It's Not the Whipping Boy's Fault

We need cultural change to get out of this

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America is in a crisis of its own making. The lack of political will to handle any problem is sapping a once great civilization of its vitality.

No, this isn’t yet another rant about a well-known reality TV show host. He’s a symptom but hardly the problem itself.

Instead I have some still rough thoughts on some of the root issues and recommended reading.

How Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt
A good look at how democracy slowly gets strangled by both right and left wing populist movements.

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
Short advice on strengthening institutions and being anti-authoritarian.

The Social Media Age

There’s another early morning Twitter storm wafting out of the West Wing. The words aren’t the problem. The medium is.

The medium is the message.

McLuhan’s quote is so overused, that it’s easy to forget its profundity.

The problem isn’t the content of political tweets. Our current predicament is inevitable when social media is the main avenue of public discourse.

Social media engagement thrives on outrage, the extreme and the lurid. In a longer essay published in a newspaper, you’d gravitate towards depth and nuance. In a conversation with a coworker or neighbor, you’d favor civility.

We wouldn’t be much better off if the tweeter-in-chief were a left-wing populist. The radical cancel culture of the Left is just as potent of a social ill. The medium is the soil in which radical ideas proliferate.

A closely related problem is how quickly information ages. You can’t have an intelligent, resigned discussion if you’re flitting from one outrage to the next.

Breaking out of the always-on news cycle and switching to long-form journalism is the key. If you insist on social media, stay out of politics. After all, there’s nothing wrong with cat pictures and over-edited travel photos.

Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan
Don’t let the 1964 publication date fool you, this is the granddaddy of all social media criticism.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
The best guide for breaking free from social media and living a more intentional life. Bonus points for no woo or new age mindfulness.

The Tyranny of the Technocrats

Technocrats, experts and institutions have taken over managing formally political affairs such as regulating the economy. Alan Greenspan et al. were unelected and faced no consequences for reckless and shortsighted economic policy.

More and more aspects of our lives are regulated by bureaucratic processes and a vague scientism. A generation or two ago it would have been easier to directly engage with these forces.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with governance being informed by expertise (actual area knowledge not managerialists). I object to abdicating public discussion about policy to scientific authorities. Doing so has only resulted in more anti-vaxers, climate change sceptics and conspiracy theorists.

What the Left has done under the banner of science (and the right has done under the banner of simple authority) is summed up in this quote:

In the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not “how do we make that happen?” but “how do we get management to take our side?” This is a learned response, and a culture which has internalized it will not be a culture that “builds.” [source]

Hence cancel culture instead of public discourse. People with solid liberal credentials are under attack for thought crimes [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]. The right-wing populists whip hysteria over offense to flags and statues. Public debate has been reduced to dueling cancel cultures.

There’s a great lack of intellectual humility in all of this. Scientists in my parents’ generation were convinced the world was headed for an ice age. Dietary advice from the medical established has likely caused obesity and chronic illnesses.

The absurdity that’s resulted from this is that people who know nothing about science are arguing about the nuances of climate change and vaccines on Reddit. Both sides accept the premise of getting management to take our side. The more sane approach would be to debate policy. Diversifying energy sources regardless of the veracity of current climate science would be a boon.

HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis
All of Curtis’ films are solid, but this is a good start to the idea that we switched from politics to technocracy.

The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber
The author of Bullshit Jobs looks at how the proliferation of bureaucracy stifles democracy.

Antifragility by Nassim Taleb
The intellectual yet idiot and avoiding too-large-to-fail institutions are especially relevant.

Going Local

The death of local news is ripping this country apart. Most of our problems would be solved if the energy that went into national elections was swapped with local elections.

The local school board, mayor and county dog catcher (ok, not sure about that one) all have more direct influence on your life than the President.

Localism is deeply antifragile and one of the best defenses against nationwide populism (stupid people in the Cipolla sense or the Keyes Constant). The current predicament has a lot to do with trying to govern Silicon Valley and the Rust Belt the same way. Let them do their own thing.

There are no hacks

A handful of people getting off of Facebook and Twitter isn’t a revolution. Switching to long-form, preferably local journalism won’t change the world overnight.

It’s a start.

Not engaging in cancel culture, talking to people with a variety of viewpoints, engaging in the political process take time and effort. Posting memes on social media and virtual signaling don’t. It’s an uphill battle but we have to start somewhere.