No One is Really In Control: A Guide to Judging Conspiracy Theories

This is dedicated to: Jeremy Salmon, who asked me to do this for a podcast a few years ago; Dan Helton, who has edited the aphasia out of this blog; Kristin Knippenberg, my partner and literary editor; and one of my best friends and future co-author (and editor), Shalon Van Tine, who told me to write instead of post on social media.

“The fact that a year ago, anyone thought it made sense to tell the millions of people forced daily to navigate all this stupidity that they needed to focus on a labyrinthine political controversy in Ukraine — and to blast them for deficits of “sobriety and clarity” when they didn’t — told you everything you needed to know about the cluelessness of the people who run this country.

Then the pandemic happened.

No conspiracy theories are necessary to point out that all of the institutions Americans were in the process of rejecting just a year ago have since increased their power and influence. Be it opportunism or coincidence, the international emergency has written a dramatic heel turn into our history.

A sweeping Fed-based rescue program resulted in enormous booms in asset values, allowing America’s wealthiest to increase their net worth by nearly a trillion dollars since the start of the pandemic (in mid-summer, American billionaires were collectively earning $42 billion per week). The disease pummeled people who actually had to travel to work, while empowering conglomerates like Amazon, which tripled its profits in the third quarter alone. Most of our lives are online now, an ironic reward to intelligence services that went unpunished after illegal surveillance programs were disclosed in the Obama years.”

Matt Taibbi, TK Newsletter: 2021 Has to Be Better Edition

Whether or not you endorse Taibbi’s politics, he has a point here. Conspiracies are necessary to see how a good crisis was not allowed to go to waste despite Donald Trump’s tantrums, despite COVID-19 eating away at poor and marginalized people, despite the wave of “left-wing and right-wing populism.” Furthermore, from conspiracies that had roots in partial truths–such as the various Russiagate narratives to Hunter Biden’s computer–to outright Satanic Panic nonsense, the fact that structural incentives make conspiratorial thinking more viable should be noticed. There are two reasons for this: the first is that structural feedback loops and bound choices can look like agency, the second is that agency is more satisfying than stochastic chaos and the stasis of various social forces nullifying each other.

In lieu of that, at the request of Dan Helton and Jeremy Salmon, here are the rules I have devised as a heuristic for dealing with conspiracy. I taught a class on conspiracy theories to high school students in spring. It looked at actual conspiracies, such as those stated in things like the Pentagon Papers and in business collusion, as well as obviously false conspiracies like Reptilians.

Heuristic 1: If it involves more than a few hundred people in the know, outside of one agency within one country or business, it probably isn’t an active conspiracy.

The more people you have involved, the more elaborate the means of cover-up may be. Not only does this increase the energy it would take to suppress the knowledge, it also induces a broader and broader array of interests and counter-interests as well as possibilities for discipline breakdown. Even fear of immediate death would have a hard time controlling 100,000 people to merely keep information secret.

Heuristic 2: Incompetence, more than malice, is the historical basis for a lot of cover-ups. This is particularly true for democratically-elected governments.

If your conspiracy involves a lot of ideological building, then it is harder to maintain belief in that conspiracy. Hence conspiracies about globalism or international elites who share a political vision tend to be hogwash. Take the JFK conspiracies–the most viable one I have heard is that inconsistencies in the medical record are explained by the fact the Secret Service may have actually discharged into the President while trying to aim at Oswald. This is not a sexy conspiracy theory, so it is not widely believed. However, it requires fewer numbers of people and has a more viable reasoning. It’s probably still not true, but given the first two heuristics, it is viable.

Heuristic 3: Immediate self-interest of small parties do make for viable conspiracy groups if they have real access to either cultural or real capital OR weaponry.

I think this is self-evident. However, in the grand scheme of things, these kinds of conspiracies are so regular and so not explanatory that most people barely ever refer to them. So this leads us to heuristic four where things get more complicated.

Heuristic 4: Feedback loops can appear to have agency because of the undermining nature of correlations and the overdetermination of causal factors.

This is one is more difficult and frankly also cuts against a lot of our moral impulses in regards to politics, even when we aren’t engaging in conspiratorial thinking. But what does it mean? Systems do have logics in their design. Now, some of those designs are kluges in a way that preclude a reductive, designed purpose (or to be technical, a teleology), but generally this offloads organizational and cognitive work for both individuals and groups. The down side of this, however, is that these feedback loops can act like fractals and look to have more intentionality than they do. For example, even if systemic bias and income disparities are removed, it can look like bankers or capitalists are actively designing the system to produce such wealth gaps that it keeps X group down beyond anything explicit, because wealth compounds generationally in ways that income and skills access do not. Now this may be what investments were designed to do, but combined with prior periods of racialized access, colonial dispossession and accumulation, etc., this would go into the future even without individual or even systemically-designed ill will. It is not irrational for this to be assumed to be deliberate, but it is almost impossible to prove and kind of irrelevant.

Heuristic 5: In-groups must be coherent organizationally to have the ability to pull off a conspiracy.

This is a fancy way of saying that aggregates of identities rarely act as coherent collective in-groups. This is even true for economic classes, but even more true for more abstract sociological identities such as racial or ethnic groups. Smaller groups are not only easier to control and keep information limited, but they are also more able to collectively act than larger ones. While larger groups may have more “people power,” they also have more issues that district them from operating.

Heuristics 6: Money talks, but there are limited amounts for non-state actors.

Meaning the profit motive is probably the number one likelihood of active conspiracies, which are generally attempts to suppress information, but people underestimate the cost in terms of profits of keeping information and logistics secret. This, probably more than anything else, is the limit to non-governmental conspiracies.

Now, this list of heuristics doesn’t just cut against conspiracy thinking. It also cuts against a lot of political logic in the popular sphere, but it is the beginnings of how one could judge what is likely to have any actual conspiratorial element.

That said, I think conspiracy thinking will continue in political circles: left, center, and, most especially, right. Why? When our ruling classes and their funders seem as clueless to long-term realities as they are now and as their privilege walls them off from consequences, being defeated by them feels impossible and information gaps make the terror of chaos more and more unpalatable. This guide may help you as individuals, but you and I should be under no delusion that this will reverse conspiracy theories as politics: it is, itself, a kind of feedback loop

Multiculturalism is not a thing.

The battle between “multiculturalist” and anti-Davos nationalists is a battle based on fallacious premise: that there even is “multiculturalism” in any thick sense.  The old metaphorical argument goes, multi-ethnic nation states used to be melting pot, softening down the differences and melting the identity down into a singular white paste. Now, in a metaphor, I have heard since the 1990s, we have replaced that melting pot with salad bowl, each element contributing to the dish, whole and without it’s identity changed.  The nationalists argue that either a melting pot is still needed with basic cultural softening returning, or, increasingly, even that was a utopian pipe dream and we need barricades of good, decent frog-nazis to combat the force feeding of salad the Lizard people at Davos and D.C. are forcing upon us.

Yet, all this is predicated on some simple misconceptions about culture and identity. Misconceptions that inform ideas beyond “multiculturalism” itself.  Most of these battles define culture in various superficial degrees.  To ask ourselves, what truth there could be between these two positions, we have to ask ourselves, “what is culture in the first place?”  Culture is, like most abstractions, is disputed term in itself. Like more obvious and semi-cognitive terms like “equality,” “freedom,” etc., part of the battles about culture have both sides of the debate hide a definition that is often different from what is being debated.   Culture is larger than religion, language, even ethnicity, as anthropologists will inform you that their can be common cultures between ethnicities, classes, genders, etc.

If we trace the etymology of the term, it is comes Cicero in his Tusculanae Disputationes here he referred to “cultura animi.” He meant the grounds to cultivate the mind towards it’s highest good. It was an agricultural metaphor for teleological development.  To cultivate yourself was a social practice that made one something more than mere being, a barbarian, but fully human.    Note that it has none of descriptive habitus in its original use.

To stop here or to assume this root gives us the sole insight into what culture is would be etymological fallacy. And, frankly, it would cut against my point: even people who share a language, a religion, a technological level of society, have different ways of being fully human.  More modern definitions will, such as the one in the Cambridge dictionary,  will assert: “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time,” or to use the definition in the source of all that is easily looked up on the internet, Wikipedia, “a culture” is the set of customs, traditions, and values of a society or community, such as an ethnic group or nation. Culture is the set of knowledge acquired over time. In this sense, multiculturalism values the peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between different cultures inhabiting the same planet. Sometimes “culture” is also used to describe specific practices within a subgroup of a society, a subculture (e.g. “bro culture”), or a counterculture. Within cultural anthropology, the ideology and analytical stance of cultural relativism holds that cultures cannot easily be objectively ranked or evaluated because any evaluation is necessarily situated within the value system of a given culture.”   The definition is expansive, but it can be reduced to “the elements of a person and group’s that are acquired through social learning.”

So, at various, levels of analysis, there are multiple cultures within on culture: different religious, gendered, class, regional, and even professional practices. However, there are common forms of life they share.  To return to out salad bowl metaphor, if we whole cultures to co-exist in a polity or economy in a completely self contained way, the metaphor also implies they are cut from the root and cannot grow.  Indeed, one sees this in a lot of talk of “cultural appropriation” as if “habits” and customs can be owned by abstractions like nations or ethnicities.  An abstract “owning” an abstraction. Often the practices have roots in other cultures, so we tend to go back to the early modern period and freeze time there, or at the development of separate cultures.  There is nothing “progressive,” or, frankly, even anthropologically or philosophical coherent about this.  Yet it fits with the “salad bowl” notion of intact and easily frozen identities. Admittedly, the history of ideas behind “cultural appropriation” are more complicated than this, and some of which are even legitimate in my view, but this more common and base understanding seems to be a misconception that fits with our shallow notion of identity and multiculturalism.

However, the moment two “cultures” interact without its members trying to eradicate each other, a “third” culture is born from the exchange.  New habits are socially learned, modified, exchanged.  Boundaries are softened, loan words are spread, ways of life alter.

In short, there is no way to stop the melting effect, but it is rarely total unless a campaign of erasure is attempted.  However, this still does get to why,  any thick description of “multiculturalism” is generally false.  A friend of mine, who writes the blog Cold Dark Stars, pointed out in “Multiculturalism and the Clockwork City,” points out:

Canada sells itself as one of the most multicultural countries in the world. It is true that many religions, skin tones, and languages coexist here. But the diversity stops there. In a clockwork world where synchronicity is required, only the right sized gear or spring can fit. The immigration system has already filtered the worthy candidates that can adapt to the friendly and generous canadians. That cab driver used to be a doctor in Islamabad. That engineer’s parents were the upper one percent in China. I am studying a PhD in the natural sciences. Someone in some office with a masters degree in public policy has decided that we were more worthy than the others. There is no diversity in any of this. No varied modes of life. Either a skilled worker, a technocrat, or a capitalist.

I would go further then him, but it hints at the key point. Economies cannot tolerate cultures that are counter to production. Sub-cultural modes can co-exist, home languages can remain intact, but material culture still has to fit in the dominant modes of production, consumption, and exchange.  Cultural forms that cannot be commodified are simply not sustainable.

In short, the overarching culture trumps not matter how much civic or national difference one allows.  This is why isolated peoples are changed by the moment of study or contact with the outside, and if they are fit into the networks of trade, are subsumed into the larger global culture around capitalism.

I lived in many countries and seen this over and over.  It is not that capitalism or liberal modernity erases most cultures, or even melting into the same stew of whiteness, but it dissolves their boundaries.  Remnants remain.  The Protestant capitalism has differences from the Confucian capitalism even after both have given up their traditional faiths and speak a common language. However, can they be said to have completely separate “life-ways?”

Indeed, many of the frognazis point out that multiculturalism has a homogenizing effect.  They aren’t entirely wrong, but except themselves from the equation. They say multiculturalism is about creating new markets, finding cheap labor, undercutting the common culture. This seems like a profits imperative, and one that goes far beyond immigration issues.

Multiculturalism in a sense of completely separate and intact cultures co-existing unchanged is not a thing.  Most of what is fought for by “progressives” and “reactionaries” (two terms of orientation that are merely slurs without the specific issues that one is progressing or reacting to being stated) around this so-called “multiculturalism” is proxy for other issues.  Be it free movement of peoples, or belief that economies can grow perpetually behind the imagined communities of nation-states. Something else is almost always at stake.

People will fight to maintain elements of their traditions, language, and ethnic identity beyond joining or participating in a culture, but they are also subsumed within that culture.  Even culture separatism is borderline impossible because that act itself changes the culture in response to perceived foreign elements.  Any definition of “multiculturalism” thus must remain thin and focus on elements of identity that don’t impede the general economic culture of a polity or system.  Cultures that really and truly oppose this often just die out from their members being unable to reproduce their ways of life.  Most battles about so-called “thick multiculturalism” are thus red herrings, or people trying to sell you something. Furthermore, anytime you hear about defensive of a pristine and unadulterated culture, feel free to roll your eyes because the very declaration of that battle means adulteration has already happened.

The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Week 3, Day 1: Dark Wizards and Hard Truths

There are a few caveats: I have seen enough reports from enough people to believe that hate attacks are up, and that many groups that are racialist and sexist do fill empowered by the Trump Presidency.  Is it because Trump gave them permission?  Why would someone willing break a law care if they had permission.  Is it gloating?  Maybe. It may also be that feel that while there will be histrionics and protests, maybe even some armed people in the streets in liberal capitals: they probably suspect, with good reason, liberals are cowards and they have cried wolf so long that no one takes even real threats seriously.

I think that may have been at play in Brexit too, honestly.

And has anyone proven that wrong?

Scott Alexander, who I often don’t agree with, actually makes some points worth considering here in his recent post entitled, “You Are Still Crying Wolf”. While I may not agree with a lot of this or the lack of seriousness of some issues addressed, I will say a goodly portion of the narrative I am hearing on liberal arts podcasts pontificating on politics actually does indicate this is at hand:

There is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s “the candidate of the KKK” and “the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement” is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.

Note that Alexander doesn’t say that Trump or Romney is not racist, but the uniqueness of threat is laughable. Alexander, like me, also was quiet on this because we didn’t want to be accused of being a Trump apologist, but both Alexander and myself thought that talk of racism was not going to help progressives because it has been thrown at people as milquetoast as Bernie Sanders.

You shoot that attack on Sanders, and you think you can use the same attack on Trump and it will stick?

Alexander makes some sound points though, and the numbers back it up. If anything, there is speculative evidence that racism cost Trump white votes. If anything, he received less white votes than Romney.  He voting percentage among minorities was up from Romney as I have stated like five times now. Yet we still get tons of “Dear White People,” articles about Trump.

Secondly, most of theories about that vote don’t wash.  Alexander points out that even if the Klan and alt-right are growing very fast, they are still tiny and can’t explain but 1% of vote.  Even with liberal assessments of numbers, Alexander spells it out pretty clearly:

Maybe a better way of looking for racists: David Duke ran for Senate in Louisiana this year. He came in seventh with 58,000 votes (3%). Multiplied over 50 states, that would suggest 2.5 million people who would vote for a leading white supremacist. On the other hand, Louisiana is one of the most racist states (for example, Slate’s investigation found that it led the US in percent of racist tweets) and one expects Duke would have had more trouble in eg Vermont. Adjusting for racism level as measured in tweets, it looks like there would be about 1 million Duke voters in a nationwide contest. That’s a little less than 1% of voters….

I mean, kind of. But remember that 4% of Americans believe that lizardmen control all major governments. And 5% of Obama voters believe that Obama is the Antichrist. The white supremacist vote is about the same as the lizardmen-control-everything vote, or the Obama-is-the-Antichrist-but-I-support-him-anyway vote.

So what do liberals do about this? Give people like Radix and former Alternative Right editor and white nationalist at NPR, Richard Spencer, a bunch of free press. While this is meant to scare people in opposition to Trump, it’s more effective at spreading the right’s message across sectors.

If anything, that is pouring gasoline on garbage can fire and kicking into a dry field so it moves away from your house.

Alexander goes into many more arguments, and even some of the more cynical elements of Trump:

So we have Trump – who loudly condemned Duke before February 28th, and who loudly condemned Duke after February 28th – saying on February 28th that he wanted to “look into” who David Duke was before refusing his (non-existent) endorsement. I’m not super sure what’s going on. It’s possible he wanted to check to see whether it was politically advantageous to officially reject it, which I agree is itself pretty creepy.

That a reality television star should watch the ratings so closely should surprise none of us.

There is a bit at the end though that is interesting that Alexander points out:

If 47% of America supports Trump (= the percent of vote he got extrapolated to assume non-voters feel the same way), there are 150,000,000 Trump supporters. That means there has been one hate incident per 500,000 Trump supporters.

But aren’t there probably lots of incidents that haven’t been reported to SLPC? Maybe. Maybe there’s two unreported attacks for every reported one, which means that the total is one per 150,000 Trump supporters. Or maybe there are ten unreported attacks for every reported one, which means that the total is one per 45,000 Trump supporters. Since nobody has any idea about this, it seems weird to draw conclusions from it.

Oh, also, I looked on right-wing sites to see if there are complaints of harassment and attacks by Hillary supporters, and there are. Among the stories I was able to confirm on moderately trustworthy news sites that had investigated them somewhat (a higher standard than the SLPC holds their reports to) are ones about how Hillary supporters have beaten up people for wearing Trump hats, screamed encouragement as a mob beat up a man who they thought voted Trump, knocked over elderly people, beaten up a high school girl for supporting Trump on Instagram, defaced monuments with graffiti saying “DIE WHITES DIE”, advocated raping Melania Trump, kicked a black homeless woman who was holding a Trump sign, attacked a pregnant woman stuck in her car, with a baseball bat, screamed at children who vote Trump in a mock school election, etc, etc, etc.

But please, keep talking about how somebody finding a swastika scrawled in a school bathroom means that every single Trump supporter is scum and Trump’s whole campaign was based on hatred.

I know friends who feel threatened, and I know friends who feel like they will be unable to marry their loved ones and that they will be attacked.  My response to this is different than Alexander’s: the culture as a whole is more aggressive in the states because people feel like chickens are coming home to roost.  So I don’t tell people that their fears are mere histrionics–and I do think there are plenty of histrionics to go around–but that if they feel unsafe now, they should have five months ago.

Also, it’s hard to believe that people really care that much about minorities when they make excuses for a hawkish candidate who has no problems killing brown people in droves as long as it is by drone strike. It’s just local minorities that matter, right?

But to people who feel afraid:  you might have right to feel afraid.  You probably did in January of this year too.  Maybe you did feel afraid then as well, but now you think people will listen to you.

All I say to you is stay safe, stay tough, be resilient, and be careful about people claiming to be your allies.

Now, this brings to the cases of Stave Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos.  I listened to several liberals lecturing their audience about how Social Justice rhetoric had nothing to do it, how safe spaces were really just trauma mechanism, and how the rhetoric on campuses didn’t matter that much except to minorities who felt threatened there. I pointed out that minorities on those campuses come from completely different class backgrounds than the ones killed by cops. This is not to say they don’t live in a world without opposition and oppression, but it isn’t the same world as Eric Garner.

Yet Milo Yiannopoulos alt-light success story was predicated on profound missteps on how most people over 35 and most people who aren’t in universities would perceive those demands from activists in #BLM. Milo was an attention-seeking libertarian that could say outlandish things and sound reasonable by selecting the most histrionic screeds to go against. It worked. It also provided cover for Steven Bannon.

Most of what Steve Bannon is being attacked for is Yiannopoulos rhetoric and his attacks on neo-conservatives on Jewish/Christian lines. This may be fair in part, but portraying Bannon as a simple Neo-Nazi Karl Rove misses the point.  Bannon basically agrees with left-liberal Post-Keynesian theories around deficit spending on infra-stracture. Bannon agrees with Putin on Christianity and ISIS, and thus one has the makings of an Otto Van Bismark more than Francis Yockey.

Vox, in a recent expose on Bannon, actually was one of the few liberal outlets to give him his due while even Bill Kristol was attacking him as an anti-semite caricature.  Bannon is an “economic nationalist” whose right-wing operation hires many jews and gay men. While that doesn’t say anything on Bannon’s personal views: Bannon sounds positively like many liberals on the economic crisis and the fall-out it calls, but his view on secular and muslim world’s encouragement on Christianity is a bit of Samuel Huntington and a bit of Vladimir Putin in the mix.  He may be a racialist as almost all nationalists are at some level, but attacking them on those grounds, even with bipartisan support, will back fire. It will also likely cause Trump to double down.

Bannon is playing a much longer game than the inflammatory headlines at Briebart indicate. He can have Milo play the stooge, he can both appeal and oppose the 14/88 and Radix elements of the Alt-right while pushing out Milo or people like Sargon of Akkad as the new, less racialist version of alt-right appealing to excesses of campus politics. He can get liberals to give him and his speeches tons of free press, although so can Richard Spencer these days.

With enemies like these, Bannon and Trump may not need friends. They haven’t so far.

The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 7: In the Land of Unintended Consequences

Simple electoralism as a method of even maintaining what most “progressives” see as social progress is rife with paradoxes and contradictions. Urbanization was supposed to produce a more liberal and cosmopolitan populace and thus a more liberal polity across the global, yet while urban populations are more educated and urbane in the way most liberals view those term, the politics of the world have become more and more nationalist.

In the United States, increasing, there are some very naive arguments about the electoral college, if it were just eliminated the country would be better represented. The problem with this is that this pretends that executive is who represents the will of the country, and that elections would still not largely be decided on a state level, over which Democrats have no control. They can’t control it either without a significant in either appeal or the demographics of the non-urbanized areas of the country because federal elections are still under state control as long as they do not violate any other provision of the constitution. This is set out by the constitution itself modified by the 14th amendment.

Furthermore, this hyper-centralized areas over large states with multiple cultural regions have a poor track record for stability even if they have one-party rule. The reason for this is actually obvious, large portions of the country are more dispersed and thus have almost no chance of their local polity influencing the dense urban areas that effect the government.

The media market of the US has already led to increasing dominance of national level candidates. For example, New York has had little pull on the executive most of its history, its internal politics being so vast but so different from the rest of the country. While Hillary Clinton is not a New Yorker, but a kind of inverse carpet-bagger, she has represented New York interests since her tenure in the Senate and the past two and a half decades have been spent in New York and/or Washington, DC. Trump, although an outsider and sort of an accidental celebrity, is also an outsider born and bret from New York. The fact that his has been missed is itself telling: much ado was made about Rudy Giuliani’s limited success in the 2008 election because of his New York origin and the history of that city being distrusted by the rest of the country. We have seen candidates moves from Governors to Senators in the past 20 years, and now, we see Senators to celebrities.

The nature of the managerial class in the US is difficult to discern as is the nature of the pundits that serve it. For example, Andrew McGill’s” Clinton’s Popular-Vote Lead Will Grow, and Grow, and Grow” at the Atlantic, where he points out that estimates in a lot of blue states have to push the numbers up with mail-ins and absentee ballots going towards Clinton in heavily blue areas: New York, California, and Washington in particular. He concludes,

…. California is due for a record turnout, and possibly other states are as well. It’s too soon to tell, he cautions, if Clinton’s total haul, which sat at 61.3 million as of the afternoon of November 13, will match or surpass the 66 million votes Obama received in 2012.

But let’s be clear: While these uncounted votes may grow Clinton’s popular lead, they absolutely will not change the course of the election. That math is settled; Trump holds an insurmountable lead in swing states, which turned his popular defeat into a sizable electoral victory. All the votes in liberal-leaning New York and California will not change that.

However, these ballots will knock the legs out beneath the argument that Clinton failed to mobilize Democrats. Yes, she’s no Obama in 2008. (Neither was Obama in 2012.) But county-by-county results indicate Democratic voters flipped for Trump, not that they stayed home. “We just saw massive shifts in the industrial midwest from ’12 to ’16, and those are the same voters,” Wasserman said. This is the conclusion Democrats must face, and in the absence of other data, it’s the one they’ll have to live with.

I am not quite sure what the point of this is.   47% of the electorate still did not vote, but more Rust Belt Democrats flipped sides?  No, I have gone into the specific material and economic reasons that may be, but we does one get by seeing that more people in densely urban areas voted for Clinton, even though Trump got higher percentages of the minority vote than the last Republican candidate?   That the electoral college is the sinister villain tying the country to rails in front of a moving train?   That despite her relative unpopularity fear of Trump mobilized more voters on the West Coast and abroad to vote for her?  That she is somehow a viable candidate in the populist mode? And even if she was, the decimation of the Democrats at every other level of government outside of coastal areas doesn’t really promise that should would have half the power to redirect thing as Trump could have if his party remains loyal.

Furthermore, things get more complicated quickly. A post with the somewhat clickbait related tile of No Hillary Did Not Win the Popular Vote at Fermenting Politics, the gist of this is that we actually do not have means of knowing who won the popular vote in every state. The Nixon in a Pants Suit versus the Cheeto Benito is Round Four of the Title Division has heavy disincentives on voting in certain states:

Because the goal of the game is to get to 270, not to see who is the most popular nationwide, campaigns are no concerned with the total number of voters. The Electoral College is not part of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). You don’t get extra points for running up the score. So, it doesn’t matter whether you win Florida by one vote or one million votes, the value of winning Florida remains 29. Team Blue wins California regardless of the number of voters it amasses there. So if you are Team Red, you probably have supporters in California. But whether they vote or not, they cannot affect the color of California. They therefore have a dis-incentive to go out and vote because they can’t be the Hope and Change they want to be. Likewise, Team Blue will waste no resources on encouraging voters in Texas, because it will remain Red.

So saying Clinton won the popular vote nationwide is comparing apples to mangoes. The system is not set up to determine the most popular, merely to ascertain who got what number of Electoral Votes. So the numbers being bandied about claiming Clinton “won” the popular vote are misunderstanding what the numbers mean. It is simply the total of people who voted in the election, regardless of whether their individual vote counted.

The more people understand the electoral college, the more people in certain areas know their vote is irrelevant and stay home. The encouraging of strategic voting by both mainstream and third party candidates often leads to more knowledge of this fluke in the system and people age out of the system.

This is going to make electoralism in the US very difficult without some fundamental re-conceptions of how one engages in politics itself.  I hope to start thinking on these questions soon and looking at the international picture.  After all, nothing happens in a vacuum, even a depressing American election.

Liberalism Delenda Est: On the 2016 Election and the farce called “democracy,” or why the Podesta e-mails indicate something darker than you think


The above image is shocking to many people. How could there be so clear race and sex divides in the body politic? It must be the moral degeneration of white men, right? Why do they revel in fear and hatred so much? Is it merely the decline of their overall cultural power?  Is there a moral degeneration going on with power who do not recognize their privilege?

These are the questions I see asked when people just aren’t mocking the subject. Why are white men so reactionary? Is it their success in the past slipping away ? Is it fear of a brown America? Why are why men such a plague to the body politic?

There are a number of bad faith assumptions in those questions, and also a few assertions hidden in plain view in those questions which are not wrong. There are numerous editorials about this, some shaming the white working class for their bad faith, but also pointing out that the white working class have experienced real declines in outcomes in the past ten years–its not just their relative social power slipping, their lives are shortening and they are increasingly out of work.   Yet also the polling shows that white (mostly male) voters are in favor Trump but they are middle and upper middle class, politically engaged, and college educated, although slightly less highly than the Democratic counterparts.   A conclusion one can make from this desperate facts  is that similar to working class black men, although for different reasons, the white working class is not politically engaged and does not generally vote.

So how does one explain this? What do we make the above post by Nate Silver’s pollster-number crunchers on this one.  I find this fascinating, and I find it more fascinating that the general liberal reaction to this is that white men are a plague in most the country without trying to seriously figure out why it had gone this way. After all, white men were the primary theoreticians of liberalism as it currently exists too given the structure politics prior to the 1970s–its racial exclusivity still effective and the dominant halls of power being predominately WASP then Jewish, Catholic, and WASP but still white.  Although the definition of white expanded significantly by the 1970s too, and this also changed the nature of the complaint at hand.  The effect of these changes and the beginnings of the Nixon strategy in the South need to be addressed more completely for what it has done to the liberal political strategy as much as the nearly obsessive pointing out the obvious in regards to the Republican strategy. This needs serious thought for liberal thinkers, not merely shaming and virtue signaling, which of the people who have posted this, only one friend did not do.

Furthermore, the Podesta emails are damning for both sides and directly related to this. Trump can’t say “look Clinton so corrupt she empowered me?”  They also illustrate the problems of Bernie Sanders copitulation is factored in indicate that part of this has been strategically encouraged by the elite end of Democrats.   Some key things that the Podesta e-mails showed us:  casting Bernie as old white man and the “Progressive” left as low-key white racists asking for a handout was preplanned strategy.   Furthermore, so Podesta indicates that the Trump and Carson were favored by Democrats, and it was part of their strategy to get those candidates more attention.   Why? Why are so many of you complaining about my cynicism when the response to Podesta emails is generally “that’s just politics.” So you don’t see so sinister here beyond a personalities.

Again, this is not “a Clinton is corrupt and evil” line of thinking. Increasing amounts of the public are depoliticized, they have little incentive to vote and little practical incentive to care enough to keep up with key issues.   The Nixon strategy seems to be functionally embraced by Democrats themselves as way of tying identity to a specific electorate and keeping virtue-signaling in their favor.  The Republicans rely on this too because it means, while they are disfavored in national elections, the structure of the state electoral maps rural/urban divide and the sortition allows them to maintain power in a majority of states and run the politics out most non-urban areas, even in blue states.

So some better questions are:  Until the 1970s, white men even the South and mid-west supported populist progressives. Why did that stop?  Even some dyed-in-wool racists I knew in Georgia growing up over the age of 1950 had pictures of Roosevelt in their house.  Indeed, my grandmother became a conservative Republican on racially progressive grounds in the 1950s, and while she complained about Goldwater’s misstep on the civil rights act and about Nixon’s treachery, she never abandoned the GOP as a good Catholic matriarch with a mixed race family of that has Koreans, Jews, Protestants, and black members by marriages against the norms of Southern society.  So this has been in the back of my mind:  I have almost vestigial memory the pre-Nixon, pre-“neo-liberal” sorting of America because the politics of the South did not fit the politics on television.  This is also true for the mid-west, which now hosts more Klan than the South but also gave us sewer socialism.

All that seems unexplainable now.   The Nixon strategy itself is managerial tactic used across the board by both of the major US parties. The key players of power do not deny the contents of these e-mails, but try to “wag the dog” on the relationship to Russia in exposing these.  Look up Podesta and Trump, and you will not get the Wikileaks e-mail, but Podesta accusing Trump of colluding with foreign governments to undermine democracy.   Which may or may not be true, but Podesta colluded in the DNC to make Trump a viable candidate, and conditions on the ground where supportive because deleterious effects on several demographic groups in the so-called “recovery.”   This is kind of transparent cynical use of geo-politics that liberals saw against the Bush administration, but “progressives” are feeling powerless and afraid of the true crassness of Trump, his supposed extremity (Democrats have embraced most of his policies at earlier times, including stop and frisk, the wall, etc), and his legit support from an enlarged group with deep ties to racial nationalists.

The morbid joke arises that in four years it may look like this: “Sure, Clinton started a nuclear war with Russia and we lost New York, but do you want David Duke to win and open up the camps.”  And what would the outcome of that devil’s bargain eventually be?

Why do so many people continue to play the role assigned to them? I don’t have answers for this but I can tell you that it implies that the farce you mistake as a democracy gets less democratic anyway by the cycle, and that in this, partly because the tribal alliances in face of stress, people are becoming easier and easier to manage through the fragmentation of social media and regional sorting.


There are a few darker implications that run into the structure of a Republic based on representative democracy whether parliamentary or congressional.  The predominance of management to handle an increasingly fragmented and complex society will increase in democracy and while their policies will effect more or more of daily life as they control the executive and judicial branches beyond the presidency, they will be effectively a class that is anti-political.  Anti-political in the sense that is anti-deliberative and anti-representative.  Moneyed powers will have increased say. One of the darker elements of the Podesta e-mails was not about the Clintons, but about Obama’s cabinet.  I will just quote the New Republic:

This is a fight over who dominates the Democratic Party’s policy thinking in the short and long term. In 2008 the fight was invisible and one-sided, and the fix was in. In 2016 both sides are angling to get Clinton to adopt their framework. Those predisposed to consider Clinton some neoliberal sap might not agree, but this is actually a live ball. Presidents lead coalitions, and they have to understand where their coalition is and how things change over time. Peter Orszag this week suggested a trade-off: Give the Warren wing its choices on personnel, in exchange for more leeway to negotiate an infrastructure package with Republicans that gives big tax breaks to corporations with money stashed overseas. While that deal needs more detail, it reveals the power the Warren wing has, relative to the Obama era, to make significant strides on appointments.

To say that movement of liberal polity is itself illiberal and that democracies are increasingly anti-Democratic to the point of being farcical sounds both contradictory and maddening. To say that DNC really is deliberately playing with racial fire as a managerial strategy sounds conspiratorial. In some sense, it is, although I think all this was hiding in plain sight and is a logical extension of regional trends.   After all, we have known members of the Black Congressional Caucus to play with conservative politicians in the South to keep “progressive” influence smaller but their majority black contingency intact. In fact, this isn’t even necessarily malicious if one believes that one is serving a particular community that would be under-represented in “progressive” polity otherwise. It is a logical and not entirely intended consequence of the structure of the system.  It self-reinforces and becomes dark.   Given the demographic trends of the country, the decline of the US Protestant identity, the fiscal liberalization of politics, and the increased role of capitalist elites in both parties financing, this is almost inevitable and requires no deliberate conspiracy.

How can we explain the media’s bias?  Their increased pushing wikileaks as a Russian conspiracy–again, does anyone remember the Bush years?–and the predominant role in supporting Clinton as well as giving Trump much of his campaign advertising for free? Access is the media’s bread and butter, and they can’t get it without willing partners on the political side.  So what they have access too are increasingly prepared statements, especially considering that lower profit margins in news media means that no one can afford to fund investigative journalism anyway.  So re-running talking points of dominant politicians at least gives one something increasing to print that will get spread on social media because it plays to people’s confirmation biases anyway.

Is Trump a Clinton creation?  No. But again, people increasingly play their role.  A role that even the alt-right and far leftists seem to be factored into.  Occupy becomes a staging hashtag for Democratic pro-party activism.  BLM increasingly is moved from the streets into college campuses.   Alt-right becomes increasingly Milo and crew, and not related to the explicitly racial nationalists who created the moniker ten years ago. Paleo-conservatism is made relevant to millennials by anti-SJW rants on youtube, but also loses its content, and its history.  Sargon of Akkad has not read James Burnham or probably even Pat Buchanan.  In fact, the darkest implication in all this is this one seeming fact: Most of your rebellions are not only factored in to political and social management, their strategies are founded on the predictability of the patterns of it.

Review The Shipwrecked Mind by Mark Lilla (NYRB Press, 2016)

While some will read this as a ‘history of reaction,’ this insightful and easily digested volume of essays is more like several essays on the subject. Generally, following a format related to book views and discussions in the history of ideas, collected around the central theme. I was little surprised to find that Lilla had published most of the chapters in New York Review of Books. While this is a limiting factor to the book, it does not make it un-insightful or particularly dross, or even repetitive as like some similar books. In fact, the obvious comparison is to Corey Robins The Reactionary Mind, which while also being largely a series of essays as review, had a more coherent thesis but was far more repetitive in its assertion and conflated conservatism with reactionarism. Still as Lilla points out, the reactionary impulse may be more dominant in political thinking these days even on the left, but far more ink as been spilt on the revolution mind. Indeed, even I can only think of Berlin and Robins as clear precursors to Lilla’s focus here.

Lilla starts with an assertion going back to DeMaistre, the reactionary is NOT a conservative. The reactionary is a utopian of nostalgia as opposed to the utopian of progress. While this is not actually the clearest of definitions, Lilla is able to use it trace a variety of kinds of thought which rhyme in function and affect. Lilla starts the book with careful and highly sympathetic studies of Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Indeed, in the case of the latter two men, Lilla goes to pains to disentangle them from the use of their work. Lilla, like Isaiah Berlin who influenced him, can’t help but admire something of the vitality of counter-Enlightenment thought and may almost be too sympathetic to his case studies for many of his political allies. He is far fairer to Voegelin and Strauss than to Alain Badiou in the later chapters.

It is the series of essay in the second half of the book that are both the interesting but also the most frustrating. Lilla seems limited by the magazine form that chapters were originally published in, but almost all the arguments need to linger. Lilla’s thesis on the reactionary impulse to the “road not taken”–generally in some relationship to the Enlightenment although sometimes against the entirety of post-Socratic European history–is fascinating and seems apt, but he does not fully develop it.

Lilla’s assertion that “epochal thinking is magical thinking” is fascinating and feels true, but he doesn’t give enough examples nor does he explicitly call back the three case study thinkers in the beginning of the book which could be used to justify the claim. Lilla is erudite, and more or less expects his reader to be as well. Yet book that makes fairly strong demands on readers, its magazine style does have the benefit of being immediately accessible in style and a joy to read. This is particularly true in the essay on Michel Houellebecq and the two opposed currents of reactionary thinking in France. Indeed, Lilla does not explore this enough, but often the reactionary impulses biggest enemy is based in a different reactionary impulse with an opposing nostalgia. Lilla is a subtle thinker and a strong writer, but one wishes he developed his thinking beyond collecting his reviews on the topic and writing some thematic essays to tie them together.

Despite these caveats, I strongly recommend the The Shipwrecked Mind.

Guest Post: The Convergence of Left & Right by Emanuel Kumlien

Making sense of Brexit and reactionary values

As human beings, we constantly look for patterns. We are, as Heidegger put it, “thrown into the world” – a chaotic and seemingly unpredictable world that we do our best to try to understand in order to interact with it and the other beings therein in a smooth and gainly manner. At no time though does the world appear more chaotic than during political turmoil, and making sense of it – much less understanding the underlying conditions and patterns – is a daunting task indeed.

Therefore, in the light of Brexit and the disastrous fallout that ensued, I set out to do my best to try to understand the leave campaign, the leave voters and what values and beliefs informed their stance and position. Before long I found myself digging deep into the contemporary reactionary movements of the right, browsing through countless forum threads and listening to hours upon hours of reactionary YouTube “celebrities”, all of which were vocal supporters of “leave”. My armchair social science field study took me through everything from the Gamergate movement, through the darker corners of the “manosphere”, the blue-brown waters of the “alt-right” before finally culminating in reading blog posts and manifestos from fringe neoreactionary movements. Desperately, I tried weaving these threads together, trying to find a pattern between them. What were their common elements? What were their lowest common denominators? What, exactly, is it that ties these movements together?

I thought the answers to the latter questions would be simple and straight-forward. Clearly, we all know “the right” hates homosexuals, the working class and the poor, immigrants, public service television and “communists”. We all think we know the right and what they stand for. At least, that was my working hypothesis. I already knew these people, I thought. I just had to confirm my already strongly held beliefs.

Before long though, I found that reality has an awful habit of not being as black-and-white as we sometimes wish it to be. At first, these different movements seemed to have nothing in common, except for them linking to each other from time to time. What looked like one huge, brown blob turned out to be a vast complex of venn diagrams, some with serious disagreements with their (at least when viewed from the outside) ideological “neighbors”. I found myself in a strange, almost surreal sphere where Leninists quoted libertarian thinkers on white supremacy forums, anarcho-capitalists applauded monarchist feudalists, scientifically trained libertarians supported long-debunked conspiracy theories, and professors of ethnic studies ranted against “jewish media”.

In such a strange world of seeming self-contradiction, I found myself utterly lost. My usual conceptions of “left” and “right” seemed to break down at the starting line. None of the labels I was used to apply to social and political movements and ideologies seemed to be adequate to accommodate for the myriad of beliefs and positions I found within these loosely correlated movements. These people disagreed on absolute ideological and philosophical fundamentals, yet seemed to get along most of the time and certainly had large portions of their audience in common. It seemed baffling to me that the same YouTube show could feature guests claiming that critical theory studies was a form of government-mandated mind control, exacerbated by electromagnetic “frequency pollution” (no, I’m not joking. This person really thought that Frankfurt school thinkers are being transmitted directly into student’s brains via government-controlled antennas) while at the same time accusing “the left” for spreading conspiracy theories. It baffled me further that a significant subsection of the show’s viewers were objectivist libertarians, people who typically are college educated and usually, at least in my experience, very apt and erudite debunkers of conspiracy theories. As a previously active member of the skeptic/atheist movement, I often saw these skills in action first-hand. The libertarian trail led to further confusion. Soon I found classical free-market liberals supporting welfare states and closed borders, in direct and vocal contradiction to the ideas of Adam Smith, and self-proclaimed classical liberals signing petitions to shut down select university departments in the name of protecting “free speech”.

I was ready to give up. These movements didn’t seem to hold any significant beliefs in common. They disagreed vocally on everything from welfare to immigration, gender and epistemology. Ironically, the only thing most (though certainly not all) of them seemed to agree upon was something I thought most of the far-right opposed: the right for homosexual couples to marry. Even some of the neo-Nazis on the far-right forums seemed to be supportive of gay rights, albeit from a very different standpoint.

Yet, for all their differences, they directed traffic to each other and seemed to have a significant overlap. How could this be?

It wasn’t long until I, desperate for something to help me understand this phenomenon, dusted off my old textbook in social psychology. This turned out to be a step in the right direction. For while they didn’t share many concrete beliefs about policy in common, they did have a significant overlap in values and attitudes. This discovery, though, led me to a quite uncomfortable conclusion, albeit one that had lurked in the back of my mind for some time.

Before we get into the actual studies and scientific theories, I invite you to imagine a person who holds a set of general conceptions of the world that looks something like this:

  1. The state of the world is largely determined by politicians and large corporations.
  2. These constitute a part of a group of “elites” that influence the world according to their will and self-interest.
  3. The current politicians are largely corrupted by these “elites”, if not outright a part of their group and replacing them together with getting rid of the “elitist” influence would therefore solve most of our current political problems.
  4. Due to the actions of the politicians and the elites, the world is currently in a critical state verging on collapse.
  5. The ideas and ideologies of the “ruling elite” are unfairly and undemocratically passed down to the public through social institutions such as universities as well as popular culture to which the public is largely defenseless. There is therefore a top-down indoctrination going on, which must be combated at all times.
  6. This ideology is specifically constructed to silence and shame my particular identity and cultural affiliation. This makes me feel threatened, and strengthens my bond to others within my cultural sphere in solidarity.
  7. The social group to which I belong is powerful, beautiful, articulate, and a real threat to the elites. This is why the ruling ideology tries to suppress it, or – worse – to conquer it and use it for their own agenda.
  8. There is therefore an effort from those that side with the elites to infiltrate my social group, which is why we must build barriers between us and them.
  9. My group is further targeted by the elites through economic and material means, effectively disempowering us since they came to power.
  10. The “elites” do everything they can to keep their plans secret, which is why mainstream media cannot be trusted outright. Alternative media might be flawed, but at least they get “the truth” out to the people.
  11. Because of all of the above points, swift action against the elites is justified and necessary. We might disagree on the forms and methods, but it is ultimately a disagreement about practical matters, not of goals or ideology.

I have tried to do my best not to make a strawman out of these beliefs, but truth be told I haven’t perhaps made my best efforts to strongman them either. Perhaps they sound weaker the way I’ve presented them here than they really are, perhaps it’s the other way around. I also do not wish to imply that someone that agrees with a few of these points must necessarily believe all of them, or that one logically necessitates the other. My point is merely to reflect a commonly held view, one that I hope you recognize – to some extent at least – among op-eds, books, debate articles and other forms of political commentary. Perhaps you even agree with a few of these points, or all of them. I certainly think more than a few carry a grain of truth, even though I – as you might have guessed by this point – do not think of it as the whole picture.

Again, consider our hypothetical person that holds the aforementioned beliefs. Who are you thinking of? You might be thinking of a person on the left who identifies the elitist ideology as “neoliberalism” and who might sympathize with – say – the occupy movement. Perhaps you’re not thinking of anyone in particular, thinking that these beliefs are far too generalistic to apply to any one person or movement. Whatever the case, you wouldn’t be wrong. I have, however, summarized these points from the opinions of one very specific person.

That person is Sargon of Akkad, or Carl Benjamin as he’s known in the real world. A right-wing reactionary YouTube celebrity, long famous for being a vocal critic of feminism and most of everything coming out of the contemporary left. A self-proclaimed “classical liberal”, he was also a vocal supporter for Brexit and – considering the sheer number his fans and audience – perhaps someone who might have had enough of an impact to sway voters to the other side in a very close referendum where tiny margins meant all the difference. Somewhat paradoxically for someone claiming to be of the same school as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham, he advocates harsh border controls, isolationism and protectionist tariffs to “protect the jobs at home” and “protect the British working class” from the influence of the “elites” and “neoliberalism”. He’s also on record supporting Donald Trump, mainly due to his opposition to anything resembling Islam.

I have to emphasize here that I do not wish to engage in any sort of guilt by association. Clearly there a lot of people on the contemporary mainstream left, if not the overwhelming majority, that see him as a political enemy. The point of my investigation, however, was to understand how and why a significant portion of the left came to support a campaign directly orchestrated and organized by the far-right. The fact that someone on the far-right agrees on many of the same points as large portions of the left provides a clue.

While they disagree on who the elites may be and what the content of their ideologies is, most seem to be in agreement on the aforementioned points. On the left (as well as portions of the right), we hear that neoliberalism is the ideology that’s been shoehorned into universities to indoctrinate the public. On the right, it is “social justice” and “postmodernism” that fits this bill. On the left, the group being dispossessed and fought by the elites is the middle and working class. On the right it is the white middle class. The groups being infiltrated and attacked from outside, requiring them to stick together and thereby excluding other groups from their meetings or cultural events might either be minorities if you’re on the left (cultural appropriation theory and safe spaces come to mind), whereas on the alt-right and reactionary forums it is rather the traditional family values and the position of the white middle class that’s under attack from “social justice warriors”. Indeed, the whole of GamerGate, a reactionary movement mainly based on the internet whose goal is to silence and oppress minorities online (especially women who dare to criticize mainstream “gamer” culture), can be read as a special case of cultural appropriation theory. These mainly white adolescent males feel that their culture is being attacked and infiltrated from the outside and that people who do not “belong” in their social sphere suddenly try to “take” their culture away from them. Therefore, they react accordingly. Women, minorities and people of color do not belong in gaming, according to them, and they have no business trying to change the cultural milieu that rightly “belong” to those who came first.

This is not to imply that both parties are equally bad, or that there is no way to claim that one side has more evidence and well-reasoned arguments on their side than the other. I think it is clearly the case that the proposition that white men are discriminated against in society due to their gender and race, as goes the narrative in the right-wing “Redpill” movement, is downright silly and goes against not only mountains of evidence to the contrary, but also common sense and the everyday experience of women and people of color. I also think that there are several good reasons for creating “safe spaces” on college campuses, provided they fill their original function – enabling people who suffer from PTSD to be able to flourish intellectually and exchange ideas without having to constantly struggle with people dismissing their condition or actively shaming them for their trauma. I also do not wish to imply that GamerGate is a mirror image of civil liberties movements trying to raise consciousness about how sacred symbols and clothing is disrespectfully used by people who are ignorant of the very cultures the try to assimilate. These are clearly different movements with clearly different goals. Trying to use the fact that both left and right agree on many common points to dismiss both is not only wrong in an intellectual and moral sense, but also builds a dangerous road towards crude relativism.

It would, however, be equally wrongheaded to ignore these common denominators because one side has more evidence and arguments on their side than the other. If a set of personal experiences, cultural affiliations, facts, and statistics is all that distinguishes a gender-exclusionary feminist from a member of the Redpill movement, it would be an easy task to make them switch sides by means of propaganda and cleverly manipulated statistics. If a switch from thinking that neoliberalism is the main ideological enemy to thinking that “social justice” and “political correctness” is the main culprit is all it takes for a certain subset of supporters of Bernie Sanders to suddenly lean towards Donald Trump, then we find ourselves in a very dangerous political situation, regardless of whether Sanders is the better candidate or not. It makes the left a very fragile movement and very prone to sudden political shifts.

Which, incidentally, is exactly what we see. Indeed, many supporters (as well as a well-known organizer) of the Occupy movement later turned to neoreactionary politics. It wouldn’t be jumping to conclusions to suggest that this explains a lot of the support for Brexit outside of the neoreactionary and paleoconservative camp. Indeed, a vocal part of the leftist Brexit movement made a point of saying that just because they vote in favor of neoreactionary politics does not mean that they support neoreactionaries. Just because they share a common enemy, they claimed, does not mean that they’re political allies in other respects. This may very well be true, but in distancing themselves from the right in this manner, they also tacitly admit that they share a common view on how the world is shaped and the mechanics by which it operates, since who the enemy is is directly determined by who, or what, holds the real power to shape society. Indeed, it also implies that their main disagreement with the reactionary right is about which social groups should be excluded from participating in British society, not whether exclusion or isolationism is the right approach to begin with. In doing so, they reveal a most unsettling tendency within the left to privilege political determinism over a more dialectical understanding of history and politics, as well as putting domestic trade-union protectionism before international solidarity.

Why, then, if both left and right seem to agree on these common elements, do we see an increase in these values currently? Many theories have historically been proposed, most notably Adorno’s theory of “authoritarian personality”. While commonly invoked among leftist debaters, it has been largely debunked and abandoned within the field of social psychology, or at least so we were told in the introductory course on social psychology at university. So instead of going for the usual sources, I tried to see if there was any good, solid behavioral and social science on the matter. I therefore digged into the enormous World Values Survey, a massive effort to empirically measure and theorize the values of different social groups across the globe.

What sets the World Values Survey apart from the common understanding of politics and political camps is that it starts without any concept of “left” and “right”. Instead, the researchers first collected a massive database of responses to questions like “When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this country over immigrants” and “Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person.” and only after they had the empirical data tried to use statistical models to see how best the different responses correlated with each other. It is the most serious attempt at a scientific understanding of values and how they shift over time to date. What they didn’t find, unsurprisingly enough, was a clear cut between “left” and “right”. Instead, they found that sets of values would best be categorized into Survival Values versus Self-expression Values, and Traditional Values versus Secular-Rational Values, all of which can be found within both left and right-wing politics.

Self-expression values are what you’d imagine – someone supporting not only the self-expression of oneself but also of others. They feel safe among others in other out-groups and are generally tolerant to immigration, LGBTQ-rights and so on. They’re also more prone to self-sacrifice and altruism. These values are opposed not to religious or conservative values per se, as the common suspicion goes, but to Survival Values. Survival Values emphasize the belief that a threat is looming over them, and that their in-group needs to be protected from that threat. It therefore strongly correlates with political opinions on economic and social security. It’s easy to see how survival values might see an increase during economically challenged times, as indeed they do according to WVS.

The results and findings of the survey are fascinating, and I wholeheartedly recommend looking through their summary of findings. What is interesting for the purposes of this analysis though is that we see a grounds for a dialectical materialist understanding of values and how they shift.

While WVS is careful to point out that the data in no way supports economic determinism, as – for instance – the support for gay marriage seems to be the result of conscious political campaigning and not the result of an increase in GDP, they also find that there are correlations between economic security and self-expression values, as seen in this graph:


While certainly not deterministic and not quite linear, the difference between economically prosperous nations and developing nations is quite clear. 

Thus, when I wrote the list of values at the start of this essay, I made sure to make them correlate with survival values. Notice how all of them play on the threat of security and safety, and how they fit within a framework of political determinism. If you feel that your security is threatened when it previously had been quite satisfactory, it is a lot easier to attribute this sudden change to a political movement, a group of people or a certain strain of politics than it is to derive it from the inner contradictions of a mode of production. It is a lot easier to see neoliberalism as the source of all the ills of society than it is to see capital as the source of neoliberalism. It becomes easier to see the state and judicial apparatus as the base and the economy as the superstructure rather than the other way around. Thus, we turn on the enemy, protect our own in-group and stick it to the elites that brought us into this situation. Whether your enemy is neoliberalism, muslims, white men, bankers, migrant workers, corporate CEO’s or state bureaucrats (or all of the above), the solution is the same: isolate, separate, secure, survive. And the theory usually rings the same: if we could only go back to the way it used to be, things would be better (at least for me). Gone is solidarity, and in its place is put the fetish of the noble politician, the one who will set things right again.

Marx had a different idea. It’s a shame we don’t listen.

The Dogmatic Slumber of Neil Degrasse Tyson


(Trigger warning:  Hyperbole was used in the making of this polemic, check references for the substance behind that hyperbole. Thank you.)

Around ten years ago, when Neil Degrasse Tyson was primarily writing on Pluto and people didn’t realize while he railed against God, Richard Dawkins was still more or less an middle class Anglican prig, my best friend got me a signed copy of Tyson’s book on Pluto.  I still cherish that book, partly because she gave it to me and partly because I enjoyed the lucidity of  Tyson’s writing on astrophysics and classification.  However, over the past five years, Tyson’s attacks on philosophy, mistakes about history, and generally obscurantism in the some undefined ur-form of “reason”(TM) has increasingly led even a lot of the science promotion community to look at him with scant-eyed trepidation.

One of my favorite non-continental philosophy and psychology podcasts, Very Bad Wizards, finally took the piss out of Tyson’s Reflections on Rationalia.   Taller Sommers and  David Pizarro tear Tyson’s assertions apart.  His chief sins being conflation of normative morality with descriptive anthropology, leaving the good undefined so one can skip the meta-ethics and other hard questions, some of the assertions about experimentation being both impossible and circular, and generally being wrong about the universality of morality as it actually exists.

Physicists often are like this in assertions about philosophy as both Steven Hawking and Laurence Krauss have also done, but then again  engineers are the most likely to become religious extremists too, and belief in rational policy without defining the variables strongly enough has plagued radicals from Utopians like Technocracy, Inc to left Leninists, like one sees in some of the earlier optimistic writings of Amadeo Bordiga. Part of the problem, which  Sommers and Pizarro hint at, is that notions of rationality around people like Michael Shermer, Sam Harris (whom Sommers and Pizarro have more patience for), Richard Dawkins, and Neil Degrasse Tyson are–perhaps deliberately–extremely thin.  Is a reason: a justification or a piece of data? Tyson switches between both, which is fine in common speech, but could be deleterious in an ethical debate.

For one, the above apostles of ur-Reason conflate the scientific method–which itself is a simplification that does not exist in actual practice as one “method”–with reasoning. This conflates empirical thinking with a synthesis of empirical and logical formal thinking.  I have said in the past that the scientific methods (note the plural) work because they pit formalization from the pre-modern idealist philosophers (including some of precursors to modern science like Descartes) with empirical modes of observation in an almost dialectical fashion. However, we know how Tyson feels about the philosophy and sociology of science, so, of course, this ignores that.  (Although the fact even someone like Alan Sokal readily admits that the experimental methods and even falsification don’t work to describe all of science because both historical sciences like evolutionary biology and statistical inferences are key to scientific thinking, which are necessarily un-falsifiable without nearly infinite replication, should clue those above cheerleaders for Ur-Science in). Often, like Sam Harris, there is a pragmatism that refuses to define the “good” it is seeking:  Harris tries harder than Tyson, but even Harris just assumes that flourishing is the answer and presumes to operate on the loosest of an anthology to medicine, whose applied “evidence-based” paradigm is often largely based on confusing causation with correlation because at least then one can try an intervention. Then one brings in Max Weber: instrumental reason, value-based/belief-based reason, affective reason, and  ingrained habituation.  Tyson switches often between instrumental and affective reason as if they are the same thing.  Psychologically, Weber’s distinction may not hold, but again, one needs more clarity when justifying the epistemology around policy. While these modes of “reason” all work on a variety of logics and are mixed in most actual use, their goals are different and so, then, must their variables and kinds of “experimentation.”

Most pragmatism, like what Tyson is describing, then is basically begging the question and conflating different types of reason.  To make it worse, there isn’t even one clear unified system of logical formalization to base all this one (syllogistic, prepositional, first and second order, modal, predicate logic, set theory, dialectical reasoning).  If Tyson would quit posturing to be above the humanities, he would know that.  Ultimately, this refusal to deal with the fact all these ideational complications are unsexy, Tyson becomes an example of thing he hates, dogmatic slumber.

Thus the decline in his writing and public thinking in the past decade as he moves furtherer and furtherer away from limiting himself to topics of physics and astrophysics.


Oh look, Tyson doing the meta-ethics he claims is unnecessary. Sure, it’s a simple version based on sentimental assertion and not pure reason, but don’t point that out.

The replication crisis, sociology, and liberal gender politics: Or the perils of psychologization and shallow materialism

In general, I am loathe to share hot-button takes from the NPR set as I tend to find the mixture of liberal self-congratulation, the TED talk simpleton’s vision of science, and fads in sociology and social psychology to be sickening.  However, the last episode of Invisiblia really hit on a problem of the way many institutional gauges for “female empowerment” work as well as the perils of the replication crisis, although it downplays the latter.

The case study is Rwanda, where after the genocide, female empowerment and representation in civic life was decreed by the President, but as the podcast showed, private life remained incredibly patriarchal in ways that few women in US or Europe would accept, despite their countries showing up much lower on those female empowerment indexes. Part of the irony of this episode is that the episode uses the case study about the female debaters and tries to expand  it to the entire country in a rah-rah liberal feminist sort of way.  Yet Gregory Warners own reporting actually indicates that this sort of self-actualization made progress in the home more precarious, and the distinct divide between public and private life more precarious as well. In short, Warner tries to use a case study as an answer to a social problem while admitting there is no evidence for the case study working on individuals and, in addition, his own reporting seems to indicate contra-evidence at a social level.

Ironically, I was listening to this the very day I saw a recent Slate article, another smug liberal outlet that I whose shallow contrarianism in service of the Democratic party establishment I sometimes advise avoiding,  had published on the Strack smile study which prompted Amy Cuddy’s work.  Slate has also published an interesting article on the failure of the republication of Amy Cuddy work too (here’s the TED talk referenced if you must),  but the entire foundation of the Cuddy was the “Smile study” in the first place. As  points out for Slate,

How bad is this latest replication failure? It depends on your demeanor. If you read the study in an optimistic mood—let’s say, with a highlighter in your teeth and your lips pulled back into a smile—then perhaps you’d be inclined to think it’s just a local problem. Maybe there was something off about The Far Side cartoons, or the presence of the cameras, or the subject pool. In any case, you’d think the replication failure tells us this and only this: For one reason or another, one particular re-creation of one particular experiment, designed on the way to Mardi Gras in 1985, simply didn’t work.


Or maybe you’re inclined to take a slightly darker view of the research: It could be there was something wrong with the original paper. Maybe the pen-in-mouth approach had a fatal flaw, even one that might come up in every other study where it’s used. Now your forehead starts to crease with worry: What if there’s a deeper problem, still? They only did an RRR for this one specific work, but it was chosen precisely on account of its fame and influence. If the classic facial-feedback paper doesn’t replicate, then who’s to say that any other, lesser facial-feedback research would? Maybe there’s a problem with the whole idea that expressions have a direct effect on our emotions.

Almost proving Thomas Kuhn’s point despite himself, Engber shows that Fritz Strack, had already started lambasting the replication crisis before his work was directly implicated. He doesn’t take the counter-findings seriously as even the republication shows some evidence, but 9 vs. 8 is bad odds for replication. Scientific paradigms, particularly in psychology, where the infinitudes of factors become infinite themselves, don’t tend to move fast or with clear and clean experimentation patterns.

This brings us back to Warner’s Rwanda debate challenge:  He seems to miss that he too encouraging girls to succeed in the perception of the public sphere, but not necessarily at the level of their social lives.  The debaters individual attitudes may or may not have changed–although as we see above there is plenty of reasons why we should be skeptical on the long-term effects even on an individual level–but we are still conflating public with private in the way done by the Rwandan government.

A shallow approach to social psychology indicates the dangerous–and frankly faddishness–of liberal approaches to science and social advanced.  First the focus on the formal and not the social trending along lines that were obvious even to Karl Marx almost 150 years ago; secondly, the psychologization of the social as if individual scales up to social matters while also acknowledging, contradictorily, the social constrains on individual attitudes is an untenable position. This is a shallow “materialism”–a faux of love of science and “data”–to justify easy answers to incredible hard problems.  After all, if this were all just a matter of self empowerment, wouldn’t the feminist movement that Warner says had not shown significant improvement in American also have figured this out?   Probably. So why the pollyanna attitudes here when we have already acknowledged replication crisis on the first place?

The NPR mid-cult junkies will have to answer about their conflations of science and what they think it achieves on their own, but it is transparently shallow.  It does not recognize the social as a intermixed and limiting agent in material constructions of the self clearly, or if it does do it, only does so negatively.  This leads to an utterly incoherent notion of the individual.

Interview with Frater Sam Shult (October 2006, Published in the defunct Green Triangle Magazine)

Derick Varn: How would you like to introduce yourself and your relationship to Thelema and Gnosticism?

Fr. Sam Shult: I have been an initiate of OTO since 1992 and baptized, confirmed and admitted to the Diaconate in the OTO’s Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica for almost as long. I have been an ordained Priest in that tradition for a little over 2 years. I’ve been a self identified Thelemite since 1980.

The EGC derives it’s claim to the title ‘Gnostic’ through its descent from Jules Doinel’s Neo-Albigensian GnosticChurch in the last decade of the 19th century, the direct ancestor of every important Gnostic Church now in existence, including Stephen Hoeller’s Ecclesia Gnostica and the Johannite Gnostic Church. Out of Doinel’s original Church derived the l’Église Gnostique Universelle, whence came Reuss’ Die Gnostische Katholische Kirche, and thence the EGC, which by then as an integral part of the original OTO converted to Thelema as its guiding spiritual paradigm. Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’ was written as its central Rite, replacing its earlier liturgies.

Thelemites generally and the OTO specifically regard the early Gnostics of antiquity as important (though not exclusive) sources for some of the European esoteric currents of which they are heirs, though not without considerable modification by the new Dispensation represented by Thelema.

‘Gnosticism’ is a tricky word because it can be defined in different ways, sometimes more, sometimes less strictly. If we define it strictly as those attempts to recreate the original Christian esotericism of the first three centuries, Thelema is not Gnostic. If we broaden the definition to include all those esoteric streams (including those represented by Valentinus, Basilides and others) that inform the Western Tradition, it surely is.

Many traits traditionally ascribed to classical Gnosticism are incompatible with a Thelemic worldview, e. g. The dualism of Matter and Spirit, the negative assessment of this world, and so on. But as the pursuit of the initiated wisdom, Thelema is every bit a ‘Gnostic’ tradition. In some ways it seems to me Thelema shares a few of the critiques of the Orthodox toward the Gnostics’ Manichaean attitudes, but views Orthodoxy as no less Manichaean in many ways, especially in what is generally perceived as Christianity’s hostility toward sex and the body.

I suppose I am Gnostic insofar as I am part of an ecclesiastical tradition deriving from Doinel’s neo-Gnostic revival, and insofar as Gnosticism is a tributary source for the stream of the ‘Western Tradition’.


  1. V.: Father Sam, Why do you think there is some tension between OTO Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and say Hoeller’s Ecclesia Gnostica and Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica Hermetica?  Including claims that the current EGC has little to no relationship to the pre-1980’s EGC?Now, I must say that my experience with beginning Thelemites leads me to the conclusion that many, in general, have a sort of orientalism and are more Vajrayana Tantric than say, Gnostic, even in the larger Western esoteric sense?  Do you think this is just Thelema reflecting larger cultural obsessions?  Or is there something do this observation?


S.S.: In part I believe that the tension between EG and EGC reflects the general discomfort many feel with anything having to do with Crowley specifically, and an antipathy to initiatory orders being intertwined with Gnostic churches generally, however strong the historical precedent from Doinel’s time to ours. That EGC is a ‘Gnostic Church’ is doubly troubling for them. Hoeller has circulated one or two ‘position papers’ relative to OTO taking great pains to distance EG from OTO/EGC, and has expressed his wish in them that OTO/EGC call itself something other than Gnostic—-such as Kabbalistic, Magical, or some such —as more descriptively accurate and to avoid confusion on the part of the public. This despite there in absolutely nothing in the EGC liturgy explicitly Kabbalistic or ‘magical’ in the sense he means. In fact the EGC liturgy makes full use of God-names with a specifically Gnostic origin, e.g. IAO, IAO SABAO, and ABRASAX. That they have different connotations for Thelemites is beside the point. Believe me, I of all people understand and sympathize with ‘purists’. But then the OTO/EGC version of ‘Gnosticism’ is sui generis. I think an EGC Patriarch put it best when he said “we are not Gnostics in the sense of the word used by the modern-day Gnostic revivalists, who are attempting to breathe life into the dry skeletons of Basilides, Valentinus and Mani. Our Gnosis has been tempered in the furnace of 18 centuries of trial, experiment and dialogue, and has been ultimately transmuted by the Gnosis of a New Word: THELEMA.”

Many in Hoeller’s own church would disagree with him on this point.

The EGCH is another story (I am also baptized in that church, by the way, though not particularly active in it for quite some time). Originally they were a local parish of the Gnostic Catholic Apostolic Church, but their Bishop found their modified liturgy incompatible with the existing liturgy of the Church, so they went their own way. Again, I suspect there was a general discomfort in the Church hierarchy with the incorporation of so many other heterogeneous elements
from the broader Western esoteric tradition, but perhaps the inclusion of Thelemic material was the last straw. If there is any current antipathy between EG and EGCH, I would be surprised if that played no part in it.

Regarding the Thelemic ‘orientalism’ you have observed, yes I think it largely reflects larger cultural obsessions, but also demonstrates recognition of certain sympathetic resonances between Thelema and other traditions such as Vajrayana and tantrum. But that’s a very different thing from saying that those traditions are ‘Thelemic’ in any meaningful sense.


D.V..: Have there been reasonable “ecumenical” movements between Thelemites and Reconstruction/Restoration Gnostics that you have encountered?   Is there a lot of dialogue (other than say, between, someone like me and someone like you)?


Unrelated question, do you think that there is confusion within occult and pagan circles as to what exactly a Thelemite is? Particularly if they are outside of the EGC and/or the OTO?  Does this sort of have the same problems that one has when dealing with unspecified Gnostics?


S.S.: The North American College of Gnostic Bishops has been open to working with Thelemically oriented Gnostic churches like EGCH and the Alexandrian Church affiliated with the Thelemic Knights. (Both Churches are represented in the College). I was a little disappointed there was no EGC involvement, but I strongly suspect that was because of a lackluster interest on the part of the OTO/EGC  rather than any antipathy from the College, all of whom seem to me very reasonable people. By and large though Thelemites have been more open to Gnosticism than Gnostics to Thelema, which is why Gnostics are consistently scandalized by their surprisingly large (to them) showing on various online Gnostic fora. Some dialogues occur there, but only when all parties are genuinely open to dialogue rather than committed to a pissing contest.

To answer your unrelated question, I think there is some confusion about what a Thelemite is in an extra-OTO/EGC context especially in Gnostic circles, because for obvious reasons Gnostics will have a disproportionately greater experience of Thelemites who are involved with EGC and OTO (whose central Rite is the Gnostic Mass), than those who don’t. Thus, the ‘Gnostic church’ stuff may seem more fundamental to Thelema than it really is, when in fact it is really only fundamental to the OTO. All that’s required of a Thelemite qua Thelemite is to accept the Book of The Law and its message as spiritually authoritative. For the initiate, more specific and particular forms of this spiritual expression are entailed. Other Thelemic Orders might have different ones.

So yes, the same sorts of problems obtain, making for mutual misunderstanding.


D.V.: One of the issues with Thelema in the broad sense and Gnostic in broad sense is that outside of the OTO/EGC the “archetypal” language is different.  For example, the Book of Law makes references to things that are both Kemetic and Hermetic as opposed to the more explicitly Gnostic “Christian.”  Does the pagan/Christian split have any play here (although I should be clear that all Gnostics, even of the restoration/reconstruction variety, are not explicitly or only Christian)?


And how do relationships with “pagan” religions that have roots in (misunderstanding or appropriating) Thelema (Gardnerian Wicca, Scientology) have any play in that confusion?


S.S.: Well there is a slightly more specifically Gnostic slant to those in an EGC. But some other of the ‘archetypes’ are shared with no other Gnostic group, (BABALON being the most obvious example), and are common to Thelema at large. The Thelemic Trinity Nuit/Hadit/Ra-Hoor-Khuit appears in other rituals of EGC outside the Mass, such as Baptism and Confirmation. While true the Book of The Law takes the form of an Egyptian Theogony, it is a theogony utterly unknown to the Egyptians themselves. The pairing of Nuit with Hadit as a divine couple with Ra-Hrumachis as their child was born in 1904 with the reception of the Book. However, there are certainly Christian motifs that appear in the Book. Christ is mention twice, once as Isa, once as Jesus; Mary is mentioned; and of course the Beast and Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse are mentioned, albeit with a meaning that completely inverts traditional interpretations of those archetypes.

In my opinion it is less the pagan/Christian divide that alienates Gnostics, than it is the more or less explicit anti-Christian polemical stance implied by turning the meaning of the apocalypse on its head. This despite the fact that turning traditional interpretations on their heads was a Gnostic specialty. The Ophrics who revered the Serpent of Eden, the Cainites who revered slayer of Abel, and the authors of the Gospel of Judas come to mind.


D.V.: Why do you think there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about Thelema, even in Occult circles?


S.S.:  The short answer is that Crowley represents a challenge that most in the occult community aren’t up to—and that includes a few Thelemites as well. Crowley had the unfortunate habit of saying exactly what he thought on any given subject, and his spiritual perspectives (along with their material implications) don’t sit very well with those who have been poisoned with the virus of Political Correctness. It’s much easier to dismiss him as a proto-fascist, sexist and racist than it is to actually engage with his points intellectually. Curiously, my experience from the radical pagan right regarding Crowley is no less underwhelming. I’ve heard him denounced as the incarnation of that is wrong with liberal permissive modernity. Go figure.


D.V.: Well, is there anything you’d like to say in closing?


S.S.: Thank you for the opportunity to speak. It has been a genuine pleasure!