Will Wilkinson, the slave of power
"It is in the nature of a human being to seek a justification for his actions."
In 2021, the captive mind is an embarrassment of riches. I have already used Milosz’s Gamma twice, and yet here is his very image—a fellow named Will Wilkinson, who used to flirt with illegal ideas when he was young and now drops a red-cheeked apple on power’s desk every morning. (Please do not go trawling the early 2000s Internet for evidence of the former—that would only flatter him, and besmirch you.1)
Wilkinson, using stolen emails in a typically nasty way which is proper for a journalist and would disgrace any scholar or gentleman, is out to purge Scott Alexander. Not that it matters, but he also lies about me—which is not proper for a journalist. He says:
Peter Theil [sic] gives him money.
bankrolled by Theil
What he means is: Founders Fund invested in my company, in 2013. (They didn’t take no loss, neither.) Bear in mind: the speaker is someone who has never produced anything, other than snark, in his entire miserable life. “Gives” is all he knows.
Normally, when I give a guy “the treatment,” and he too has a stack, because I am nice, I suggest that my subscribers go and subscribe to him. I think I will skip it in this case. I request a correction. I request that, while he’s at it, he learn to spell.
Wilkinson also calls me a “neo-fascist”—the favorite slur of his worm-tongued breed. Indeed this essay would have done real credit to Vyshinsky. We constantly expect the author to break into the full-throated song of
Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Down with these abject animals! Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let’s exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to tear to pieces the flower of our new Soviet nation!
Is that how you feel about me, Will? No need to be bashful! Show us your ferocious teeth, your eagle claws…
Actually, Wilkinson’s most remarkable paragraph is not at all a Vyshinskian rant. It is the opposite: an incredibly subtle, yet completely sincere, admission against interest—which is so good that it frees us from reading the rest of his (not short) essay.
For what it’s worth, [Hanson and Cowen’s] paper persuaded me that rigorously consistent Bayesian updating is inconsistent with personal coherence, persistent social loyalty and the ability to make trustworthy credible commitments to non-defection—the thing that makes positive-sum cooperation possible. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point of it.
What does our serpent mean? He means that power is above reason. More exactly: the Party is above reason. If power needs black to be white, black will be white. If reason was Wilkinson’s wife, this would be his explanation for letting power suck his dick.
You should satisfy yourself that this exegesis is true. Look at all three of the items on this list. Each one is another way to say “being loyal to the Party.” Look at what they are being contrasted with. Wilkinson is explicitly not quarreling with Bayes’ theorem. He is telling you: if the Party needs 2+2 to be 5, 2+2 is 5. This is O’Brien in the flesh. O’Brien is fully capable of reason. But he has an open marriage with it.
You see people blurting this out here and there on the Internets these days. People will simply admit that they cannot handle facts and logic—which lead them to conclusions they consider morally unacceptable. They have to “mind-kill” themselves. I do have to say, though, that I have never seen this admission handled quite so elegantly.
All this is just sad. There is no such thing as a morally unacceptable fact. But in Wilkinson’s mind, the Party—we can be exact here: the Times—has assumed roughly the role of the Vatican, the Chrysanthemum Throne and the Politburo put together. When facts and logic refute the Emperor—facts and logic refute themselves.
As they used to say, a long long time ago in a galaxy far away:
“Mussolini is always right.” Maybe we’re all “neo-fascists” here? How strange is it that all regimes seem to follow—the universal rule of regimes?
But I have an advantage: I am not part of any regime. So I can actually be married to reason. Talk to the ring, bitch! That’s my “trustworthy credible commitment.” (Did they make him set a card on fire? It’s DC, though, so the mind turns to… never mind.)
Inverse argumentation ethics
Now, once someone has admitted that he serves power above reason (everyone has a conscience—you have to catch these brief gasps of it, quicker than a liar’s tell), you cannot reason with him—as you would with a scholar and a gentleman, like Scott Alexander. Not only is he not allowed to enter the ring with you, you are not allowed to enter the ring with him. It would be like having a duel with your chauffeur.
Nay—with such a creature, one can only bandy words. I like that too! It’s a different thing, though. Sometimes one has time for it, and sometimes one doesn’t.
The great libertarian philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe put much of his intellectual energy into an idea called argumentation ethics, which attempted to derive human rights, or at least property rights (those libertarians!), from the ability to reason. I never really found this program very successful. But…
If we invert Hoppe’s formula, we get the old Catholic nostrum that error has no rights. Maybe we’ve drifted too far from our deep Western roots? The Times seems to agree. Somewhere, Jack Nicholson is nodding furiously.
It’s important that we recognize this trahison des clercs—our ruling class’s betrayal of reason for power, power once entrusted to them because of their capacity to reason. After a century of power’s corruption, this clerical class (in which I was raised) is no longer fit for purpose—corroded, like some nuclear-reactor part, by its own function.
We see the result right here. These human beings can no longer pretend to be thinkers. Their every intellectual reflex is that of the secret police. They have dedicated their lives to the state security of one of the most inept, clumsy and callous regimes in history.
And it’s also important not to talk about crimes without talking about punishments: leaving such important matters vague invites dangerous flights of whimsy. The right answer is not exciting at all, unfortunately.
The ideal punishment for almost every slave of power is simple. He should be forced to live happily and flourish in the next regime. In which he is quite powerless, obviously. In most cases he should not be literally punished—he literally has done nothing wrong.
The slave of power is an addict. Something has happened in his brain that fused the chain of neurons between “the good” and “the Party,” which should have been long and webby and full of delicate moral logic, trolley problems and so on, and turned it into a big copper busbar that can shunt enough dopamine to blow a man to Neptune. There is probably some kind of emergency remote signal that can make him orgasm.
The only way to cure this person is to cut the wire, which means regime change. We know what happens to retired Stasi officers in the new Germany: they live quietly in their little white houses, tending their roses, cashing their Stasi pension checks. Do they feel shame? Anger, even? Who cares? They are not rifling through anyone’s email.
Kremlinology for the win
I will not quote any more of Wilkinson’s post. But you should read it anyway, because it is well-written, and truly expresses the worldview of a talented, loyal apparatchik. The core is the paean to the Times that comes about a third of the way down. It is almost eerily like something that might have been written about the CPSU in 1985. But did the late USSR have writers this good? Wilkinson is a master of the strawman, which he uses like Miyamoto with the katana—he will frequently wield two at once.
As we know, the Times is a fifth-generation hereditary absolute monarchy. This is why the ruling class trusts it so much. Fake democracy for the peasants—real monarchy for the rulers.
But I would be the last to claim that hereditary monarchy is a flawless design. Sooner or later, you get a weak king. When that happens—your monarchy degenerates into an oligarchy. For example, it may cede actual power to a legislature, Slack, etc. And once a weak monarch gives away power, it takes a hell of a strong monarch to get it back.
My theory of the Times is that the Sulzbergers were the last great press dynasty which actually maintained a kind of supervision over the news desk—keeping it focused, consistent with the Hoppean theory of monarchical time preference, on the long-term interests of the institution and even (gasp!) the nation.
Jeff Bezos owns the Post. But he does not actually own the Post. If he started exercising guidance over the tone and direction of the news desk’s reporting, people would laugh. If he proved he was serious, people would leave. Jeff Bezos could destroy the Post, but not control the Post.
It is, or was, different at the Times. “He kept the paper straight.” And of course, all the other (legitimate) papers followed the Times’ lead. So, for most of the last century, the American oligarchy actually had, at its head, this absolute monarchy—a monarchy fully conscious of its nature, duties and dignity.
Respect! But now, it seems, it is not Emperor Sulzberger V who is truly in charge—it is the Times’ office Slack. Every oligarchy is a parliament of weasels. And now the time of the weasel has truly begun—and those, like Wilkinson, whose careers demand a keen nose for the scent of the age, who “seven years ago / Talked of honour and of truth,” now “Shriek with pleasure as they show / The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.”
It’s fine; they’re just humans, doing what humans do; we all contain all these beasts, in truth. Yet the Times still has thousands of times more subscribers than Gray Mirror: