Once again, before I begin, I would like to take a moment to pray for peace in Ukraine, and for an end to the hostilities that have brought great suffering onto the Ukrainian people. It is the people who bear the consequences of the actions of their insulated, sheltered rulers. We should not stretch our condemnation of Putin and his regime to a general condemnation of the Russian people, and we should remember that there are real people on either side of this conflict, not just numbers. So, let us take a moment and pray for an end to bloodshed and a restoration of peace across the European continent.
Hopefully the worst of work + the effects of the war on my family connections in UKR & RUS are over and I can return to more consistent output once again.
The last month has demonstrated a deeply disturbing trend once again: the ability to whip massive amounts of people up into bloodlusted frenzies, inspired by the sincere conviction that they are on the "right side of history" and therefore their actions are justified and Good.
Bear in mind two things:
2. We make decisions based on the information we have available to us (this is neither the time nor the place for a philosophical debate about knowledge - go away).
Which means that if we are deciding what the best course of action is in a given situation, or debating which ‘goods’/values are more important/need to be privileged over others in a given scenario, we make those decisions at least in part based on the information we have about the situation/scenario.
Most of us engage in the latter. We pick institutions worthy of trust and assume that the information they have given us is at least largely correct.
But why does the Media decide to manufacture bloodlust in the populace? Could it not just as easily manufacture peace? Why this position instead of that one? We understand an institution has this Power but what drives the institution to use this Power in the particular way it does?
I argue the answer to this lies in the rise of the Virtual I've been discussing lately, coupled with elements of our modern ideology, intensified by friend/enemy signaling. Let us discuss.
The Virtual World & Nuclear War Apologists
I have discussed how our dive into the Virtual world has led to us being alienated from the Real conditions of the world. How our understanding of the world through aggregates, spreadsheets, videogames, etc., everything mediated through a screen, has led to a profound alienation and inhumanity.
Perhaps you have met the Alienated Man. This Man has no communion with nature. He has no connection with his fellow men. He lives in a Digital world. His connection with nature is mediated via aggregates and spreadsheets. He has no respect for history. History is but a weight upon his back for him to throw off. These unchosen responsibilities imposed on him cannot be justified! He is his own man! He will choose his own obligations for himself! There are no more places.
The Alienated Man lives in a world devoid of any depth. Everything is dissolved into one great mass of nowhere, noplace. Every city filled with glass and steel, whether in a desert or a floodplain. Every suburban development filled with cookie cutter homes. The sprawl of civilization obliterating any distinction between town and country. The engines of modernity demanding everything must be dissolved into sameness. "Diversity" ironically demanding everywhere must look the same, both in terms of the buildings and the people inhabiting them.
And in the face of all of this, our institutions are broken (or hostile when they do "work") and we seem profoundly powerless in the face of all of this destruction. It shouldn't be surprising that Man retreats into the Virtual world. That a comforting simulation is superior to the harsh reality of a crumbling society.
And as I noted in my last piece:
Which leads us to a serious problem: the rulers of our societies appear to be entirely trapped in this mindset. People and carrier battle groups just pieces on a massive chessboard to be moved around, perhaps sacrificed when necessary "for the greater good." There is no recognition of one's own neighbors as People, let alone any recognition of the Other as a real person at all.
There is no understanding of the messy, complicated structure of the world. Yes, it is wonderful that we have raised 3 generations of Americans while avoiding forcing them to fight any existential conflict in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, their personalities reflect this cocoon of comfort. Hence the absurd claims that nuclear war wouldn't be so bad from people whose SAT scores would suggest they are intelligent (perhaps our notion of "intelligence" needs to be revised).
So how do these pieces come together in the decision by many powers and people throughout society to manufacture bloodlust?
Part one: Defending BIG WORDS
Once again, we see appeals to vague ideas at the forefront of the defense of Ukraine: "Liberty," "Democracy," "Self-determination."
It's rather debatable if Ukraine can even reasonably be called "democratic," and the current government prior to the war had low approval ratings, a widely recognized problem with extremist elements within its military, and a history of corruption.
But more broadly than just Ukraine, what we see here is a high ideal being defended even if the reality on the ground doesn't match it.
Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.
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). Now remember, our Maps of the World are inextricably linked to our Values and Identity:
One might say that our map of the World interfaces with our map of moral space. We understand the world through narrative, motivation, values, and norms. But it would be unfair to say that our map of moral space is “superimposed” onto our map of the World. They are an irreducible union.
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
(Taylor, Sources of the Self)
What I want to point out here is how people defend their maps. "Fitful & flawed" is doing a helluva lot of work in Dan's tweet. What we see here is an individual creating a map of the world; a map with contours, mountains and valleys, not entirely based on dispassionate and objective analysis of the world around us (such analysis is literally impossible). Rather, the topography of our maps is frequently just as, if not more, dependent on our moral values (as I explained just above).
And so, when a set of facts start to threaten the integrity of our map, when they start to threaten our very understanding of the world (and therefore of ourselves), we tend to lock down and defend ourselves. Rather than switch the map out to another one, which would imply an existential crisis and a new understanding of ourselves, we start redrawing parts of the map so that we can incorporate these facts into our worldview while keeping the values we hold so dear safe. By doing this, WE are safe. There is no painful existential crisis. I understand myself. I can continue living.
Of course the oversocialized, those tortured souls stuck in a vicious marriage of narcissism and insecurity, are more vulnerable to this than others.
The difference between an oversocialized individual and someone who is "merely-socialized" rests on whether or not a person automatically responds to the stimuli of a trusted authority and unthinkingly register them as True. Whether one immediately accepts the trusted authority and its topography of moral space, or one has at least some degree of questioning and investigation. It is this DEPTH that is profoundly lacking in the oversocialized. An oversocialized individual and a merely-socialized individual may hold the exact same positions, believe the same religion, etc. but the oversocialized individual lacks the depth that comes from exploring moral space and the World on one's own terms.
Which then leads to this kind of insanity:
The Friend/Enemy Distinction Spices Things Up
On the one hand, as seen in the tweets above, support for Ukraine appears to be drawn from this Democracy Good vs Autocracy Evil mindset, in which Ukraine is the plucky underdog against the evil army of Putin. As we've noted, this alone is a delusion.
But then we get the response: Based Putin standing up against Blue Empire.
Sure, you can make a pretty strong geopolitical case for Russia's actions, but I find this rationalization to be less the root cause of the reactionary pro-Russia sentiment as much as a later attempt to justify an emotional response. What I see here is echoes of the Taliban-larping months ago:
Disillusionment with the United States and its various institutions appears to be everywhere, and the pathetic retreat from Kabul coupled with the furious refusals to compare Kabul to Saigon seems to have brought the disillusionment to a fever pitch. Certainly, the disillusionment will pass. The media cycle will pick up something else, and the grumblings about a country most Americans probably couldn't place on a map will be forgotten.
But it speaks to something deeper: a feeling that America's institutions are crumbling around us. And is that feeling wrong?
An organized group actually accomplishing its objectives? Declaring a goal, making tangible progress towards it, and ultimately completing the goal? What institution in the US can be said to have done something similar? Let alone at the scale of seizing power in a country of 33 million, sweeping through the land in such a short time period? The answer is none. None even come close.
The same kind of loyalty dynamics can be seen with party politics and relationships with various institutions. And so even if the Taliban provide nothing tangible to Americans, they provide entertainment via winning. Their competence earns them loyalty. Amplify this via the irony-poisoning of today's online extremism, and you get quite the hot takes being spit out.
What I see is not a community of dispassionate geopolitical realists engaged in serious analysis; instead, I see team sports once again. The exact same dividing lines and communities we saw take either side of Trump, Covid, etc. have taken either side of UKR/RUS. It's Red vs Blue once again. The most boring and absurd sports game of all time.
Whatever your reasons, you have no connection with Putin or Zelensky. They don't care about us. They aren't going to save us. We are numbers on screens to them. They are as trapped in the Virtual world as we are.
Rationalizations abound. Just take polling: somehow the same people who watched polls in 2020 be horribly inaccurate and who have noted for a long time polling is a joke seem to have forgotten this? "Most Russians support/oppose the war!!!" says who? Do you have family there? Have you talked to people on the ground? Or are you just latching on to some fabricated reports on CNN or delusional posts on 4chan to justify your worldview?
Polling is done just as much to shape “the public”, as it is done to measure it.
Ultimately, there is no “public”. No “average”. The “public” is a phantasm, constructed out of shadows, which exists to manipulate individuals, not measure a societal opinion.
Whatever the geopolitical narrative may be, make no mistake: the opposing sides of the online posting wars are driven by friend/enemy resentment and hatred, not by any kind of objective geopolitical or moral analysis. If either side is more or less correct than the other, it will be almost entirely incidental. The two sides want blood, not truth.
The Final Stop: No More Humans
This process we are witnessing in real-time is the process of dehumanization. It is this mechanism that allows war to occur. It is only by stripping others of their humanity, their agency, their moral weight, that we are able to get people to be okay with looking another person in the eyes and killing them.
What is perhaps most repulsive is the glorification of war by people who have had no greater battle in their life than a schoolyard confrontation. The celebration of the brutal and merciless process that turns men into bodies and bodies into corpses can only come from people so alienated from the realities of the world that they can barely be considered sane. Apart from rare moments of honor and bravery, war can only be described as a demonic force that strips the very souls from men and makes them less than human. Brothers and sisters become "casualties." Children become "collateral damage." There is nothing honorable about this process. The only ones who believe so are the ones who have never faced its horrors.
And here we see the result of the Last Man's bloodlust. The Last Man lashes out from within his cocoon of comfort and security. Make no mistake: he and his brethren are on the Left and Right. No one, no "dissident" on either side, is safe from the infection. Our very world works every moment of every day to reduce us into Last Men. To strip our soul and mind from our body and brain.
I fear that this mindset is simply the inevitable result of a Digital world. The same kind of alienation seems to sit just below the surface of various strains of "Dissident" thought. The world is seen as a kind of game. Ukraine and Russia as competing powers on a Risk board or a Hearts of Iron IV playthrough. Something to be manipulated, but nothing to ever be connected to. The Digital allows for (encourages? empowers?) a kind of detachment that leads to delusions of what I can only call "godhood". The delusion that "nothing ever happens/changes," ironic detachnment, etc., all of these are manifestations of the same kind of "godhood" delusions. Of living in a way somehow "above" or "beyond" the concerns of the World. The Map cannot hurt you, but the Territory very well might.
Once again, the only resolution to this is the dissolution of the Virtual in a renewed communion with the Real. The cure to abstraction is embeddedness. A focus on the concrete rather than the abstract. No project is more important than making this into a reality. I am working on such a concept and a number of accompanying projects: I call this "Archaeopunk." More will come later.