led in the investment by Balaji Srinivasan, who was then a general partner.
it also quotes from an email that Mr. Srinivasan sent you and others about an article in Tech Crunch that discussed links between Silicon Valley investors and the neoreactionaries
it mentions a similar email sent by Peter Thiel
Did someone mention bears and avalanches? Indeed you have all kinds of adventures when you go off-piste. Stick to the marked trails, kids.
Remember, this is not a story about me. This is a story about Scott—who is not even part of my “movement.” (Not that I have a “movement” lol—I have a blog.) But:
That’s not a list of questions lol
Sent from my iPhone
Reporter Friendly tries one more time to engage me in a nice “chat”:
Are these things true? If not, what are your objections?
You are not the focus of the story. But you come up in places.
Only be helpful:
They’re very general accusations!
The one tip I’d share is if that if you’re looking at using any Wikipedia hits on me, make sure you check the original context—you don’t want your journalistic standards to be at the whim of some random Wikipedia nerd.
Sent from my iPhone
And, because I like poetry, I also sent him a nice poem—by our Polish friend, Milosz. It’s very important to be nice to these people—you don’t have to be who they are.
We’ll see what the Eye of Sauron can do. Should be a fun weekend. However, it is my duty as a grifter to inform you that, unfortunately, while both these fine publications are available at roughly the same low price—just a couple of dollars a week—the New York Times still has almost four thousand times as many subscribers as Gray Mirror. We freely acknowledge that our tastes are unusual—but still, is this fair? Is it right?