When I was young, a Sunday School teacher presented our class with a hypothetical.
Imagine for a moment, he said, that a criminal came into the church today and seized your parents. He took them up to the front of the church and pointed a gun at both of their heads. Unless you denied your faith, he would kill them both. What should you do?
A heavy question for a 12-year old, it always disturbed me. ‘Always’, I say, because it was asked of me more than once. It came up shockingly often, although I suspect given differing sensibilities that you might consider once shocking enough. Perhaps it was the favorite brainteaser of a teacher bored of 30 years of giving the same pictorial lessons of Zacchaeus climbing the tree. I think it was a reflection of some evangelical churches’ occasionally morbid obsession with the end times described in Revelations. There was a time when ‘What will you do when you are persecuted for your faith’ occupied much of my mind. ‘What if Jesus returns before a girl ever kisses you?’ occupied most of the rest. There was really no doubt in any of our minds that it was going to happen during our lifetimes. Probably much sooner.
The two “greater truth” statements didn’t make my blood boil, but here’s what did: The implication that Trump is somehow worse - somehow a bigger liar, a bigger widener of the gyre, is farther outside the boundaries - than Hillary (putting classified documents on her personal email server - effectively putting our national security at risk - to advance her political goals), than Elizabeth Warren (claiming to be a Native American Indian to leverage victimhood status for political glow), than what too many to be named here did to stop Kavanaugh.
I have no truck with any of them - on either side. I didn’t and wouldn’t vote or support any of them. Maybe I’m taking the easy route by being all moral about it - maybe, but what I can’t stand is the “Trump is worse than Hillary, than Warren, than Spartacus” argument. They are all the same horror show.
The right should renounce Trump and other Trump-like conservatives and the left should renounce Hillary, Warren, et al. When both sides are willing to lose elections to reclaim some sense of morality, honor and dignity, then maybe the gyre will stop widening.
Excellent. Made me recall my favorite aphorism from William Blakes’s “Auguries of Innocence”,
“A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.”
I think you might be reading implications that don’t exist, which can be pretty easily forgiven these days! There’s only two paragraphs which allude to Trump, and neither make any comparisons. Truthfully, Mark, I haven’t even thought about the comparisons, because I think that they’re a distraction and part of the problem we face.
I will be steadfast in my disagreement with your last point here. If we are playing for anything other than salvaging something from civilization here, enough of us must be willing to move even if the other side doesn’t. If we can make it safe to pursue a losing strategy, I think that we can do more than salvage and shorten the transition to whatever’s next.
You’re not alone in disagreeing with me rather more fatalistically here. I think Ben agrees with you more than I on this point, and we talk about it a lot.
I will think more about it, but right now, my “lean” is unilateral surrender won’t lead to a greater good. I think we need a temporary truce leading to more trust and, then, more incremental improvement - rinse, repeat. Also, sincere apologies for unintentionally misrepresenting your implications.
Really enjoyed this, thanks.
I second your idea that lying is the most pernicious rot on our body politic. One need only compare the lasting damage of the Vietnam War (a misadventure foisted on us through official lies from multiple administrations representing both political parties), with the effects of any of our non-lie-based wars.
Lies are the enemy of us all. Systematically dis-empowering liars would seem to be a rational course of conduct then, yet we seem to be doing the opposite. Power & money flows directly toward the lies and the sirens who sing them. We’ve forgotten how to navigate by the stars, and instead gotten addicted to false compasses.
The widening Gyre in the electorate is inversely proportional to the narrowing Gyre in the elected. Only the lies of the latter appear to be diverging whilst their actions are converging.
Hey Rusty, first time, long time…
I think your analysis is spot on. A lot of people get caught up in the need to argue who’s wrong or who’s worse. (If you think Trump’s bad, wait till you see Hillary or vice versa). I think it’s the same reason why our first reaction in a personal argument is to tell the other person they are wrong. It’s our ego talking. We want to be right. Our minds try to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance like the plague. But like an argument with your spouse, knowing who is wrong is useless. It reminds me of something Jordan Peterson says about this topic. Something to the effect of, if you are constantly arguing with your spouse about who’s right and you win, congratulations you’re married to a loser. Your marriage will fall apart, just like the country will fall apart.
Arguing is also useless because it doesn’t offer any solutions. It focuses on the past and not the future. Why spend time and energy on the things we cannot change? I think the prescription is to switch from a problem-oriented/past mindset towards a solution-oriented/future one. Suspend our egos and work towards solutions to the small problems everyone can agree on. That or more cowbell.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Thanks, Christopher - very insightful! I had not heard that Peterson bit either, but it’s spot on.
People in comments need to stop writing prettier things than I do, please and thank you! In all seriousness, I couldn’t agree more with your description. For my part, I continue to think that the false compass that steers us is the perception of existential risk. It’s the tool that never goes bad, because it works through our most primal biology.
It’s so refreshing to be able to have a framework to think your own thoughts and be able to start seeing through the fog.
I have been struggling with the “Great Brexit Debate” over here which has been emotionally challenging to say the least in exactly the same way as your “left / right” analogy above. It.Does.Not.Matter certainly helps take me to a quieter place where I can think more clearly but I’m not out of the woods yet…
Thank you again so much for your inspiration.
I’m with Mark here, Rusty. Sorry. I love your essay, but first, they’re not equal. Both sides want Power over us, but the answer does not lie in allowing acquiescence to either of them.
What is really going on with Trump isn’t support of him; most people on the Right simply thought giving him the power of the Presidency was the less odious option. That their opponents on the Left have repeatedly - viciously - called those same voters racists, bigots, deplorables, has only confirmed their decision. But I don’t believe very many who voted for Trump think he is some kind of “answer” to… well, to just about anything. Other than not giving the Clintons access to the Machinery of State. (And NB, I didn’t vote for him, either).
Second, the claim that the Media was a Progressive Propaganda Organ was proven conclusively to be true. The Wikileaks and Podesta emails put that beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement forever. There is conclusive, incontrovertible proof of interference in an election - by Hillary! And no one cares. Instead, the machinery of State goes after Trump over the leaking of completely truthful information. I would be willing to assume he knew in advance and still wouldn’t care. In fact, I would go further and say it was someone’s civic duty to have leaked that information. The American people had a right to know what was in those emails - there’s even a federal law (one of the few good ones) that says so - FOIA. That’s why she set up her own server in the first place - to avoid people seeing what she was doing.
One other thought, Rusty. I could agree with both of your propositions, not have my blood boil, and still say that one side IS definitively (more) Wrong than the other. As I look at those statements, one is Truthful - completely - and the other is only partially True, and also contains some flagrantly immoral lies, too (but, of course, that’s how the best lies work).
Hillary was given debate questions in advance on two occasions by a CNN moderator - who now openly admits it - and she faked and answered as if she didn’t know. She was even told where the audience the question would come from! That she pretended she didn’t know was a massive fraud on the American people. It doesn’t matter that it was in the Primary. The Media have responded by continually abetting that lie, covered for themselves, and foisted the myth that there was something wrong with us getting those emails - to the point of throwing people in jail over it. These are not equivalent Wrongs. One of these sides IS Wrong.
Suggesting that the answer is acquiescence to the Left is a form of injustice. It’s like suggesting that both sides of the slavery issue were the same. That was a divided body politic that makes current days seem quaint, but the answer was not acquiescence to the slaveholders. Roughly 500,000 (mostly WHITE MEN) had to march willingly to their death and kill another 250,000 (yep, WHITE MEN) to put that to issue to rest. Sherman had to cut a swath through the South and burn Atlanta to the ground, leaving widows of a lot of poor white families. I wonder how privileged those white guys and gals were?
Here’s a Trivia question to drive home my point: How many black regiments/soldiers fought in the Civil War on the side of the North? That no reader is likely to know this without looking it up proves the point about which side’s “truth” is really True. (N.B. Black soldiers fought with distinction, earned 15 MOHs, and comprised roughly 10% of the total force. They also did their fair share of dying. The bulk of the dying, however, was done by white males - on both sides.)
Thanks for reading, Dale. Let’s say that everything you say is true. Let’s say you’re 100% right.
This is another great piece by Rusty. I understand his points yet want to respond to Mark and Dale’s comments with arguments. Completely validating his points.
Your points about lying have re-energized a thought that’s been pinging around my small brain for awhile now: our culture has shifted its hierarchy of traits and behaviors that define a good, moral person.
Up until about twenty years ago, personal responsibility and integrity - do not steal, cheat or lie / act with honor / be responsible - was the first and highest set of values a person was judged upon. Doing charitable work was always in the mix of things people were taught to do, but it was a notch down on the moral scale from personal integrity.
You didn’t get to lie and (figuratively) erase it by serving dinner in a soup kitchen. In the '40s and ‘50s, my, then a-young-man, dad drove kids with polio to “outings” (picnics, a day at the beach, the circus, etc.). As kids, my generation knocked on our neighbors’ doors collecting change in orange cardboard UNICEF boxes. But those actions hardly garnered a mention on a school application or resume. Be the person caught stealing or lying back then and “you could ruin your life.” You knew to never damage your reputation by doing those things because no one would ever trust, hire or respect you again.
But around the turn of the century, a shift occurred and resumes started popping up with extensive descriptions of charity work - “built homes for the…/served in… -” at the same time I heard more and more anecdotes, loudly proclaimed, about all the charity work friends’ and family’s kids were doing. It’s why wearing wrist bands for this or that cause became so popular these past two decades. It’s why, today, you’re accosted at so many cash registers to “donate” to whatever cause that particular company is sponsoring (and will pound its chest about loudly and everywhere to enhance its moral glow…partly, on your dime).
While charitable work is great, there was, unfortunately, a hardening in another part of our culture despite the charity meme: individual integrity, while still important, seems to have been downgraded, at least, one level. Take a look a at the political continuum: an affair ended Gary Hart’s run for the presidency in '87; news of Bill Clinton’s affair - while in office (literally and figuratively) - was a storm, but he survived in '98 and candidate Trump’s affair was just one more partisan brickbat in '16.
Concomitantly, in business or in my personal life, I can’t remember the last time I heard “your word is your bond.” And while I know many young people with great morals and integrity, when they boast (as we all do), they don’t lead with their personal integrity, they lead with their charitable efforts.
Sorry, but I think this is bad and has contributed to all the things Rusty, above, and Ben and Rusty, in general, note about the widening political gyre and coarsening of our culture. I have no idea how we shift back, but part of the “fix” that we all talk about here will require a new norm (meme) that returns us to the old norm (meme) of putting personal integrity atop the morality pyramid. Maybe it just has to be a one-person-one-day-at-a-time approach.
Were we ever, and will we ever be, perfectly moral people? No, of course not. But if everyone’s gyroscope is set to worry about his or her own reputation (and, even better, if people sincerely want to be better people), then what we are willing to accept from our politicians will force them to behave better. Maybe, then, we can return to having political arguments about different ideas without condemning our opponents as racists or as people who hate their country and want to destroy Western Civilization.
And last note, I think this cultural shift was a Team Elite initiative. It allows their members to engage in perfidious personal behavior and cover it up with charitable acts or obeisance to whatever is the cause or movement of the moment. It’s why Clinton and Trump survived and it’s why Harvey Weinstein - knowing the game - tried to save himself by talking about donating money to women’s causes (too transparent, but he played the only cultural card that might have worked).
The foundations of morality matter. Our society will begin improving when everyone tends to his own moral garden first. Be a good, honest, decent, person - bring no negativity into the world / break nothing / tear nothing down / cheat no one / lie to no one - then, do good charitable work.
I’ve observed the same self-congratulatory trend in charitable acts and decided, some time back, to keep
my own giving private, anonymous, and focused on “individuals” in need of help.
There’s a deep sense of rightness that comes from hearing the speculation about who the “do-gooder” was and to be the only one in the room who knows it was your own lowly self. : )
What about the Bendict Opition? If our country is 40/40/20, perhaps we are beyond the tipping point? I have read that republics have a limited life span, perhaps 250 +/- years. Maybe we are approaching Megiddo pass the site of a decisive battle.
Isn’t the history of the world repleat with societies the coalece around a few core principles, acquire resources and grow to become empires which then crumble due to exestiental forces or internal forces?
Perhaps it is time to start anew with small communities that focus on neighbors, try not to force their beliefs upon others and work to provide a heritage to their membes that acknowledges others, including strangers, as equals before a far, far greater Other or Divine?
I’ve thought a lot about this.
My first observation is that you are right: quiet acts of goodness, or perhaps more clearly stated, a state of being that is full of integrity, seem to be given less cultural value, and are certainly less emphasized. Large acts of charity are emphasized. Greatness! As we chatted about on Twitter, Ben and I wrote about both parts of this in The Two Churchills and his latest Things Fall Apart note.
But I don’t think that there is a causal link between the two, by which I mean that I don’t think the emphasis on greatness is crowding out goodness. I DO think that moral licensing is a thing (see And They Did Live By Watchfires). But outside of some of that moral licensing, I think the root cause is different.
I think that the rise of greatness and fall of goodness is that they are BOTH symptomatic of how the world has gotten so very large so very quickly. Like no other time in history, we are constantly reminded of our own insignificance. The small-scale communities in which goodness and integrity could be acknowledged and prized, in which they mattered and provided positive reinforcement to our egos - a town, a neighborhood, a community organization, a fraternal order, a book club, a Bible study, a place of worship - occupy so much less of our aggregate social engagement. Our engagements are all simultaneously one part genuine human interaction, and several parts messaging about who we are and why we ought to be influential. There’s a lot of this in Ben’s Game of You.
It sounds crass to say that we need a reason to be simply good, but biologically, well, we kind of do. And on the surface, the feedback we get from big, public, good-sounding things rewards and reinforces in a world of 7 billion people and infinite social connection in ways that small goodness can’t. More controversially, I think the loss of religion (and its replacement with other mythologies to fill in the gaps) has been devastating on this front as well, since it has historically provided so much of that reinforcement even when other communities might not.
Our answer is always the same: find your pack. It’s not a new message, it’s the old one. Redefine your world as one in which you provide and commit to mutual reinforcement and accountability on a set of values, principles and moral standards with people you can grow to trust implicitly. Ben and I debate a good bit whether this must be - at least in part - a localist movement. I say yes, and Ben’s not so sure.
And we can (and will) rail about all these things we are observing in the big world, but I am convinced that no number of essays, no amount of self-control, no level of influence can really change this ordering of cultural values if our efforts are not grounded in a mutual commitment to accountability.
Developing comfort with the paradox of taking quiet pride in our humility is a really powerful trait to cultivate, I think! If you’ll forgive my going back to the old sources again (this time Paul’s letter to the Hebrews): let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds! For my part, I’ve found that same feeling of rightness you mention in exactly the same circumstances, and have found it an effective spur to my own behavior.
Whether or not those tipping points exist, I believe that making our own worlds smaller CAN make the big world better. Ben prefers to talk about it in Sci-Fi terms, but in many ways the Benedictines WERE Asimov’s Foundation for western civ.
Thanks, Michael. And it’s a fine line - we’ve still got to be able to disagree, debate and argue! That is a critical part of our political connection to our societies. Knowing when we are being seduced by the desire to discover and promote truth into a process of argumentation that is inherently incapable of uncovering and promoting that truth is very hard. As much grace as we can muster for one another as we muddle through this, all the better!
I’ve gotten a few emails comparing this to Brexit, too, and I have to admit I had not thought of it. It certainly makes a lot of sense that it would bear similarities. I’m even more grateful to know that you found this personally useful. Thank you, Clive!
Really good point about the loss of local community changing the reward dynamic of quiet acts of goodness. Great line, “I think that the rise of greatness and fall of goodness is that they are BOTH symptomatic of how the world has gotten so very large so very quickly.”
It makes sense as the way I saw those values work best was in small communities like a town or - believe it or not - the Wall Street partnership community of the the '80s (which is nothing like corporate Wall Street of today). Also, I agree that the decline of religion contributed as personal responsibility is part of the full package of many religions.
That said, I see two caveats. One, I want to emphasize a distinction between small, quiet acts of charity and small, quiet acts of integrity. I was really discussing the latter as the values that have been downgraded. A person can practice integrity without practicing much formal charity at all.
And, that’s not a bad or good thing, it just is. But the value to society of integrity - don’t lie, cheat or steal / your word is your bond / personal responsibility is paramount (all of which require not much charity) - is more valuable to our social ligatures than acts of charity (quiet or out-loud). Practicing personal integrity knitted communities together, in part, by breeding trust and respect and, in part, by reducing the number and corrosiveness of large and small acts of selfishness and venality.
People aren’t angry - and willing to assign the worst motives to the “other side -” because someone didn’t work in a soup kitchen, but they are angry enough to do so from the cumulative effects of the plumber cheating them on their small house job, the bank executive lying about a late wire, the doctor’s office dissembling about an appointment error it made, Nabisco hiding a price increase by reducing the size of its package of cookies*, the neighbor screaming because you accidentally drove over a small bush on his property near your driveway or someone not leaving a note after they dinged your parked car.
And that leads to the second caveat, while these quiet acts of integrity were most notable at the small community level, they “filtered up” to our larger society as a norm or meme. If you’ve learned not to lie, cheat or steal locally and to expect the same from others, you will also expect it from people at the national level. Gary Hart might not have been in your church or rotary club, but you expected him to behave as if he did because you expected everyone to behave that way. That’s why, as the local norms broke down, what sunk Hart, only wounded Clinton and hardly even dented Trump.
You are right that the loss of small communities (defining the term broadly) has undermined the value - the reward feedback loop - of quiet integrity, but unfortunately, its ramifications are much broader in scope as it caused our expectations for people outside our communities to diminish at the same time the enervating accumulation of small acts of rudeness increased. None of that is helped by out-loud acts of charity.
And that’s where we are today: we’re angry at and worn out from all the rudeness, the selfishness, the pettiness and the small acts of cheating, but we’ve also come to expect them, so our standards are lowered. We are disgusted by Trump, by Hillary, by all if it, but we don’t know how to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so we put on our team jersey and yell at the other side.
Just yesterday, New York State of Health tortured me on-line and on the phone over my Obamacare renewal for 2019 (we all know exactly what I mean: the bureaucracy pushed me around) on the same day that the cable company called four time (!) to confirm my appointment (an automated call that cost me time, but cost the company nothing, but helped it, not me) and, then, called twice for me to take a survey about my experience, but of course, the tech showed up with the wrong piece of equipment. At that point, unrelated but true, I had little patience left for understanding the view of “the other side.”
It’s not about charity as doing more of it won’t matter because it’s about personal integrity. And while, in the past, it might have been practiced most effectively at the local level, it infused our larger society with those same expectations and standards. Losing that has left us where we are today - angry, fractured and with a widening political gyre. I think it’s why seeing all this out-loud “bragging” charity can annoy me on the wrong day as it reminds me that its elevation came with a downgrading of the more-important quality of personal integrity.
“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” - Paul Gerhardt
Thank you John.
Great article and my apologies for being late to the reply section for this one. This note helped to bring forth some ideas and lead me to a thesis that I would not have reached alone.
Going back in US history, there have been three questions that have historically divided the country to the level to which there was no effective direction and the future of the country seemed uncertain. First, the Revolutionary War brought forth the question of whether the country was to continue to be governed as a subject of the crown, or would a newly formed self governing body be able to overthrow the mother country, a task that had rarely (if ever) been accomplished before? The Civil War pit brother against brother over the second question of whether all men are truly free in this country, a question that severed the country, a severance which shadow still haunts the country today. The third issue relates to the path the country would follow as it dealt with and emerged from an economic catastrophe in the 1920s and 30s. Would it succumb to Father Coughlin, the Silver Legion, and listen to the siren song of fascism? Would Lindbergh & the American First Committee be successful in maintaining the ideals of the founders and remain uninvolved in foreign affairs that were oceans away? Could Roosevelt somehow convince the people that the best move for the United States is to plunge into the fray in order to aid old allies and maintain small “l” liberalism in the Western World? In this case, the Japanese made that decision for the populous.
Although your two theses of the political right and the political left above are 100% correct and accurate depictions of the core ideas for both sides, I would like to present two different theses for both wings for reasons that will become apparent below. For the right, the idea states that there is something fundamentally wrong in the United States today, and action needs to be done to jump-start the US economy in order to make America great again, as somehow that greatness has vanished. For the left, their thesis is that of a Sanderian plea, which declares that average American worker cannot succeed given the current economic structure and that social programs such as medicare for all and free tuition are needed to help rectify this injustice.
Now, I’m a bit on the younger side (27), but I have not seen the country as politically divided as it is today. I’m of the thought that, unless an event such as 9-11 in which a greater truth that the country is under threat overwhelms the political truths of the right and left, we may soon reach a time in which another core question that will come to define the US is posed. However, I have been unable to properly grasp what that question could be until now. I’m thinking that the framework the that question could be related to the following:
What happens to the United States if the unwritten social contract of America, the American Dream (defined as the idea that should they work hard, the life of the future generation will be “better”,) is viewed to be untenable for the plurality of citizens?
Ben does a great job detailing the plight of the non-2% “Average One” in the “Westworld” note. As a result of central bank liquidity injection, stock and bond prices increased and wealth inequality grew, as wealthier families own greater amounts of financial assets. However, the pain for the average families was born from envy of those who held financial assets, but through higher rents where they lived, as low interest rates allowed for housing prices to return to prices seen in the housing boom in the few areas that had jobs available. Suffering was caused not from families regretting that they didn’t bet the house on bitcoin, but from P/E firms engineering mergers in acquisitions that led to bonuses and stock buyouts for the two percent while layoffs and higher prices of goods for the average. Before the “Great Recession,” the average ones knew that while they wouldn’t live as glamorously as the 2%, the rules of the game made sure that all citizens prospered when the nation was doing well and suffered equally in the bad, a societal cooperative game. With the Fed-driven economic recovery leading to success for the upper classes and the lower and middle left in stagnation, the narrative that has held the country together since 1946 is now in the process of crumbling. The cooperative game in which we all succeed or fail together as a nation has been broken. The cooperative game shifts to a competitive model. The gyre widens.
Now, when we look at the current party structure, there appears to be three effective wings today: the Trump-based right wing, the Sanders-based left wing, and a patchwork of centrists in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The Trumpian thesis of MAGA resonates with a lot of the Average Ones, as it acknowledges that what has made America great since the end of WWII is no longer exhibited in the nation post 2015/2016. The Sanders thesis attracts the Average Ones as well, as through it actions it attempts to balance out the competitive game by government force. The center candidates who push the status quo see there numbers thin, as they are unable to recognize the breaking of the cooperative game, and the gyre will continue to widen until they do.
I’m interested to see if you, Ben, or anyone else has any opinions or thoughts on this. This is still a very rough idea that I have been playing around with since reading your letter; one that I feel needs refinement on order to bring out its potential.
(Note - by using the term “Average Ones,” I mean merely to imply that they are not a part of the 1-2% club discussed in the Westworld note, nothing more.)
Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum