Author: robechr01

The Moral Con

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The creators of Cards Against Humanity recently pulled an interesting and illustrative stunt. They purchased land on the Mexican border, with the goal of preventing the Mexican border wall.

“Donald Trump is a preposterous golem who is afraid of Mexicans. He is so afraid that he wants to build a twenty-billion dollar wall that everyone knows will accomplish nothing. So we’ve purchased a plot of vacant land on the border and retained a law firm specializing in eminent domain to make it as time-consuming and expensive as possible for the wall to get built.”

Whatever you may think of the border wall, positive or negative, one of the virtues of this stunt is its creativity. It is neither violent nor destructive, is entirely legal, and appears likely to be an effective impediment.

Yet even if you disagree with the wall and applaud the clever means of opposing it, there is something off about the motivation behind it. Their statement from their website begins with a somewhat immature insult, and a straw-manning of a very serious and reasonable concern among many Americans, particularly on border states: the job-loss, crime, and cultural dilution that comes with the scale of immigration we’ve been experiencing. It may be wrong, but it isn’t unreasonable.

More telling is their line about making the wall as expensive and time-consuming as possible. Given that two of their stated reasons for opposing the wall are its cost and its projected ineffectiveness, this tactic specifically designed to increase the cost and reduce  the wall’s effectiveness indicates another motive, especially when we consider they made no positive case for the Mexican migrants. They aren’t pro-immigration, they’re just anti-Trump.

It is entirely possible–likely, in fact–that their motives are entirely economic. As a marketing scheme for promoting their game, immediately before the holidays, it’s pretty brilliant.

That it may cost taxpayers millions of dollars would be just an unfortunate side-effect.

Even if their motives really are civic, and their positions are–contrary to all appearances–clear and thought-through, there’s something suspicious about the timing and the pandering. It’s very popular to signal against Trump these days. Isn’t this the very reason why so many dislike Trump in the first place?

The whole situation reminds me of a video Davis Aurini put out about two years ago, in which he describes the mechanism of the con man:

The important thing you need to remember about con artistry is what the ‘con’ stands for, what a con-man is. He’s a confidence man. He’s someone who gets your confidence and uses that to steal your money. You know, there’s an old saying, that “you can’t con an honest man.” You can defraud an honest man, but conning him? Much, much more difficult.

Why is this?

Aurini explains a basic confidence trick called the “pigeon drop” that involves two cons and a mark. One con engages the mark in conversation, while the second sneaks up behind him and drops a wallet on the ground. He then points it out to the mark and the first con, asking if the wallet belongs to either of them. The first con and the mark both say they don’t recognize it, and so the second con–with the tacit approval of the first con and the mark–opens the wallet, to find it loaded with cash; maybe $3,000.

The first con verbally notes “that’s  $1,000 each.”

The second con puts the cash in an envelope (and through some sleight of hand, swaps the envelope with an identical envelope filled with sheets of paper, simulating the $3,000). He then hands the dummy envelope to mark to hold on to the cash; he’s going to take the wallet inside the nearest building and see if he can find the owner, on the condition that the other two don’t leave. The first con volunteers a few hundred dollars of his own to the second con as collateral and proof he won’t wander off… thus pressuring the good-natured mark to do the same.

When the second con-man doesn’t return, the first says he’s going to look for him, leaving the mark with the envelope full of paper, left to eventually to realize he’s lost a few hundred dollars and gained an envelope of nothing.

There’s one critical key to all of this […] a real con-man gets his mark complicit in the crime. See, look at that pigeon drop; what happened there is these three people found a wallet with $3,000 in it, and you don’t know who this money belongs to. That could be their first and last month’s rent, maybe they’re on to a new apartment. It could be money they desperately need. And here the three of them are talking about splitting it among themselves, because this poor, imaginary fellow dropped their wallet? They get the mark complicit. If you’re going to be a con-man, you get the mark complicit.

What would be the point in putting your own money into a collateral pot if you weren’t planning on taking some of the found cash? The sly observation “that’s $1,000 each” primes the mark to participate in the theft. Putting his own money in the plot seals it, and in doing so, opens him to the con men’s ploy.

Where does Cards Against Humanity fit into all of this?

For people on the right (the ones who tend to support the border wall), traditional values are important, if not sacred values. Even for those on the left, the “traditional values” are valuable, even if they don’t beat out compassion, openness, and fairness.

Cards Against Humanity is not just a game like Risk, Monopoly, chess, or hearts. It is an invitation to creatively practice inverting these values and embracing the inversion. We are not laughing at the incongruity of the cards when we play Cards Against Humanity; we’re laughing at the dark creativity of the players. This form of irreverent creativity is a skill, and like any skill, is refined and even habituated with practice.

From the perspective of a right-wing traditionalist, it makes absolute sense that the designers of such a game would be the type to not only support left-wing policies, but do so of their own accord, in a creatively dickish manner, once given the power and resources to do so.

To summarize the mechanics, Temkin, Dillon, Dranove, Halpern*, Hantoot, Munk, Pinsof, and Weinstein* functioned as moral and civic con-men. They invited us to participate in a game that mocks the moral character and values that a traditional conservative should take seriously. It was only a joke, you see. When we discover that the creators of such a game don’t actually share the values we do, and are actively working to thwart our civic goals, it is like being the mark, standing alone, and discovering that he is holding an envelope full of paper.

(In fairness, gun-stores which sell guns to liberals, and who then donate some of the proceeds to the NRA, function in a similar manner. Here, the con-man label is not analogous to the motives of the con, but the experience of the mark).

This may sound a bit puritanical. What, are we not allowed to laugh? Are we not allowed to enjoy irony and make jokes?

This is a very tempting line of thought, and curiously, a sort of intuitive one. Curious, because a rejection of a particular kind of humor is no more a rejection of all forms of humor and laughter than a rejection of sweets constitutes a rejection of all forms of food or even tasty food, nor is rejecting theft a rejection of making a little bit of money. There’s an interesting question: exactly how much theft can we reject before we become puritans? There is no reason the “puritan” thought should be intuitive, and yet it is. C.S. Lewis was right when he observed — in the voice of his demon-tempter, Screwtape — that the word “puritanical” and its associations has become one of the greatest tools for facilitating habituated sin.

In fact, it may be useful to go over the four sources of laughter outlined in The Screwtape Letters, Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy:

You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such time shows they are not the real cause.

Fun is closely related to Joy — a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct.

For Lewis’ demons, neither joy nor fun are particularly useful for tempting mortals, except as a distraction. Where the real usefulness of laughter begins is with the Joke Proper:

The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field […] The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their ‘sense of humour’ so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is ‘mean’; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer ‘mean’ but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful–unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke […] Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as ‘Puritanical’ or as betraying a ‘lack of humor.’

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place, it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be made to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

There are times when laughter is useful in dealing with difficult situations; the light side of dark humor. And of course, in the realm of what is allowed to others, we can’t make special exceptions or bans. “All of it’s okay, or none of it’s okay,” as they say, and there is good reason for this. But allowing others to target anything does not oblige us to participate in their particular forms of humor.

Laughter is immensely powerful. It is persuasive, because it makes us participants, but sometimes the participation is in more than the punchline.

We don’t need to become conspiratorial investigators, doing deep reconnaissance on the backstory behind every comedian, every Onion headline, and every satirical cartoon that rolls across our feed, just as the man in the street doesn’t need to know everything about everyone to have a basic level of trust. He just needs the will to be an honest man.

And we need the will to be honest and serious in our own values.

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Marriage Reflections

Today marks my one-year wedding anniversary.

Lesson one: this post must necessarily be brief.

Humor aside, my debate yesterday on the subject of satanism and Christian relationships with non-Christians crystallized a lot of points of wisdom for me pertaining to relationships with people generally, and with spouses in particular. At the end of the day, Christianity is about relationships. It is little wonder that contempt is not only the defining character quality represented by the character Satan, but one of John Gottman’s four horseman of relational dissolution (the other three being criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling).

Both my wife and I have our struggles with these, but reflection tells me that we miss the point if, in our search for improving our relationships, we focus upon the fault in the other. Successful rhetoric and military strategy both begin with accepting the audience and opposing force on their own terms, with empathy. Love is no different. As tempting as it can be to find fault with our spouse, it is almost always more productive and empowering to consider first if anything actually needs to be done, and second, if I can modify my own behavior first.

It is a point I think many single young men miss these days, as they strive for and achieve goals in their own life. They take a kind of engineering view of human relationships, molding the world and their potential spouses to their will. This seems to never entirely work, because a woman is not like a man, and cannot be made into one. Nothing is more humbling to individual pride than marriage to a woman, and yet there is nothing of which I am more proud than my own.

There are times when I think about the road, and the solitary life I had before moving back. It is not nostalgic; I don’t miss it. I just remember it. It was a pleasant and care-free lifestyle, and one which holds a lot of attraction for young men. And yet now, looking back, the lifestyle is about as attractive as repeating a grade used to be in school. Marriage is more advanced, more enjoyable, more fulfilling, and ultimately, what all the previous work was for in the first place.

Evolutionarily speaking, anyways.

Perhaps after marriage there is something even more advanced and challenging, for which marriage itself was only preparation. If so, it will have to wait for another day.

A Question of Violence: The Problem of Coed Dominance Hierarchies

Jordan Peterson’s recent interview with Camille Paglia contained this gemstone of an insight:

Here’s the problem: I know how to stand up to a man, who’s unfairly trespassed against me, and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is, we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women, so I don’t think men can control crazy women. I really don’t believe it. I think they have to throw their hands up in… it’s not even disbelief. There’s no step forward that you can take under those circumstances, because if the man is offensive enough and crazy enough, the reaction becomes physical right away, or at least the threat is there. And when men are talking to each other in any serious manner, that underlying threat of physicality is always there, especially if it’s a real conversation, and it keeps the thing civilized to some degree. If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect.

But I can’t see any way–for example, there’s a woman in Toronto who’s been organizing this movement against me and some other people who were going to do a free speech event, and she managed to organize quite effectively, and she’s quite offensive, you might say. She compared us to Nazis, for example, publicly, using the swastika, which wasn’t really something I was all that fond of. But I’m defenseless against that kind of female insanity, because the techniques that I would use against a man who was employing those tactics are forbidden to me.

If this line of reasoning sounds familiar, it may be because you heard Jack Donovan say something along these lines:

Men worry more about offending women, so they filter their conversations differently. Competition with females is always a net loss of honor for men, so men tend to “give way” when women show up to compete with them. Co-ed competition becomes less serious and therefore less exciting.

There are three logical outcomes. One, that hitting women becomes culturally acceptable. Two, that women are excluded from the conversation. Three, violence is taken off the table.

Off the bat, the choice may seem obvious, but how much violence are we really willing to take away? Civilization itself is built on violence, and law itself is structured violence. Is it really so bad to get beaten up for defaming someone, when the alternative could include jail-time?

If violence goes away, then honor goes away. Serious conversation goes away, for the reasons Jordan Peterson described. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, love goes away.

In any case, how would you enforce a rejection of violence? The third option is not an option at all, but a dream. Either the rules of violence apply to women, or the respect given to men in serious conversations–which is derived from their willingness to potentially endure violence–does not apply to women.

This may sound like a decision women have to make, but men are participants in the conversation too, and recipients of the consequences. Men protect women, and have defended women’s honor. They still do today, sometimes effectively, and sometimes not. More to the point, men have an intrinsic desire to protect women. Perhaps they can be persuaded not to, but this natural inclination has to be accounted for in the equation of violence that determines respect in debate, civil or otherwise.

We as a culture–men and women–are going to have to decide which path we take. If the sane women can get together, as Peterson suggests, and rein in the insane women, and do so for the rest of time, then we can continue on in the generally integrated society we have. However, this seems unlikely for two reasons: first, as Peterson observed, sane women are usually busy doing sane things, like taking care of their families, working, and other ordinary things. The best ones can’t be bothered to police the most neurotic and controlling elements of their gender, as men are required to do of the most violent and predatory of theirs; men are the majority of violent criminals, and make up the majority of the incarcerated by a broad margin (arrested and held, of course, by other men).

Second of all, the women who might be inclined to do so are working against the weight of female opinion generally:

Any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice.
–Michelle Obama, Sept 27, 2017

The crazies are already running the asylum.

Perhaps we can institute a more structured kind of female social police, to control the insane women in our society? This sounds Orwellian on its face, and already seems compromised by the Hillaries and Michelles, but it may be the only alternative to the acceptability of violence against women or more severe exclusion. The founding theory of virtue in the Western tradition holds that only by cultivating personal character can the necessary authority of the state be curtailed. This cultivation of personal virtue simply has not happened in at least three generations, and the breakdown in conversation will rip our nation apart if we do not begin to take matters of honor, respect, and civility seriously again.

The Homeric Political Paradigm

It has often been argued that all of politics can be boiled down to Plato versus Aristotle.

Plato takes a lofty, idealistic approach to politics. He sees potentialities and perfect forms, and for him, politics is a means to the approach of the harmonious balance between these purposeful entities, which is justice. To achieve this, a city must have a wise ruler who can direct the coordination of society’s constituent elements, like a conductor directing a symphony. This was necessary for the protection of the city as well as for the success of the individuals.

Aristotle, by contrast, begins with observations of what is, and builds upwards. He is an empiricist and a sort of proto-scientist. Rather than Plato’s dictatorship, used to achieve control from the top down, Aristotle favors a mixed-government style, of the kind which Lycurgus of Sparta instituted, and which Cicero was to go on to defend in De Republica, and which the Founding Fathers of the United States were to refine nearly two millennia later.

There is clearly a distinction in political nature between these two philosophies, but looking backwards across 2,000 years of development, it is difficult to determine which philosopher is “right,” and which is “left.” Does the question even make sense?

The modern right has championed limited government and freedom of speech, and so they might point to Plato’s totalitarianism and claim Aristotle’s republicanism for themselves, perhaps after pointing out the Left’s proclivity for expanding government power. The modern left, on the other hand, has consistently stood for more inclusive representation and a less fixed view of human nature. They might point to Plato’s more aristocratic understanding of virtue, and claim Aristotle’s slightly more plastic view of humanity for themselves, perhaps after pointing out all the right-wing fascist movements of the 20th century. In a similar manner, either side could claim Plato for themselves, and pin Aristotle on the opposition.

The Greek Philosopher distinction can still be made, but it is not obvious, and takes some unpacking to be useful in application to the politics of today.

However, there is an older and more useful Greek thinker that can help us distinguish between the political right and left: Homer.

Daniel Mendelsohn observed that in the realm of classics, there are Iliad people and there are Odyssey people (his father, after taking Daniel’s course on the Odyssey, revealed himself to be an Iliad person). They are dramatically different poems, in which the heroes seem to operate on completely different principles.

In the Iliad, the warriors Achilles and Hector are fighting for honor and duty, respectively. Survival is not even a question. Achilles knows he is fated to die young, and in the famous courtyard scene, Hector says he is compelled to lead the men from the front, regardless of personal risk. The predominant emotions of the story are wrath, vindication, loss, and forgiveness, and the story is essentially of the pursuit of meaning when death is inescapable.

The hero of the eponymous Odyssey, Odysseus, is not the same kind of hero as Achilles or Hector. While generally noble in his actions, and virtuous in the original Greek sense–“capable,” or “masterful”–Odysseus is not afraid of debasing himself, of beating himself, of begging, of submitting to more powerful forces, or of disguising himself as a vagrant. There is no obstacle, physical or moral, which can stop him from surviving to see his family again.

As with Plato and Aristotle, it isn’t immediately obvious based on the actions of the characters which book could be described as “liberal,” and which as “conservative.” The underlying motivations, however, are far more clear than those of the philosophers. To analyze these motivations, we can use Plutchik’s useful breakdown of emotions, and look for patterns which define the characters and the stories themselves.

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Of the Iliad:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son, the ruinous wrath that brought down on the Achaians woes innumerable, and hurled down into Hades many strong souls of heroes, and gave their bodies to be a prey to dogs and all winged fowls; and so the counsel of Zeus wrought out its accomplishment from the day when first strife parted Agamemnon king of men and noble Achilles.

If we were to choose words from Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, the key words I’ve emphasized in the opening passage could be labeled rage (x 2), grief, disgust, and anger/contempt, respectively.

Of the Odyssey:

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

To repeat the exercise, we might label them admirationacceptancesadnessfear (x 2), grief, and disapproval.

The clustering is more clear in the case of the Iliad, but there is a discernible core motivation driving the Odyssey as well, especially in the context of the meaning of the paragraph.

These distinctions can be even further distilled by looking merely at the first word of each paragraph in the original Greek language and syntax. For the Iliad, the word is μῆνῐς (mênis). For the Odyssey, the word is ἀνήρ (anḗr). Respectively, these words mean “anger” and “man.”

Mênis actually means slightly more than “anger.” In his book on the subject, Leonard Muellner describes it as “a feeling not separate from the action it entails, of a cosmic sanction, of a social force whose activation brings drastic consequences on the whole community.”

As for anḗr, Odysseus’ virtue as a man derives from his “ingenious” devices and strategems he uses to survive a veritable labyrinth of lethal obstacles and dangers. This genius competence is put to the task not of justice or righteous wrath, but of survival, for himself and his crew. Although he failed to retain his crew, we are told that they perished due to their own sins, and not those of Odysseus.

In short, we have a book about justice on one hand, and survival on the other.

That these two poems were written by (or at least alleged recited by) the same person speaks to the synergy between these two motivations. Justice is an aid to survival, through the establishment of stable and predictable order which people can depend upon and build assumptions around with certainty. And of course, survival is useful–perhaps necessary–for the carrying out and maintenance of cosmic justice. If we ourselves are good and just, then Justice demands our survival.

But the synergistic nature of the relationship between justice and survival does not prevent individuals from being dominated by one motivation or the other. Those who we consider to be of the Left are those who are “justice-dominant.” Those who we consider to be of the right are “survival-dominant.”

This dichotomy is one I wrote about recently for Counter-Currents:

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell argued that the political left–whatever their particular policies–reflected an unconstrained vision of human potential, whereas the political right reflected a constrained vision of human potential. Modern neuroscience seems to support this theory: liberals on average had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is active in navigating social situations, whereas conservatives on average had more grey matter in their amygdala, which (among other things) orients us towards potential dangers and threats. Liberals see options and opportunities; conservatives see risks and dangers.

In fact, “Liberal” and “Conservative,” as labels, are woefully inadequate in encompassing the distinction between those on the Left and those on the Right. This is because “liberal” describes not just one particular theory of justice among many, but also one particular means of going about enacting that theory within a civic order. “Conservative” is a bit more general, and thus broader in its inclusion of right-wing people. However, it is possible to imagine a person who believes that rapid change and “progress” is the surest way to preserve our species. I have personally met transhumanists and people pushing for space exploration who hold precisely this view. Their policies seem to be “liberal,” but their motivations are distinctly right-wing, and their friend-groups and personal politics bear this out, sometimes to extremes which would shock more “moderate,” and less politically-engaged people.

This Homeric theory also carries explanatory power in the realm of parenthood. It is no secret that those with children tend to be more right-wing (“conservative”), and younger people and those without kids tend to be more left-wing (“liberal”). When you become a parent, suddenly survival becomes a viscerally important purpose, and youthful ideals of “justice” often seem abstract, ephemeral, and paltry next to the overwhelming importance of your own children.

This may explain why I myself am slightly more of the left, in my idealism and my psychological profile (high openness, low conscientiousness). I am happily married, but as of the time of this writing, have no children.

It should come as no surprise that Odysseus was not returning to Ithaca merely because it was rightly his kingdom. As he was languishing on Calypso’s island, repelling the Goddess’s sexual advances, he was not longing for home out of a sense of justice, but out of a burning desire to return to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

Achilles had no wife or children that we know of.

This theory also explains why the military is strongly right-wing in nature, while academia is strongly left-wing. In universities, violence is an abstraction, foreign and removed from the daily affairs of life. Survival is a given, and so justice becomes the greatest point of contention. For a soldier, survival is not a given, and so it becomes the single greatest factor in the planning out of every action and every operation. They, like Odysseus, want to come home to their family. While the generals, politicians, and voters may go to war thinking of democracy, human-rights, and the liberal order, soldiers tend to fight for the man at their shoulder. Though they may be just, justice–as a motivation–is an afterthought.

So how do we go about identifying these motivations, in ourselves and others?

Circumstances often dictate the political frame from which we speak. A life of prolonged deprivation in childhood and adolescence may orient a person toward survival-strategies. If food and shelter were not readily available when you were young, ensuring that you have both and more in the future will be paramount in your decision-making. This could lead to advocacy for either traditionally “left-wing” policies (for instance, social services and equitable distribution of resources to favor those who have very little), or “right-wing” policies (property rights and low barriers to entry for those looking to buy and sell in the market). Both are fundamentally rooted in a survival, but are expressed in so-called liberal or conservative policies.

The fact that the “left-wing” policies might be proposed in a fascistic totalitarian society where the policy only applies to citizens of our nation, or that the “right-wing” policies could be proposed in a communistic dictatorship where free-market economics are unknown, is irrelevant. Every policy is enacted in a context. The time and place matter when determining whether a policy is justice-oriented or survival-oriented, as does the character of the advocate. A “right-wing” policy may be rightly viewed as justice-oriented, rather than survival-oriented, when advocated for on behalf of other people.

Others have suggested a quadrilateral analysis of political views, with left and right on the x-axis and authoritarian and libertarian on the y-axis. This is useful in charting the policy positions of various groups at the same point in time, but the problem of the left-right difference remains for both historic and cross-cultural analyses. By looking at the policies–the results of a particular political ideology–instead of the character and motivation of the people who created the political ideology itself, our analysis will always be retroactive and insufficient.

Instead, we must look to the underlying principles, motivations, and experiences of the governed. Through the Homeric lens, we can understand why people group together on seemingly independent issues, such as healthcare, foreign policy, abortion, religion, and literary preference, and we can do so without the slight mischaracterization of Sowell’s “unconstrained vision.” For predictive purposes and for seeking a path to cohesion between separate factions, we can only reach a true understanding through the mind of the governed.

The Instagram Ethos

I’ll take with me
The Polaroids and the memories
But you know I’m gonna leave
Behind the worst of us
–Selena Gomez, Kygo, “It Ain’t Me”

There is a certain philosophy–most prevalently but not exclusively held by college girls–that I would like to put under the microscope.

It is a worldview which, correctly, observes that the early twenties is the period where people have an extraordinary amount of power. They have a sprawling labyrinth of options open to them. They are at their peak in physical beauty, at least if they are women. They have sudden access to financial resources, courtesy of student loans, which can be utilized for all sorts of only peripherally educational activities, such as traveling abroad to foreign countries or throwing parties in their dorms with other students. They are surrounded by friends and strangers in a similar situation, most of whom are sexually available, and who in any case might make for good company at a bar or a concert.

From such a lofty peak of artificial success (we might call it a “success bubble”), it is easy to look beyond graduation, and see that things will only be going downhill. You’ll have responsibilities, you’ll have to work around people significantly less attractive, less interesting, and perhaps even less safe than those around you now. In fact, you’ll probably be working extra hard to pay for the years you’re going to be experiencing anyways.

It’s as if death is coming at 23.

What do you do?

Live like you were dying.

This philosophy, which I will call the Instagram Ethos, says that we are in for a future of mundane and boring drudgery, preceded by a brief spat of glorious power and freedom. To optimize life, we should live life to the fullest in this brief period, accumulating “Polaroids and memories” which will hopefully last us a lifetime and keep us happy in nostalgic reminiscence into our old age.

As a worldview for rationally optimizing utility, it is actually quite understandable. It is a point which is made by, among others, the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Church of Corinth:

If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
–1 Corinthians 15:32

The college sophomore is not quite as naive as Paul uncharitably characterizes the unbeliever; the student at least believes that there is life after school. But they have tacitly accepted a view which characterizes this life after school as something like purgatory. Carpe Diem is no joke, for tomorrow you may not die, but you will clock in and out at your boring job every day, which is a kind of relative death.

Take all the photos you can. #YOLO.

There is a problem with this philosophy, however.

The happiness of the traveling, college, or other “empowered” young life comes from living in the moment, and the ability of the individual to continue to derive joy from these memories is dependent upon a kind of attention and value placed upon these memories.

Notice that this value must be chosen at the expense of the current present moment. What is included in this current present moment?

Among other things, any beauty, quality, love, or meaningful relationships. In short, all of the things which gave the “college experience” and its various analogues their magical quality in the first place.

I am not saying that these things are unachievable. Far from it. But in ordinary life, outside of the success bubble of the early 20’s, these things must be worked for, often for long periods of time. For people who never experienced the success bubble, the hard work makes the reward sweeter. But for people who have not only come down from this artificial peak of humanity, but are now burdened with paying for it, this work makes the re-achievement look impossible or difficult to the point of not being worth pursuit.

The trouble with achieving quality, beauty, love, and meaningful relationships is that they take loyalty.

Patience is one of the most important qualities for achieving all of the above experiences, and patience itself is a form of loyalty: it is sticking with one thing, or waiting for one thing for some principled reason, despite having reasons to do other things.

Humans are even more demanding, and more personal in their need for loyalty. You cannot enter a healthy marriage without the expectation of loyalty. The sorts of friendships worth having, the kinds that give meaning to your life, require loyalty. Given the choice between helping a friend who’s stuck on the side of the road or staying at home and watching the game, only the weakest “friend” would accept you choosing the game over them. Relationships worth having are imbued with value demonstrated through actions.

The Instagram Ethos puts the young person between two competing objects of loyalty: your memories, and your present. No boy-(or girl-)friend wants to be second to your memories of the people you fucked when you were younger. No boss or employer wants your attention focused more intently on your glory days as the star of the team than on the work of the company, because it isn’t sufficiently “satisfying” for you. And no friend is going to want to hang out with you if memories of old buddies are more fond to you than they are in real life. Especially if you refuse to shut up about it, and keep bringing up that one story about that time you and your friends had that one crazy experience.

More likely than rejection by others is your own rejection of them, or at least the refusal to invest the time and effort to build those relationships, to work for the quality and the beauty and the long-term gain. Why bother? You already have this bank of memories to feed off of, don’t you?

Why forgive your friend and get things sorted out when you can think about your other “real” friends you used to have?

Why put in the extra hours of paperwork and dull research at the office when you can show off that A you got in that one hard class, the paper you keep just to remind yourself how smart you once were?

Why work hard to find a virtuous spouse and work through fights and hard times together to build a lasting marriage, when you can easily remember banging someone way hotter than them, and whom you could probably find some simulacrum for anyways?

Of course, the work required to achieve these things does make it inconvenient. It’s especially frustrating to have to re-acquire them after having already had them. Perhaps this is reason enough to avoid the more hedonistic habits of many undergrads.

But the difficulty does not make the good things in life unachievable. And as time goes on, others will achieve them; friends, fellow students, siblings and exes. Eventually, you’ll run out of excuses explaining why everyone else is somehow managing to live a satisfying life, and you’re not. The scrapbook doesn’t help you over failures after life in your prime.

In point of fact, there is no reason that the early 20’s is, or should be, the prime of our life. The quality of life is a matter of our experience in the moment, and this experience is derived from the web of relationships we have with others and to the world. When we let these relationships slip, or never forge them, because we are relying upon Polaroids and memories to keep us going through the purgatory of life, we can make for ourselves a desolate, lonely Hell of an existence, as lonely spinsters and basement-dwelling bachelors. And no one will care.

Above all else, guard your heart,
For everything you do flows from it.
–Proverbs 4:23

The Slave Morality: An Alternative Hypothesis

The Slave Morality was a famous theory of the origins of “good and evil” proposed by Friederich Nietzsche, which argued that based on the etymological origins of the words “good” and “bad,” the concept of “good” arose as a distinction between the nobility and the commoners. “Good” meant “us,” the aristocrats being the ones with the ability and the right to coin language. Consequently, “good” carried the connotations and values of the patricians. They lived in the moment. They loved life. They overcame suffering through action. They had no need to lie or to concoct elaborate explanations to justify themselves because they had power. Power is good. Not having power is bad.

This was master morality.

Slave morality, by contrast, was how the commoner came to terms with their own condition. Not having power, they had to find some way to justify their own suffering in the form of a moral code that allowed them to survive in a state which the aristocracy could not tolerate.

“…you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

–Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

And so the afterlife was born. For the slave, the true prize lay in the life which came after death. In this second world, the dead would be judged through a new moral lens, in which “good” meant those who endured their suffering without resistance, who “turned the other cheek,” and who helped others. “Evil,” a new word for a new category, described those who would be judged harshly in this second life. The evil ones were those with power, especially those who were not generous with their slaves and servants.

This slave morality was not designed to undermine the ruling class, though it may have had that effect in some cases. It was designed to make life tolerable for the underclasses.

This is one explanation. Here is an alternative explanation.

Religions, and the stories they derive from and describe, are older than the languages Nietzsche used to analyze the origins of these concepts. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, is about 4,100 years old. It makes sense then to look rather to the origins of religions themselves, and the proto-religious parables that were gradually aggregated into broader religious systems. For whose interests were these developed, and what sort of morality was it?

The three that first come to my own mind are the stories of Genghis Khan and the Hawk, The Scorpion and the Frog, and The Ant and the Grasshopper (perhaps because I mentioned the first two in my book). All of these are of the same type, yet as a collection, they do not neatly fit into either the master or the slave morality. A case could be made that the Scorpion and the Frog is a proto-master morality story, but it is indirect at best. A similar case could be made that the story of Genghis Khan and the Hawk is a hidden slave morality tale, as it encourages mercy towards the servants and underlings of the masters. Yet this is not entirely different from the advice of Sun Tzu or Robert Greene in their books written explicitly for masters.

A far more sensible and obvious explanation is that these stories were developed–most likely cut away from a broader collection of more detailed stories, like a Michelangelo statue from the stone–by tribes, for the benefit of the next generation.

The evidence for this is in the historical nature of property rights. Land belonged to those who had lived on it the longest. Burying the dead was an important means of claiming right to land (“right,” of course, between relatively equally armed parties), but a collection of stories which documented the lineage of the current occupier, and the ancestral occupation of the same land stretching back for generations, could accomplish the same things. In agrarian, herding, and hunter-gatherer societies, land was life, and so stories of ancestry became life.

But although many of these ancestral stories were purely practical, many of them conveyed wisdom for the benefit of younger generations in addition. The stories of King Arthur, of Beowulf, of the Iliad, the long lines of “begats” in the Old Testament, and as a more modern example, Roots, are all stories of lineage and rights of pride (which translate into socio-sexual hierarchy value for the descendants of the hero), but also convey truths about our orientation towards, and relationship with, the outside world, that transcend master or slave status.

Many of these stories depict various transitions of the hero or the hero’s line through the position of both slave and master.

What this means is that “slave morality” is not older than, and therefore is not a reaction to, the “master morality” of the aristocracy. The name “slave morality” itself would be a misnomer. A better title might be something like “transcendent morality,” as it goes beyond the status and role of its adherents. To avoid confusion with Kant, we can call it “mythopoetic morality.”

“Master morality” is just realpolitik. As soon as you find yourself dispossessed and out of power, the works of Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger lose a substantial part of their value, as does the spiritual energy conveyed in Nietzsche, Ragnar Redbeard, and Aleister Crowley.

In the same vein, mythopoetic morality does not justify resentment and impotence, as the true “slave morality” is supposed to.

The evidence offered for the “slave morality” hypothesis includes the Christian obligations to “turn the other cheek,” to “love our enemies,” and to believe that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” But to take these standalone claims as the entirety of Christian morality is to pretend that the Gospel of Matthew is the entirety of Christianity and the Bible. I’ve written elsewhere of misinterpretations of Christian parables, and others have observed that simplified Christian prohibitions, such as those against hatred, are not theologically grounded at all. But no deep explanation is needed to observe that there are 65 other books in the Bible, and that the truths in Matthew, like the truths in every other book, are contextual.

The “slave morality” theory requires this simplified and decontextualized form of Christianity to be true, but it is not. The “mythopoetic morality” theory predicts elements of both “master” and “slave” moralities to exist within the Bible, in different contexts. This is obviously true. A “master morality” theme can even be found within the king of all slave-morality books: Matthew.

For this reason, the “slave morality” hypothesis is an insufficient and incomplete explanation for Apollonian religions that are designed for (among others) the masses. The cross-generational “mythopoetic morality” hypothesis is sufficient and is simpler as an explanation for moral systems which are not aristocratic in nature.

Sanguine Considerations

I had the privilege of enjoying a blood moon of sorts last night.

I say “of sorts,” as a true blood moon occurs only during a lunar eclipse. What we have had instead are wildfires, which have thrown up enough smoke to give the moon an orangish-red color. They had powdered my back porch with ash when I stepped outside this morning, and even the sun was faint and dull in color.

The blood moon is a powerful symbol in astrology and in Christian mysticism. It is associated with werewolves and with the apocalypse. In October, they are associated with hunting and with the harvest. The moon itself is cyclical, and so the blood moon is a symbol of death and destruction, but also of renewal, of food, and of regeneration.

The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.

–Joel 2:31

Wildfires themselves are not a good omen (to put it mildly), and perhaps many people might think of them as representative of what is going on in their country politically. People who once decried the lack of motivation and interest in politics on behalf of the lay citizen are now suddenly concerned by the increasing polarization of the parties. The cold has been replaced with heat.

A blood moon in such times might appear inauspicious. Some more radical Christians seem to think so.

However, the temperature, the anger, and even the violence, are not intrinsically bad. For someone worried that the greatest danger to America would be a Brave New World of apathy-inducing drugs and video-games, the political radicalization of the past 4-5 years should bring about a great sigh of relief. Blood is death, but it is also life.

Isn’t that a contradiction? Isn’t this just new-age nonsense?

It occurred to me that I might someday be accused of defining love in a similar kind of contradictory manner, in In Defense of Hatredbeing both the source of compassion and empathy as well as of violence and cruelty. It may appear to violate the inviolable rule of identity. It may apear, in other words, to be a kind of contronym.

A contronym is a word which carries two definitions that are essentially opposite. To bolt may mean to make secure, or to run away; to cleave may mean to join together, or to separate (as may clipping); something that is fast moves quickly, but something which holds fast doesn’t move at all; and to table can mean to put something on, or to remove something from, the figurative discussion table.

One such word is sanguine. In modern parlance, it is often used as a synonym for “bloodthirsty.” In olden times, however, it referred primarily to someone who was exuberant, optimistic, buoyant, and generally vivacious… someone who was full of life, blood being the primary conveyor of energy.

As someone who has been acutely anemic at several points, I can attest to the usefulness of this understanding, but I had never seen the importance of it in quite as dramatic a fashion as I did this weekend, where I got to watch a dialysis machine in action.

The patient in question had enjoyed a 35-year run with a donated kidney, but it had finally failed, and she was back on the machine that did the job for her. It involved sticking two very large needles into her leg to create a flow through the cleansing and fluid-extracting machine. This process took about two and a half hours in total, and had to be completed five days a week. Two weeks without the process, and she would die.

I asked her if she felt any different, cognitively, physically, or emotionally, before versus after the process.

“No,” she said. “It’s basically the same.” She later added that the process of doing 24 hours worth of fluid management in 2 hours was an energy toll on the body, and that it was a little tiring.

But dialysis was also an energizing process, for the same reason (if not to the same degree) that breathing is a revitalizing process. Cleaner, more efficient blood brings oxygen to the body faster, and only 20 or 30 minutes after the dialysis was complete, she was up haranguing a painter for missing an eave of the house, albeit in her typically cheerful and bubbly manner. I can’t remember if she was singing to herself as she walked over to talk, but I think I remember her having done so. She often was in other cases.

In at least one sense of the word, she remained the sanguine woman she’d always been.

Bloodthirst and vivaciousness aren’t opposites. Different as they may appear, they’re both symptomatic of being filled with blood–of being sanguine. The opposite of sanguine isn’t another facet of lively enthusiasm, but exhaustion. Stagnancy, tiredness, stillness, all of these are symptoms of being anemic, the true antonym to the supposed contronym sanguine.

It is in this way that love is not a contronym when it is rightly defined in such a way that is compatible with deep and meaningful hatred. Fear is the antonym, as are the apathy and irony derived from that fear.

I don’t know if the blood moon and the wildfires are symbolic reminders of violence to come. Recent news seems to indicate that the domestic terrorists are losing support and ground. Perhaps the real bloodshed can be averted. We can always hope.

I don’t think this is likely. The support for Antifa and BLM have come from far more powerful figures: Soros, Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley in general, the Ivy League, think tanks and interest groups around the world. Those groups aren’t going away, and appear to even be winning. We’ve not yet begun to fight.

But warfare and life are not antonyms. Life is not a contronym, despite including death and conflict, though those who hate you might wish you to think so.

The sanguine choice we have presented before us is essentially Hamlet‘s question: to be, or not to be?

It is no coincidence that his immediate elaboration juxtaposes long-suffering endurance (“nobler in the mind,” at least) with combative overcoming. Between these two, it is obvious which path leads to being, and which leads to not being. It should also be obvious that the two definitions of sanguine are not opposed at all, but are both possible manifestations of the condition called life.

And for that, I’ll take the beauty of the sanguine blood-moon over the palid full moon any month, ominous foreshadowing and all.