There's been quite the epidemic of "Taliban envy" (for lack of a better term) on some corners of Twitter I either frequent or observe. Certainly I could stand here and pontificate about the moral characteristics of the Pashtun fighters or whatever it was I saw yesterday. But that's boring. Instead, I want to ask where the Taliban envy comes from.
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.
"From the grade of God in the desert here / and the desert far away / Democracy is coming to the U.S.A"
Leonard Cohen's words seem to have a sad new meaning with the Taliban in the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul.
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? Inequality continues to increase. Millions dropped out of the labor force after 2008 and never returned. Many see no future for them in the economic world (and many of them are correct). Social mobility, perhaps the defining characteristic of America in the 20th century, has now fallen behind Canada and numerous European countries with their stodgy old aristocracies and customs. The environment keeps deteriorating, with droughts, heatwaves, superstorms, soil erosion, air pollution, and various other events becoming more common. After a period of immense optimism, race relations have declined rapidly. And that doesn't even count the fact that today's Black-White racial wealth gap is as wide as it was in 1968. Health insurance is a scam. University, forced on so many, isn't economically worth it for most students. Never mind the fact that the claim it actually teaches students anything is dubious at best. Our fertility rate continues to fade away. The percentage of Americans diagnosed with depression and anxiety and placed on SSRIs continues to increase. The opioid crisis ravages entire communities whose futures were sacrificed at the altar of profit. Our cities are experiencing what is beginning to look like a sustained uptick in crime. Our "towns" look like rows of cookie-cutter houses and strip malls. Our infrastructure is literally crumbling across the country. Americans are reporting fewer and fewer friends and more and more loneliness. In an era of apparent abundance, Americans report being less and less happy.
And in the face of all of this, our institutions are paralyzed and utterly useless. If you weren't convinced of this before 2020, the 1-2 punch of our ridiculous response to the COVID crisis and our pathetic retreat from Afghanistan should have drilled this reality into your head. Our rulers are useless, narcissistic psychopaths who are more concerned with signaling than action. Power is obfuscated in so many layers of bureaucracy and finger-pointing that it is entirely hidden from an observer. The greatest tragedy of our world is that it isn't even clear who deserves the blame for what has gone wrong. It should come as no shock that as decision-making has become more abstract and obscured, our theories reflect this. We begin to see Systems instead of Men. Of course, these Systems are incomprehensible, fully impossible, absent the actions of Men. And so we strive and fail to find who is at fault so we can have some hope of restoring order to the System.
Such attempts have been unsuccessful for so long that apathy and impotent frustration have seeped into the minds of many. And so, in this irony-poisoned world of friend/enemy politics, is it any surprise that individuals have latched on to an organization that is both 1) opposed to the American institutions that have made their lives living hells, and 2) competent?
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.
In sports, there is a general feeling of "what have you done for me lately?" The best way to put butts into seats is to field a winning team. The excitement competition with a real potential for victory and, ultimately, championships is what sells tickets and earns you loyalty. A team and its fans can be understood as a kind of patron-client relationship: the patron (the team) provides a service to the client (entertainment via winning) and, in return, the client provides the patron loyalty (ticket sales, support, etc).
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.
...no, in case you were wondering, living under the Taliban would not be better than living under the current American regime. Stop being an edgelord.
"Oh Dragon-slayer, whatever shall you do? There are no dragons left to slay."
Adding insult to injury, not only is the material, economic, and social infrastructure of our lives crumbling, but the lives that infrastructure is struggling to hold up are boring:
Partly that is because we have been fed delusions of grandeur and are disappointed when Life cannot meet these impossible expectations. But it is arguably just as much due to the fact our lives are boring; far more boring than they could (should?) be.
I don't have the space or the rhetorical ability to wax poetic about the banality of modern Western life, so I will leave those explorations to the many talented writers who have come before me and had very solid discussions on these issues.
And so, when confronted with the idea that you go to school, then work 40 years, then die, the prospect of adventure, of "breaking free" from this boring, soul-crushing routine, becomes almost irresistible.
I wrote those words with regards to adventurism and the misguided obsession with travel. But they appeal similarly to the appeal of Grand Purposes. Of setting a lofty goal, making tangible progress towards it, and feeling the accomplishment of completing it. Climbing a mountain is one way to slay a dragon. But it seems that the opportunities to set these lofty goals have largely disappeared under the drudgery of life under the rule of efficiency and utility. The dragons have long since disappeared, but the inner impulse to slay them has not.
And so when we see another group of people slay their dragon, some part of us may instinctively feel a sense of kinship and shared approval with them. As I noted earlier, the Taliban represent this.
Of course, latching on to the Taliban is a...dubious decision, morally speaking at least. The impulse to share in another's victory is understandable, but one must never lose sight of the more important question: what does this victory entail? was the goal they were striving towards a righteous one?
The response to this is simple in name, complex in implementation: The Restoration of Dragons.
We need to build a society that rescues adventure from escapism, and provides grand challenges to its citizens who wish to conquer them. That means introducing new challenges, and recognizing that many things we consider to be banal are actually grand challenges that we must treat with the weightiness that is appropriate to them.
LARPing = the performance of the impotent
In the face of all of this collective failure, apathy and depression both *reflect* and *entrench* impotence.
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. (If anyone is aware of studies on the historical prevalence of schizoid conditions and/or maladaptive daydreaming, I would love to hear about it)
This is driven by both internal and external factors:
1. We become immersed in unrealistic dreams because the very act of dreaming, of desiring, can generate pleasure on its own. My imagination of owning an object can generate pleasure (sometimes to an even greater degree than actually owning the object - especially if the object cannot measure up to the imagination, an all too common situation)
2. External forces attempting to avoid accountability motivate us to buy into these fantastical futures because they have greater emotional weight: selling you "freedom" is more emotionally potent than selling you a bridge to cut your commute by 5 minutes - as state capacity declines (see above), appeals to emotion become far more common - "please daydream to remain sedated and do not notice the failing society around you, thank you very much"
And so LARPing becomes more and more widespread. We play roles in a massive imaginary game in order to derive some form of satisfaction: a simulation of reality that is capable of keeping us quiet and compliant. Ironically, what the widespread LARP means is that as real-world conditions continue to deteriorate, anger and apathy is channeled into the simulation rather than into any kind of real-world action.
Many do not realize that Strength and Fragility/Durability are distinct properties of an object. Redirecting rebellion into a simulated space is an incredibly powerful way for a fragile institution to protect itself. LARPing tends to be an understandable individual reaction to their real-world context, but it is incentivized and pushed by external institutions attempting to escape accountability for their anti-social actions and profound failures.
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.
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