Man's first step towards God is away from himself

Complexity and Difficulty

"It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a
deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.
And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only
nothingness, and they will be led again like cattle to

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the
word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their
sons and the debasement of their daughters.
They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that
what will strike them ripens in themselves."  - from Sarajvo by Czeslaw Milosz


In a former life I was a lobbyist for the Syrian opposition. A confounding thing would happen when we would show journalists, members of Congress, or policy experts pictures of tortured and murdered Syrians. Often the pictures would feature horrific burns, missing genitals, wounds for which an American mind could not imagine the instrument or process that made them. The viewer, always summoning a concerned and sullen affect, would take a moment, perhaps even comment on the tragedy illuminated in the images. After a beat, they would say that the Syrian conflict was "complicated."

I want to be fair. I know what they meant. They meant to indicate that they were questioning the efficacy of proposed policy solutions. Here are 40,000 tortured, murdered disfigured bodies. So what do you, lobbyist, want? Bombs on Damascus? An assassination? Shoulder rockets for the ideologically questionable FSA. (I for one never quite understood why a common reaction to videos of unarmed crowds being gunned down or gassed was to ask if they understood Jeffersonian democracy or separation of powers). In the modern swirl of moral oblivion, they were making a widely tolerated claim that the horror of the abuse of human beings must be subordinated to the impossibility of a productive intervention. 

Is this implicitly offensive? Well, I will admit that I have sympathy for those who didn't know what to do in Syria. I have some sympathy for companies looking in confusion at the implications of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The thing is, these decisions are difficult they are not complicatedThese words are not synonyms. When a moral issue is complicated, we do not know the appropriate course to take. When a moral issue is difficult, we are unsure if we are willing to pay the price to do What We Know Is Right

In Hong Kong, in Syria, in Xinjiang, in Kashmir, in Myanmar, there can be no moral confusion over what is taking place. Hateful, authoritarian regimes are killing people for who they are and what they believe. In our fractured world of fake news and infinite online perspectives, an invocation of "grey" areas of morality is a shield we use to protect against the onslaught of guilt at our own cowardice. Morality is as clear as it's ever been. What has proliferated is the number of excuses available to not act. 

My friends on the left would say this is the logic of capitalism, but I think it goes far deeper. Our instinct to please our friends, to preserve profitable relationships, to look away from violence enacted by a partner does not require a free market. It requires moral sloth. It requires complacency. It requires a willingness to say, it is they who suffer, not me. These are the fallen qualities of man and Adam Smith did not write them into existence. 

If you are a person of faith, you know, the type of person whose children would be seized and raised by strangers in the People's Republic of China, hard decisions are the only decisions of any real consequence. Money, approval and preservation of the status quo are morally irrelevant background noise. That 'leaders' of our society can invoke the aforementioned concepts to avoid doing what we all know is right is the best evidence of our complete moral collapse. But have no doubt, even when we convince ourselves that morality is a confusing morass, God will know that clarity lurked behind our excuses and that indifference was a choice. 



Cynicism and Modesty

"But I gotta tell you, I just think to look across this room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich and complicated and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not a good writer. Because that means I'm going to be performing for a faceless audience instead of trying to have a conversation with a person." -David Foster Wallace

Political and religious thinking have different incentive structures. I think this is one of the things that Jordan Peterson struggles with when people ask him if he believes in God. It is certainly one of the reasons my close friends and relatives don't think I actually believe in God. They think I have identified that the incentive structure of religious thinking is preferable for personal well-being, and so have adopted aspects of it, but that this is distinct from real faith. I am not sure if such a distinction is real, but in any case, I think I have both. 

So what are the different incentive structures? I think that in a religious worldview, particularly a monotheistic one, the greatest peril in any given situation is peril to one's own soul. That is, in any interaction with another human being, the worst possible outcome is that I would transgress against the other person in a way that imperils my relationship with God. Non-Western monotheistic faiths share this quality: Jainism in particular seems obsessed (in a good way I think) with not transgressing against other living things. 

Political thinking, as I'm going to define it, is when transcendent importance is projected onto decidedly earthbound ideas. In this setup, positions on history and political matters have the greatest moral import. For example, opposition to universal healthcare provided by the state may be seen as an immoral act. But the implications of projecting morality onto politics are profound, and require further corruptions in the line of reasoning. Understanding the provision of healthcare requires education, familiarity with various policy matters and a level of intellectual engagement that is rare. Because it is difficult to judge a person's worth based on their education or understanding of complex ideas, it is easier to perform a slight of hand: ''No one really opposes universal healthcare, they are simply protecting an economic interest they know to be against the public good," or "they don't want universal right's provided because they don't believe group ____ deserves access to such a right."

There is a lot of evidence that these two attitudes are held by some people, but to project it onto millions of voters relies on a knowledge of other people's minds that we do not have. But the risks of misjudging another person's character differ wildly depending on your view of the world. If the goal of your life is the maintenance of your soul, judging the morality of others with limited information is a profound risk. If, on the other hand, the only outcome worth investing in is a political outcome (say the passage of universal healthcare), judging other people is not only acceptable, but possibly a necessary prerequisite to political success. Political victory, in turn, is the locus of moral progress, and therefore justifies all the defamation that was required.

This logic circles the drain, and is how we arrived in a place where no one believes anyone who disagrees with them acts in good faith. Most voters (the ones I talk to anyway), will concede that there may be regular Americans who love their fellow-man, want the best for them and simply are wrong-headed about a particular issue. However, there is a nearly universal belief in America that the politicians and media representatives working for the other side are bad actors acting in bad faith. Here are just two examples of the universal bad faith presumption in print: left and right.

This assumption also animates conversations regarding the coarsening of discourse and culture more generally. In perhaps the most famous and well-written defense of internet douchebaggery, Tom Scocca wrote that snarkiness, the abrasive and insulting tone that characterized young writers on the internet, was in fact a reaction to a worse phenomenon, "smarm." In Scocca's view, rules of decorum and tone, which grow out of the idea that people should be treated as if they are acting in good faith, amount to a series of norms that are consistently abused by the worst actors to hide their real aim.

Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.

So appeals to decorum or civil discourse are not sincere defenses of respectful engagement. They are last ditch efforts by the obviously corrupt, deployed when intellectual defenses of a position are ridiculed by a majority or have actually been proven objectively false. 

It's not that Scocca is wrong, he's surely correct that any universal commitment to decency protects the most fowl more than those who would act decently with or without the rule. However, he underestimates the cost to the rest of us of wading down into the shit. Scocca seems to imagine that if we accepted that our leaders and adversaries were the monsters the evidence shows they are, we could get down to the business of defeating and replacing them. As far as I can tell, disenchantment does not have this activating impact. In fact, it makes people depressed, disengaged and more likely to justify their own selfish behavior by believing it is no doubt minuscule in comparison to the moral depravity of those who really run the society.

Scocca and others have insisted that the corruption of the ruling class does not amount to an indictment of all humanity, but rather suggests that meritocratic capitalism selects for a brutality and aggression that correlates with moral turpitude. This may be true, but it is also true that when people stop believing that their leaders are capable of good, they internalize the same belief about themselves. 

Scocca also accused the practitioners of smarm of "faux-maturity," but I think his position has the same characteristic. It is difficult and troubling to believe that George W. Bush might be a decent guy and a good family man, but also made a decision that got nearly a million people killed. Far easier to believe he knew about 9/11 in advance and killed Iraqis for oil. If our story is Star Wars, all we have to do is find Luke and fight the Empire.

The more complex and troubling reality, what I see as actual reality, implies that personal moral virtue and political efficacy have little or nothing to do with each other. If Scocca were saying that we need to abandon the idea that our leaders should be invested with remarkable morality, my interest would be piqued. He is not saying this. He is saying we've chosen the wrong heroes.

If you believe in God, you would never expect human beings to qualify for a word like "hero," in the first place. This is why religious conservatives are counter-intuatively (to secular liberals) permissive regarding the exposure of sexual indiscretions and other moral shortcomings on the part of public figures. To be a Christian is to already know that every person has a dark heart, and a sexuality that is possessed of violence and selfishness. In this framework, a person's moral rehabilitation is a private or family matter, and public humiliation hardly makes success more likely. 

I think I have lived a life that makes it particularly easy for me to invest faith in other people, even people with whom I strongly disagree. First of all, despite my religious convictions, many of the most outstanding moral individuals I know are secular liberals. My definition of morality in this context is something like personal discipline, an ability to honor commitments, consideration towards others, self-sacrifice and a sublimation of personal needs and desires. Needless to say, people who embody these characteristics (in my experience) appear along all points of the political spectrum, making it difficult to draw moral conclusions about political coalitions. 

This possible contradiction became even more complicated while living abroad. In Syria, before the war, I encountered the most profound examples of hospitality and openness I had ever encountered anywhere on earth. In most cases, this exemplary human behavior was coming from an individual who believed reprehensible things about homosexuals and Jews. So what do you do when someone who can and has given you the shirt off their back also thinks the Israelis should be driven into the sea? In my case, you hope such a person is never in a position to make foreign policy, but you don't damn their soul in your own heart. They are a person, placed in time and space, and in many important ways, they are succeeding at drawing decency out of a difficult situation. 

I don't know what this experience implies about how we should engage with politics. I imagine those who disagree with me would say, our willingness to judge other people's motives should have some relationship to their power. In other words, a Syrian farmer can be let off the hook for being a homophobe, but Republican elected officials who sleep with rent boys and vote against gay rights should be named and shamed for the hypocrites they are. Again, as a religious person, I can't accept this framework. Money and political power to not make one's journey away from hypocrisy and towards morality any easier. Perhaps they make it harder. While I understand the particular outrage created by a morally indecent person who wants to preside over the personal behavior of others, aren't we guilty of the same thing when we focus on the sins of the powerful and famous instead of our own?

I must admit, when I read opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post, my instinct certainly is to accuse the authors of being crypto-communists or eugenicists, but I know that they are not these things. What I really mean is that the ideas they endorse may lead to those outcomes. Don't they know that? Aren't they responsible and modest enough to worry about encouraging those instincts? They are not responsible enough. None of us are. But what I also know, is that if real eugenics or communism come to America, many of the people who paved the way will change course and join me in fighting it. I believe the same thing in reverse. Can anyone doubt that if Trump refuses to leave office, at least some gun-wielding Tea party members will be the tip of the spear in re-establishing our democracy? 

I would really like to spend my time passing judgement, and even more to delude myself that cultivating a sense of moral superiority was in itself a righteous act. The problem is, the only person I truly know to be a sinner is me. 

Mistakes Were Made

A few years ago, I was traveling in Qatar with a friend who is both Arab-American and Muslim. In the back of a cab, we witnessed a man, apparently a Qatari, hit a central-Asian man with some kind of cane. The spectacle led to a conversation about racism in the Arab world, and particularly in Qatar and the Emirates where imported laborers outnumber locals by significant margins. I made an offhand remark about how I would love to see a coalition of Pakistani and Filipino laborers seize an Emirate or part of Qatar from the local bullies that employ them. Both the cab driver and my companion were annoyed, apparently feeling it was pretty rich for an American to be judgmental of a racist incident playing out in a different part of the world. 

I want to be fair in this description, but here is what I surmised to be their position. Basically, Europeans are responsible for a disproportionate share of violence and calamity in world history, culminating with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps the single worst institution of all-time. As such, Europeans and therefore Americans, are uniquely compromised by the long-shadow of their racist past, and with the United States still struggling to extinguish racism, we had no right to judge racist outbursts in other, less inherently problematic cultural contexts. 

Perceiving their worldview as outlined above, I began to describe my historical understanding of Arab and specifically Muslim-Arab involvement in the slave trade, which predated European involvement by about 11 centuries. Perhaps I am the exact age where this stopped being taught after I left university, but when I was in school we learned about a robust, Arab-led Mediterranean slave-trade predominately targeting East-Africans. This trade also involved the participation of a number of local African slaver tribes that targeted their enemies and facilitated their capture and transfer to Arab merchants. Several centuries before European involvement, millions of Africans had already died as slaves, first in transit across the Sahara, and later in Turkish salt-mines in the desert itself. It was this earlier Arab slave-trade that created some of the infrastructure that would be used so horrifically by Europeans hundreds of years later. I do not believe this history proves anything about the nature of Arabs or Islam. I think it proves that history is ugly, that slavery was an institution embraced universally until recently, and that Muslim civilization was closer to Africa than Europe, and therefore had the first crack at violently dominating and exploiting the continent. 

My friend and the cab driver were outraged by this version of history, saying I had surely read it on storm-front or in some crackpot history book. It's all on Wikipedia. That being said, I became aware during the conversation that I was making my conversation partners deeply upset. My American attitude was: confront your history. You can't really change until you do. But this is a process that was already fully underway by the time I was born, and therefore the only way I knew to look at history. In my lifetime, history and confronting history were the same thing. I was encountering for the first time an individual asserting that an untarnished version of history was an insult to their identity, an identity they saw as inextricably linked to that history. 

So, I stopped pushing the point. Here were two men who did not seem racist and who were good people (in the case of my friend I knew this). In their minds, both their Arab and Islamic heritage contributed to that goodness. They understood Islam as opposed to both slavery and racism generally. Their Islam is universalist and emancipatory. These are beautiful qualities for a believer to identify in their faith, and they certainly have scriptural basis. Is it really important for me to remind such men that slavery is also justified in nearly every Abrahamic text, and that universalist readings of scripture are perhaps modern inventions? If they are not actively practicing bigotry, in other words, is it actually important that they acknowledge the bigotry of their forebears?

For most of my life I would've answered the above question with an emphatic yes, but as American culture collapses in on itself, I question my earlier certainty. I think condemning our past selves is now such an endemic part of Western historiography, it's impossible to separate it from the history itself. Perhaps we can take an example from elsewhere to get at what I think is happening. 

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael has a joke where he tells the audience that their grandfathers probably beat their grandmothers. The audience groans and he jokingly concedes, "Im sure, not your grandma." The trick is one Carmichael often pulls in his comedy, and seems executed more for his own pleasure than for laughs. He wants to see a crowd full of people subvert their own personal histories in real time. He wants to see them struggle to resist the evidence, and then slowly accept an inevitable conclusion: they have loved people who were evil. I think the joke is an outrage, not only because he grossly overstates the ubiquity of spousal abuse two generations ago, but because it's logic is pure nihilism: "the people in this room believe they are standing on solid ground, I'm going to pull out the carpet and show them we are suspended in vacuum." Carmichael is preferable to some cultural subversives in that he does not pretend he's doing the audience a service, which would be the more common instinct. 

And it was a similar evil maneuver I was trying to pull on my friend in that Doha taxi. He believed he was the latest incarnation of a moral lineage with a proud history. Showing him he was wrong seemed unlikely to make him better, only to discourage his religious mission to be a good person. Some people, including religious and political conservatives, have said that this ability to self-evaluate and self-criticize is a vital element of what makes the West unique and important in human history and accounts for our ultimate rejection of slavery. It seems now, to move forward, we may have to rekindle our empathy for our past. 

Nihilism On The March

"Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul." - Toni Morrison


In The Big Lebowski, Walter Sobchak, a convert to Judaism, says the following to The Dude when they are confronted outside a bowling ally by a group of armed Germans describing themselves as nihilists: ''Nihilists! ..Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos." Walter is a lovable but reliably unwise character. Nevertheless, I think he might've been on to something here. Sobchak is saying that believing in something, even a bad thing, is superior to not believing in anything. Maybe it's like, we see an abusive parent, and imagine that the child's life would be infinitely improved by this person's absence. But are we right? Part of our assumption might be that another figure of care and authority would step into place, not that the child would be released to the wild, where feral, he/she would lose language and a number of other capacities that we think of as essential to our humanity. 

And it's nihilism that makes me hate our current president and resent his religious supporters. To be more charitable, maybe these voters preferred a transparent nihilist to the shady world of Clintons and Bushes, where leaders claimed to embrace traditional versions of honor and decency, but privately partied with Jeffrey Epstein (I know the Bushes are not accused of this, but they have their own weird friends). This new conclusion, that the elite is necessarily vile and rapacious as a result of the incentive structure of our meritocracy, is now explicitly stated by the left and the right

Even if this is the bargain though, to say that they all are surely nihilists, and one we understand as such is safer than a wolf in sheep's clothing, I think this proposition is deeply un-Christian. I don't remember the chapter and verse about sin in the name of making a point. I don't remember Jesus, when confronted about spreading lies, saying, "have you seen what the Roman media says???" Christianity only has value if it is a bulwark, hopefully THE bulwark in the West, against nihilism. If we repeat theology while embracing the zero-sum calculations of the material world and it's rationally justified politics, I'm sorry, but we are not meaningfully Christian. 

To this point, I have not mentioned this week's shootings. To be honest, they paralyze my desire to write or express myself about anything. Communication is aspirational, relying on the hope that dialogue might make things better. Most of the time I feel like expressing myself can have a salutary impact, but in the wake of the shootings life does not feel that way. 

In some ways, I regret the Beto post. Even though I thought it was funny and I enjoyed writing it, it channeled the hateful tone of the internet that also defines our President's rhetoric. I decided to do a sort of solo-blog as opposed to continuing my podcast or tweeting, because I thought I could remain more measured in this format. I'll again channel Marianne Williamson, I want to put some good vibes on to the internet, and fight the dark energies that have intruded. 

I can't add anything sensible to the broader conversation about the President's tone and gun violence. He will never see a connection between his own words and violence because he doesn't see connections between anything. That is what nihilism is and that is his connection to the shooters. This nihilism, and the white identity violence that acts as its political cover, is on the march. A conclusion that the transcendent is gone or inaccessible, and that our ugly, earthly desires, often at the cost of others, are all we should aspire to is an increasingly common belief. I can't calculate the cost of the spread of this worldview, or parse the difference between "encouraging" and "inciting" an attack. I will only say that nihilism has a cost, and it's measured in human lives. 

The Politics of Love and Hate

Marianne Williamson is a person who believes lots of things I don't believe. For starters, she is an anti-depressant skeptic and I am very thankful for the SSRI I am on. But beyond the specifics of her New-Agey worldview, I do appreciate that she injects something more full-blooded into the Democratic debates. When Williamson openly eschewed a policy conversation for a rambling argument about how only the "politics of love" could defeat "the politics of hate," Vox was so offended by the lack of technocracy that they jumped into furious action

Some of the criticisms are fair, but let me try to say what I think Williamson gets right, and how this fits into a broader critique of the metrics we use in our politics. Williamson is observing, I think correctly, that something wicked has infiltrated our politics. It is hard to define, it is hard to source, and so countering it might have to take on similarly obscure language about "the good."

I know this is all annoyingly vague, so let me give a concrete example of where I think this could impact politics. I can't really see any technocratic justification for paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. I don't believe it would have the intended impact. I think it would have the perverse consequence of allowing the State to say it had "made amends."  Finally, the logistics of deciding who qualifies are themselves extremely complex. That being said, I am sort of disgusted that these rational complaints are the first place my mind goes when considering a topic with such profound moral implications. 

What's incontrovertible is that a debt is owed. There is a great weight on the soul of America, and I'm not sure time alone is enough to remove its downward pressure. Our society needs to find a way to communicate love and care to a people we viciously abused for hundreds of years, and right now we are failing to deliver the message. If a policy can communicate some of that care, does it matter how many people it moves into the middle class or how much it closes the wealth gap? 

I'm honestly not sure, and I'm not sure politics is the realm where such expressions of care should take place. That being said, Williamson was the only one on stage even considering things at this level, and that I support. 

Pointless Reactionary Politics In Action

In the second ever post on this blog, I tried to distinguish between an embrace of a reactionary worldview and pursuing reactionary politics. I am sympathetic to some reactionary politics, and almost always find something of value in its critique of modernity. Whenever I encounter reactionary politics in the wild though, it manifests as cruelty and nonsense. 

The most obvious example I can think of is President Trump's language. Many supporters of the president, some online and others in personal conversation with me, have said that the President's loose speech and refusal to abide by polite standards of communication are a victory for the forces of anti-PC in the culture war. While admitting I occasionally take a sort of sick pleasure in the President's transgressions against the scolds, I don't think anyone really believes he is going to change the trajectory of the culture. If anything, Trump is the kind of offensive boogeyman I would've argued would never emerge to more liberal friends who support informal but restrictive speech codes. Intensifying a conflict is not the same thing as winning a battle, and Trump has only  raised the stakes in our debates over language. I think the speech-policing side of this cultural argument is likely to lose in the long-run because its requirements are too burdensome. Trump, while an enjoyable spectacle for the anti-PC crowd, has likely delayed their inevitable victory by rallying the forces of censure. 

Again, I'm not sure anyone really believed Trump would change language, but by now it should be obvious to everyone that running the country has limited impact on the direction of the culture. If anything, Republican presidencies (or control of Congress) have the tendency to produce only moderate gains for conservatives in political terms, while accelerating progressive movements in the culture. The sense of menace they create for a number of minority groups, fair or unfair, galvanize all the self-elected cultural gatekeepers who believe the public needs to be spoon-fed particular ideas about gender, race or religion. Trump can't change that, and honestly he doesn't want to. The binary works for him as well. If the press stopped being insane, what would animate his rallies?

I thought of all this while following an unfortunate story from a place I used to live. One of the most popular bands in the Middle East, the Lebanese group Mashrou' Leila (meaning overnight project or Leila's project) has been taken off the roster of a Byblos music festival because the lead singer is openly gay. Interestingly, and I think because of the festival's location in the historically Christian town of Byblos, it was Christian (as opposed to Muslim) groups that objected to the group's inclusion in the lineup. The music festival justified the group's exclusion as the only means to "prevent bloodshed" given the large number of violent threats directed at the band. Local MP's, in the typical fashion of Lebanese politics, displayed cowardice, ignorance and incompetence, only commenting on the matter at the 11th hour to say that gay people really should stay out of the public square. 

There are a number of issues with the way this has played out that I think show the wrong-headedness of a certain kind of reactionary politics. First of all, there is the laughable issue of Lebanon's sexual morality. Lebanon is not Saudi Arabia, one of their most famous musicians is the kind of surgically altered monster that makes the Kardashian's approach to the knife look subtle and restrained. Brothels are shamefully ubiquitous across Lebanon, seemingly the result of a bustling trafficking industry, and distressingly for Christians, these so-called "super night clubs" are almost always in Christian areas/neighborhoods." In other words, Lebanon is already a sexually modern place, and Christians have played a significant role in making it so. 

Lebanon is also mostly  on-board with a number of other modern projects. Just because your secular democracy regularly features the election of religious zealots does not make a country a theocracy, and Lebanon's television, print media and broader cultural output are decidedly modern. This is why it is so irksome to see particular venom reserved for gay people. Lebanon, perhaps unfortunately, has already surrendered to the global sexual revolution. In Beirut, one-night stands are common, you can be drunk in the street and women dress as scantily as anywhere in the West. This has all taken place with some objection from cultural conservatives in the country, but in general, they keep it to themselves and police their own communities because they know they don't have the social or political power to create a Taliban for downtown Beirut. The gays though, they wonder, might be small enough to push around. 

And this is how religion comes to look small and backward. In every sense, Lebanon has given itself over to the modern world, and religious conservatives are not even effectively resisting this tendency in their own lives. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims in Lebanon shop at malls, vote in secular elections and probably watch pornography. None of this would be a problem, except they've decided, as have many countries with strong religious traditions, that tolerance of homosexuality is the hill to die on. 

Objection to homosexuality is the most dangerous and hypocritical of spaces for religious conservatives to make their stand. To be clear, I am not saying that religions should alter their doctrines on the issue, simply that in an age where Christians all around the world have let rules slide pertaining to contraception, infidelity and divorce, it is insane to single out gay people for moral censure. Beirut is an international city, and its children have friends on multiple continents, speak various languages and consume culture from all over the world. If one of those children is gay, any attempt to restrict their life will not de-familiarize them with the international LGBT movement. You might, on the other hand, ensure that all gay people in Lebanon become atheists. 

What Do We Mean When We Say "Capitalism"

"The fact that there is a game about collecting children, by a known pedophile, and that that we can still play it in an arcade says something really profound about ourselves, our culture and capitalism." Heather Anne Campbell on the How Did This Get Played podcast discussing Michael Jackson's Moonwalker game.

The fringes of both parties now welcome anti-capitalist arguments for the first time in my life. In this political framework, the question is not whether the government should run-up crazy deficits, or whether the administrative state should continue to grow, but rather where these resources should be allocated. The optimistic conservative version of this story is, look the government can be effective at addressing some problems, and we fail our voters by abandoning the public service game altogether. The cynical version represents a more political calculus: although public welfare isn't effective, and government efforts usually don't produce positive results, government spending is nevertheless interpreted as 'care' by voters. In other words, it doesn't matter if affirmative action succeeds in creating a black middle class, whether it does or doesn't, some percentage of the white working class will view the policy with jealousy and resentment. To keep said voters, you will have to offer them their own place at the public trough.

Whatever I think of these policies, I understand and approve of the turn against elites even as I think the elite policy consensus is often accurate. Accuracy doesn't matter. Democracy is about consensus-building and inclusion. Monetary policy that is alienating and grows the GDP by shipping manufacturing overseas is an economic success and a political and social failure.  Even while I am happy that the more extreme wings of both parties are more upset with capitalism than at any other point in my lifetime, I think we need to be specific about what the word "capitalism" means. 

First, I will offer a simpler linguistic example and then compare it to the case of "capitalism." I was taught as a lad that the term "Zionism" meant the belief that Jews should have a national homeland to provide safety from the various other humans that consistently wanted them dead since time immemorial. I subscribe to this belief. However, it has become clear to me that to refer to oneself as a "Zionist" has far reaching implications beyond the simple definition I laid out above. Depending on who you're talking to, "Zionist" may be interpreted variously as an endorsement of the Netanyahu government,  as an endorsement of settlements and or an endorsement of a maximalist one state solution in which Palestinians are permanent second-class citizens. I don't endorse any of those things, and although I don't think any one of those concepts should be inferred from the moniker "Zionist," I have nevertheless been cowed and won't use the word anymore. 

Similarly, 'capitalism' seems to have become a catch-all for anything about our culture we don't like. I'm not sure those who criticize capitalism understand that the thrust of their argument, to critique an aspect of American culture and then lazily say capitalism is the cause, implies that capitalism has deterministic cultural effects. In other words, our culture is exactly as greedy as it is  capitalist, and you can not change the former except via the latter. 

Let's refer to the quotation above as an example of the phenomenon (Heather Anne Campbell is great btw and I don't mean to pick on her it was just an interesting example of usage.) Campbell is basically saying that because of a combination of celebrity worship and indifference to immorality , we are willing to tolerate a game that celebrates a pedophile even as the game itself appears to contain evidence of Michael Jackson's crimes. In this view, we are incapable of responding with appropriate moral horror markets? 

To steel-man Campbell's argument, let's consider the case for capitalism as a deterministic force in creating shallow culture. Capitalism has a certain logic and set of incentives, those incentives promote the development of both tolerance for greed and celebrity-fetish culture. These two cultural traits then combine to create an environment where someone like MJ or Weinstein can abuse in plane sight as long as they are profitable and represent success within a capitalist paradigm.

What then accounts for the sudden zeal with which we are toppling such men? Did we become markedly less capitalist in the months before #MeToo took flight, or was it a rare confluence of events that allowed non-capitalist actors to temporarily subvert the system? It seems to me there were major capitalist incentives to expose these people, i.e. selling advertising on news sites. Furthermore, the networks of elites that protected these men were not always obviously doing so to protect a cash cow. Sometimes it was just because of long friendship and association with the scumbag. No one can argue against the proposition that powerful people use money to their advantage, but does capitalism make this pernicious advantage stronger? Does it make the powerful more powerful?

I don't think so. It is power itself that corrupts , not money, and non-capitalist societies tend to invest power in fewer hands than capitalist ones (thus creating a more powerful and corrupt set of elites). In weird ways, the left should embrace capitalism on anti-authoritarian grounds. A rich guy being friends with a politician is preferable to the rich guy and the politician BEING ONE PERSON.  That is the alternative offered by history.  In America, different rich people buy different politicians, and we hope that the little guys are occasionally well-organized enough to contend. The socialist solution is simply to invest ultimate social and political power in the hands of the cop or the bureaucrat, archetypes that are still loathed in America but de-fanged by their modest position in society. In other words, Soviet Russia probably had pedophile celebrities that we don't even know about because they were good at promoting the party line, and the social network that protected them had more of a monopoly on power than its capitalist equivalent. 

For each ill attributed to capitalism we can find non-capitalist examples. Some have said, capitalism makes us fat, and yet in the re-distributive, state-run oil economy of Saudi Arabia, citizens are expanding rapidly using their state provided funds at state constructed shopping centers. Some say  capitalism makes us shallow, and yet the far more social democracies of Greece and Brazil have more elective plastic surgery per capita than the US. Capitalism makes us sexist and racist, and yet the North Koreans seem pretty into the supposed superiority of their gene pool, the virtually economy-less Afghans nevertheless resource their robust war on women.

Some anti-capitalists might look at the examples above and insist that each is either an indirect outcome of global capitalism, a lasting effect of colonialism (itself an aspect of capitalism they would say) or a sign of transitioning into capitalism. I could offer some counter-statistics here, but do I really need to establish that human frailty predates the Austrian school? 

I would really prefer if people would criticize more specific aspects of our culture as opposed to the "capitalism" catch-all. Having to have the newest Iphone is an specific aspect of our consumer culture, not an inevitable outcome of free markets. Obsession with social status and physical beauty are problems as old as human beings, and amplified by new technologies but also not an inevitable outcome of free markets. The tolerance of immoral people who succeed in the economy would simply wear different clothes under a different system. You don't think there are pedophiles in the Chinese government, protected by the zeal and fervor with which they tout the party line? Profit is one of many motivations a person could use to justify selfish behavior, but maybe not the primary one. In America, drug companies conspire to get drugs to market early to start making money. In the Soviet Union, the same pressure to innovate was communicated via the stated desires of the party. If anything, the motivations in the Soviet Union were stronger, as failure could mean a bullet in the head, not just poverty. Even with these lethal stakes, the American version, for all its faults, created better medicine and no dead doctors. 

The problem is not capitalism. The problem is us. Unless we start grappling with the degradation of our spiritual and social lives, we will remain materially greedy and emotionally impoverished. Electing a socialist won't turn us from assholes into good people, it will just imperil the value of our 401ks.

A Terrifying Thought Experiment

I was listening to the Audio Mullet Podcast recently, and they catalogued a list of scientists who embrace the possibility that we are living in a simulation. I had forgotten that Neil Degrasse Tyson, who has resisted other scientific horror stories like AI, also embraced the simulation hypothesis. The idea, which I think originates with Nick Bostrom, is that if intelligences are capable of creating realistic worlds, more and more realistic as time goes on, what would prevent them from creating a world indistinguishable from reality? If intelligences can create such a simulation, why would we believe we are living in the "base reality" as opposed to one of the theoretically infinite created or simulated universes. 

This is a fun idea for a lot of reasons, and it's hard to argue with. The premise is fuzzy enough around the edges that you can't really grab hold of anything to rebut. It's particularly fun to me that a number of stridently atheist scientists have sort of backed themselves into an alternative theory of intelligent design. How the builders of the simulation would differ precisely from a vague notion of a deity is unclear. I suppose religions think their Gods should be worshipped, while scientists may imagine that the creative hand was a neutral or indifferent force. It also seems important to define reality and simulation in meaningful ways before speculating on which one we are in. I'm sure Bostrom could define the difference in mathematical language that I couldn't understand, but I also don't care. For me, any world or universe where people experience suffering is real enough, whether created by hyper-intelligent aliens or not.

But this is where the idea can become terrifying. If we imagine our existence was manufactured in a similar way to say, how Blizzard made Diablo 3, then our theologies could be correct, but in a very different way than we imagined. Perhaps, to see if they could make a religion catch on in their playpen reality, these brilliant aliens went into the code and made a burning bush appear to Moses and speak to him. Worse, if we were designing a game in which we believed the characters had no feelings, or at least not ones significant enough to care about, why not actually create simulation hells where dead characters can go? Some humans have worried that we will make machines conscious in a way that they might experience as painful. Did the same thing happen to us?

Iaian M Banks actually explored the idea of a simulated hell in his book "Surface Detail" from the excellent Culture sci-fi series. His rendering of the place is worthy of the terrifying idea. What comfort can I offer after suggesting that the worst thing imaginable could well be true, and that there's no real evidence against it (none for it either). Well, because I think it's stupid and the world is too beautiful. I can't really believe that a species designing a trivial game or an experiment could take the care they did with a tree or the oceans. If they did, maybe that means they love us and they are the God we have been worshipping. 

The point, for me at least, is that science, shortly after it convinced itself it had killed God, proceeded to resurrect Him in a stupider form. As has become a consistent theme of late, science provided an explanation that made the world uglier and scarier, but was necessary to confront because, hey, it could be true. I think there are truths not worth knowing. If you are a Christian or a Muslim, the results of IQ tests by race or gender are irrelevant because God created each human being with a spark of the divine. They are God's children. The question isn't even worth asking. Sam Harris, the father of so many bad ideas, throws around the idea that there is no such thing as freewill, even while acknowledging that this conclusion is basically a social nuclear bomb. While acknowledging that culture and religion have been invoked to hamper important scientific progress in the past, one should not throw out the most basic underlying assumption of our legal system during an afternoon in the lab. 

This is where the progs might be on to something with their whole 'lived experience' schtick. We don't have to submit to data or measurements unless we want to. We don't have to agree that it represents the optimal way to render our lives. So even if this is a simulation, let's all just keep playing like it matters. 

What Happens When The Dude Who Plays Acoustic Guitar In The Quad and The Finance/Tech Bro Have A Kid

Christ calls us to love our enemy. The internet calls us to out our friends for calling New Balance gay in the 90's. I would really like this blog to remain above the internet fray, and not go in for cheap take downs or even really any prolonged insults of famous people. Unfortunately, my disdain for Beto O'Rourke cannot be confined by the tenets of my faith or the physical laws of our universe. Seeing this took my breath away. 

Far from identifying myself by my sexuality or complexion, I identify mostly as fat-American and lazy-American. Those are my tribes. As such, the idea of an employer, especially one who leads a frenetic and unsuccessful campaign, asking colleagues to participate in some sort of impromptu physical challenge outrages me. The internet version of me wants to say this anecdote reveals something deeper about Beto.

I'm not sure if the following speculative fiction is accurate, but it will be an account of why I suspect Beto may have done this. Basically, I think he's a fraud. I think our politics are full of frauds. So full, in fact, that we have separate archetypes for them. The homophobic GOP lawmaker who pays for a rent-boy's apartment might be the one people take the most joy in discovering (understandably). On the other hand, and I think as most liberals would admit, there are democratic politicians who are communist in the streets and fascist in the sheets. That is, their political ideology revolves around themes of fairness and justice while they run their personal lives and offices like the pettiest tyrant. What's worse about Beto is that I think he thinks this incident was an example of him being a 'fun boss.'

And maybe it was fun. Maybe if I knew the specific employees he had challenged, the culture of his campaign, or how his closest staff relate to him, I would know that this was an acceptable thing to do. Admittedly, I don't know any of that and the conclusions I've jumped to are the worst ones. 

But one reason I'm unwilling to give Beto the benefit of the doubt is he is oblivious.  His most essential personality trait is being ignorant of how ridiculous he is. We live in an era of unqualified politicians, but Barack Obama new that a short stint in the Senate was necessary before he could ride on rhetoric and intellectual brilliance alone. Flame-outs like Senator Marco Rubio, once a presumptive future president, show the wisdom of running for office earlier and earlier. 

But Beto, perhaps seeing Trump's total non-experience in politics serve him as an asset, looked at his own nothing of a life and saw only opportunity. Beto became a congressman in 2013 at the age of 40 after unremarkable efforts in music and business. He became famous for losing an election to the most hated member of the Senate, Ted Cruz. Beto told new refugees taken in by the United States that this country is ruled by white supremacy, but if privilege had an avatar, it would have Beto O'Rourkes face. For someone to even attempt to make a career of being in a "post-harcore" band, you have to either be very brave or very unfamiliar with the concept of poverty. There is no evidence Beto is brave, but oh, did you know his in-laws might be billionaires?

Candidates like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are compelled to defend their place at the democratic nominee table given that they share so many characteristics with those who historically ruled America. They justify this place with a history of successful (debatable) political achievements in the case of Biden or lifetime commitment to an ideological project in the case of Sanders. Just how in the fuck does Beto believe he deserves a place at this table? Even if he didn't believe that white people should "get out of the way," his candidacy would be wholly unjustifiable on the merits.

If you are short and out of shape like me, it is helpful when you meet a taller, handsomer, more successful man if they act like the dickhead you imagine them to be. They work for JP Morgan, but they're more excited about the app they're working on with friends from Princeton, you know? What is infinitely worse is the tall, handsome man who has it all but also needs to be seen as kind, as intellectual, and most of all special. Having been the winning player of various genetic lotteries, men like Beto are not content to go through life using their physical status to attract women and money, they also need to invade the underground space of us Morlocks, and steal the things we treasure that aren't supposed to hold value in their world. In other words, they are the most selfish and needy people on earth.

This is all a little fictitious. Beto's handsomeness isn't that remarkable and we don't know how much money he has. I'm not that fat or short (sure, Evan), and tall people are not generally more obnoxious than anyone else. Still, I can't really fathom someone who looks like Beto and has lived Beto's life saying he can be the champion of the downtrodden with a straight-face. To do such a thing, you have to be at least two types of stupid. The first kind, the frat boy, wall street kind of ignorant stupidity we already addressed. The worse kind though is the stupidity of the guy who plays acoustic guitar at college parties or on the green. All this time, Beto's been fucking off height and money, but he thinks it's because of his deep lyrics. What a doofus. 

Happiness is Stupid

"Want to be happy for an hour? Eat a steak. Want to be happy for a day? Play golf. Want to be happy for a week? Go on a cruise. Want to be happy for a month? Buy a new car. Want to be happy for a year? Win the lottery. Want to be happy for a lifetime? Win a championship." Coach Lou Holtz addressing the Texas Longhorns. 

So after a post about how America is great, let's talk about how the world is terrible. Actually, I don't really believe that, and it's another kind of sentiment people express regularly that discourages me. What I do feel is that in certain important ways, the global family is headed in the wrong direction. The spread of liberal democracy and global culture, which I would concede seems preferable to more traditional cultures and systems of government, is inappropriately zealous in its insistence that the whole world conform. That is, I'm afraid that I might be living in the last generation (or two or three) where the world sustains thousands of distinct cultures and modes of organization that represent different values and ways of life. The way the liberal west explains its cultural colonialism to itself is that diversity is simply a matter of color. In this utopia we will be white and black and purple and atheist and Muslim, but also all democrats who celebrate homosexuality. I certainly have no issue with homosexuality, but the hairs on the back of my neck go up at the prospect of a sort of global civilizing mission where homophobic culture is rooted out, even in Amazon communities that may not be aware of the concept. It's also important to note, I'm incredibly sympathetic to gays or their allies who are terrified at the prospect of young gay people living in a society that hates them. I think my discomfort lies in the idea that any way of thinking, no mater how logically or morally justifiable, would become universal. 

I'm sure some would say we are nowhere close to the unified global culture I'm afraid of, but I think we have technological prerequisites that mihjy make it inevitable. If America can be seen as a test case, it now seems like many of us were only able to tolerate one another because we were unaware of each other's beliefs. Politicians lied and effectively smoothed the edges around our political redlines, and we were happy in our ignorance. Now, technology has made every man a pundit, and every other man disgusted at his punditry. I cross my fingers that the current level of anger manifest online is simply remarkable for its shrillness and not for high rates of participation, and further that more and more people will get exhausted and bail out on the flame wars. Even so, I think ignorance of the beliefs of others and not attempting to discover them may be an unheralded but necessary condition for social cohesion. Once people are exposed, the culling and forced conversions commence. 

I will note here that there is a very controversial book I read in graduate school somewhat related to this topic called "Desiring Arabs" by Herculean asshole and academic Joseph Mossad. At the time I first became familiar with the book, I was disgusted with what I took to be the premise. I will probably butcher his point, and it's very difficult to summarize dense and intentionally alienating academic writing, but it went something like: in the Arab world, men who wanted to fuck each other had always found ways to do so in private, and separate from the goal of raising children in a family with a female partner. In Mossad's construction, these men were perfectly happy to pursue both a desire for homosexual sex and normative family life. This delicate balance, Mossad claimed, had been disrupted by Western advocates who were only familiar with a western style expression of homosexuality, which proposed that sex and love were inextricably linked and homosexual nature could not be sated through sex alone, but through same-gender companionship and perhaps even a "gay lifestyle." I'm not sure I buy Mossad's premise today, and certainly most things he writes are stupid or untrue. That being said, I am attracted to the idea that we may not have a monopoly on how best to let different types of people live. I imagine if you are a man in America today who wants to have sex with other men, but cannot give up an attachment to a concept of family life with a female partner, the archetypes we've built may not help you. Worse, you may be accused of suppressing your own nature just for having this conflict in the first place. 

I think in the history of virtually every human science or way of life we see that there is strength in diversity. This is how dynamic economic systems emerge, how species change and survive and how individuals pursue happiness. I can't help but think that there is some sort of weird reversal taking place where the very country that has gone the furthest in promoting individual liberty is now engaged in the project of insisting the rest of the world provide the exact same amount in the exact same way. My first concern is that we have no moral authority on which to export our way of life, it is just happening by virtue of the popularity of our entertainment products and political and economic dominance. Almost as troubling, the world becoming Americanized seems that it could create a sort of black swan situation for our species, where we stagnate and decline because we aren't different enough to be conducting many social experiments simultaneously. 

I think one of the biggest problems with how the US and western institutions more generally justify their own cultural creep is through the use of meaningless metrics.

Its difficult to come up with metaphors regarding how the rational evaluation of life and human progress only creates the kind of metrics modernity will excel at. First, a little background on the phenomenon in general. There are always people who worship a combination of the present and future. Jordan Peterson has gotten on this train, citing the work of Steven Pinker and UN studies about global rates of poverty and starvation. I don’t actually contest that moving out of poverty enhances human welfare, I think I'm more skeptical about another sequence, from agrarian to industrial, or from working class to middle class and middle class to wealthy. These are the areas where skepticism comes in. It's also interesting to look at some of these ''metrics of progress."

The UNs happiness report uses the following question, delivered via gallup poll, to determine happiness: "it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale." Additionally, there are six subcategories that allow for analysis of contributing factors to happiness, but these sub-measures are not themselves taken into the score. They are levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.

This is an interesting mode of analysis and I don’t mean to dismiss it out of hand. How to measure happiness is very tricky. It seems to me however, that when asked to rate if you have "the best possible life" or the "worst possible life" respondents are asked to make an objective assessment of their life conditions relative to others, rather than their own feelings of contentment. This would encourage people who are materially well-off but spiritually bereft to overrate their own happiness. The subcategories seem further confused. Does life expectancy make us happy? Maybe if its reflective of the lack of wars. On the other hand, if life is meaningless extended through painful treatment and medicine, it may contribute to the opposite.

This confusion could, in part, explain why many countries at the top of the UN happiness ranks also have high suicide rates. For example, in 2018 the US happiness ranking gave Finland the overall highest ranking. Interestingly, Finland has the 32 highest suicide rate out of 183 measured countries. Iceland, the 4th happiest country, has the world's 40th highest suicide rate. Inverting the analysis, many countries perceived as miserable by the UN study have vanishingly low suicide rates. War torn Syria came 150 on the world happiness list in 2018, and experienced just 2.5 suicides per 100,000 or 176 out of 183 countries measured. There are dozens of other countries that populate the low end of both the happiness and suicide rate lists. Virtually no one commits suicide in a number of Caribbean countries, and does anyone actually believe that Finns are happier than people who live in Barbados?

These statistics are not explanatory and they don’t really undermine the UN's findings, they simply suggest that populations who rate their own happiness highly often have the additional characteristic of high suicide rates. In some ways, you could view this correlation as logical, as people in free societies, liberated from oppressive social structures and expectations, may feel more empowered to end their lives if they no longer enjoy them. Or perhaps in societies where so many people are happy, those who are lonely or sad are further depressed by the joy around them. This certainly seems to be the attitude in northern Europe. I think the bigger problem is with the word happiness itself. Is this a relevant measure of the state of humanity? If happiness is not an inoculation against suicide, what is, and why do so many miserable places seem to be inoculated?

I don’t really know the answer to this question, besides the much observed fact that happiness is different than meaning, and a sense of meaning can often keep people going, even through pain and suffering, more than happiness. This is sort of the thesis of the excellent "A Paradise Built in Hell" (another excellent literary gift from my brother) which uses examples of numerous disasters to show how utter misery can compel people to summon decency and sacrifice they never thought they were capable of, which in turn animates and affirms them.

All I know is that this topic has got me thinking about basketball. In all sports, there is a tendency to argue over whether or not yesterday's stars could hold up against the players of today. Those who worship the present might note that exercise and nutrition were virtually absent in the past, that the NBA is drawing from a larger pool of players than ever before, that the players are getting bigger, that they actually play defense now, and that the shooting has improved at all positions. These arguments are all incontrovertible and certainly convince me that today's players engage in a more difficult version of the game than previous generations. But basketball is entertainment, and these various measures have nothing to do with that. We have made surrogates for the quality of the game: effort, talent of players, shooting ability; and surmised that as these go up, so too has the quality of the game. However, if you ask NBA fans if they prefer the showtime Lakers or the Golden State splash brothers, I think most fans will either find them equally enjoyable or prefer the past .

These aesthetic judgement that occasionally go against the metrics we've decided upon to measure improvements are why many people prefer college sports, even while acknowledging that the professional leagues feature a higher level of play. I think this is the story of the global measurements of happiness. If we break happiness down into component parts, or ask people to evaluate their lives objectively, many western countries, especially in northern Europe, will conclude they are the happiest. If you, on the other hand, assess how people seem to be experiencing life, there is little evidence that Canada is a happier place than Kosovo, and if you're Albanian Kosovar, you get the added pleasure of knowing that your mere existence infuriates Serbs. 

When you suggest that the modern world is the best place ever, and we have greater ability to impact our own emotional fate than at any time in the past you end up saying stuff like this: 


I can only respond to this ridiculous statement with the thoughts of a much more superior philosopher. 

Rule 2

Furthermore, long before Pinker wrote his "embarrassing" book, Louis C.K made the same argument in a much more enjoyable format.