Sat July 4
Every system of political thought in the world seems to be trending toward some form of totalitarianism. The ascension of the CCP has presented a new challenge to the Western idea of power formally derived from the people; both "neoreaction" and "the dirtbag left", two nascent internet ideologies (representing right- and left-wing viewpoints respectively), push heavily anti-democratic attitudes. The rest of the world is seeing various brewing dictatorships in Brazil, Russia, eastern Europe, India, Turkey...
.... and maybe even The United States.
For almost a century, it appeared as though democracy had won. The end of history had been declared; capitalist liberal democracy is the answer, and every state should have formal constitutional mechanisms wherein elected officials are replaced via a trustworthy voting system, supervised by untethered financial markets. The two major challenges to democracy in the 20th century -- facism and communism -- were defeated handily by the United States, in the corresponding wars with Nazi Germany and the USSR.
Crucially, however, these were not philosophical victories; they were economic and military ones. While a very strong case was later retconned into the global discourse that the ideas of capitalist democracy were what triumphed, it has been far from conclusively *proven*; indeed, during the last decade, this premise has come under serious widespread scrutiny.
I'd make an even stronger statement; between the end of the cold war and the election of Donald Trump, the case for liberal democracy has been almost completely demolished. The global spread of Americanism in the latter half of the 20th century is now viewed by serious observers as an abject failure. The incredible naivete of our ruling elites, that we could simply transplant our Anglo-American notions of governance, law, and economics to every polity across the world, has been shown to be nothing short of geopolitical insanity. Russia in the 90s is a great case study; our philosophical imperialism primarily served to just create mass chaos, which quickly resulted in consolidation of power by brutal strongmen. Every system can be gamed, and every tradition needs to evolve patiently over a long period of time, in respect to the local conditions and history of the people living there, to have a chance of being successful. Simply put, we did not do that, and we are now facing the consequences.
Western countries on both sides of the Atlantic now face a deep PR crisis in justifying its system of government, not only to the rest of the world, but crucially, its own citizens, who have been ravaged by inequality, left flat-footed by the information age, and have mostly been resting on their laurels after their sweeping victories in the 20th century.
Totalitarianism is easy enough to understand; one person or party controls everything, and the people either put up with it, climb their way up the court ladder, form an armed resistance, or try to leave. Americans have been taught from birth that totalitarianism sucks, and I'm inclined to believe it; I, for one, am pretty bad at all of that stuff.
For what it's worth, there are plenty of examples in history of people flourishing under totalitarian systems. Rome itself abandoned its republican facade halfway through its lifespan; the pax romana was widely regarded by historians as a pretty good place to live for a while. China itself, maintaining a blend of strong centralized power and Confucian values over its long history, has enjoyed many periods of peace, prosperity, and relative stability, which is especially impressive given its incredible population size. (The only problem with the Chinese system is what they call the bad emperor problem; what do you do if the guy in charge sucks? They still haven't seemed to crack that one.)
But what is "democracy", though? The scare quotes around this term are hard won. Outside of a few shining examples in smaller, simpler polities in ancient Greece and Rome, I would make the case that true democracy (or republicanism, or its other flavors) have rarely been seriously tried. Especially since the invention of mass media, it's becoming clear to serious observers that the democratic nature of our political systems is much more a liability than it is an asset.
In the United States, the poster child for the "success" of modern "democratic" systems, the system only ever "worked" when it was restricted to a small subset of the overall polity: White, land-owning men. Obviously, this tended to be a raw deal for non-white, non-male, non-landowners. But a curious thing happened as enfranchisement was gradually expanded to these other groups; while people of all classes gained the right to vote, the levers of power -- chiefly, economic strength and cultural influence -- remained mysteriously out of grasp. Economic inequality has soared to the highest levels in history, with no hope of abatement. And cultural influence…
The truth is that actual power was never conferred to these groups, but to a network of media, educational, and bureaucratic institutions that Noam Chomsky first identified as consent manufacturers, and Mencius Moldbug later coined as the Cathedral. From the perspective of cynical power politics, the Cathedral primarily exists as a sieve; its goal is to channel public opinion into a state of constant disorientation, and its MO is to distract, divide, and placate the populace, allowing those in power to do whatever it is they wanted to do in the first place.
It's worth noting that "the Cathedral", if it has any worth as a concept, is an emergent phenomenon, not some kind of intentional dastardly plan or conspiracy. It persists because it functions well in its purposes:
With that said, I'll go ahead and make a bold stance here. Unlike Moldbug and Chomsky, I'm not sure that the Cathedral is an entirely bad thing.
For starters, I don't think it's necessary or even good for every citizen to have to constantly confront the dastardly problems of managing reality. I think most people can lead good, productive lives, without actually having to get deeply invested in the core problems of statecraft, cultural flourishing, supply chain logistics, and stewardship over themselves. In the harshest view, the Cathedral "tells people what to think" in order for elites to retain power; but there are much more benign versions possible. In an ideal world, our civic institutions are composed of a truly responsible nobility, which acts as a middleman to communicate new information and changing circumstances to a citizenry that is busy doing the other things they need to do with their life.
For modern democracy to have a chance of working, we need some form of "cathedral", but it should be good, and it should both serve and be actually accountable to the people. Democratic nations should have strong media institutions, strong educational organizations, effective altruism initiatives, and efficient bureaucracies. (I have some thoughts near the end about how we might get there).
Secondly, as identified in the federalist papers, pure democracy doesn't actually work. "Mob mentality" is a thing. Democracies are better implemented as republics, and they should have many intricate mechanisms that slow things down and act as a counter to the constant sway of public opinion. Checks and balances, an electoral college, a hierarchy of elected representatives, relatively clandestine party selection mechanisms, and various other tricks and tools of the trade should act as strong gatekeepers, making sure that challenges to existing authorities must overcome significant hurdles if they aim to make significant changes.
Lastly, in any working system of government, power should remain relatively stable. Even if your constitutional mechanisms do a great job of slowing everything down, positive change that's done in a responsible manner is always going to be way slower than people expect. There needs to be some measure of faith from the people that the people in charge are acting in their best interests, that they know what they're doing, and that they're working as fast as they can to address pressing issues of public welfare. This is the primary weakness of democratic systems overall, and it's heavily contrasted with our experience in other domains, like business and technology, which are ferociously obsessed with satiating customers as soon as possible (perhaps at the expense of their long-term wellbeing).
For developing new technology, philosophies like move fast and break things are a great idea. As a governing philosophy, I cannot think of anything more terrible. No matter what system of politics you live under, there's a certain point where the people and the government have to trust each other. I think I speak for almost everyone when I say that this is certainly not the case in 2020 USA.
As stated, it takes an incredible number of things to go right for democracy to work. Totalitarianism is comparatively easy; one organization maintains strict military & cultural control over the populace, and that's that. You can learn the essential dynamics from watching a short youtube video.
It's important to note that I, personally, have no idea about which system is fundamentally better. I am not a historian, I am not a political philosopher, and I think such questions are, by their nature, unanswerable to any satisfactory degree. This essay will not even try to give a good answer. This essay is scoped to a much easier question: given that we want to continue pursuing democracy, how should we try to maximize its chances of survival and flourishing?
Incidentally, I do think that we (Americans living in 2020) should continue to pursue democracy. Why? Because America is an experiment, and we should see the experiment out to the end. And for that experiment to actually be useful, that means we should actually start trying.
We can start with an even more specific question than that. Power in a democracy is derived from the people. The fundamental unit of effectiveness, then -- the lynchpin upon which everything else rests -- is the citizen. For democracy to work, we need to come to an agreement on what makes a good citizen, and then we, collectively, need to try to be better citizens. And then we need to start drafting policy and building institutions that have the explicit purpose of helping people become better citizens.
Without getting too etymological on you, "citizen" (and its cousin English words; "city", "civil", "civics", "civilization") is derived from many latin root words: civitas, civis, cives, civilis. To spare you a boring language history discussion, I'll offer some succinct definitions:
Being civil means getting along with people very different from you.
Living in a city means sharing resources, negotiating policy, and stewarding a community with a large number of diverse others.
A citizen is a subject of a larger unit than the city, typically a nation-state.
A civilization is the largest social organization shared by people with even the remotest sociopolitical similarities to each other. There are only a few civilizations; one typography was offered by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work Clash of Civilizations. Obviously, the boundaries here are extremely fuzzy:
(Question for future discussion: Should there be a unit of organization larger than a civilization?)
And, finally, civics is the study of all of the above.
I'm going to do us all a favor and skip over a belaboring of what these terms actually mean. That's stuff that academics love to do, and I am definitely not an academic. To reiterate, our discussion focuses on the following proposition, and corresponding question:
Proposition: If democracy has a chance of working, it needs good citizens
Question: What makes a good citizen?
For our purposes, I'm going to explore what this means in context of our civilization: The liberal, democratic, capitalist, Western world. Many of these qualities and suggestions may apply in other types of civilizations, but they are not our focus. And as stated in part 2, the qualities of being an effective citizen should bleed seamlessly into the ancient philosophical question of how to live a good life. Even if you strip away all of the implications about politics, this is just my best advice in general for how to live, regardless of your system of government or whether you even care about its survival.
Without further ado, let's jump in.
A good citizen has the following qualities:
Each of these qualities represents an ideal end-state, but the responsibility for achieving a healthy citizenry is fundamentally a team effort. Chiefly, it is an individual's duty to be the best citizen they can be, given the cards they are dealt. But it is also the job of their family to raise them well, provide for material needs, and guide them mentally and emotionally. It is the job of a community to offer a robust environment for them to develop, cut their teeth on challenging experiences, meet friends and partners, and gain useful employment. And it is the job of a state to protect them from foreign adversaries, procure neutral infrastructure, provide for the general welfare, foster these qualities in its subjects to the best of its ability, and finally, to trust them to fully participate as equal partners in the political process.
This list is definitely aspirational; pretty much nobody will be able to maintain a stable set of these attributes, and the process of active citizenship should persist well past an individual's lifespan. I myself am certainly not the best citizen I could be; I suffer from many problems with basic adulting, attention management, humility, and, increasingly, tolerance. Some of these qualities are easy to achieve when you're younger (tolerance, emotional intelligence), and some of these almost inevitably arise out of achieving old age (basic adulting, humility). In particular, the quality of being well-traveled is a very hard and challenging demand that most people simply won't have the opportunity to develop.
It's my opinion that the current cohort of American citizens -- especially young people -- are in a state of troubling disrepair. I have no exact prescription for how we get from A to B, but in the final section, we'll discuss some ideas for what it takes to make good citizens. We'll end with some thoughts about what we do next.
Basic adulting, also known as taking care of your own shit. An adult human should be empowered to take care of their own health, finances, relationships, hobbies, and ambitions. They should be employed doing something useful and productive, and have a healthy stream of income. They should have a sensible diet, get a decent amount of exercise, have access to regular physical check-ups, and have a dynamic support network of people and activities that let them maintain good mental health. They should either be already involved in a fulfilling romantic relationship, or have a baseline sense of their own attractiveness and dateability, primarily with the goal of eventually starting a family. Ideally, they have some amount of time to have fun, slack off, and explore things interesting to them. Finally, they have some kind of path toward the self-actualization of their own ambitions; some kind of thing they want to build, group they want to caretake, art they want to produce, or otherwise some kind of unique contribution to the world that persists beyond their death; some kind of legacy.
As with most of these qualities, there are a zillion ways to think about what being an adult means (and most of this list overlaps with the question), but these are what I consider to be the absolute basics. If you have a shitty job that constantly stresses you out and pays you nothing, it'll be incredibly hard to do anything else mentioned here. If you're constantly stricken by chronic health issues, overcoming those will probably be the primary concern of your life. If you're a hopeless incel utterly doomed in your own romantic prospects, none of this abstract shit is ever going to matter to you. Probably the chief way that America of 2020 fails its subjects is its utter negligence of how incredibly hard it is to be a basic ordinary adult who's just trying to get by. Pretty much every other country eats us by a long mile in this regard.
There are, of course, a zillion other resources available for an aspiring basic adult to consider. There are many good-hearted leaders offering ideas for self-help, or groups and organizations willing to provide various kinds of support. However, most of these avenues come at the cost of some kind of political or spiritual allegiance; or, in the case of self-help authors, come at the cost of your own mental independence. It is the responsibility of the state and your local / regional community to be utterly concerned with this problem, and their continued failure to do so will mark the continued failure of democratic civics as a whole; until this roadblock is overcome, nothing else on this list will matter.
Emotional intelligence. Here's where most functional adults start to fail. For some reason, the concept of emotional intelligence seems to have been absent from most theories of personal development in Western societies. I expect many societies have been so concerned with survival they haven't really had time to consider emotional balance as a crucial part of thriving. Traditionally, this area seems to have been primarily relegated to the role of women in society. Women are supposed to be the caretakers; their job is to handle all of that emotion stuff.
This is no longer acceptable for democratic societies in the 21st century. Everybody needs to be able to care about emotions now. Another way to chunk up the big story of the 20th century is that information technology (starting with mass media) has completely revolutionized the transfer of emotional information and experience to larger and larger audiences. Before the 1900s, no other polity has ever had to reckon with the great and terrible power of a Sarah Mclachlan ad. We can now feel pain, anger, sadness, and joy from thousands of miles away, and the intersection of this huge increase in emotion with our socioculturopolitical systems has been incredibly hard to reckon with.
It's important to note that emotional intelligence has two categories: Noticing emotions in others, and recognizing emotions in yourself. Being "empathetic" usually refers to just the first part, and it's really not that hard to do; contrary to popular belief, everybody has the capacity for basic empathy. But accruing life experience helps you realize just how easily emotional appeals can be extremely rude and manipulative. Many people develop strong self-defense mechanisms against blatant pulling of their heart-strings. When I see a Sarah Mclachlan ad nowadays, I change the channel in disgust; I already know there are suffering animals out there, man, I'm just trying to focus on getting shit done, okay?
Recognizing emotions in yourself is an entirely different beast, and one that I think a disturbingly large number of people lack. When you encounter something that makes you feel strongly, it takes a large amount of discipline, experience, and instinct to immediately start interrogating yourself on exactly what it is you're feeling, why you're feeling that way, and what an appropriate response should be.
I'd identify this as probably the main problem when young people engage in political discourse. The pattern usually plays out something like this; stop me if it sounds familiar:
1) Somebody makes a political statement.
2) What they said makes me feel "icky".
3) Therefore, that person is at fault.
4) Therefore, I publicly charge that person as being bad, and recommend they be rebuked, silenced, threatened, or destroyed.
In logical terms, this response is absurd. Given our evolutionary history, however, it's pretty much the natural response to encountering people or ideas that make you feel weird. If someone thinks differently from you, or if they dress weird, they must be a bad person. When people refer to tribalism, I think they're simplifying a lot of ideas into this basic pattern. America's two-party system is pretty much built on this basic psychological foundation.
In my humble opinion, this pattern of response sucks, and we should strive to eradicate it from civil discourse. And it's not only a problem with young people; a disturbingly large number of otherwise very intelligent individuals, well into their old age, display this kind of shit response all the time. If the experience of feeling empathy for others should be universal, so too should the ability to identify your own emotions, and separate them from your reasoning capabilities.
The information age has exposed another critical dimension to human activity that has so far been vastly undertheorized in political philosophy; the crucial, limited resource of attention. If you've been paying attention (heh heh) to developments in the business models of Silicon Valley, you may be familiar with the phrase attention economy. Social media tech giants have built gargantuan, world-shaking business empires on the backs of capturing and monetizing attention; Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, even the Chinese government (through Tiktok). Not only have these companies accrued hundreds of billions of dollars, they command a vast apparatus of political and cultural influence, chiefly due to having a decades-long head start on the science of hijacking human minds for their own purposes.
As a citizen, attention is the most valuable resource you have. Personally, it is utterly depressing to see how much of it gets wasted on absolute nonsense. In a healthy system, most people should spend >95% of their attention on ordinary adulting, and probably less than 5% of it on social and political issues. If there's some kind of meta societal problem everybody should be aware of and focusing on, it is this.
It all started with advertising. At some point in Western civilization, we decided it was totally okay for arbitrary people to completely hijack your attention, anywhere and everywhere, as long as it was in the service of trying to sell you a product. I can't begin to describe how bonkersly stupid this decision has been for civil health. Bill Hicks, while I can't condone his particular phrasing, was essentially right. We didn't listen, and look where we are now.
Check out this description of the effects of Cidade Limpa, the law adopted by the city of Sao Paulo which banned all outdoor advertising:
São Paulo is a very vertical city. That makes it very frenetic. You could not even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because all the buildings, all the houses were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And there was no criteria. And now it is amazing. They uncovered a lot of problems the city had that we never realized. For example, there are some favelas, which are the shantytowns. I wrote a big story in my newspaper today that in a lot of parts of the city we never realized there was a big shantytown. People were shocked because they never saw that before, just because there were a lot of billboards covering the area. São Paulo is just like New York. It is a very multicultural, globalized city. We have the Japanese neighborhood, we have the Korean neighborhood, we have the Italian neighborhood and in the Korean neighborhood, they have a lot of small manufacturers, these Korean businessmen. They hire illegal labor from Bolivian immigrants. And there was a lot of billboards in front of these manufacturers' shops. And when they uncovered, we could see through the window a lot of Bolivian people like sleeping and working at the same place. They earn money, just enough for food. So it is a big social problem that was uncovered, and the city was shocked by these news.
Every citizen needs a crash course in managing their own attention. But there's also an important flipside to this; as a citizen, it is your duty to respect other citizens' limited attention resources. You should minimize the amount of noise you make, and you should practice shutting the fuck up. In the world of programming, this key advice is described by one of the most important rules of the Unix philosophy, the rule of silence:
When a program has nothing surprising, interesting or useful to say, it should say nothing.
This is especially important if you are advocating a specific political message you feel strongly about. This failure mode of political activism calls to mind the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. When you draw a bunch of attention to yourself about a problem you're passionate about, and it turns out the problem is grossly exaggerated, nonexistent, already known, or otherwise inactionable, you torpedo your own credibility in making further proclamations about pressing problems. If you want your message to be taken seriously, you need to take extra care that you've identified the problem correctly, you've expressed it in the proper forum at the proper time, that you're adding something unique to the conversation, and that your expression is well-articulated.
Articulative. Articulation, at its core, is the practical technique of respecting other people's attention when communicating. Roughly speaking, it's the ability to form your thoughts into brief, clear sentences.
For some reason or another, people vary wildly in their ability to be articulate. It is one of the hardest skills to train. But not everybody has to be an expert writer or speaker; the prescription for being a good citizen is just to articulate your thoughts and feelings as best as you can.
There are actually some intractable problems at the core of how we use language. In an abstract sense, it's frankly a miracle that anything of substance is able to be communicated at all. As humans rose from the mud, we ostensibly started with grunts, screaming, and pointing at things to get our message across. Eventually we developed the ability to form phonemes, utterances, graphemes, hieroglyphs, and then eventually letters, words, and sentences. To this day, it's completely baffling and impressive how weird and complicated language is, the ability of babies to universally develop speaking and writing skills is still an open question that we don't have many good answers for.
It's important to remind ourselves that mass literacy is still relatively new. For ages, only a very select few had the ability and education to render anything of complexity into the written word. In the ideal version of society, there should be something called an education system that guides and teaches young humans in the use of language. If you've followed any of my earlier writings or developments as a young smartiepants, I think our current education system is terrible, horrible, and no good.
For some reason, when we teach language arts in primary school, and continue onto advanced studies in college, everyone seems focused on teaching a kind of formalized, abstract, and historical version of language that contemporary speakers have long moved past. If you're one of those "spelling/grammar nazis", this essay series has probably infuriated you. I pay almost no respect to the "academic", "precise", or "correct" usage of words, and this type of study is not only a vestigial waste of time, it's a direct hindrance to our collective ability to communicate issues of critical civic importance. (Strictly as a hobby, or as an interest of the 0.1% of people who are serious historical scholars, I have no problem with it).
It's totally okay to misuse words, or make up new ones, or redefine existing words for your present purposes. I think this is another thing that the Internet has broken wide open in our possibility space. Nobody will tell you this, but you have permission to use language however you like; it's totally fine, and all the cool kids are doing it. Just try to communicate your thoughts and feelings the best you can. Suffice to say, writing is the #1 superpower available to you to persuade others to care about important issues. The better you can write, the more influence you will have, although the caveats of writing outlined above always apply.
One last thing to note is that there may be some natural limit on how articulate a specific person can be. I'm very cautious about drawing conclusions of individual ability based on immutable characteristics, given the primacy and complexity that education, poverty, culture, and circumstance play into childhood development. But even minimal amounts of articulation can have a huge impact. Even if you don't form the best words, if you inhabit the other qualities of citizenship well enough, your voice can be hugely influential; the example of Malala Yousafzai comes to mind.
Well-traveled. In a recent post, I wrote the following:
To live a good life -- to have deep satisfaction, to help others, and to exercise your will while minimizing external harm -- you must do one of two things. You either adjust to the small town you grew up in, or you have interesting experiences (and survive them).
A very brutal truth to human development is that painful, challenging, risky, and even destructive hardships are essential to growth. It's hard to speak about this in clinical terms; for the individual undergoing extreme suffering, the "don't worry, it'll make you stronger!" refrain is no consolation. To be even harsher, undergoing incredible pain is not even a guarantee of growth; contrary to Nietzsche, it's not true that near-lethal damage necessarily makes you stronger. I recall the opening scene of House of Cards, as Frank Underwood contemplates euthanizing a maimed dog:
"There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong. Or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things."
There is a deep ethical paradox here; suffering, as we all agree, completely sucks, but society needs strong men and women to function. It is a very weird thing to say "society has a justified interest in seeing you suffer", as our strongest universal moral precepts are in unanimous agreement that intentionally inflicting harm upon another person is a bad thing to do.
Luckily, most people are very good at self-inflicting harm to themselves without the need for outside intervention. But some are born in a position where they are never challenged hard enough to be driven to the brink of real destruction; the risky venture of the soul that completely wipes you out, inspires deep reflection, and catalyzes self-actualization into a stronger, kinder, wiser person. It is very easy to identify such sweet summer children.
Eventually, time crushes us all. Many are blessed enough to put off their mid-life crisis until they reach their 30s or 40s. But from the dismal perspective of civic strength, it is better if this process happens earlier rather than later.
We are rightfully forbidden to inflict intentional harm on another person, even with the "noble" intention of inspiring growth. It is simply not your place to make that decision for someone else. Even as a parent, the best thing you can do is let your children make risky mistakes, fall on their heads, and learn from it on their own (I'm not a parent, but I imagine it is incredibly difficult to do this!).
As a society, the next best thing we can encourage nascent citizens to do is to travel.
Traveling is extremely good for the civic soul. And of course, there are distinctions; every world explorer knows the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller. Simply visiting a foreign place is not enough; what's required is a prolonged disconnection from one's home culture. To strip away your social connections, patterns of living, coping mechanisms, and ways of life, and to face the square problems of basic survival with minimal outside help. For my own case, I only travelled for 4 months in Asia, when I was 23 years old. I cannot recommend this enough; it is a profoundly enriching and exhilarating experience. For a couple months, the only questions of importance for me were where am I sleeping tonight, and where will I get food, and what the hell are these weird sores on my feet, is there even a decent hospital around here, holy shit I'm so fucked what am I doing here.
I am beyond blessed and grateful that I didn't do something fatally stupid, and escaped with minimal long-term damage. There was one situation where I was in the jungle, and a friend and I took a detour off the path…
Okay, I'll spare you my travel stories. Suffice to say that travelling breeds character, and I think there is some quality to this character that is essential to being the best citizen that you can be.
Traveling can be highly disorienting, and when you eventually return home, there's often a period of what's called reverse culture shock as you integrate back into your normal way of life. This is usually painful and isolating; out on your own, you experience a lot of interesting and fascinating things that are simply not communicable to your friends, family, and loved ones. But when the process is completed, you'll be very glad you did it, and all the wiser for it.
I shouldn't overplay the harms of traveling; the ordinary joy of experiencing cultures vastly different from your own is commensurable. As we defined earlier, living in a city means getting along with people different from you. Diversity is a real strength in a functioning democratic polity. Toleration of others, with deep differences in behavior, beliefs, and attitude -- mediated by rational, liberal discourse -- is a fundamental necessity to civic thriving.
Tolerant. Sorry, one more travel story. When I first landed in South Korea, I was completely, thoroughly awe-struck. It's hard to give the experience its due respect; my first day in Busan was probably the best 24 hours of my life. The sheer fun of nightlife there is incomprehensible to Americans; tens of thousands of young people swarming through intricate neighborhoods and alleyways, a nonstop party that goes well past 6am. Innumerable food stalls selling tteokbokki, pajeon, gimbap, alongside more ordinary fares of delicious BBQ and fried chicken. Every third business in the party neighborhoods was a 24-hour LAN center or a small karaoke bar. The first time I bought a beer at a corner store and drank it outside, I felt true shame as an American; this is actually what real freedom feels like!. (Koreans drink like no other nation; I recall a stat that, at some point, the small country of South Korea consumes something like 25% of the world's volume of liquor).
Even back in 2014, the amount of technology, convenience, and sheer progress of civilization was stunning to me. It truly felt like I had time-traveled into the future from some kind of dark age. New buildings and complexes were sprouting up all the time. The art, shopping, and nature districts were incomparable to anything I'd seen in the US midwest. The history and culture is also fascinating; I was surprised to learn that 29% of South Koreans identify as Christian (after talking to a couple of them, though, a very different flavor than what I was used to). I visited many incredible landmarks with fascinating stories. And there is no other establishment in the world like to a Korean jjimjilbang.
Overall, I loved my time there. After a couple weeks of being enamored, though, you start noticing a lot of troubling things. Mass public drinking into the morning is definitely fun, but it starts to get disturbing around 2pm, when you see too many people in business suits passed out on the street, littered with bottles of soju. I had a strange encounter with a man on the street, who seemed very confused, and didn't know what to make of it; it was only later I learned he was developmentally disabled, and he had been abandoned by his family. Eventually, you get a sense for this kind of sheer hollowness and superficiality that permeates Korean culture. Beauty and presentation standards there are ridiculously high, with something between 20% and 50% of young Korean women undergoing some kind of plastic surgery (most commonly, they have aegyo-sal, a small cosmetic operation done on your eyes). There is a surprising obsession with Western status symbols; the shopping districts are littered with places like Paris Baguette, which seem primarily there to show off to others how cool and Western they are. The overall fascination with Western appropriation just makes you feel a little unsettled (in stark contrast to Taiwan, which seemed much more whole and comfortable with their own culture and way of life).
The most gutturally distressing thing I encountered there was talking with young Korean students. Korean students spend almost their entire waking lives studying. To illustrate, I just picked this account randomly off of Quora;
How many hours does the average South Korean student study per day?
Depends on the student. My daughter rises up at 7:46… hopefully. She goes to school, ends at 3:00 or 4:00, depending on the day. Then it's hag-won ( 학원 ) time; 5–10 is the norm. Back home around 10:30. Rests a bit, and studies at least until midnight (I drop down then.. so I wouldn't know if she keeps on studying). Sometimes she's studying around 2 or 3 am. Weekends.. hag-won for 4–5 hours. The rest of the time you study or relax, depends.
Oops.. she's middle school.
I had a couple of friends who were English teachers, and they invited me to a reunion dinner with a group of their former students. It seemed like there was an incredible amount of trauma and sadness in their faces when talking about the school system. One particular girl, who stood out as one of the few bright voices, was a brilliant speaker and leader; she was dedicated to getting out of the country as soon as possible, wanting to study diplomacy in Europe.
Mark Manson put it best; "the best part of a country or culture is also usually the worst". To summarize, at least in my experience, there are good and bad things about every culture and group of people. Perhaps I emphasize traveling too much, this kind of understanding is essential in the practice of tolerance. This doesn't mean liking, supporting, or even recommending a particular way of life; it just means being able to get along with them well enough to not disturb each other, and work together on common interests when the need arises.
Tolerance is best mediated through rational, civil discourse. Diverse groups of people need to be able to come to some kind of understanding with each other, and the best way to do that is talking about it. Sometimes, talking is not enough, and disputes can only be resolved through more primitive forms of power struggle; such is life. But there's a basic playbook of practicing tolerance that every good citizen should be acquainted with: First understanding, then communicating, and then, when only absolutely necessary, fighting.
One thing to note is that that tolerance seems to get universally harder to maintain as you get older. As you become set in your ways, you inevitably start to lose understanding and empathy with people vastly different from you. Their mistakes and cruelties just become too predictable, too avoidable. I don't think there's actually any way to get around this; I think young people are just always going to have an advantage here, and is one reason why their perspective is so desperately needed in the civic process.
Humble. Ah, humility. It's crucial to be humble. I have almost nothing interesting to say here. It's a boring acknowledgment that the scope of things outside your control are infinitely larger than the very few things you have control over. Failure to be humble means that the world is going to kick your ass until you learn how to be humble. And that's that.
I don't know if there's any direct path to humility. Time inevitably makes you humble, and you just learn to live with it. It's one advantage that old people squarely have on younger people. Just try to remind yourself that you're not that cool, you're not that smart, you're definitely not powerful, and nobody cares about you and your stupid opinions. It's gonna suck when your body starts to give out on you. And no matter how hopeful things are, or how hard you work, things can and will always get far worse than you can possibly imagine. So try your best to be humble.
Respect for the rule of law. This one is a doozy, and one where my own position is the least certain. I can only triangulate between my thoughts expressed in part 1 and part 2 of this series.
The core concept to consider here is justice. Historically, our ideas of justice are actually rooted in an Anglo-Saxon tradition of government, wherein the right to rule is neither hereditary, nor divinely ordained, but rather derived from the ability of sovereigns to execute the delivery of justice to the best of their ability. I will spare you the butchering of history here; there is plenty to read about if you google some phrase like Anglo-saxon rule of law justice legitimacy, or some variation.
The American evolution of this idea is simple; the principles of the American revolution have been drilled into us by grade school. Law is meant to protect the people, and if it fails to do so, it is the duty of the people to resist or change that law.
There are a few versions of this; in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
...whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...
I very much enjoy Martin Luther King Jr's later rendition, which is more familiar to us:
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
I won't elaborate on our current criminal justice system; suffice to say, I think it sucks super hard. Regarding the BLM movement, my opinions are as follows: Police killing of innocent people is bad. The cradle-to-prison pipeline is mostly real. And wanton violence and destruction is also bad. None of these views contradict each other, but trying to hold any position publicly with any sort of nuance is a maddening experience in our hyper-polarized discourse, since any position not clearly identifiable within party lines becomes immediately suspect.
My problems articulating what should be done in regards to BLM is my core motivation for writing this series. It ended up taking almost 20,000 words to articulate my thoughts clearly. If I want to summarize my entire thoughts on the subject to young people who want to make progress in regards to the brutal murders we've witnessed, I offer the following:
Young people need to take civics seriously. They need to practice the qualities of civil discourse with intensity, and ultimately they should engage older people to develop acceptable solutions and policy, taking decisive action to address the serious underlying structural problems without resorting to a pre-packaged ideology that a majority of the country will simply not accept. This is the only way to be effective at achieving your goals within the confines of our democratic system.
Effective. I'm going to get even harsher on young progressive people here. A great TV show called Yes, Prime Minister illustrated this beautiful symbolism called the "politician's fallacy" that encapsulates the thought process of a great number of people confronting a serious issue for the first time. It goes like this:
At worst, this type of thinking represents a form of extreme laziness. It's usually a manifestation of a primarily emotional response to challenging events, and is a failure to separate an internal instict from higher-order reasoning capabilities.
The first step is good; we must do something. But here people predictably trip up at the fallacy of the excluded middle; we need to take a long pause when we get to this is something, and we need to spend a very long time exploring, elaborating, and debating on the thousands of potential somethings we should consider to address the problem in a lasting, satisfactory way.
A particular refrain I've heard way too much over the last month goes something like this, broken into its logical components:
There is actually a tried-and-true process when it comes to the art of being effective, which also has three steps that must happen in order: 1) Identify the problem, 2) Discuss potential solutions, 3) Decide on a solution and implement it. In too many cases, this process is garbled up into a political ball of mud that amounts to a tantrum; "This thing is bad! Make the bad thing go away!". A good citizen should strive to do better.
(Note carefully; I'm not making the case that we shouldn't abolish the police! Maybe a combination of national guard + social service would do much better. Maybe disbanding current police departments and reforming them works. I'm truly not an expert here, but the thought process behind many claims to "abolish the police" are as clear as day).
Another ineffective avenue of young progressive activism is that people seem to be obsessed with taking first steps, and being content with purely symbolic victories. Jon Stewart had a great quote about this from his recent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast:
This shit isn't gonna be fixed by HBO Max pulling Gone with the Wind; [...] we're still at the symbolic stage. We're still doing this shit that is symbolic. And this is where leadership becomes such a crucial component; so you have this great awakening of energy. It has to be channeled into something lasting and meaningful; we have to diagnose the real problem underlying this moment, so that we don't make a mistake in just changing the window dressing, and the gilding, on the buildings.
This has to be foundational, in a way that will create something lasting. And that's the hard part.
You need to think hard about the issue at hand, you need to think deeply about the history of the problem (and various solutions that have already been tried), you need to consider the first-, second-, and third-order consequences of your policy, and you need to acknowledge how the perceptions of your policy will be received by fellow citizens. Ultimately, you need to collaborate with everyone else (both those that agree with you and those that don't) to come up with a plan of action -- and yes, maybe even a compromise -- that fulfills your own goals while keeping everyone else happy.
Otherwise, your action is extremely likely to do more harm than good. When you don't think through your speech very carefully, the usual consequence is that not only is your platform not implemented, but the blowback from the other side actually hurts your cause. It's not even just that the hated outgroup is just going to hate you even more; the more unreasonable and uncivil you are in your activism, the more you actively recruit otherwise neutral or young people to the "enemy" team. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that the primary reason Donald Trump got elected is a protracted effort of complete disregard for the conservative point of view in media, academia, and public opinion. Over decades, this marginalization built up an intense rage, which has spilled out into all the problems we're having today, even to the detriment of the very movement that got Trump elected in the first place.
To summarize: If you're aiming to take any political action, you need to be very careful that your message is as effective and uncontroversial as possible. Then, when you're ready, you need to have the courage to execute on it.
Service. Not only should you do something about the things you care about, you must do something, as part of your duty as a citizen. If you have taken care of everything else in your life, if you are stable, happy, productive, and have free time; if your community and family are in good shape; then, you must serve others. If you find that you actually have hope for your country, and want to contribute positively to it, then you must serve your country.
I feel incredibly weird saying this out loud. There's a weird association with the phrase serving your country that associates you with some specific set of old, parochial, bigoted, conservative beliefs. I'm not saying you need to go join the army, abandon your values, or do anything of that sort; I'm saying the complete opposite. If you are strong and have excess energy / attention, you should do whatever you can in your power to make your environment a better place to live, for yourself and for future generations.
I should strongly emphasize that, until you are ready to be a good citizen, you have no special duty to go out of your way from the process of your own development. Even after you officially turn 18, you may still have a lot of growth and self-exploration to do before you can give back and contribute in a significant positive way. In this case, the best thing you can do to serve your country is to focus on yourself.
This is also weird for me to say because, I, too, am right in the middle of the process of that transition. Up until the last year or so, I was entirely uninterested in any kind of "positive contribution" to the world, to the US, or even to my local community. Because the US political situation has devolved into such a complete turdhole, many of my very brilliant, respectable, and kind friends have completely disengaged from any hope of improving things here in America, and I can't say that I blame them. Putting a bunch of effort into contributing to a fundamentally lost cause is just a pointless waste of time. If I had one thing to say to them, it would be: Maybe it's time to start engaging again.
And, as stated, I'm still not 100% sure myself whether America, or democracy, or liberalism are lost causes or not. I don't think any of us actually know that. But I do know that, in principle, if something like our experiment is to work, then it will require service and self-sacrifice on the part of everybody to make it happen.
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. This is quite a large topic, and while I can't go on forever, these are the qualities I believe to be most important. Where you should be at different points in your life is not a science, and I am not anything close to an authority on what any specific individual to do. But hopefully, I've outlined some good areas to think about.
With a rough theory of what makes a good citizen in place, the next question then becomes: How do we make good citizens?
There is a chicken-and-egg problem here; good citizens have to exist, which form good institutions, which then make good citizens. The simplest way to improve our current citizenry is to identify good people who already exist, to listen to them, and to follow their recommendations.
It might be helpful to split democratic subjects into two categories: followers and leaders. Everyone is born a baby, and babies by default are not good citizens; they are followers, who are led by their parents.
Sometimes parents are not good leaders; in this case, they ought to be followers themselves of other good parents. Sometimes, children exhibit uncanny aptitude and wisdom; they could act as leaders of other children, and if they are unfortunate enough to lack adequate guardians, they should form their own path (ideally, supported by the state, charities, or by other families).
Both followers and leaders follow the same essential path of citizenship, the work of becoming better is never done in this regard. Some people might be born with many advantages, or have a natural inclination toward leadership. Some people are fundamentally uninterested in leadership, and will remain as followers their entire life. It's very important that we don't consider these categories immutable; every person has the capacity for both, in different dimensions, at different points in their life (except perhaps edge cases like early infancy, advanced age, or temporary hardship).
The most common case, of course, is that people will be leaders in some aspects, and followers in others. Personally, there are a great many things I don't know about; I'm terrible at science, math, medicine, and academics of any kind, really. I know almost nothing about econometrics, trade deals, engineering, or food production. The list is endless. What I do in those cases is that I try to find perspectives of people who seem like they know what they're talking about, and I advocate lightly for the solutions they propose.
Notice, I don't use the word "expert"; it's disturbingly common to get a PhD in some field and be completely disconnected from reality. What I look for is people who have such a mastery of a topic they're able to summarize and explain their viewpoints to laypeople. This is why Richard Feynman is considered one of the greatest public scientists; he embodies the principle of communicating his advanced knowledge in the simplest terms he can. These are the people whose ideas I truly respect, and the people who are worth listening to. Signal boosting some public figure because they have a fancy credential, when you yourself don't understand the argument they're trying to make, is counter-productive.
A good touchpoint on this is the subject of identity. As a white person, I know almost nothing of the experience of being black in America. I do my best to find and boost black voices whose messages resonate with me (most recently; Dave Chapelle, Coleman Hughes, Open Mike Eagle, Don Calloway, Killer Mike), but it's not my place to pretend like I know everything, or try to be an "expert" on black experience. There are also many black voices that just aren't very valuable to me; they're either saying things I've already heard before, or they seem uninterested in achieving any kind of unity or consensus (which is completely understandable! generational trauma due to centuries of oppression will absolutely crush this in people, which itself is a major part of the problem… cf James Baldwin, Malcolm X, MLKJ, and many others).
The muddy algorithm we use, tossed into an imperfect world, is first to identify and boost the voices of good leaders. There are a great many strong, wise, thoughtful, and courageous people in our country. I take most of my cues from them. The Internet is a huge boon here; the practice of minding your social graph is central to this, which we explored in Part 2.
The second thing required is deep introspection: Right now, in what areas could you be a leader, and in what areas should you defer to others? If you have something to contribute, what specific avenues can you pursue to reach people? Should you help individuals directly, or should you extend your reach by creating media that expresses your viewpoint? Do you even have bandwidth to do so, or are there pressing issues in your life that require your attention first?
If you're not currently in a position to provide leadership, which existing leaders do you want to boost -- and how can you help them? What qualities can you improve on, to make yourself stronger, and thus have free energy to guide others? (If you're like most people, you likely need more money / employment freedom somehow). Which people do you think are clearly bad leaders, that other people should stop listening to? (Maybe a little bit of cancelling is healthy).
The leader/follower dichotomy is perhaps a good short-term answer to what can we do now. Over the longer term, the thing to focus on to cement societal strength is building and maintaining good institutions.
It's no secret that many of America's institutions are broken. Whether you look at health care, or the education system, or financial organizations, NGOs, wherever; there are myriad problems abound that have a large part to play in our current civilizational strife. Many of these problems we already know about, and are discussed in the political world at length. But what most of these conversations miss is both the sheer scale of the failures at play, and the particular risks that arise when multiple institutions face lethal strain (or even collapse) simultaneously. As the easiest example, the institution of journalism has been thoroughly hollowed out and delegitimized, primarily due to the new economics of digital publication and advertising (recalling the outrage-attention-monetization loop we discussed earlier). Media is a lynchpin for all sorts of other systems in a democracy; if the people are not adequately and fairly informed about the state of other cogs in the machine, voters remain blind to important issues that should grab their attention.
The definition of what is considered an "institution" is quite vague; I mostly think of them as lasting organizations with very long-term goals of maintaining and improving the shifting values and needs that underpin a nation's survival and flourishing. The civilizational scholar Samo Burja has some good elucidation on the topic here and here. Here's a short list of what I consider critically broken institutions that, over the long run, we should strive to find adequate replacements or reforms for:
Why have all these institutions let us down? I actually don't have many good answers for what specifically went wrong in these various areas, but I give some brief thoughts about why institutions fail in the general case.
Maybe institutions just fail over time. They just inevitably get deteriorated by some ineffable force; Gresham's law, or cronyism, or power grabbing, or goodheart's law, or the complacency of elites, or simple gravity wears them down. In this view, there's nothing we can do about it; all societies are doomed to just crash at some point, as the systems underpinning civic functioning give out due to old age. The best we can do is weather the storm, muddle through a small dark age, and live to fight another day.
Technology changes things too rapidly for institutions to handle. As stated, the best way to maintain or change any highly complex system is to move very slowly. When you can't predict exactly what's going to happen if you attempt to make some drastic change, the best things you can do are 1) implement small, piecemeal reforms to improve the most visibly broken parts that people complain about, or 2) try to keep everything else steady as you try making some kind of big overhaul. In recent memory, presidential tenures have one or two big changes they try to make (in Bush's case, it was Medicare expansion and No Child Left Behind; in Obama's case, it was the Affordable Care Act). These types of overhauls have a history of not going so well.
Technology is the opposite; it moves extremely rapidly. When Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn introduced packet switching in 1973, the speed of development in networking communication expanded so rapidly that it quickly outpaced our legal system, our banking system, our media system, and then eventually our ability to even comprehend what was happening at all. Similar recent developments in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering have the capacity to cause a similar disorientation. There's no clear answers about what to do about this; science and technology played such a huge role in the dominance of the West historically that it would be very hard at this point to convince people that maybe we should slow things down a bit while we integrate all of these new developments into culture and law. China, for one, certainly doesn't seem interested in slowing down...
Changes in the geopolitical landscape also have a huge hand to play in the destabilization of otherwise functioning political entities. Here's where a rough understanding of the 20th century really comes into play. There is a clear narrative between America's involvement with the league of nations and WW1, to the inevitable build up to WW2, to our immediate actions against the USSR in the cold war, and then to where we ended up in the post-cold-war period. I focus on the cold war a lot, because while we technically "won" the immediate conflict vs global communism, the 1980s were really when we cemented in a particular set of ideologies and ways of living that directly paved the way for all of the problems we're experiencing today. Particularly, the philosophy of big business capitalism took a deep root in how we measure and think about the health and flourishing of our people.
Finally, institutions fail because they get corrupted by bad philosophy. This is my favorite explanation, but it's very weird to think about. Isn't philosophy something a bunch of nerds a long time ago cared about, but we pretty much don't need any more? I can't really give a clear definition of what I call philosophy, but my short definition is that it's the art of coordinating abstract thinking with producing elementary goodness in the real world. I take philosophy very seriously, and I think more people should as well. A handful of good philosophers, defining and clarifying terms, identifying levers of action, and expanding on and interpreting fundamental questions and paradoxes in reference to the specific challenges of our modern environment would do America a lot of good. This essay series itself is a philosophical work, centered around the idea of civics.
So, to summarize; if we want democracy to work, we need better citizens. For citizens to get better, we need to do some deep introspection, and follow the thoughtful voices with good ideas on how to mitigate our immediate problems. And then finally, we need to have better institutions, which will help make better citizens.
With all of this in mind, we should end on a sober note. Let's start trying to make democracy work. But we face real challenges, and it is very important to consider that they may, in fact, be insurmountable. Out of all systems of government, modern democracy is still new, it's still unproven, and it continues to lose ground at an alarming pace.
Some form of centralized control -- perhaps not totalitarianism, but maybe some form of constitutional oligarchy -- might lay in our future. It behooves us to consider these alternatives to democracy with a straight face. Smartypants neoreaction people should lay out a practical plan for how we could transition peacefully (a very popular starting point is Patchwork, if you're interested). Then, we should compare and debate the merits and problems of those approaches against the enormous cost of what I'm arguing for, which is in the realm of societal transformation.
I truly do not know if this approach is workable; there are plenty of examples in history where campaigns of massive societal transformation caused a huge amount of trauma and pain (the main example that pops to mind is Mao's cultural revolution). I don't think that civic transformation necessarily has to be as frantic or painful as it has been in its worst instances. But big changes are always fraught with hard challenges and risks, and it's hard to predict anything when the scale and complexity of the topic defies mortal comprehension.
I still think there is hope. We have two superpowers that no other nation in history has in the realm of civil governance; we have the internet, and we have cheap world travel (Well, before the virus hit, at least). These inventions are so new that I think they should be given time to work, before we scrap the constitution and go with some novel approach featuring cryptographically secured robot armies. But that's just my opinion; I actually don't know anything.
Ultimately, it's up to all of us.
Happy 4th of July.