Great essay from Venkatesh Rao in his Breaking Smart newsletter. Here are the first few paragraphs, the rest is at the link:
2) There is an enormous itch we all seem to share, to act in the world some way. To do things that are consequential on a stage that is larger than that of our private lives.
3/ To do what philosopher Hannah Arendt called appear in public. This does not mean narcissistically inserting cough Trump cough your life story into the narrative of the world via long trolls.
4/ Instead, it means seeking to live fully in a way voluntarily recognized as fully human by others. Whether they agree or disagree with you, they acknowledge how you have enriched the human condition for all.
5/ The side-effect of Arendtian action is entering history books, but that is not its intent. The intent is to live a fully human life, in the company of a plurality of other humans, who welcome your presence.
6/ A mode of being human that transcends a life lived in private, with family, or within the closed cognitive context of a particular tribe. A mode that history has traditionally reserved for royalty.
7/ A mode of being that requires the presence of other fully human individuals around us, who also act. and act differently from you, your family, and your various tribes, in ways you cannot control.
8/ Arendtian action is a way of creating a full life for yourself that goes beyond contemplation and integrates behaviors all the way from intimate and private contexts to the worldly public stage.
9/ Arendtian action is action that allows you to feel fully human. It is not the off-by-yourself fuck-you-money action of self-isolation. It demands cultivation and use of voice. Arendtian action subsumes both mute action and empty speech.”
When I read the article, this principle felt familiar to me, then I remembered where I had seen it before. It is the 13th Amazon Leadership Principle:
“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”
The rest of the principles are also well worth remembering.
Interesting analysis arguing that global jihadism is a youth movement, and European jihadis are the latest in a long tradition of violent nihilists.
One of the best mental models I know: Inversion.
From Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger to star Quarterback Tom Brady, the secret to success is to simply avoid stupidity.
In the Brady case, here is an example I read in the Farnam Street newsletter. A quote from his coach Bill Belichick:
From 2011, but good. The four drivers of change:
- Longevity, in terms of the age of the workforce and customers – Retiring Later
- Smart machines, to augment and extend human abilities – Workplace Automation
- A computational world, as computer networks connect – Internet of Everything
- New media, that pervade every aspect of life – Online Privacy
- Superstructed organizations, that scale below or beyond what was previously possible – AirBNB
- A globally connected world, with a multitude of local cultures and competition from all directions- Geek NationFrom http://jarche.com/2014/07/four-basic-skills-for-2020/
Matched by the 10 core skills:
- Sense making – Ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
- Social intelligence – Ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
- Novel and adaptive thinking – Proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
- Cross cultural competency – Ability to operate in different cultural settings
- Computational thinking– Ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data based reasoning
- New Media Literacy – Ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
- Transdisciplinary – Literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
- Design Mindset – Ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
- Cognitive load management – Ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functions
- Virtual collaboration – Ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual teamFrom http://www.top10onlinecolleges.org/work-skills-2020/
All started with the Institute for the Future document.
The Nation has a very good profile of Karl Polanyi, the mid-20th century left-wing Austro-Hungarian sociologist and economic historian.
“…[Polanyi] had been a violent critic of the gold standard—which, like the euro, restricted a nation’s capacity to inflate or deflate its currency based on the needs of its citizens. In his classic of economic history published in 1945, The Great Transformation, Polanyi showed how the gold standard made it impossible for nations to manage their own economies and how it often encouraged the retraction of welfare. It also empowered a small group of financial elites over the rest of society. Given their access to credit, bankers—rather than politicians and civil-society activists—became the country’s most powerful decision-makers. “Under the gold standard,” Polanyi complained, “the leaders of the financial market” find themselves “in the position to obstruct any domestic move in the economic sphere which [they happen] to dislike.”
…But Polanyi’s Great Transformation was not all dark prophecy; it also offered us some insight into how societies rebelled against this marketization of social life. The free-market economy, Polanyi argued, not only empowered financial elites and commodified social goods; it also created a countermovement in which bodies of people emerged, demanding that the state protect them from the market.”
Polyani’s observation that free-market economies tend to oligarchy but they also generate their own resistance, came to mind whilst listening to a recent episode of Open Source with Christopher Lydon. Lydon was interviewing Yale historian Timothy Snyder about his new book “On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (here is the originating Facebook post).
Synder’s entire book is an historian’s warning that Trump represents a serious threat to democracy, with 20 idea about how to prevent a Trump presidency devolving into a Caesarian tyranny. Snyder believes Trump’s early actions are a coherent stress test of the democratic institutions. He is feeling the edges of his power, taking stock of the strengths of his opposition. Snyder believes only civic resistance can deflect the Trumpist power grab.
The book is full of gems. I learned that the founding fathers – heeding Plato – never expected democracy to last as long as it did.
It brings to mind a wonderful passage from The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. Much of this is eerily familiar:
“Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. During the third and second centuries before Christ a Roman oligarchy organized a foreign policy and a disciplined army, and conquered and exploited the Mediterranean world. The wealth so won was absorbed by the patricians, and the commerce so developed raised to luxurious opulence the upper middle class. Conquered Greeks, Orientals, and Africans were brought to Italy to serve as slaves on the latifundia; the native farmers, displaced from the soil, joined the restless, breeding proletariat in the cities, to enjoy the monthly dole of grain that Caius Gracchus had secured for the poor in 12 3 B.C. Generals and proconsuls returned from the provinces loaded with spoils for themselves and the ruling class; millionaires multiplied; mobile money replaced land as the source or instrument of political power; rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes; in 53 B.C. one group of voters received ten million sesterces for its support. When money failed, murder was available: citizens who had voted the wrong way were in some instances beaten close to death and their houses were set on fire. Antiquity had never known so rich, so powerful, and so corrupt a government. The aristocrats engaged Pompey to maintain their ascendancy; the commoners cast in their lot with Caesar; ordeal of battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.”
At one point Lydon asks,
“Are we sleepwalking still, is there something to be said for a riled up citizenry?”
Snyder replies in the affirmative, and observes that in the anti-Trump reactions he saw unprecedented speed (airport protests) but also numbers and intelligence (large scale, multi-partisan alliances in the Women’s March). He also talked about the role of lawyers, pointing out that in 1930’s Germany the legal profession acquiesced then enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis, whereas the Trump era has the legal profession leading the fight in the form of lawyers helping travel ban victims or judges blocking executive orders.
This lends some evidence to my feeling that Trump, far from being the ultimate defeat for the American left, could herald their ultimate triumph.
Hear me out here.
Now the corruption – Russian interference, Oligarch money – and his lack of intellectual substance, disorganization and personality flaws will all be exposed.
The Trump effect is already damaging Populists in Europe. Trump may have helped in Wilder’s defeat in The Netherlands and he may well help sink Le Pen in France too. Merkel, despite domestic terror, is booming again in the polls.
I think the mood driving populism is still there. If Populism is a reaction to elites, globalism, industrial automation, immigration, cultural and political alienation, then we can expect it to intensify as the agonists are strengthening.
But the current right-wing populists are fairly or unfairly associate with the Populist Khan of Khans Donald Trump. As he flounders, he could take down the entire right-wing populist surge with him.
This leaves an opportunity for the the populist left, and within that opportunity there are also dangers.
Jordan B Peterson, Dave Rubin, Sam Harris and others argue very persuasively that contemporary leftists also have a decidedly authoritarian bent.
The grim mirror image of Trumpian tyranny we have the left’s Neo-Stalinist assault on free speech, SJWism, essentialist identity politics, obsession with race/gender/privilege, racism and anti-Western obscurantism.
Can the center reassert itself? Can a principled, moderate left emerge? Are we like 1930’s German’s, facing a choice between two violent revolutionary anti-democratic ideologies: Nazism and Communism.
dare we hope for something good to come out of all this, or is it going to be the perpetual power of nightmares?
If the left can evolve out of identity politics and rediscovers its principles, embrace true pluralism and welcome true diversity, then it could be facing a golden age. If the US Democratic party can transform itself from being the party of white urban elites and minorities into a party that also genuinely represents the interests of rural people, the white flyover citizenry, and the poor – regardless of provenance – then it could be a generational political force.
Today’s left are Orwellian Nationalists. They assume that “human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.””
If it doubles down on PC, intersectionality and identity politics, it is doomed. Either it slips into leftist tyranny or dies with a whimper, on the scrap heap of ideas. The former entails bloodshed and civil war. The latter a triumph for Trump.
I hope a reformed New Left can emerge, recognizes the importance of individualism and embraces a principled politics of the 21st century based on science, reason and genuine democracy based on strong institutions.
Which will it be?
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
WB Yeats, “Easter, 1916”
“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”
I noticed three articles this week on the theme of privilege and leftist ideology as religion.
One of my favorite public intellectuals, Jonathan Haidt, has a video in the Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage – “ An unorthodox professor explains the ‘new religion’ that drives the intolerance and violence at places like Middlebury and Berkeley.”
On Twitter, Peter Boghossian points out that he called this first, back in 2016:
The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you’re born with. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed. It’s something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It’s something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It’s something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.
For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.
Finally, “The last thing on ‘privilege’ you’ll ever need to read” is a book review of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s “The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage”.
I love discovering the correct name for a mental model. For years I was using the metaphor of supersaturated solution to describe a state I now know is called being “critical”:
“In physics we say a system is in a critical state when it is ripe for a phase transition. Consider water turning into ice, or a cloud that is pregnant with rain. Both of these are examples of physical systems in a critical state.
The dynamics of criticality, however, are not very intuitive. Consider the abruptness of freezing water. For an outside observer, there is no difference between cold water and water that is just about to freeze. This is because water that is just about to freeze is still liquid. Yet, microscopically, cold water and water that is about to freeze are not the same.
When close to freezing, water is populated by gazillions of tiny ice crystals, crystals that are so small that water remains liquid. But this is water in a critical state, a state in which any additional freezing will result in these crystals touching each other, generating the solid mesh we know as ice. Yet, the ice crystals that formed during the transition are infinitesimal. They are just the last straw. So, freezing cannot be considered the result of these last crystals. They only represent the instability needed to trigger the transition; the real cause of the transition is the criticality of the state.
But why should anyone outside statistical physics care about criticality?
The reason is that history is full of individual narratives that maybe should be interpreted in terms of critical phenomena.
Did Rosa Parks start the civil rights movement? Or was the movement already running in the minds of those who had been promised equality and were instead handed discrimination? Was the collapse of Lehman Brothers an essential trigger for the Great Recession? Or was the financial system so critical that any disturbance could have made the trick?”
From the 2017 Edge question “WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?“