Sat Jun 20
So, what do we do?
My short answer is: Nothing.
There's nothing to do because nothing can be done. Three short reasons:
As stated, there is a concerted effort, grounded in cynicism, to remove the American public from critical decision making. As it stands, I share this cynicism. It's hard to try and put it into reasonable words. Instead, I'll copy-paste an excerpt from my personal journal I wrote some time ago to try and articulate my feelings on seeking accurate and useful information in today's world:
Everyone everywhere is so fucking unbelievably, incacluably, catastrophically stupid, so utterly devoid of critical thinking ability that it has boggled my mind in and out of sanity several times throughout my adult life, everything you read or hear or see on TV is a fucking advertisement or marketing ploy so shallow that the only response of reasoning human beings is a perpetual state of vomiting out this absolute garbage that we are constantly being assaulted with from every direction in every layer of media, academia, and discourse, and there is no hope anywhere ever of finding any truly neutral or good set of facts or analysis to make sense of what's going on so just completely give up trying and become a total intellectual hermit
So uhh… yeah. I uh. Let's just say that I, too, am rather cynical.
I've spent far too much of my life trying to wrestle with the question of how to get young people to think more critically. This is something I think the adults are squarely responsible for. All I remember from my childhood is grown-ups saying "Think Critically! Think Critically!" over and over again. I heard something somewhere that we're supposed to have this thing called "school" that has something to do with this, but the details are vague, and I've concluded that the myth of "schools" existing are mostly just apocryphal fairy tales.
Unwinding yourself from pushed narratives is a very long, very arduous, but very fruitful process. Everyone has to kind of figure it out themselves as they become an independently thinking adult. Probably most people are not capable or interested in doing this, and that is probably okay. And everything is so polarized in The Discourse that even signifying yourself as an independent thinker is scary, dangerous, and ill-advised; if I were to list a single public figure I thought was stupid, exactly ½ of people would tag me as a dangerous propagandist from the enemy team, and the other ½ would tag me as a brave ally just speaking my mind for the good team. (Okay, fine, I'll give you two: John Oliver and Ben Shapiro are both mind-bogglingly stupid).
I can't teach you how to think for yourself. But I can share some things that have helped me.
The first is isolating yourself from everything. There's a zen-esque contradiction here I'd like you to take seriously; you should be more aware of things, but first you have to be less aware of things. For about 1.5 years I read zero things; no opinion columns, no analysis, no news, nothing. Everything just went brr and I could focus on my job, relationships, and general happiness. For my intellectual growth, it was the best period of my life.
That's the second thing; focus on your health. It's not just detaching from media that's important, you also have to build up goodness in yourself. Get a therapist, see a doctor, share your feelings and worries with friends and family (if you can), read the bible and pray (if you're into that), get good exercise, eat better, whatever. I won't belabor the self-help stuff, other than noting that it's more important than ever, and that self-care is, in every situation, always the first and most important concern.
Improving yourself is really the first step to improving things around you. The strength of ourselves, our families, and our communities comprise the total strength of America as a nation. So the most helpful thing you can do is focus on personal upbuilding.
Many people are already decently healthy. Many of them already avoid "the news", or people with obvious agendas. How do you go about finding neutral, intelligent, and trustworthy accounts about the happenings of the outside world?
One superpower our generation has is the Internet. It was way better for finding this sort of stuff back in the 00s, but if you scrounge around you can still find some honest, articulate people with insightful perspectives. [Note: it has deteriorated much in the last decade. The reasons for this are manifold; the short version is that gargantuan megacorps have their FAANGs deep in our intellectual sense-making process].
One insight about finding good writing on the Internet is minding your social graph -- the web of connections and relationships that make up a social adult. If you read something that resonates with you, find out what that author reads and who they trust, and then read those things too. I stumbled onto a couple blogs back in 2013, and have been blessed with enough free time to build out a small social graph around them, through which I've talked to and met several interesting people (a few of which became lifelong personal friends). If you don't have enough free time, that's totally okay; it's 100% recommended to focus on your immediate problems before exploring new ideas.
Lastly, try to read sources that write with minimal emotion, bias, and calls to direct action. There are many well-written things out there that are purposefully attempting to manipulate you into buying a product, joining a team, or otherwise subverting your own personal thinking. It's not the worst thing to get persuaded by something you truly believe in, but just try to be careful that you don't lose your ability to think independently and critically.
So if you're a healthy and independent thinker, what's the next step? Still, nothing. Our most ancient instinct is, when confronted with harrowing collective problems, to stand up on a tree stump and say: "These problems are terrible! We must do something about them! Who's with me?"
No, you must certainly not. If you follow through with this, you've already failed. You cannot "build a movement", you cannot write a manifesto, you cannot rally people to your cause. You will achieve nothing, you will likely cause more harm than good, and you will fail; not just in your cause, but in your life.
It took a good portion of years to wean myself off of this instinct. Luckily, I always failed even before the first step began; every time I tried to write a manifesto, it just sucked too bad. I'm beyond grateful and blessed that I never finished one, because the next steps in "movement-building" are harder, shittier, and confer far more disastrous consequences.
To even begin, you need to be completely dedicated to it. You'll need to start with an abundance of time, attention, money, resources, good health, and strong connections. You need to be an exceptional person: ideally, you rolled 18s at birth on str, dex, con, int, wis, and cha. These requirements cut essentially every effort off right from the get-go; no matter how strongly you feel or how good you think your ideas are, you probably just don't have what it takes.
Of course, it gets way harder. The first step is to develop a clear, hardened philosophy, and then be able to articulate it and defend it repeatedly across diverse modes of communication. This will take a large amount of time, and you will need to read a wide swath of history and perspectives to fortify your thoughts.
Then, you need to manage relationships, both within the boundaries of your "movement" and the world at large. This is a hard task for every person, and there are no shortcuts or hacks, especially if you want quality people in your movement who are also able to think for themselves, manage their own relationships, and build out their own ideas. Depending on the scale you want to achieve, this part of the process will take roughly an infinite amount of time.
If you can accomplish this at even very small scales, you're on the right path. The next big problem is that you degrade yourself. When you're fully engaged in pursuing some purpose or mission, you're spending all your attention and energy on philosophy, relationships, and resources. You become pretty much unable to take in new information and exert flexibility with changing circumstances. Furthermore, getting the group to change with you is very hard; it requires a lot of trust and loyalty, which, again, takes a lot of time, which is always dwindling away.
The people who manage to succeed at building a medium-scale movement or audience typically become shallow caricatures of themselves. They have some initial success, people adore them, and then a positive feedback loop forms, and they become addicted to the widespread positive attention their public personas provide. In short, you become a John Oliver or a Ben Shapiro. You may be able to influence a lot people for a short time, but since technology / economics / politics changes so rapidly in our era (thanks, Internet!), the horizon of your "movement" producing good value -- before becoming a zombified husk that mostly holds back progress -- is shorter than ever.
Lastly, there do exist such things as ordinary, cliche power dynamics, a la Game of Thrones. There are existing structures of power; there are "elites", and while they mostly ignore young people writing emotional screeds on social media, they do pay attention when a serious, organized movement starts to form.
I'm going to leave these concepts of "power" and "elites" as horrendously ill-defined. You can read more history or watch Peaky Blinders, but I'm pretty sure we all have our own vague ideas about how we think this works, because if there's one thing our generation excels at, it's watching HBO.
So like, the federal government exists. It has an army, a vast surveillance network, a judicial system, et cetera. You may have valid concerns with it; and while we still have free speech in this country (U-S-A!, U-S-A!), it is a set of organizations that you should respect. For my part, I'll be a little contrarian here and say that the federal government consists mostly of the aforementioned good, hardworking, and older people working diligently to keep us safe and preserve -- in their eyes -- "our way of life". Personally, I greatly enjoy the fruits of living in a mostly* secure and prosperous society, I wish to continue enjoying those fruits, and I would like to spend my life caring about more interesting and beautiful things than the gritty realities of statecraft.
I'll make a small note for the truly radical and passionate among you who are pulled into fanciful ideas about how much power you have, and desire to directly challenge "the system" by engaging in radical, violent behavior, by challenging the rule of law directly, or by otherwise thinking they have the wherewithal or capacity to try and overthrow local or federal governments. The only thing I have to say regarding this is, like, hahahaha, go watch some documentaries about Waco or something, noob.
I apologize if it seems like I'm trolling with my "do nothing" approach; I do actually have a point to get to. While I think that trying to build a movement is misguided, there's a parallel set of practices that capitalize on the instinct to do something much more effectively. Most of these prescriptions are going to sound like boring cliches, because they are.
The first idea is simple: Go out and vote.
Young people just suck at voting. But it's the only way to make lasting change in a democratic system of government. It's time-consuming, arduous, and fraught with all sorts of traps of tribalism, misinformation, and intellectual degredation. The moment you start supporting a political party, the inexorable pull to make it your "team", and to start ignoring viewpoints and data from sources not aligned with your "team", is almost inevitable.
I'll confess something myself: I've never voted in my life, and I'm not sure I regret it. Unilateral voting action, while being critical when the system is functioning, is actually a waste of time when the electoral process is simply too out-of-touch with the lived realities of its participants. The youth vote in particular suffers from a predictable, pernicious feedback loop:
Sooner or later, you find yourself in an aging gerontocracy, facing cascading systemic crises, led by confused seniors that barely know how to send an email. In short, you get Joe Biden.
Everybody knows that Joe Biden sucks. Donald Trump, as stated, sucks. The failure of our civic institutions to activate the youth vote is a primary cause of our current catastrophes, especially in a world dominated by new technology impossible for older people to comprehend. There are almost no presidential candidates in the current political arena under the age of 50. (Note; this was not always the case! Some very popular 20th century presidents -- for example, John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt -- were way younger.)
So. Um. thank you for staying with me thus far, young person in America. I appreciate your time and openness. I'm now going to confront you directly.
I find it telling that the single most popular politician among young voters during the 2020 election cycle was someone who, against all odds, is even older than both Trump and Biden. I'm referring of course to Bernie Sanders.
The hard truth is that Bernie Sanders, while a good person, an excellent statesman, and one of the most noble civil rights activists of our era.....is an unrealistic choice for leader for our country.
Bernie Sanders is a movement-builder. He has fought long and hard his entire life for the causes he believes in. They're good causes that I mostly support. But he has long-since caricatured himself; he has not incorporated any significant new information or changed his perspective on any key issues since the 1970s. It's not his fault; this is pretty much inevitable for every public figure. He deserves to stay around in politics and media as a prominent voice for the disaffected.
But he would not make a good President. Unfortunately, the aging boomercons are 100% right on this one: You cannot simply wish for everything you want to happen, instantaneously, for free, without having to put in any hard work or considering the system as a whole. Much of his platform consists of essentially blank check promises to make everything free for everyone; college, healthcare, housing, green energy, you name it. While these are laudabale end-goals, the policy prescription to get there, while balancing the economy and considering the perspective of anti-big-government voters, is simply untenable. If young people want to contribute seriously toward making America a better place for all -- especially the disaffected -- it is time for us to actually grow up.
Young people should participate in politics. We should go out and vote. But the top three candidates presented to us in this election cycle are just duper super shitty. I won't dissuade you from voting; it's a good thing to do, and 2020 might be the first year I actually do it. But it's still not my preferred mode of action.
My preferred mode of action is, for lack of a better term, ordinary community building.
Community-building is movement-building's much prettier cousin. Do everything listed in the above section on movements, but without any particular purpose, platform or goal in mind. Improve yourself, build relationships, live your life, make money, and pay vastly much more attention to your local environment.
There is so much going on around you, wherever you live; everything is more interesting, beautiful, and rewarding than anything you see or read about on the Internet. Trust me, I've been an internet addict since the age of 11. I'm still glued to Twitter sometimes. But the more I can pull myself away, the happier, healthier, stronger, and more able to take focused action I become.
Go figure out who owns your local corner store; find out where they're from, what they're passionate about, and what their pets' names are. Learn the history of various buildings and districts in your area. Learn about the species of birds that are chirping in the morning. Go out to bars and just meet random people. When you buy a t-shirt, ask yourself -- "what is this made out of; where was it produced?" Buy local, participate in local politics, and support local artists. Find out who your governor is, follow them on Twitter, and watch their press conferences. Do research on who the top 20 richest people in your city are, figure out what companies they own, and reach out if you have skills or resources to offer.
[Small sidenote: There is a pre-step here, which is picking a local environment to live in that you actually like. I moved back home from San Francisco to Kansas City for this purpose; everything here is richer and higher fidelity at the smaller scales I can wrap my mind around. Living in a big shiny blob where everyone is richer and more connected than you makes it really hard to appreciate which details are important and which details are noise. The converse is also true; if you're bored in a tiny town somewhere, consider moving to a small city; but this is up to you and your current circumstances]
It's almost not even important whether this "strategy" is "effective" for "combating" the simultaneous crises we're facing. It pretty much bleeds directly into the most ancient philosophical question of how to live a good life. And living a good life is probably the truest guide to whether you have the capability to be effective in larger arenas.
To give an example; since I'm writing from a Kansas City perspective, I've lately taken an interest in the biography of Tom Pendergast. His story is one worth reading and considering; starting off working at his brother's tavern, he worked his way up through various companies and social groups. Eventually, he found himself in a position to run a highly successful political machine for nearly a decade, becoming a key figure in the election of Harry Truman. His legacy was rather mixed; he was horribly corrupt, participated in organized crime, had a bad gambling problem. But his patterns of living life and political action is something that concerned young people should take to heart if they wish to improve their communities, their region, their nation, or the world.
(Short-ish read here: https://pendergastkc.org/article/biography/pendergast-thomas-joseph)
I'll leave you with two final thoughts.
The first is that, I think writing is good. I think producing creative works of any kind of good, but I'm biased toward writing, because it's the only thing I'm half-decent at (I hope). If you have any writing skill, I think it would be good to try your hand at it. get good at writing was probably the single best piece of advice I've gotten from a former mentor, and it's done wonders for me. If you decide to publish, though, be sure to know why it is you're doing it and what you hope to get out of it (see postlude 1).
The last thing is that, well, I still have a bit of meanness left in me. If I didn't lose you with the Bernie Sanders bit, I want to press on the gas a little more. This advice will help you with everything listed above, and it's a lesson I've learned from another mentor that has also done wonders for my life, but it is a bit harsh.
It's summarized in a good saying sent to me recently, originally written by Wittgenstein. It is this:
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
In simple terms, it means: Shut the fuck up.
In your private life, between your friends, family, and therapists, you should express as many of your thoughts and feelings as you can. In a public forum, when you feel like saying or posting something, my honest advice is: Shut the fuck up.
If you have strong opinions about what's going on in the world, or you have intense feelings you feel the need to share publicly; shut the fuck up.
If you're trying to build rapport with somebody, and they have something on their mind, or they're trying to vent, you should listen and you should shut the fuck up.
If you're meeting a new person, and you're trying to figure out who they are, and whether they're worth having a relationship with, shut the fuck up and notice what they're saying.
If somebody you respect and trust is trying teach you something important, shut the fuck up.
If something about this essay pisses you off you want to give me angry feedback about it: Definitely shut the fuck up
If you want to have a good life, good relationships, and contribute positively to the world, it would behoove you to learn and practice the art of shutting the fuck up.
But if you do have something worthwhile to say; if you've thought about it carefully, considered it from many angles, and deliberated on it for a decent amount of time; if you can distinguish the emotions behind it, and deliver it calmly where possible, and passionately where necessary; if you can minimize your bias and ego while forming it; if you're aware of the possible benefits and consequences of saying it; if it is true, necessary, and as kind as possible: Then you can speak.