2021 was quite a year, both on a global scale and in my own personal life. In that vein, I want to talk about a series of topics I've been mulling over as the new year begins in earnest. I had intended to get this out before the New Year began, but as you may have noticed, some issues in my personal life around the end of 2021 got in the way of a more robust publishing schedule. Now that I believe those have been resolved, I intend to return to a stable 2x/week posting schedule, aiming for posts on Tuesday and Saturday each week.
So, without further ado, these are the topics that have been on my mind over the past few weeks.
COVID & Different Worlds
Intensified to a greater extent than ever before over these past 18 months, the people we walk alongside and interact with appear to be growing more alien by the day. It appears as if different people seem to inhabit entirely different world: reality for one is disinformation for another. Rational risk management for one is hysteria for another. Are you practicing self-care or are you a narcissistic hypochondriac?
In effect, we see people with different Maps of the World: different ways of conceptualizing not only how the World works, but also what is good and right to do, what is beautiful, etc. Individuals are divided over who to trust, and, therefore, what counts as an accurate depiction of reality. Based on these different accounts of the world around us, people are led to believe very different things.
In the face of uncertainty, the need for belonging and certainty only intensifies our desire to put our trust in an authority who can give us a definitive account of what the hell is going on. I've discussed this before as a somewhat hidden aspect of mainstream media: the production of a community of believers who get each other:
Put simply, we address and respond to the profound uncertainty of our world and the future by constructing and embracing narratives that we perceive as being reasonable and basing our decisions off of these narratives. Narratives acquire legitimacy/authority via multiple processes, one of which being its endorsement by figures within an "epistemic community" - a group of people who share a way of understanding and knowing**. In other words, an epistemic community is a group of people who live in a Shared World.**
Individuals embody a Shared World when their standards of knowledge, their priors, their Maps of the World, are sufficiently similar (or perhaps, in the most extreme cases, identical).
So, an epistemic community is, in some real sense, a moral community. Our way of understanding the World is tied inherently to our method of judging the World. You cannot understand one “independent” of the other.
What the Media provides, which is so powerful in this more and more alienated society, is more than just a ready-made Map of the World: it provides the promise of a community of other believers, who will get you. Who will see the world through the same lenses as you. Who will affirm your understanding of the World, in the face of the profound modern anxiety that we misunderstand what the World is like.
It is a terror not of condemnation, but of meaninglessness. And in the face of this, epistemic-moral communities become all the more appealing. Our searches for meaning are, fundamentally, our attempts at making sense of the World.
The profoundness of a crisis is that "what is known" is no longer solid: a crisis liquifies common sense and throws us into a degree of uncertainty most are uncomfortable dealing with, especially for a prolonged period of time. Some seek refuge with a strongman. Others with ideology. Today, much of the refuge is sought with a set of highly visible figures: the talking heads on the mainstream media. And different groups of people aligned with different factions of the media. Oversocialization intensified but let us not pretend that it only occurred on one side: much opposition to vaccines, etc. were driven by the same kind of reflexive, unthinking sentiments that led liberals to decry anyone who refused to take the jab. Yes, the Left wields vastly more institutional power than the Right does at the moment and so it shall be the main point of concern and critique until such a time as that changes, but oversocialization in general is a significant issue and it must be called out.
All of this can be seen clearly as the narrative appears to shift around COVID once again with Omicron and cases vs deaths. Unlikely to be as whiplash-inducing as the absurd narrative shifts in Spring 2020, but after 18 months it may push some people over the edge (or just disorient them further).
Looking back on the shifting Discourse, it appears as if the State keeps doubling down, partially out of neurotic hypochondria but also out of a fear of losing face. It isn't even clear if "the Data" exists as much as there is a directional "noise" that the "Experts" emanate. Meta-analyses of studies on non-pharmaceutical interventions, even if done well, collapse into binary decisions. Nothing during this pandemic makes sense. If this was a serious pandemic, nothing we did would have been sufficient. We've burned through social fabric and institutional trust at an alarming rate. The latest about-face might make it even more pressing.
Boosters remain an issue, as the definition of "fully vaccinated" may change yet again. As I noted before, the case for mandates of any kind relies on transmission. I argued that based on the most optimistic data at the time, there was still no solid case for mandates:
While increasing the vaccination rate to 100% might reduce the possibility of getting infected on any given day, even over a time frame as short as a year, your chance of infected goes to 100% no matter what.
Ultimately, I do not believe an increase from 50%->100% vaccine coverage in the population is going to reduce transmission to a sufficient extent to justify mandating the vaccine. Cost-benefit analysis means mandates for anyone under 21 (maybe 25?) are unjustified already, but for adults the mandates still don't appear justified based on reasonable assumptions and standards.
This has only become more evident now with Omicron and its absurd transmissibility. Of course, the temptation to fall back into appeals towards "autonomy" of some form, bodily or otherwise, is significant. But questions of bodily autonomy tend to be vague and prone to slippery slopes:
Slippery Slope is not a fallacy. It is a description of an argument/justification for a position being sufficiently vague to also justify further positions that the original arguer did not intend to support (and may in fact oppose).
To put this formally, imagine I support some policy A. When asked, "why do you support A," I answer "well I believe in X and X supports A." Assuming that the reason/value X does indeed support A, we may have a problem: what if X also supports B, which I oppose?
The problem we face is that we start with these vague principles that sound really nice but carry little substance, and then we try to jury-rig increasingly convoluted "patches" to answer ethical dilemmas we intuitively find difficult. Perhaps the answer is to start from a more solid foundation, but that would of course mean that certain activities our ethics certify as "OK" today will be revealed as unjustified. There is a strong personal attachment to the value of autonomy, since abandoning it puts us all at risk of realizing we aren't good people, or that our pleasures may not be justified.
But one does not need to make an appeal to a sloppy ideal like "autonomy" in any way. The mandates fail on their own premises if they are designed to "prevent transmission" (as seen above), which is about the only scenario in which a mandate could be seen as at all justified.
Who deserves a say in governance? What does it mean to be a citizen? These kinds of questions and more were raised by a pair of tweets recently:
I have been heavily critical of democracy in the past, noting that in almost every instance democracy acts as nothing more than laundered oligarchy:
When consent is a precondition for authority, Power will learn to manipulate people into giving consent.
Media and Tech elites are so adamant about defending this "democracy" because it is the system in which they can manipulate the people to support elite interests and legitimize those interests with "the will of the people" through voting.
I wrote an entire series on socialization, and therefore will focus on the highlights:
There are individuals, institutions, and groups that we interface with, and through which we learn the rules of society.
Socialization hands you a packet of ‘Goods’ that the society recognizes and expects you to internalize as your own ‘Goods’. Failure to do so can lead to exclusion, punishment, etc.
…someone becomes socialized when they internalize the goods of society into their moral space. BUT someone becomes OVERsocialized, when they either elevate those internalized goods to a status of “higher Good(s)” or they have no other goods at all.
Blue Empire is the coherent coalition that dominates the institutions responsible for socialization, along with its financing and foot soldiers.
If your right to vote is contingent on a powerful elite not revoking or overriding it, of what use is that right to vote?
And going further, if your rights exist at the mercy of an entity more powerful than you, of what use are those rights?
One could add another counter to this that democracy does not "refresh" elites (as can be seen from the relative stability of so many Western governments and how little actual difference occurs between governance by different parties). Elites tend to be relatively stagnant/robust. And that's just the visible, formally elected elites. The elites running NGOs, political party committees, donors, etc. remain constant.
And so, what is the point of democracy? Certainly "The Will of the People" has a grandiose sound to it, but when that Will is simply manipulated by a small set of elites, democracy is just oligarchy with extra steps. Now, many people believe you can just keep intensifying "democratic processes" and eventually you'll reach True Democracy, but I am skeptical of this. I believe democracy naturally becomes oligarchical at certain scales. Incentive structures, hierarchies, and the distribution of information and power make it impossible for "True Democracy" to be achieved at anything beyond a local scale. In that vein, I would argue local politics and other fairly self-contained entities such as workplaces/firms are far more ideal settings for democratic governance than federal politics. (More on this topic later)
Before we delve into the question of local vs federal in the next section, I want to return to the question of what makes someone a Citizen. Being a Citizen is different than being a mere visitor (or even a child). It means being an active part of the community, capable of taking part in its governance and social life as a full member. In some societies you must engage in military service, in others you simply reach a certain age: either way, the community decides when it is reasonable to say "this person is one of us."
Considering this, I recently proposed that you should have to live in a jurisdiction for 10 years before being able to vote in it.
Hari Raghavan @haridigressesThis is such a cliché, but we’re moving to Miami. I know there’s plenty to be apprehensive about. Worse politics (from our perspective), its own superficiality, weather issues, critters, guns… but lots to love about food, warmth, service industry, vibrancy.
A handful of people argued this would make it more difficult to move, to which I respond "great!" A solid chunk of my political beliefs center around re-embedding people in their communities. Of challenging and fighting alienation. This has always been the source of my opposition to "liberalism" and "Capital". It is what made me a Leftist, and it is what later drove me away from today's Left, which seems to celebrate narcissistic solipsism under the guise of "freedom" and "empowerment." Passing laws that incentivize becoming part of a local community is a good thing.
Another pair of tweets launched this odd discourse, which culminated in Twitter taking note of it:
Put simply: National Divorce is ridiculous and stupid. Who would lead it? The same elites who happily offshore jobs today? Oh, you have new elites? Where? How do they wield power? Why aren't they powerful currently? What would change? Is splitting up the US actually a good idea (hint: no)?
Now, one can understand why people feel the need to reach for greater and greater LARPs:
Simply put, it should not be shocking that in an age of 1) broad institutional failure without any accountability, 2) deteriorating social conditions, and 3) irony, individuals are prone to latch themselves on to any organization that demonstrates some degree of competency and purpose/adventure.
As the pathways to improve one's own life continue to disappear from view, our desires become more and more detached from reality. If there is no realistic pathway to improve our lives, we begin to retreat into the dream world.
We become immersed in unrealistic dreams because the very act of dreaming, of desiring, can generate pleasure on its own.
LARPing is the performance of the impotent, true, but perhaps the impotence is all in your head. There be Dragons. And they must be slain.
However, national divorce is not the pathway to get this done. If we wanted to give people greater leeway to govern themselves, I recommend two things: more local control + breaking down bureaucracies and megacorps and making them vastly less intrusive on our daily lives.
As a brainstorming exercise, I put forward a series of ideas for your consideration:
Allow contiguous counties to break off and join other states or start their own, as long as they fulfill certain conditions. I would say forming your own state could only be done if you had a certain population (1% of the national population as of the last census?). I would also say that either joining a different state or starting a new one would require that this doesn't "strand" another county so that it isn't connected to the rest of the previous state. So if parts of upstate New York, for instance, decided to secede, they couldn't do so in a way where a single county that doesn't want to secede is separated from the rest of the non-seceding counties.
Alongside this, there should be a broad movement to devolve power down towards State and Local levels in both the "public" and "private" spheres. More details on this in the future.
Don't just pass far stricter privacy laws to protect individuals: actively dismantle federal agencies that have consistently invaded the privacy of American citizens in the past. The FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. either need to be radically reformed or abolished. There are other ways to engage in national security without also violating the privacy of American citizens (if these agencies actually have a net positive effect on our security & safety, which is dubious).
The Federal Government needs to use technologies to separate its funding mechanisms from its bureaucracy. The cash and grants can flow without the need for 1000 forms with modern technology. This is an entirely other rabbit hole to dive down and one I cannot give the necessary time to in this piece, but I will revisit it in the future.
But remember: Do not give in to LARPs. Alternative institutions + Bureaucratic Demolition + Decentralization is a far more reasonable and realistic goal to reform this nation than splitting it in half.
A few years ago, I read a paper on Karl Marx titled "On Marxian Utopophobia". The author used "utopophobia" to mean
"the 'fear' of detailed descriptions of an ideal society of the future (without restriction as to the demandingness of those descriptions)."
Without a vision of the Good to pursue, you will never muster the kind of devotion needed to confront the uncertain future with all its risks and be confident that you are capable of conquering it. I have little time for those who whine of "utopianism." There remains a significant difference between presenting a vision of the future without any description of the mechanisms to get there, and performing analysis on the mechanisms and manners by which a better future can be brought about. There is even more difference between speaking about these things and actually doing them. In 2022, I intend to more completely formalize not only my theories about the world, but also of the Good and how we can build a society that reaches towards it. And then, I intend to do work towards building it. We can all do our part.
Remember: there is no despair. There is simply the work that must be done.
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