22 March, 2019

On The Tolkienic Hero

"Bag End" by Tim Doyle.
You can purchase this print here.
Deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King (1954)

Imagine a story. This story has a hero. By the end of the tale, the hero has done many great deeds. He (or she) has vanquished some terrific evil, journeyed to some distant place, or protected the innocent multitudes from a cruel fate they did not deserve. In a past age, accomplishing feats such as these was enough to earn the title 'hero.' But this hero comes from different times. His heroism is not found in the number of enemies he slew, in the distance he traveled, or in the acclaim of his adoring crowds. His heroism is rooted in his character. The relevant aspects of his character are apparent only to his closest friends. Occasionally even they are not privy to the source of his glory, which the audience only learns of because they have privileged access to the hero's internal thoughts. His heroism is grounded in a firm conviction: he does not want to be a hero.

The hero wants not fame, nor fortune; he is not motivated by power, nor by revenge. He performs his heroics out of necessity, out of duty, or out of the simple fact that he is the only one on the scene. The hero would rather not be out slaying dragons. He earnestly wishes for a normal life. He yearns for a peaceful and settled world where he is not the chosen one. But it is precisely because our hero lacks ambition that he can be trusted. In a world where men ache for power, we cheer for the protagonist who emphatically rejects it. From beginning to end, our hero's defining trait is a desire not to be a hero. Some are born great, others achieve greatness—but we love best those blessed few who have had greatness thrust upon them.

Here I've sketched out an archetypal template. This is the template upon which the vast majority our era's hero-tales are crafted. This is the story of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Jack Ryan. It is Captain America and Spiderman. It is the central trope of science fiction, fantasy, international thrillers, super hero stories, and their "YA literature" counterparts. It is the myth that drives the imaginations of our times.

For all of this we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to thank. I am sympathetic to the argument that Tolkien is the seminal Anglophone author of the 20th century. Perhaps his literary craft is deft enough to deserves that title. Perhaps it is not. Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants' literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered. This is not just because Tolkien's works have been fantastically popular, even decades after its first publication, and in cultural milieus quite divorced from its creation. Nor it is because in Tolkien we find the genesis of so many of our era's most popular genres (fantasy, science fiction, role playing games, and so forth). Tolkien's influence is both subtler and more fundamental than this. Tolkien redefined the way popular literature treats many of its most common themes. This post looks at only one of those themes, but I am comfortable with the contention that Tolkien's work embodies an entire era's way of understanding the world. It is hard to say if Tolkien's Lord of the Rings actually created the central cultural currents of our age or if it is simply their most prominent and enduring incarnation. Either way, Tolkien's work is here to stay.

Readers familiar with Lord of the Rings will immediately see the connections between my opening sketch and the tale of Tolkien's ring-bearer. I  am not going to devote an entire essay to this topic—a great deal has already been written about Tolkien's conception of good and evil, power, corruption, innocence, and heroism, and I see no reason to repeat others' feats here—but I will emphasize two points that deserve strong restatement.

The first point: An aversion to glory is not just the defining character trait of the novel's central hero. The distinction between greatness and power as goods to be strived for versus greatness and power as burdens to be carried is the distinction that sets apart almost of all of the novel's protagonists from their foils.  It is the defining difference between Frodo and Smeagol, Faramir and Boromir, Aragorn and Denethor, and Gandalf and Saruman. The second trait saves Galadriel in exile; the first corrupts Sauron anew after his master's defeat. If one is allowed to describe objects as foils, this same distinction sets Sauron's rings, key to his strategy for corrupting Middle Earth, as a foil to the methods of the 'wizards' sent from Western lands to save Middle Earth.

The second point: Though this conception of power, corruption, and responsibility defines the mythic templates of our day, this is not the myth on which past ages were made. I referenced earlier Shakespeare's line about those who have "greatness thrust upon them." Read it context and you will discover that it written to lampoon, not to inspire. [1] With those lines Shakespeare satirizes the vain and foolish upstarts who assume the privileges of high station without having done anything to deserve them. Shakespeare has nothing against those privileges; his plays assume that any young man worth his weight should be ambitious in their pursuit. But the key is that they must be pursued, and his tragedies and comedies both are filled with good men who leave home to chase fortune and glory.

This was not some new ideal in Shakespeare's day. For the sake of name Athena spurs Telemachus away from home; for the sake of rule she spurs Odysseus homeward bound. Yudhishthira gladly leads his brothers on the path of dharma, but it is a dharma of kingdom and acclaim. Aeneas, Sigurd, Gawain, Gilgamesh, Rama, Song Jiang—search the old epics and annals for the modern distrust of heroics, and you find it in none of them.

There are some limited antecedents. Rome had its Cincinnatus; the Central States had their Yu and Shun. These culture-heroes were famed for their decision to relinquish power for the sake of order. The mytholigized tales of historical heroes like Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang depict them trading victory for righteousness. Milton hoped his epics would redefine herorism from the pursuit of personal glory to the pursuit of God's glory. The world does not lack stories of poets, ascetics, and prophets who forsake rank for purer existence in the wilderness. That success in the world does not bring success in the realm of spirit is ancient truth.

Yet by and large, oracles of the human past do not display the sort of distrust for power that is so instinctive to we moderns. The best statement of the modern view was voiced by Lord Acton as the 19th century came to a close:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.[2]
Pre-modern writers were not blind to the abuse of power; they certainly did not believe that the office sanctifies its holder. Instead, they tended towards the opposite view: the office judges its holder. Power did not corrupt those who attained it; it merely provided opportunity prove their true character. A good man would be a good man in power; a bad man would be a bad man in power. But without wealth, rank, or influence, it was difficult to distinguish the first man from the second. Who would revile Nero, peasant responsible for a kitchen fire?

Tolkien did not invent the modern conception of evil. He did not even popularize it—these ideas about leadership,  influence, virtue, and vice swept across the world in the decades following Acton's expression of them. The collapse of the old regimes of Europe and Asia, the disintegrating hold of religion on the social order, the catastrophe of two world wars, and the terrors of totalitarianism gave these notions popular form and mass appeal. Modernist writers were obsessed with these ideas; much of their writing is best seen as an attempt to mould this ethos into written words. In this sense Tolkien was as much a modernist as Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Hemingway, or any other writer who swam in their milieu.

This is not a new argument. What I have written thus far about the contrast between ancient and modern conceptions of power, and Tolkien's firm stand in the modernist camp, has been explored in other works, the most worthy probably being Tom Shippey's Tolkien: Author of the Century.[3] But Tolkien did something more significant than Shippey realizes. After all, many authors of his era attacked older notions of glory, power, and heroism. There is nothing unique in this. But these authors were different from Tolkien in both their tone and purpose: their poems and novels trended towards grim realism or biting sarcasm. Their work was united in pessimism, lauded for clever ironies.

 What more could be expected of them? It was an age where the transcendent had been discredited, power was feared, and heroics distrusted. In this age high culture was turned over to the hands of the ironist. It has stayed in those hands to this day.

But there lies the catch. The ironist inspires no one. He draws absurdity out of our crooked timbers, but he can find no purpose there. He can move to mirth, but not to awe. He provokes disgust, but not commitment. He pokes fun at those who imbue life with meaning, but has no meaning of his own to impart. Some ironists are wry. Some are coy. Some are absurd. Others are simply vicious. But none are wise. The ironist knows the truth but he does not know the Dao.  Yet it is the Dao the masses yearn for.

Tolkien would not have framed things this way, but this is what makes his novel the defining epic of his century. For reasons I will not hazard, men and women pine for heroes. We need the stories of lives lived right. Lord of the Rings was written for an age that doubted this was possible. His stories accomplished something simple but meaningful: they showed what it means to be a hero in an age that did not believe in heroics.

We still live in that age. As long as we view power's corrupting influence with the distrust that Tolkien did, we will continue to live under his shadow. This is why I suspect Tolkien will stick through the centuries. The modernists and the ironists will be remembered by the historians of the future, I am sure—just as hundreds of Elizabethan plays are remembered by Renaissance scholars today. The best of such work may still capture the attention of the literary minded; many still read the work of Aristophanes, Wu Jingzi, and Jonathan Swift today. But no age is defined by its ironists. Ages are remembered by their heroes.

Ours is the age of the Tolkienic hero.


[1] For context see Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5.

[2] Letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887), published in Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1907), edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, Appendix, p. 504.

[3] Tom Shippey, Tolkien: Author of a Century (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 112-161.

12 March, 2019

What Do Cambodians Think About China?

Image source
I have spent the last month in Cambodia. During my time here I have taken a keen interest in what every day Cambodians think about the torrent of things Chinese that has flooded into their country over the last few years. I have not found any survey data on this question (readers are welcome to fire away in the comments if they know of any). Most of what we hear in the West comes from anecdote laden journalism. I have been a bit skeptical of a lot of this reportingit seemed to fit almost too well into the sort of journalistic narrative that is pleasing to center-left sentiments. Just because Westerners see China as a corrupting, anti-liberal boogeyman is no guarantee that the man on the street in the developing world sees the same thing.

My skepticism was unfounded. In conversation after conversation with the Khmer I meet, China's influence on this country is reviled. I have been taken aback with how vehement anti-Chinese sentiment can get (though I will not pretend the most vehement voices represent the majority position).

A few caveats before I precede. I have spent most of the last month is Siem Reap and its environs. While people from across northwest Cambodia have flocked to this city for the opportunities it provides, Siem Reap is not representative of Cambodia as a whole. Siem Reap's economy is dominated by the 2.5 million tourists who travel here every year. Because of this, no matter how much Chinese invest here, the smart thing for an ambitious Khmer hoping to raise their station here is to learn to speak English. On the flip side, Khmer here have not had to deal personally with some of the more notorious aspects of Chinese development (which I'll discuss below), as is the case with the Cambodians living in places like Sihanoukville.

I now suspect that the place to find the largest number of Cambodians most favorable to China is Phnom Penh. The Khmer of Phnom Penh have more reason to see Chinese money and people as a source of opportunity than the denizens of Siem Reap. On the other hand, Phnom Penh is big enough that Chinese investment and criminal activity will not overwhelm local life so easily. But this is just a suspicion. I will attempt to confirm or disprove it when I travel there next week.

With those caveats stated, I will make the following generalizations. Khmer have a stereotyped vision of Chinese people, businesses, and government. All of these are negative. You might group these perceptions into three categories:

1) Chinese are rude and imperious. Comments like these come most commonly from those who deal with Chinese primarily as tourists, but I have also heard it said about Chinese business owners, who "treat us Khmer like animals." Most folks complaints are more pedestrian: in contrast to Western or Japanese tourists, Chinese speak loudly in restaurants,  are destructive of property, demanding when asking for service, and ungrateful when they have received it. Every single Khmer I have asked has said they would prefer to not deal with Chinese tourists if they have the opportunity to deal with tourists from different country instead (the exception here is Vietnamese, who are seen by many Cambodians as enemies to their nation or parasites on its economy).

The most amusing example of this came at the Cambodian War Museum. One of the tour guides there assured my group that if we wanted to pick up an antique gun or climb on a tank for the sake of interesting photographs, he would not mind. "We only put up those 'do not touch' signs because the Chinese tourists kept breaking things."

2) Chinese are criminals. Comments like these are especially common from Cambodians who have lived in Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, or Poipet. Cambodians accuse Chinese businesses in these areas as being fronts for Chinese criminal organizations. They have brought with them a litany of ills: foreign prostitutes, gambling rings, roving private security bands, and regular murders. This at least is what the Cambodians claim. I had a chance confirmation of some of these claims from a Chinese man I met at one of the hotels I stayed at in Siem Reap.

The man previously worked in China's domestic tourism industry. A PLA army buddy of his friend had convinced him to come to work for a casino in Poipet, which was described to him as a land of opportunity for people in his business. He had been in the town for a bit less than a month when he realized the casino he was working for had "black society" connections. When he brought this up to his new manager, he was accused of being a spy for the Chinese government. Fearing for his life, the fellow fled from Poipet to Siem Reap the next day. He was set to travel by plane back to China for the day after. The entire affair had financially hurt him: the casino had told him they would reimburse him for both his flight and the costs of accommodation in Poipet. He had to pay both out of pocket and was to scared to press his claims with the company.

This man also told me that the Chinese language newspaper in Cambodia, the Jianhua Daily, regularly reports on crimes and murders of Chinese in Cambodia. This is a thread worth exploring. Very little is said about any of this in the Western press. it is not hard to say why. Few Western reporters in Cambodia speak any Chinese, and it looks like Chinese are both the main perpetrators and main victims of here. There is also an element of danger in this kind of reporting.

Cambodians reported these things to me in very broad brush strokes. The Chinese came. Crime followed. That is the narrative.

3) Chinese abet a corrupt government. Another common complaint is that Chinese businesses have stolen Cambodian property without proper compensation. These complaints were most bitterly voiced by Khmer I have met from educated backgrounds. Cambodians would go on to assert that these businesses were allowed to do this because they had paid off the Cambodian officials that had power to stop them. The common image is of immensely entities that nevertheless trample on the rights of poor Cambodians, and do this hand-in-hand with a detested government. Chinese machinations here are often decried in the same breath as Vietnamese designs on the country. In both cases, a substantial number of Khmer believe that Hun Sen's regime is essentially the plaything of foreign masters who do not have Cambodian interests at heart. I have been surprised by the number of Khmer who compared this unfavorably to the government's past dependence on Western governments and Western sourced aid. I have even taken to drawing the comparison in more negative terms myself just to gauge Cambodian reactions to it: "But is Chinese money really any different than having to rely on the money of white people?"

Thusfarto my surpriseI have yet to meet a Cambodian who thinks this is a valid comparison.

In other words: the center-left pleasing narrative is not something journalists have imposed on Cambodian society. Its main ingredients are clearly there for anyone interested enough to ask about it.

07 March, 2019

Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage II: Just How Totalitarian is Modern China?

Rainer Hachfeld, Stalin-Mao-Xioriginally published 12 March, 2018.
The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality. In other words, one destroyed the dignity of human thought whereas the others destroy the dignity of human action.
—Hannah Arendt (1950) 

About two months ago I wrote many praises for John Garnaut's 2017 speech, “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China.” Garnaut claims that Xi Jinping sees himself as the heir of Stalin and Mao and that this communist heritage is vital for understanding the modern Communist Party of China. I concur with this claim, and wrote a few thousand words tracing the connections between the Party's modern methods of control and their antecedents in the days of Stalin and Mao. If you have not read that piece, I encourage you to go do so.

However, I have some reservations about Garnaut's characterization of the Chinese Party-State. This post will explain the source of this disagreement. I begin with a story of from a cataclysm that took place outside of China, but which is relevant to Garnaut's description of what is happening inside it.

In her memoir of her childhood in the Khmer Rouge regime, Chanrithy Him describes an execution. I am going to reproduce this scene at length. I ask readers to consciously try and read it all instead of skip through the block-text, as is normal reading habit.
It was nearly noon, perhaps in November 1975, when my brothers, sisters, Mak, and I, among hundreds of other people, arrived at a place near Peth Preahneth Preah. It was a large, open ground studded with tall trees shielding us from the blazing heat of the day. Men, women, and children were gathered to witness a judgment on two people. Their crime, Angka said, was loving each other without Angka’s permission. Thus they were our enemies.

“When Angka catches enemies,” a leader had announced in the previous mandatory meeting, “Angka doesn’t keep them, Angka destroys them.”

One by one, the children, are picked from the crowd and told to stand near the two poles so they can see what Angka will do. It sounds as if we are about to see a play, an entertainment.

To the right of the poles are three wooden tables aligned from edge to edge to form one long table. Behind them, sitting on chairs, are Khmer Rouge dressed in black uniforms, perhaps in their forties and fifties, whom I have never seen before. Their necks, as usual, are decked out with red-and-white-and white-and-blue-checked scarves, draped over their shirts. They are well guarded by cadres standing with rifles behind and beside them. The cadres’ faces are grave. They stand still, straight like the poles. A few Khmer Rouge at the table whisper among themselves. At that moment I see a stash of spades, hoes, and shovels leaning against a pole planted firmly in the ground.

A one-horse buggy pulls up. Two cadres stride toward it. A blindfolded man, hands tied behind his back, is guided off it. Behind him emerges a blindfolded woman who is helped out of the buggy by another cadre. Her hands, too, are tied behind her back. Her stomach bulges out. Immediately she is tied to the pole near the buggy. Her arms first, then her ankles, with a rope about half the size of my wrist.

A woman in the crowd whispers, alarmed, “God, she’s pregnant.”

The blindfolded man’s arms are also bound to the pole. He’s calm, standing straight as his ankles are fastened to the bottom of the pole. Dressed in slacklike pants and a flannel shirt with long sleeves rolled up to his elbows, this man appears intelligent. He’s tall. His body build suggests he’s one of the “city people.” Like him, the pregnant woman looks smart, educated from the way she carries herself. She looks composed. Her collarless blouse with short sleeves reveals her smooth arms. Her once-refined face suggests a once-sheltered life.

Each of the Khmer Rouge rises from the table to speak. Their voices are fierce, full of hatred and anger as they denounce the couple. “These comrades have betrayed Angka. They’ve set a bad example. Therefore they need to be eradicated. Angka must wipe out this kind of people.”

Abruptly another Khmer Rouge at the table gets up, pulls the chair out of his way, strides to the front of the table, picks up a hoe, and tests its weight. Then he puts it back, lifts up a long, silver-colored spade, and tests its weight. He walks up to the blindfolded man.

“Bend your head now!” he commands, then raises the spade in the air.

The man obeys, lowering his head. The Khmer Rouge strikes the nape of his neck again and again. His body slumps, his knees sag. A muffled sound comes out of his mouth. His lover turns her head. The executioner strikes the man’s nape again. His body droops. The executioner scurries over to the pregnant woman. “Bend your head NOW!”

Her head bends. The spade strikes her nape. Her body becomes limp. No sound comes out of her mouth. Only two blows and she’s dead. The executioner walks away, his hand wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Suddenly a long choking sound is heard. The woman’s stomach moves, struggling. Everyone turns. Someone whispers that the baby is dying.

Oh…a cry from the crowd. The executioner runs back and strikes the body repeatedly until the struggle in it stops, still like the pole.

This was a brutal lesson. By now I know the Khmer Rouge’s dark side. I fear for Ra for avoiding Na, a defiant act against Angka. I am afraid her silent rebellion will carry a heavy price. [1]

Ra was Chanrithy's older sister. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, which referred to itself in its dealings with the Khmer people only as Angka, "The Organization," had recently chosen a husband for her. Ra consented to the marriage but defiantly refused to sleep with the husband chosen for her by the Party. She was lucky: her husband did not report her. She did not share the fate of the man, woman, and child that Chanrithy saw the regime execute several years earlier.

I repeat this tale at such length because it captures something fundamental about what we mean when we use words like 'totalitarian.' The point here is not the level of violence and terror the average person is exposed to (though that is often a sign of the deeper issue I am addressing). Rather, what we see in this story is a frightening extension of what sort decisions are considered political. Under the Khmer Rouge, making love was an explicitly political act. Marriage was a political decision. Refusing to sleep with your husband was an act of political rebellion. The first claim of the totalitarian is that everything is political.

In my view, a totalitarian system must meet two minimum requirements:
  1. In this system all human action is considered political action
  2. The system is ruled by a Party which claims commanding authority to direct all political action—and thus all human action—for its cause.

The great tragedies of 20th century history occurred as the totalitarian leaders attempted to translate their claim of authority over all human action into actual control over the same.

This view of totalitarian society crystallized in my mind some years ago, when I first read Liang Heng's memoir of his youthful escapades as a Red Gaurd in the Cultural Revolution. A professor had asked me to review it. In that brief review I noted:
In Mao’s China the personal was always political. And not just the personal—everything anyone did was political. Maoism was a political ideology that asked its members to give everything they were, had, and did to the socialist cause. This intellectual framework implies that everything one does should be layered with political meaning. A child’s prank, a lover’s kiss, and a friend’s embrace were all political acts. The clothes one wore, the way one walked, the letters one wrote, and the words one spoke all had political valence. It was with this in mind Liang Shan warned: “Never give your opinion on anything, even if you’re asked directly” (76).

Such caution is inevitable in a world where there is no distinction between the personal and the political. Politics is the division of power, politicking the contest for it. In a system where the most intimate and private actions have political meaning, these actions will be used by those who seek power. These naked contests for control leave no room for good and evil – good becomes what those with power declare it. “One day you are red, one day you are black, and one day you are red again” (76), Liang Shan instructed, and he was correct. This struggle stretched from factions warring within the walls of Zhongnanhai to the village black class child currying for favor.

The problem is not competition: that is an ingrained aspect of human life. The special tragedy of the Maoist system was that it spared nothing from the pursuit of power. There was no aspect of life that could be cordoned off as a refuge from the storm. [2]
Those comments were an attempt to describe a crucial feature of Maoist China. They could be repeated with only cosmetic changes to describe humanity's other totalitarian experiments. Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and the terrifying regimes that murdered millions in Cambodia and North Korea were all defined by a terrifying collapse of the personal into the political.

John Garnaut would add Xi Jinping's China to the list:
The totalitarian machine works to a predetermined path. It denies the existence of free will and rejects “abstract” values like “truth”, love and empathy. It repudiates God, submits to no law and seeks nothing less than to remould the human soul....

Xi was arguing for a return to the Stalinist-Maoist principle that art and literature should only exist to serve politics. Not politics as we know it - the straightforward exercise of organisational and decision-making power - but the totalitarian project of creating unity of language, knowledge, thought and behaviour in pursuit of a utopian destination.

“Art and literature is the engineering that moulds the human soul; art and literary workers are the engineers of the human soul.”[3]
This is the rub of my disagreement with Garnaut. The current Chinese system is defined by the Stalinist tools and ideology its leaders have inherited. But I am not willing to call it truly totalitarian—at least not yet. Secretary Xi may talk about engineering the souls of China, but he has—by totalitarian standards—done a poor job of it. The every-day lived experience of the average Chinese is nothing like the sort of experience hundreds of millions endured under truly totalitarian rule.

A distinction must be made here between elements of society the Party feels it lacks the ability to co-opt and the majority of workaday Chinese. If you are a Uyghur or a Tibetan, a devout Muslim or Christian, a labor leader, activist, and or a rights lawyer, you will not hesitate to call this regime totalitarian. The violence inflicted upon you will be of the totalitarian sort; the scope of the state's control over your daily life (that is, the scope of what is considered 'political') will equal anything the fascist or communist parties of the past inflicted on their subjects.

But this is not the way Party rule is normally perceived or experienced by the vast majority of Chinese. If you have dealt at all with Chinese you will be struck by how many will tell you things like "I am not interested in politics at all" or "I avoid politics as much as possible." Statements like these are built on the premise that a sphere of life that is not political does in fact exist. In modern China, there is a refuge from the storm. For the vast majority of Chinese, the books they read, the clothes they wear, the talents they cultivate, and the lovers they kiss have no special political valence. Political considerations may have their part to play when choosing a school or a spouse, but these are of the old and ordinary guanxi sort that have shaped Chinese life for centuries. Most Chinese today simply do not feel like their souls are bent and hammered by Xi's engineers.

This is important to understand: it  gets to the heart of why the regime remains popular despite its hostility to virtue and liberty. I recall a conversation I had in 2016 with a woman in Shanghai. We had just met for the first time in years. The topic of our conversation turned to the worsening political climate in Beijing. She was adamant that things were not really that bad:

"We still have freedom of speech after all!"

I was confused. "How can you say that? If you go unfurl a banner saying how much you hate Xi Jinping in any park in Beijing, you will be arrested in a few minutes. If you write how much you hate him on WeChat, that post will be taken down. Your account might be canceled."

"That is not what I mean. Look you and me are talking right now. I am free to say anything I want to you. With my family and friends I can say whatever I want—what more do I need?"

This claim was not technically correct. Chinese activists have been arrested for merely talking in private about the conditions needed to replace the Communist Party. In Xinjiang, cadres are regularly sent into the homes of Uyghur families to spy on their inner lives. But these are edge cases, groups subject to Communist coercion at its most frightening and violent. Her words were an accurate statement of the reality most Chinese experience. Most Chinese are free to voice whatever opinion they wish, as long as they voice this opinion in private. That seems stifling to Americans (or in Garnaut's case, Australians) accustomed to a regime of liberty. But remember the context for which my friend made her claim. Totalitarianism is not a foreign boogey man in China, but an experience that was endured by hundreds of millions in living memory. The Chinese remember a time when they were not free to speak their minds even when speaking behind closed doors. From that vantage point what the Communist Party of China offers now is a positively a liberating experience.

Orwell famously likened Stalinist regimes to a boot stamping on a human face:
The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything.... There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever. [4]
This image is accurate enough for a regime engaged in constant and perpetual revolution against internal class enemies, as China and Cambodia were at their Maoist nadirs. But it doesn't capture the reality of the current Party regime. If we must liken fiction to life, the better analogy is provided by Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. In that dystopia, American civic society has been slashed to pieces, its people degraded into an atomized soup of selfish, pleasure-seeking individuals. It is a society where most care nothing for politics. The few who do buck the trend—those who read, those who organize, and those who openly question the system—are brutally eliminated. But that happens on the margins. Most citizens of Bradbury's dystopia do not know much about what happens to the people of the margins. Those who do know endeavor to forget about it as soon as possible.

Whether by accident or design, this tracks the way modern Chinese society works. The majority of Chinese are avowedly apolitical, and hope to remain that way. They are content with their live-streamers and hokey talk shows. Their focus is on the rat race. The Party cares less for shaping the souls of these distracted masses than reducing their capacity to organize. You see this reality reflected in odd places. A recent study of censorship in Chinese social media made this point very well. When surveying thousands of censored postings, political scientists Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts realized that even vitriolic criticism of the Party is often left standing. To give you a sense for how hostile these uncensored posts can be, here are a few examples the authors highlighted as typical:
I have always thought China’s modern history to be full of progress and revolution. At the end of the Qing, advances were seen in all areas, but after the Wuchang uprising, everything was lost. The Chinese Communist Party made a promise of democratic, constitutional government at the beginning of the war of resistance against Japan. But after 60 years that promise is yet to be honored. China todayl acks integrity, and accountability should be traced to Mao. In the 1980s, Deng introduced structural political reforms, but after Tiananmen, all plans were permanently put on hold...intraparty democracy espoused today is just an excuse to perpetuate one party rule.”


This is a city government [Yulin City, Shaanxi] that treats life with contempt, this is government officials run amuck, a city government without justice, a city government that delights in that which is vulgar, a place where officials all have mistresses, a city government that is shameless with greed, a government that trades dignity for power, a government without humanity, a government that has no limits on immorality, a government that goes back on its word, a government that treats kindness with ingratitude, a government that cares nothing for posterity. [5]

Why does crimethink like this escape the censors' net? Their answer was simple: because the censors are too busy removing every mention of group protest or self-organized problem solving independent of Party control: "Posts are censored if they are in a topic area with collective action potential and not otherwise. Whether or not the posts are in favor of the government, its leaders, and its policies has no measurable effect on the probability of censorship."[6]

It is a somewhat brilliant system. Like a spinning gyroscope, there is no reason it could not maintain forward momentum for the span of many human lives... if it remained in a vacuum. But China is no vacuum. An authoritarian system built on the political apathy of its citizens is not good for much but keeping its leaders in power. The leaders of China are more ambitious than this. They dream of glory. They are also more fearful than this: they suffer in a state of constant worry over the machinations of international enemies. There is a certain siege mentality among the Party elite; this mentality is not friendly towards spinning tops. Apathy brings stability. What these men want is victory.

It is that simple: if you believe your nation is engaged in a great struggle for power and glory, pressure will mount to enlist your countrymen in that struggle. In Chinese terms, that means we hear the return of terms like the mass line and the fengqiao experience.

This slouch towards totalitarianism is not a new tale.  Totalitarian regimes, without exception, have been the creation of societies under siege. Out of this sad history I suspect that the best historical analogy for what we will see in China's future is found in Japan's imperial past. There was no grand revolution to herald the beginning of Japanese totalitarianism. Instead, over a decade, Japan's authoritarian system slid slowly into a totalitarian one. Each step down this slope came as sense of international crisis quickened. The more hostile Tokyo believed the outer world was to its ambitions, the more important total mobilization of the nation to accomplish these ambitions became. War was the final stroke: By the end of that contest the Japanese people lived in a regime whose conception of the political did not differ much from its counterparts in Germany or the Soviet Union. International pressure doomed the last spots of refuge from the storm.[7]

It is not difficult to imagine China treading this same path. As the Communist Party of China grows more vicious, hostility to its ambitions grows. The more hostile its neighbors and rivals are perceived to be, greater the need to mobilize the masses to resist them. The stakes of this struggle will reach extremes. In that day the totalitarian temptation will beckon. Party leaders will have little reason to ignore it.

Dark times lie in wait for the people of China.

But that day is not yet our day. In our day, totalitarianism remains a temptation still. In the future things may change, but for the moment, we misunderstand Chinese society if we project too much of its past onto its present.


[1] Chanrithy Him, When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), pp. 246-247.

[2] Tanner Greer, unpublished document. Page numbers refer to Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, Son of the Revolution (Vintage Press, 1984).

[3] John Garnaut,"Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China," speech given at the Asian Strategy and Economic Forum, 21 August 2017, posted at Sinocism on 16 January 2019.

[4] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signent Classic, 1961), p. 306.

[5] Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts, "How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but SilencesCollective Expression," American Political Science Review 107, iss 2 (May 2013), p. 13.

[6] ibid.

[7] On the Japanese siege mentality and its creeping consequences, see Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991); many moving first person account of life under this sort of totalitarian soceity are included in Haruko and Thomas Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New Press, 1991).

02 March, 2019

Secure Communications Strategies for China and Elsewhere

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The New York Times had an interesting piece out this week about the lengths their reporters in China go to try and protect their sources and their data from the digital surveillance state. To quote a bit from the piece:
I use an iPhone because Apple tends to be more secure than Android. That’s especially true in China, where the blocks against Google mean there are a huge number of third-party Android stores peddling all kinds of sketchy apps. 
It’s also important to realize that because Beijing controls the telecoms, your domestic phone number can be a liability. For secure apps like Signal, I toggle the registration lock so that if they try to mirror my phone, my account still has a layer of protection. 
To get around the Great Firewall, I use a few different VPNs, which I won’t name because when we do bring them up they usually get new government attention.... 
In some parts of China, the police will demand to check your phone, usually to delete photos. Having two phones helps with this — to make it even trickier, I have the same case on both phones. But it’s also good to have other ways to protect your data. I use a few apps that disguise themselves as something innocuous but in fact hide and protect data. It’s also always handy to have a USB drive that can plug into your phone and be used to save stuff quickly.[1]
I am always interested to see what others are doing. To a certain extent precautions like these are a fool's game: if a state actor really wants to know what you are doing, then they will find out what you are doing. But the state cannot expend those kind of resources on every potential target of interest. A lot of security precautions are best thought of as ways to overcome the automated dragnet.

To that end, here is my proposal for secure communication in places like China: lose the phone altogether. Instead, buy an iPod Touch.

This is not an original idea on my part. Major media outlets like Wired and Vice have both suggested the idea before. On his old website, Justin Carroll wrote up a detailed five part series on how to set one up for privacy and security use. Michael Bazzell has described how he uses a iPod Touch as a central part of his privacy and security strategy on the Privacy, Security, and OSINT Show a few dozen times. The basic logic behind using an iPod instead of an iPhone is similar across all of these use cases. Cell phones are location tracking devices. Unless yours is stored in a Faraday bag, multiple providers, government agencies, and (in America) anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare can locate you. The strongest phone security can be defeated by "sim-swapping" attacks, a problem you will not have to worry about with an iPod Touch. And in my experience, security personnel are less likely to demand access to a "mere" iPod than they are to a phone, especially if you have some music or podcasts loaded onto it.

When I am traveling abroad, I usually have two devices with me: an iPod Touch and a very cheap alternative phone. This alternative phone will have a local sim card, if necessary; it will also have apps like WeChat or Line, whose privacy and security credentials I do not trust. (When in America, I keep this phone in a Faraday bag, and only log onto it when outside my home). On the iPod Touch there will be a set of secure communication, VPN, and 2FA apps, as well as potential sensitive (but not too sensitive) data I might need immediate access to. This device has a very, very long password and is set to automatically erase itself if false passwords are entered too many times.

Perhaps the most important app included on my 'secure communication' device is MySudo. MySudo is a cool app that lets you have multiple phone numbers hosted on one device. When in America, I communicate strictly through MySudo numbers. The number listed on my business card is one such number, that given to family members another, and so forth. I have a standing policy never to give out my actual phone number—to be honest, I do not know what it is.

Michael Bazzell has described how he uses MySudo to sync calls across multiple devices: an iTouch connected to his home WiFi is used for phone calls at home; iPhone connected to the same app does the job when he is outside the house. He places the iPhone in a Faraday bag at a set location before returning home to ensure that his carriers can't leak his home address to those willing to pay for it.

I am a great fan of all this, but my use case is different. When traveling to a country (like China) where MySudo is not supported, it is useless for communicating with subjects in country. However, it is extremely useful for communicating with associates back home. A fast VPN, combined with MySudo, means that I do not need to leave any "call me back in three weeks when I return to America" inbox messages. As long as I have an internet connection, I can place calls directly with anyone in America. If my associate also has MySudo as well, these calls will be encrypted.

Do not put too much trust in encrypted calls if you believe you are actively being targeted. The easiest way to hear what is said in an encrypted conversation is simply to bug the room where the call is being made. But if your goal is to avoid pinging the automated dragnet, this is not a bad solution—especially in countries like China, where most foreigners are using VPNs anyway.

On a final, non-China related note: two other privacy/security products I strongly recommend using are and Yubikey. An American who uses MySudo,, Yubikey, and then has activated a credit freeze will be a hardened target when identity thieves or crazed readers come looking for you. If you have a public presence—that is, if you might potentially write or say something that will arouse irate twitter mobs of any sort—it is worth it to protect yourself with basic privacy and security measures like these before the barbarians are at the door.


[1] Paul Mozer, "Limiting Your Digital Footprint in a Surveillance State," New York Times (27 February 2019).

01 March, 2019

Reason is for Stabbing

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For readers curious about my the lack of new posts over the last month,  the answer is easy: I recently relocated to Cambodia, and have focused my efforts on establishing things here instead of on writing. Hopefully posting will improve a bit over the next few weeks as things become more settled down on my end. 

In the meantime, I want to elevate a comment left by Lynn Rees on the post "Of Words and Weapons" to a post in its own right. Long time readers will recognize Lynn as a long time commentator here at the Stage; those with even longer memories might remember his now defunct blog, the Committee of Public Safety, one of the highlights of the old "strategy sphere." Lynn writes with a sharp wit and an allusive style (the following post casually alludes to everything from Star Trek series tropes to Aztec mythology) that remains entertaining even if you don't catch every reference.

In the 'Words and Weapons' post I argued that 'signaling theory' developed by economists and evolutionary psychologists shares many features with traditional Marxist theory. The logic they use is different, but both theories are weaponized in political debate for an identical purpose: to discredit an argument by reducing it to the identity of the person making it. Rees suggests that this is not an exclusive Marxian tick. Drawing on the argumentative theory of reason presented by Dan Sperber and Hugio Mercier, Rees argues that these rhetorical tricks are actually a fundamental part of human behavior.

But I will let him explain it—his exposition is far more entertaining than any summary I could write up in its place:
I toy here briefly with another dead German, Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz cast war, at least in the philosophic sense that Marx and Engels later aggressively mired themselves in, as the continuation of politics by other means, inferred as politics continued with extreme prejudice by violent means. What Uncle Carl meant by this has been competitively elaborated on. I will not summarize any such elaboration here since I'm a random Internet wingnut armed only with some badly aging rhetorical flourishes. 
To start at the beginning, most of nature is in an absolute pickle. A violent, sour not-so-kosher dill pickle. Some fly under the radar as (sometimes literally) lone wolves. Some find strength in numbers, sometimes as a ravening murder-death-kill horde (e.g. wolves...again), some times as herds with plenty of spare cannon fodder. 
Humans natively seem to glom into small little cliques. Within those cliques, factions form. In the press of tooth and claw, factions can mean life or they could mean death. One faction may be right, one faction may be wrong, with the possible outcome ranging from wounded feelings to mass murder-death-kill. This is the raw primordial ooze of human politics, the extra-carbony peanut butter from which everything more complex is forged and eaten as part of a complete meal. 
As goes politics, goes war. Clausewitz, correctly, in my less than humble opinion, argued that the most important thing in war is first to be very strong and then at the decisive point.  
I will clumsily extrapolate from Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier's argumentative theory of reason that the point of human reason is not the high order of pursuing truth as Enlightenment groupie might claim. The focus of human reason is winning arguments, first by being strong and then at the decisive point
If reason was purely about abstract truth, there would be no kings being strangled with the entrails of priests. Diderot would greet us from 1750 with "Live long and prosper", his fingers split into a Vulcan salute. Vulcans aren't people: they're a plot device. Reason is stabby at its core: the supposed mind-emotion split that the Enlightenment hammed up non-stop is nonsense. It is the sharp wry eyebrow of Voltaire facing off against the flabby, jello-like sentiment of Rousseau. Rousseau and Voltaire aren't anti-matter opposites, threatening to destroy the human cosmos in one catastrophic burst: they're plot devices, meant to move us uncomfortably in our chairs and maybe switch to that new Star Wars novel instead of these moderately distressing Frenchmen. 
I feel like Sperber has a point here, though I may just be another American finding spiritual completeness with a Frenchman. Like Rousseau or Voltaire, Sperber is helpfully French for those so inclined to such things. 
Returning to my badly chewed and regurgitated extrapolation of Sperber, one of the great follies of our time is the myopic denouncing of certain human mental tics or heuristics as "biases". Foremost among the denounced is "confirmation bias." If we were engaged in that crusade for pure truth, freed like Spock by the mere lifting of one quizzical eyebrow, than confirmation would be very, very inconvenient. 
If we're being attacked by Star Wars fans, wielding vintage collectible light sabers with a meaningful, and threatening, glint in their eyes, the abstract pursuit of truth is the first casualty. The enemy is upon us, we know they're wrong, and we have no time for anything except raising our equally vintage Classic Trek phasers in defense of all that is right. As motion-tracked VOOM! VOOM! clashes with mono-audio PEW! PEW!, we have to act quickly, we have to act as one, and we have to show those pointy-headed fakers who the real superfans here are. There are no Picards in foxholes, only Kirks
In the principles strongly-worded advice of war, confirmation bias is concentration of force. It is first, being very strong in argument and focus, and then at that decisive point. While economy of effort, another heuristic of war, says you shouldn't put all your phases in the backpack of one red shirt, and economy of effort, when projected into the realm of reason and argumentation, rhymes with a full and frank exchange of diverse views in a safe space, holding back on the tactical nuts and bolts level when you're at the jugular of that decisive point and feeling very strong is nuts. 
Where does this leave Mr. Greer's broader point, about a line of evil acidic drool dribbling from Marx's black lips down to our own time, infecting the Public Thing and rotting it from within? As an aspiring servant of Jesus Christ, I believe in more than Marx's abstract people as material calculators tallying up themselves as the sum of their class biases. There are souls there and they are being refined in and by a troubled mortality. If the sharp principles of Clausewitz don't dominate the heavens, they certainly rule this fallen realm. Mortality is cruelty and is refined by nothing but Christ and Him Crucified. Moreover, mortality is worse than cruelty: it is limited. Man, clothed for this limited season in human flesh, will have to choose, and in his choice be frustrated when he can have any choice he wants as long as its colored pitch. Sometimes the choice will be unpleasant. As it was said of old, so it is now: things are always at their darkest before they become completely black. 
Some choice. 
One silver lining: human violence is expensive. It was expensive in blood and lives at the dawn of human history, with mortality rates as high as 20%, judging by some estimates, and it has only gotten expensive with increasingly stabby things that sometimes go KABLOOEY!!! As a corollary, the superset of human violence, politics has also gotten more expensive. The shift from clique to chiefdom to kingdom to empire to Trumpdom has gotten pricier and pricier. It demands more and more limited resources, especially the limited resources found between your two ears. The human brain must seek out efficiencies, and in an age when big is cheap, it must seek out economies of scale in thinking. 
While it seems to be inevitable that violence will come, violence comes in spurts and dribbles and burns itself out without a ready supply of fresh victims to feed Left-Handed Hummingbird. We are all not condemned to live in our own little Tlaxcalas, a sort of game preserve for predators set aside by society to keep themselves sharpened and stocked with fresh hearts. We have spaces where we can and, indeed, must, engage with others even if they're dressed like a bad Alec Guinness impersonator. And we can't always phaser them into nanoparticles, however emotionally satisfying that might be. You can stab it with your pointy ears but you just can't kill the beast. 
I agree with Mr. Greer that the quality of dialog is declining in Western society at large. Look at all those creepy Jedi wannabes with their tawdry Lucasfilm bling if you don't believe me. Like most human disputes, in the eyes of later generations most of what we debate now is the equivalent of counting how many Guelfs and Ghibellines can dance together on the head of a pin without stabbing each other. 
However, as with most human disputes, these debates are consequential. History is cumulative and it accumulates virtuous and vicious consequences altogether. Such is mortality. One of the great epics of literature is Dante's Divine Comedy. One of the passive-aggressive thrills that Dante got out of his versifying was burning his political enemies one by one in increasingly vicious ways while Dante and Virgil descended into the Inferno. And what were the provincial political squabbles Dante made immortal? Guelphs and Ghibellines. You may not understand the intricacies of papal claims vs imperial claims. You may never crawl on you knees at Canossa in the snow. However, you can understand the visceral thrill of seeing your enemy's entrails repeatedly unwound with a corkscrew even across seven or so centuries. To be political is to be human. 
Faction is natural. It is the very air we breath. Confirmation bias is only a bug when its our bias that isn't being confirmed. And there are affordable economy-sized forms of confirmation bias and there are expensive luxury-brand forms. The more expensive forms usually involve very pointy confirmations with a bias toward piercing parts of the body with a demonstrated lack of tolerance for being stabbed. So human history has evolved, been led, and lazily drifted away from things that get stabby real quick. Things like legitimacy and, as Mr. Greer has discoursed on at length, asabiya, are other ways to let a busy mind catch a few winks while awaiting the charge of the light saber brigade. They have become more popular because they keep stabbiness to a happy minimum and they keep things from getting pricey (and stabby) too quick. 
Keep calm. Carry on. Ignore that chap with the light saber. 
Most of the people you disagree with are not willfully sitting there calculating how to annoy you with every passing second. Mortality is limited and things have to get on with things. To this extent, Marx may have glimpsed a truth from afar: we are made up of many politically biased beliefs that run much of our thinking as if we were automata. Whether these arise from whirling dialectical dances of class consciousness is something I'm not woke enough to speculate upon. Marx, after all, had a very heavy beard: all that facial hair must count for something.  
But most of the people on The Other Side sincerely believe what they spout. Some stand there, political calculators at the ready, but even then most of them probably only grasp the political calculus through a glass darkly. They don't believe what they believe because they're doggedly intent on being wrong. Most of the time they're trying to avoid committing a crime worse than being wrong: being expensive. 
Things will break down and get stabby eventually. The devil is abroad in the land and in the hearts of men spreading contention. He laughs as you tie yourselves in knots and knots of your self-woven flaxen threads. But, unless you are reckless to the point of civilizational suicide, a not unknown condition by the way, most of the time you back off the edge of the precipice and most of the time you can even scramble up the cliff face. We are in a secular downturn and things might get Antietam level stabby before long: sometimes human knowledge sadly but wearily advances one funeral at a time. But it is not unique to us, however special our snowflakiness is and it is not uniquely Marxist, though Marx is a creepy looking dude with a demonstrated penchant for attracting the wrong fanbase. The fault lies not within our dead Commies but within ourselves. Sometimes it's not even a fault.
So put down those light sabers and back slowly away.

04 February, 2019

On the American Football Game

I die—but first I have possess’d,
And come what may, I have been blest.
—Lord Byron
This clip has been played 87 million times on Facebook and another seven million times on Youtube.

It's inspirational. It's powerful. I get why it has as many hits as it does.

But there is something more to it, and this something speaks to some of the cultural divides we have in America right now.

Most foreigners don't get football. They think it is just bunch of angry men crashing in to each other. That is mostly because they don't know the rules. When you know the rules of football you understand that this sport is one of the smartest games out there. It is a bit like playing chess with grown men as your pieces. The game is strategic.

But that's not why its popular.

There are also a large number of Americans who don't get football. You will occasionally hear cries from these folks that the sport ought to be banned (dangerous as it is), that the money spent on athletic programs is wasted, that it embodies a form of toxic masculinity, and so forth. Occasionally you will find old footballers among these critics, but most were not athletes themselves when they were a teenager—or if they were, they were on the cross-country team. Now, there is nothing wrong with being on the cross-country team. There is nothing wrong from with forgoing athletics altogether. But the folks from that world where football does not matter will always have a bit of trouble understanding the souls from the world where it does.

I get this. It is easy to caricature the football player and his fans as brutish and violent. It is easy to caricature the small towns whose seasons are divided by the calendar of the local high school football team as backward and out of touch. And lets be honest—any sport that revolves around smashing into someone as violently as possible does have something brutish about it; any town where the high school home-coming game is the most happening thing really is not a very happening place.

But there is more to it than this.

If you were to pick out people from that homecoming crowd—and I speak here of grown adults, especially the men, but also many of the mothers—and were to ask them, "so what does all of this football stuff mean to you?," you wouldn't hear about strategy and tactics, nor the joys of smashing into someone with all of one's force (though joyful that can be). The stories and feelings that you would hear would be of the kind seen in the clip above. You would find in football the school of life and fields of purpose. The football stadium is the place where one boy after another learns lessons their  school teachers could not teach them.

There are many paths through the wilds of life that promise to fill the journey full with meaning. There are untold ways to discover the lessons most worth learning. But for so many millions, this is the path and the way laid out before them. Between two end zones lies the proving ground of their strength and their grit, the place where words like sacrifice, struggle, love and belonging stop being words and start being lived realities. For them, the football field is a field of meaning.

The indifference of the critic disheartens. "Say you tear it all down," I often wish to ask them. "Say you send the boys home. Say you cut apart the living tempo of the small towns. Say you rip to pieces the solace of the downtrodden. Say you sever the chain tying sons to fathers. Say you crush a rare institution that forces young men to take seriously stalwart and caring old men. Say you strip away the rare chance for the boy who is not bookish to thrive in a world that forces his sort down into the gutter. Say you destroy this field of meaning. What will you replace it with?"

The world is not wanting for ways of meaning. The ritual role of the football field may plausibly be filled with waters drawn from some other well. This is true—but it is also so much easier to say from the outside. Others' treasures never have the same weight as those clutched close to our own bosoms. I suspect that replacing one treasure with a new one is another feat easier said than done. It is easier to destroy communities than it is to build them.

A few years back, the popular country singer Kenny Chesney released a paean to American football titled "The Boys of Fall." It is beautiful in its own way, a tribute to the ritual role football plays in the social life of its players. The song's eight-minute long music video begins with a pep-talk delivered by a high school football coach. At one point the coach chokes up and tells the team:
There are so many people that live vicariously through you. I would give anything tonight to jump in one of these uniforms with you. That feeling goes away. It goes away and it does not come every Friday night. It comes when you get married. It comes when your first child is born. So you get it, but you just don't get it every Friday night. You are going to miss that more than anything in the world. [1]
Pathetic, some will think. And in some ways it might be. Any young person optimized too far for athletic excellence is in for a rude awakening. The athlete peaks young. If the American athlete is lucky, his or her excellence may pay their way through college. But those are the lucky few.  Fewer still are the athletes whose years of toil and practice can pay their bills at 30. Those who devote their lives to the football field run the risk of cresting there, living out their remaining days in the shadow of their high school glories.

But is that actually so bad? At day's end, those who mock the foolishness of the man on the football field will be seen for what they are: no less foolish. As the shadow grows, it becomes ever clearer that the fields they have chosen for achievement last no longer than those that fill them with disdain. Financial derivatives may be packaged and repackaged, businesses may bloom or bust, books and doctoral theses may be typed at for years on end—but none survive the setting of the sun. You cannot take them with you. Too late we stumble upon that old discovery: what matters most in life is that which does not last. It is a truth the poets best express:
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream. [2]

You live, you die. A flash of light in the dark deserts of eternity. But within that flash come joys and loathings, great beauty and great sorrow. It is our doom and our glory to live our lives on the cresting wave. But given how ephemeral our attainments must be, who then can rightly criticize the man on the football field? Standing on that field is a man who has found a sense of place and a source of strength. There he has been wrapped with bonds of love. There he has coursed with glory. His game is short—but while it lasts, it brims with passion and with purpose.

My we all find as much before the close of day.


[1] Kenney Chesney, "The Boys of Fall," Youtube Video, published 3 September 2010.

[2] Earnest Dowson, "They are not long," An Anthology of Modern Verse, edited by A. Methuen (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), accessed on poetry archive on 4 February 2019.

29 January, 2019

Of Words and Weapons

The original signalling theorist.
There is a principle, supposed to prevail among many, which is utterly incompatible with all virtue or moral sentiment; and as it can proceed from nothing but the most depraved disposition, so in its turn it tends still further to encourage that depravity. This principle is, that all benevolence is mere hypocrisy, friendship a cheat, public spirit a farce, fidelity a snare to procure trust and confidence; and that while all of us, at bottom, pursue only our private interest, we wear these fair disguises, in order to put others off their guard, and expose them the more to our wiles and machination.
—David Hume (1751)
Earlier this month I highlighted a speech given by John Garnaut on the relationship between the modern Communist Party of China and its Stalinist heritage. There is one passage in the speech I keep returning to:
Mao made plain that there is no such thing as truth, love or artistic merit except in so far as these abstract concepts can be pressed into the practical service of politics.... For Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Xi, words are not vehicles of reason and persuasion. They are bullets. Words are weapons for defining, isolating and destroying opponents. And the task of destroying enemies can never end.[1]
Treating words as weapons in the struggle for survival is not a notion Stalin dreamed up alone. It is an idea with a sterling Marxist ancestry. It finds its' roots in the writings of young Karl Marx, who declared  "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." [2] As a materialist, Marx did not believe that human thought was autonomous. Marx maintained that a man's strongest convictions and most cherished opinions were not really his, but involuntary impulses of his material (read: class) background. Marx would state this idea most clearly in The German Ideology:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. (emphasis added)[3].
The implications of this stance are worth exploring. Marx is not so deterministic as to deny that ideas have an influence on the course of history altogether.[4] However he does seem to maintain that with effort any given set of ideas can be traced back to the material conditions that gave birth to them. Ideas, in the Marxian frame, are not the product of reason, but the instinctive expression of internalized differences in social position. Thus the Marxist's skeptical disdain for those who appeal to dialogue and reason to resolve disputes. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a blind byproduct of interests. In such a world, argument inevitably reduces down to identity.

Hence Engels' unsparing take on the reason-philia of the French Enlightenment:
The great men, who in France prepared men’s minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions – everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything. It was the time when, as Hegel says, the world stood upon its head; first in the sense that the human head, and the principles arrived at by its thought, claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but by and by, also, in the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction to these principles had, in fact, to be turned upside down. Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion, was flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.

We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.[5]
A straight line can be drawn from statements like these and the great terrors imposed upon captive populations by Marxist dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Men like Stalin did not oppose freedom of expression simply because it threatened their personal power. They opposed freedom of expression because they earnestly believed it was a pointless exercise. There is no point in debating with representatives of the bourgeoisie when the ideas of the bourgeoisie were not pliable to debate. If the opposing stance was not the product of reason, it could not be undone by reason. Ideas could not be argued against, because at their base they were not arguments. Words were weapons. Those who possessed the wrong ideas could not be persuaded—only removed, enslaved, or conditioned.

This is the dangerous endgame of an intellectual world where that allows no space for the argument made in good faith.

My readers probably suspect this essay is an attack on leftist rhetoric and identity based politics. "Post-modernism" and "critical theory" have their roots in Marxist thought, it is true. And yes, in the activist's insistence that argument be reduced to identity the parallel with Marxism's most dangerous ideas is unmistakable. However, standard leftist rhetoric is not my not target today. I bring up Marx because I am concerned with a different intellectual trend: signalling theory.

Signalling theory has been pushed by a diverse set of individuals, though the most prominent tend to be associated with the realms of economics or evolutionary psychology.[6] The central proposition of signalling theory is that the vast majority of arguments made in the public sphere are not made in good faith. An outraged tweet is not written to express genuine emotion, but to signal solidarity with the 'right' side. A verbose blog post is not written to persuade its readers of its argument, but of the cleverness of it author. A well circulated censure of some racist act is not written to convict the racist, but to display the Wokeness of the censor. The connecting string in all of these cases is that your arguments are less about your ideas than shaping other people's perceptions of you. Whether you believe you are writing primarily to shape other people's perceptions of you is immaterial. As with the Marxist theorists, signalling theorists are happy to conclude that signalling does not need to be a fully conscious process. In place of a class consciousness imposed by the material circumstances of an individual's social status, signalling theorists trace the origins of self-interested arguments to mental social-status 'modules' imposed by the material circumstances of an individual's evolutionary heritage. 

The comparison with Marxism will upset those who gleefully employ the rhetoric of signalling theory in their daily dealings with the social justice left. In the modern West, Marx is most popular in the least empirical and most politically driven academic tribes. This was not always so. In the 21st century, we have forgotten that the central appeal of Marxism to socialist revolutionaries was its claim to scientific validity. Marx, like the evolutionary psychologists, was committed to a naturalistic account of human affairs. Marx, also like the evolutionary psychologists, furiously denied that ideas and impulses have their origins in a "realm of pure thought." In words that could easily be uttered by any evolutionary psychologist today, he argued that "from the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter," and that any science of human society must be built on a clear-eyed picture of the relationship between ideas, impulses, and emotions on the one hand, and their material foundations on the other.[7] Like evolutionary psychology today, part of Marx's appeal was an iconoclastic rejection of popular pieties for the sake of scientific explanation. He justified his works not in the language of justice, but of truth. Only on this foundation could a truly scientific investigation of human society proceed.

Despite all this, Marx was a rather poor scientist. The silliest psychologist of our age possesses tools of inquiry and an understanding of the scientific method far and away more sophisticated than any method Marx could dream up. The point of the comparison with the Marxists is not to equate Marx's methods with the empirical foundations of  the signalling theory literature. The parallel that matters is how these theories are employed in political debate. It is one thing to analyze historical case studies of signalling behavior; it is another thing altogether to accuse your political opponents of signalling while they yet speak.

Consider a recent example from the Covington boys affair. I was alarmed to see so many liberals who previously railed against the term "virtue signaling" eagerly sharing a rant by Laura Wagner that was shameless in its use of the rhetoric of signalling to discredit her opponents:
As for why so many people are willing to not trust their own eyes; why they’ll readily accept the MAGA teen’s shitty and unconvincing publicist-created explanation that he didn’t do anything wrong; why news organizations rolled back reporting based on little new evidence; and why so many people lashed themselves to the whipping post in the square and begged for forgiveness, the answer is, I think, simple: These people are willing to give the screaming mob of white teens the benefit of the doubt because it distinguishes them from the emotion-driven hordes. It’s something like virtue signaling, but instead of attempting to signal that they hold any type of moral or ethical principles, these people are attempting to show that they are willing to be chastened, and so are thoughtful. I can admit when I’m wrong, they say, so you can always trust me.

It’s never good for the likes of Robby Soave or Bari Weiss or the cool priest or The Atlantic or CNN to be too vociferously on the same side as people on the left angrily yelling about how a bad thing is bad, not only because it’s not the done thing but because their brands rely on finding middle ground and pushing back against anyone who seems to care too much about something they don’t. (Somehow, of course, this always seems to land them on the side of the powerful and the privileged.) They need to be seen as reasonable and responsible and responsive, different from the frenzied masses.[8]
You see, it is always the other side that is doing the signalling.

Let's be clear about what is happening here. When Wagner accuses Bari Weiss and company of writing their apology tweets and correction letters in order to signal thoughtfulness and moderation, she is excusing herself from any need to actually engage with Weiss et. al. The same is true for most of the "virtue signalling" critiques lobbed at the left: to label an argument a virtue signal is to discredit it without actually having to respond to it. Why would you respond to it? The signaler is not arguing, but maneuvering. Their words are not written in good faith. Their appeals to reason are  merely a clever gloss for strategic, self-serving behavior. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a slave of narrow self-interest.

As a rhetorical strategy this is extremely effective. This is why we have seen it spread from the right's ideological fringes, to the centerpiece of conservative critique, and now to leftist attacks on the center. But there are consequences for intellectual life dominated by a theory that no person's words mean what they say they mean. When words have been reduced to a mask for status seeking, signalling worth, dog whistling, securing privileged interests, solidifying tribal identities, or what have you, then words have been reduced to mere tools in a competition for domination. It is foolish to think they will not be treated as such. 

When these notions are mainstreamed, civilized discourse disappears as an option. That discourse depends on taking opponent's words with good faith. It cannot abide a thought regime that insists good faith is an illusion.

The central idea of signallingthat public writing and speaking is mostly about manipulating other's perceptions of yourself—is not new. Sima Qian and Thucydides recorded examples of it. Han Fei theorized it. Scores of Buddhist philosophers satirized it. Yet these historians and philosophers could not free themselves from the hope that their readers would read their works as something more than grand signalling devices. This concern continues to the present day. Robin Hanson, doyen of modern signalling studies, fights a perpetual battle to convince his readers that none of the ulterior motives he ascribes to human sociality writ large are behind his twitter polls.[9]

This how things must be. Civilized discourse depends very much on both parties in duel of words recognizing the self-serving intentions that lie behind the other party's speech... and then deciding not to mention them. This is Reason's Pact: the bare minimum required for fruitful rational discourse to take place.

We underestimate how many institutions in our society depend on us maintaining this illusion. Jettison the ideal of 'reason' as a governing principle, and all you have left are words as war. 

Those wars will start with words. There is no guarantee they will end with them.


[1] John Garnaut, "Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China," speech given at the Asian Strategy and Economic Forum, 21 August 2017, posted at Sinocism on 16 January 2019.

[2] Karl Marx, "A Preface to the Critique of Political Economy" (1859), in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), available on (accessed 29 January 2019).

[3] Marx, "Idealism and Materialism," in The German Ideology (1845), in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1936), available on (accessed 25 January 2019).

[4] See especially Marx's "These on Feuerbach" for a broader discussion of this point.

[5] Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, chapter I (1880), in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol 3 (New York: Progress Publishers, 1970), available on (accessed 28 January 2019).

[6] Marx, "Idealism and Materialism."

[7] For the economist side, see Kevin Simmler and Robin Hanson, Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); for the evolutionary psychologists, a good example is Robert Kurzban, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) and Robert Kurzban and Jason Weeden, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self Interest Shapes our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[8] Laura Wagner, "Don't Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes," The Concourse (21 January 2019).

[9] For a recent round-up, see Hanson, "Do I Offend?" Overcoming Bias (23 December 2018). I personally find this affair somewhat amusing. "While in these [controversial] cases I have not made moral, value, or political claims," Hanson writes, "when people read small parts of what I’ve claimed or asked, they say they can imagine someone writing those words for the purpose of promoting political views they dislike." Yes, imagine that—the man who pioneers a theory states humans have ulterior motives for the things they say is disheartened to discover that many people suspect he has ulterior motives behind his blog posts! Who would have thought that might happen?