Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Political Sacred

Political symbols are highly charged with sacredness and its opposite. Think of what the red flag and hammer and sickle meant to devoted communists and to their enemies, and still does. Or the swastika, but that՚s almost too powerful to even talk about. The American flag is a sacred symbol to many, and a symbol of violence and oppression to others. All these symbols point both to big abstract ideas and to concrete political formations. They were created in part for this very purpose, to bind people together, to give them something larger than themselves to work towards. And, not accidentally, they also are selective, they attract certain people and label others as outsiders or enemies.

The sacred is nothing without something profane to act as contrastive background. I can think of a few not-very-successful attempts to create political sacred symbols that were supposed to be universal and non-exclusive:

the UN and its iconography
un_logo.png


or the Earth flag
Earth_Day_Flag.png



These haven՚t really caught on. Their message is slightly obnoxious, to display them says that one is above the tribalism that has everybody else in its grasp. It embodies neatly the inherent contradictions of liberalism, a tribe for the cosmopolitan.

[In the comments to the last post, my pet troll was trying to make me justify my interest in neoreaction. It՚s simply this – it makes me a better liberal. Like any other modern political movement, liberalism is both a set of particular people and values (a tribe) and a universalizing ideology. The trick to not being a mindless liberal is to acknowledge both sides of that contradiction.]

But this post was inspired by something rather less lofty, namely the confederate flag and its prominence in the current political conversation, thanks to the mass killing at an African American church in Charleston, by a young man who was deeply immersed in southern racism.

Dylan-Storm-Roof.jpg





Here Mr. Roof is displaying the flags of Rhodesia, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Confederacy. This has spawned a movement to try to get rid of the confederate flag, seeing as how it is a symbol of racism and treason. Even Mitt Romney is on board.

I have to say that I too am onboard with the efforts to get rid of the confederate flag, especially from official locations like the South Carolina state house. Oddly some of my justifications for this have a neoreactionary flavor. A neoreactionary state clamps down firmly against any kind of political threats to its authority and stability. And it՚s not clear why the United States should allow a symbol of a defeated rebellion against its authority be so prominently displayed. Since I՚m a liberal and not a neoreactionary I think individuals should have the right to display symbols of treason, but if it՚s on proud display by the government, something is profoundly wrong.

Yet I am trying to put myself in the heads of people to whom it is a sacred symbol. People for whom the confederate flag is not a symbol for something foul, but a marker of their highest values: loyalty, tradition, whatever. I don՚t doubt that their attachment to the symbol is genuine, but that doesn՚t redeem it or them in the slightest. They remain the enemy.

How does one deal with an internal enemy? The neoreactionary solution is to annihilate or suppress them completely. The liberal solution, apparently, is to let them go about maintaining their “heritage” and hope they՚ll improve themselves over time. It՚s been 150 years since the civil war, that hasn՚t really seemed to work out very well. Unfortunately conflicts between sacred values can՚t be argued out rationally; they require either battle or separation.

Or maybe that is only a short-term view, a tribal view. Maybe all the tribal battles between groups dedicated to their limited sacred values – their idols – will give way over time to reconciliation under the umbrella of more universal and transcendent values. Just because it՚s harder than the naive folks with their UN and hippie earth flags thought, does not mean it can՚t happen over the long course of time.

[previous and more]

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Moldbuggery

I was just talking about nerd politics, and lo and behold, we have a fresh spasm of geek outrage to examine. Strange Loop, a hip technical conference, invited Curtis Yarvin (the real-word persona of Mencius Moldbug, the inventor of neoreaction) to give a talk on his Urbit system. Then, quite rapidly they rescinded the invitation when his political writings came to their attention, causing a fairly major internet fracas. It gave the right a chance to complain about censorship and the puritanical minds of SJWs, and they never pass one of those up.

But they really have no grounds for complaint, because freedom of speech is a liberal value, and Moldbug is quintessentially anti-liberal. From the neoreactionary viewpoint, there is no public sphere, not the streetcorner (which belongs to the monarch) and certainly not a private conference. The owners get to decide what is done with their property and the outrage of the offended non-owners carries no weight at all. And in this case, the owners of the conference decided they didn՚t want to be associated with a purveyor of flagrant racism.

I was kind of on the fence about it myself. On the one hand, I like robust freedom of speech; I dislike the new oversensitivity; and having technical presentations censored because of not-obviously-related political opinions of the presenter seemed like a really bad precedent.

On the other hand, Moldbug՚s opinions really ought to be beyond the pale of polite society. While I wouldn՚t interfere with his rights to post them on his own site, I don՚t think Strange Loop has an obligation to be open to all. Their argument is that hate is different from political opinion, they have a duty and obligation to keep their community friendly, and having Nazi-level crap in the mix might interfere with that job.

On the other other hand, to pretend that there is some categorical difference between hate and politics seems a trifle disingenuous. Hate is pretty fundamental; ideologies or groups in general define themselves in terms of what they hold sacred and its opposite. Moldbug isn՚t any more hateful than the rest of us, he just doesn՚t hate the right things. In the world we live in, hating racism is OK (required even), but hating a race is not.

Some claim he is not a racist, which is ridiculous if you՚ve read any of his stuff. What might be true is that he isn՚t fundamentally motivated by race hatred. If you take him at his word, what he really hates is disorder. Singapore is his ideal, a strong state with clean streets and no messy dissent. This is what makes neoreaction primarily a nerdy antipolitics, whose ideals are more abstract than the more typical loyalties and resentments of the mainstream.

But, while he may not be primarily motivated by race-hatred, he's just perfectly willing to allow racial oppression in the service of maintaining order. That may not be classical racist hate, but it's close enough. One of the Nazi՚s main justifications for their crimes against Jews was order and purity.

On the tactical level, Moldbug has scored a huge win for himself, and Strange Loop shot itself in the foot. He՚s got way more publicity, for both his technical and political work, than if he had given his talk. And now the conference has got a lot of unwelcome attention and associations. It would have been smarter to let him come and publish a disclaimer in the program or something.

Certainly I have been forced again to re-examine my assumptions, to look anew at my own ideas and values and how I defend them against challenges. Moldbug is good medicine for genuine progressives, who more than most have an obligation to think through their beliefs. It՚s strong and possibly toxic medicine, but having your thought congeal into mindless ideology is even more toxic.

[update: someone pointed out that al3x (linked above) is not officially associated with StrangeLoop, and linked a response from one of the actual organizers.]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Three forms of antipolitics

There՚s a certain quality that unites libertarianism, rationalism, and neoreaction, and helps to explain my somewhat conflicted attitude towards all of them. They are all in their own way antipolitical, and for roughly the same underlying reason. To put it crudely, nerds don՚t like politics, perhaps because they are generally no good at it. These ideologies are all, in different ways, trying to replace politics with something more tractable to the nerdish brain – something with neat well-defined rules. These formal systems are obviously better than the messy and violent reality of actual politics in every respect but the most important one – they don՚t engage with the actuality of power

I՚m going to just assume that nerdism is something like lightweight Asperger՚s, which means that some of the normal mental circuitry that deals with modelling and interacting with other people just doesn՚t work as well as it should. As a consequence, aspie-nerds tend to be awkward socializers but often with compensating skills at formal reasoning. They can grasp formally complicated structures so they often excel at computer engineering and similar pursuits. They tend to like board games.

The similarity I see in the three ideologies is that they are all efforts of the nerdish to try to apply their board-game thinking to the real world. In some sense these are laudable efforts – what could be more important than trying to come up with better models for understanding and influencing the real world? The three ideologies all have powerful models they are organized around, and that model is a powerful enough tool that it suggests to some people that it is foundational, that the model is somehow sufficient for everything. There՚s a point where a system of useful ideas becomes an ideology, a fetish, and a cult.

To be a bit more concrete: libertarians fetishize individual property rights and the marketplace, rationalists fetishize objectivity, and neoreactionaries fetishize centralized power. Note that these things are not really very compatible with each other, yet these groupings are quite socially close and people drift from one camp to the other rather easily. Which is evidence for my thesis that it is a certain kind of intellectual fetishization of simple rule systems that unites them, even if the rule systems themselves vary widely.

But the messy world of actual politics is another matter. The effective leader of rationalism, Eliezer Yudkowsky has a widely read post called “Politics is the Mind-Killer”, which puts the thesis pretty starkly: politics interferes with the rationalist goal of pure objective cognition. Rationalism defines itself around figuring out what is true. Having interests, especially political interests, interferes with this. And indeed, politics is not about what is true so much is it is about what people want, and how they collectively go about getting it.

Rationalists tend to be repelled by social phenomenon like that. A comment on Scott Alexanders blog, expressed the great unease he feels in a political crowd:
“I’ve never been to such an event, but I also don’t get them. In fact, I find myself actively creeped out by many forms of collective displays of emotion/enthusiasm.”
Libertarianism is a sort of antipolitical political belief system. It is an ideology for those who don՚t believe in politics, don՚t trust politics, and think that the messy business of human collective goal-seeking can be replaced by the purely individualistic and quantitative mechanisms of the market. Libertarianism holds great attraction for nerds in part because of its (ostensible) elegant distribution of control. The realities of winner-take-all monopoly capitalism don՚t enter into their thinking, as far as I can tell. Libertarianism has been critiqued to death, by me and others (over and over) and I don՚t want to do that here, just to acknowledge that I believe what attracts at least the nerdy to libertarianism is not greed (the usual critique from the left) but the desire to replace the political reality of society with something simpler.

Neoreaction spun out of libertarianism, and while it seems to have attracted a whole bunch of unsavory racists, I believe the true motivation of its founder Mencius Moldbug was basically the same as the libertarian one, namely, to eliminate the inter-group conflict of politics and replace it with something better, that is, something simpler and more formalizable – he even calls his imaginary system “formalism”. I can՚t tell whether he is more horrified by the violence of inter-group conflict (which is something that can be truly horrifying) or its messiness, its failure to be captured by simple rules.

Moldbug basically was a libertarian who was too smart to accept the fantasies of the market worshipers, so rather than giving up he doubled down and advocated rule by an absolute monarch. This stroke of genius eliminates politics altogether, in his fantasy. (Note: any readers not in Silicon Valley may have problems believing that people are seriously putting forward this idea, but trust me, it՚s a big deal among the advanced thinkers of nerdistan).

Much to my surprise neoreaction grew from a single blog run by a single genius to a major movement, which now has an incalculable number of websites and buy-in from some fairly serious people. It՚s now in the fissile stage where groups are firing off manifestos to each other as the break up into separate groups – it seems that trying to run a movement on radically authoritarian principles may be as difficult as trying to run one on radical anarchist principles. This warms my heart.

So, rationalism, libertarianism, and neoreaction all stem from and share a revulsion to normal politics. Yet are all political movements in themselves: the last two obviously so, but rationalism, given that it is in part a movement, an ideology, even a bit of a cult, can՚t help taking on political characteristics of its own. Rationalism has an agenda, just like any other human group, and is thus political (just like any other well-meaning non-profit group, like say Amnesty International, it acts as though its values are or should be universal).

I believe these people are all deeply wrong, although I am torn because I empathize with some of the motivations that lead them to these antipolitical forms of politics. Yes indeed, politics sucks, but no, it cannot be avoided, to try to do so is to simply give yourself over to the manipulations of others. And, while revolutions do happen and replace one political order with another, I am skeptical that you can replace politics with a well-engineered formal system.

I could be wrong, and it could also be that the effort to do so results in valuable insights and ideas. So I don't consider these movements to be valueless by any means. Spinning fanciful political utopias and working to realize them is obviously a broader phenomenon, so why shouldn't nerds do it? Political fantasy can be dangerous but it is also the source of change, and god knows we need some changes.

I myself am a bigtime nerd, and am pretty bad at and kind of hate politics, and wish it would leave me alone. So antipolitical ideologies present themselves as temptations that I need to fight against. That՚s why I spend so much energy fighting them, it is a battle with a part of myself.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Hooray, hooray, it՚s the first of May

It՚s the special day of the year where we honor international labor solidarity. I hereby acknowledge whatever it is I have in common with all the other people in the world who must work for a living. That՚s most of us, I guess, excluding those who have made or inherited fuck-you money. May Day is about the dream that the more lowly working stiffs, who know they will never have that degree of freedom, will at least have a small space in which they can say fuck you to those they are obligated to serve. No wonder it coincides with a pagan festival.
At my age I can՚t work up much hatred for capitalism any more. Not only am I too bought into the system, I am deeply unimpressed by all the proposed alternatives and most of the people who advocate them. Yes, there՚s something horrible about it, all the more so when you consider how capable it is of putting on a friendly face. It may be destroying the planet, it may be converting human culture into a mindless bland mass market nothing. But it՚s also feeding billions of people and producing actual life-enhancing innovations, so there՚s that. Still, just for a day, I would like to say a hearty fuck you to our economic system and all it embodies. Just for a day, then I will go back to work, and go back to giving money, the people who wield its power, and the bourgeoise virtues in general the respect they deserve.

I՚ve been part of a non-money-based world at Burning Man, but Burning Man, like May Day, lives in a special zone where dreamlike alternatives come temporarily into reality and then vanish once more into the mists. They leave us tantalized with possibility and discouraged at the default world we actually inhabit. I have a weird relationship with these sorts of collective dreams – both deeply skeptical and inexorably attracted. I think of myself as too smart or too critical to embrace these childish fantasies, but I՚m not so smart that I can live without dreams.

The dream of the labor movement and the left seems old and tired at this point. It used to offer the hope of a better world, not just materially better, but spiritually better – that is the point of solidarity, that very religious-sounding bedrock concept of leftist thought. A certain way of being among your fellow human beings – recognizing that we are all (in some sense, some of the time) working together for the same things. There՚s really nothing better than that feeling, which of course is not the exclusive property of leftist movements.

In fact the capitalists of Silicon Valley are experts at generating this feeling (or a simulacrum of it) among their employees, with team-building exercises, shared meals, and other efforts to create communal feelings. Capitalism excels in giving people what they want, and apparently people very much want something that feels like socialism.

Most people don't seem to have any problem blending this community spirit with the presence of power, money, hierarchy, and authority, but I do, and it may be one of the roots of my general difficulty with the corporate world. Oh I will take fake solidarity when I can get it, it's better than nothing, but I'll be damned if I'll confuse it with the real thing.

Or maybe working at faking solidarity is the real job we all have, maybe our greatest obligation is to do this so well that it becomes effectively real.

Previous May Day posts

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mr. Burns

I caught a performance of Mr. Burns yesterday, and I would highly recommend it except that I think that was the last of its run in San Francisco. This was a meta enough production to satisfy any nerd — a play about the nature of memory and narrative, whose own story is about survivors of a somewhat unspecific apocalypse trying to keep their lives together by remembering and re-enacting old episodes of The Simpsons.


It occurred to me that Mr. Burns is doing for the future what Art Spiegelman's Maus did for the past. That is, both grapple with issues that are too horrible to contemplate directly by going at them through an ostensibly non-serious medium.




Saturday, March 14, 2015

Against Pi Day

I don՚t want to poop on anybody՚s celebration of Pi Day, but while pi itself is certainly something to be wondered at and celebrated, the fact that an arbitrarily numbered point on the human calendar aligns with the decimal approximate representation of something transcendental and timeless does not excite me in the least.

What I՚m saying is, we live in a universe where pi pops up everywhere, so every day (defined by a rotation of our pi-manifesting spherical planet) should be pi day.