Innocent Monsters

“Another such victory over the Romans, and we are undone.”

Pyrrhus, from Plutarch’s Apophthegms of Kings and Great Commanders

 “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”

The Parisian Prowler, by Charles Beaudelaire (1864)

Ben and I have both been challenged by what to write about the events of the last week.

Writing about any of this in context of narratives can feel cheap, especially because of those who use the term to dismiss something as ‘a story that doesn’t fit my pre-existing views.’ There are eleven people dead in Pittsburgh at the hands of an anti-Semitic white nationalist. Two are dead near Louisville in an apparently racially motivated attack. At a nearby predominantly black church, there are many who now live knowing that the murderer was after them. There are political leaders and citizens, and hundreds of people who work for them, who now live their lives a little less freely, knowing they could have been caught up in the attempted pipe bombings. No one needs to read anything we have to write more than they need to sit in empathy for these people and their families.

It is also challenging to write about events like this for logistical reasons. We write about narratives, but narrative in our parlance is the cultivation of common knowledge, where a large group of people knows that they all know something. More often than not, that something is some several layers of abstraction away from what the thing actually is, or was. Establishing the existence of something like this takes time, and the events are fresh. But the seeds of those abstractions are there, and we are watching them grow in real-time. They aren’t pretty.

We are further challenged by the fact that the immediate aftermath of events like this exacerbates our emotional sensitivity. All of us. No matter how we write about this topic, some will think we are simply joining the fray when we should be above it. Others will think – a topic that will come up again – that by expressing a view, we make ourselves complicit in some tragedy. Fortunately, both of those views are bullshit and I don’t care. I’m going to do my best to tell you what I’m observing and how someone who believes in adopting Clear Eyes and a Full Heart ought to respond. So what am I observing?

The widening gyre is transforming all of us into innocent monsters.

I know this is a heavy charge. For posterity’s sake, let’s take a look at a network of the articles written about the mail bomber between the 24th and the 27th. We define this as news articles referring to ‘bomb’ and any one of the words ‘pipe’, ‘mail’, ‘Clinton’, ‘Obama’, ‘DeNiro’ or ‘Biden.’ Cluster names are mine.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

The first thing that stands out is that – and this is common when examining evolving news over short periods of time – the stories cluster strongly on a time dimension. The colors in the chart above reflect when they were published, starting from blue hues on the 24th to red hues on the 27th.  The reason for this is intuitive: stories released at a particular time reference the events that have taken place so far, and include the statements and comments made by officials, victims and others recently. For this reason, it is almost – not completely, but almost – possible to simply read this network as beginning in the upper right on Wednesday and cascading around to the upper left by Saturday.

You don’t need the raw adjacency data here to see the center of this network, the topic that permeates and connects to nearly every other cluster. You can see it right now. False Flags, a cluster of both conspiracy theories and responses to them. Only slightly behind this cluster is the network of articles linked by statements by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama telling Americans “to elect candidates who will try to [bring our country together]” and that the “character of our country is on the ballot”, respectively.

The gravity of this entire topic is formed around abstractions.

What do I mean by that? I mean the process by which we use things to stand in for other things even when the facts and a logical process don’t exactly allow us to make those intellectual leaps.

For many – maybe even most – on the political right, the story ceased to be about the story almost immediately. The story, you see, was really about the lengths to which shady left-wing political operatives would go to promote their cause and make Republicans look bad. It was really about the unbalanced treatment of left-wing and right-wing violence by a biased press. Even among conservatives who didn’t come out directly and embrace the false flag theory, most news outlets, pundits and commentators were on the defensive against any attempt to use the events to imply that this had anything to do with conservatives or Donald Trump.

For those on the political left, a story about mail bombs was just as quickly really about Donald Trump and what he had done to inflame people toward hatred and violence. Then it was about the MAGA movement. And then, in the wake of a further tragedy in Pittsburgh, we were three layers of abstraction deep, with noteworthy personalities from the political left not only implying, but directly attributing ongoing responsibility for all violent tragedies to anyone who would dare to vote for Republicans. Sure, we can pretend that isn’t really what Dan Rather is saying here, but everyone knows that everyone knows it is what Dan Rather is saying here.

This week’s events have provided a perfect synopsis of what I believe is the primary source of our widening gyre: a narrative from the political left that the members of the political right are irredeemably committed to an ‘environment of hate’, and a narrative from the political right that the media and academy are committed to a ‘maliciously dishonest’ scheme to influence how citizens think about social and political issues. These are the narratives that will govern all future engagements.  

These two narratives have incredible meta-stability and incredible polarizing power, because almost any conceivable event serves to strengthen each side’s priors. When we posit the existence of an ‘environment of hate’, every act of violence or threat, every policy that can be seen to harm one party or another, regardless of its true relationship to Trump, conservative policies or the broad conservative masses, will be attributed to them by those attached to that narrative. When we posit the existence of a ‘maliciously dishonest media’, every report with tilted language, every news report sprinkled with obvious opinions, every columnist who tries to attach every regular guy with conservative principles to psychopaths of the far right, will be seen to confirm its existence.

The two narratives will continue to reinforce each other. We will want to believe – and we will be told to believe – that speaking truth to power! or the next election, the most important in our lives! will be the solution. Sometimes they are. This time they aren’t. The more every party tries to ‘win’ this Competition Game, the deeper and wider this gyre will grow. Even when we are right, we innocent monsters will make things worse. There is no Answer to this, but there is a process:

Clear Eyes and Full Hearts. Clear Eyes to recognize and grapple with underlying truths that lie beneath the layers of our opponents’ narrative about us. Full Hearts to hold our own narratives in abeyance while we engage one another in good faith.

Good faith doesn’t mean not arguing or debating. It doesn’t mean believing both sides are always equal. It doesn’t mean not holding people, policies or parties accountable. It doesn’t mean not being angry. Furious, even. It doesn’t mean not campaigning, and doesn’t mean avoiding acts of civil disobedience. It means a longsuffering willingness to believe what other people say about their intentions. Don’t get me wrong – good faith is a terrible electoral strategy. It is, much as we might like to pretend otherwise, also a terrible way to win in the court of public opinion. But if you think, like I do, that regaining a functioning civil society is more important than the likely tangible differences in any short-term political outcome, it’s our only way there.

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  1. The rules and morals I was taught growing up were not meta-connected to anything, were not academically philosophical, were not debated and were - mainly - simply A=A. You did the right thing - you didn’t lie, cheat or steal, you helped someone in need of help, you never bullied, you paid your bills on time (without being reminded) - because they were the right thing and not doing them was the wrong thing. Why? “Because lying, et al., is wrong!” A=A. The closest we ever got to a supporting premise in my house was “how do you like it when someone lies to / bullies you?”

    “Clear Eyes and Full Hearts” has an element of that, of A=A, and, while (I’d like to think) I’ve dug deeper into the philosophy of morality than I was taught as a kid, there’s a lot of logic and common sense in A=A morals. I’d also like to believe I’ve been practicing a “Clear Eyes and Full Hearts” outlook even before Ben put words, logic and process behind it. What I wonder about is if that will be enough? If we don’t need a better plan to change the behavior at the top / to make not doing so “a terrible electoral strategy.” I have no answers to that, but was hoping others in our pack might as Voltaire’s just tilling the soil feels, I’ll just say it, a bit dispiriting.

  2. Avatar for ET82 ET82 says:

    This is excellent analysis, thank you. I wouldn’t expect to see this level of work outside corporate intelligence, fancy political-risk firms, and maybe niche defense think tanks. I only wish DoD had developed this level of sophistication for looking at opensource information when I was still around. About the closest imitation we could pull off was the COIN spaghetti slide:

    That slide is almost a decade old and we’re still in Afghanistan pretending the next election or next sit-down with the Taliban will be the solution. Fair warning – This time they aren’t – can persist for a hellishly a long time. Which of course is why we are advised to come to grips with the “longsuffering willingness” needed to meet confront such circumstances. In many ways what Rusty is saying closely mirrors what guys like Michael A. Sheehan were talking about before and after 9/11. Sheehan did a full 20 in the Army, retired as Lt. Colonel, worked for Madeline Albright during the UN years, and was one of the few raising the alarm specifically about Bin Laden before 2001. I think it was him who advised the security community to ‘believe what they say’ regarding Al-Qaida’s declared intentions.

    Sheehan ended up assistant defense secretary for special ops and facilitating a lot of direct action counterterror work, but his pre-9/11 directive for what it takes to really deal with terrorism was straightforward: Sustained diplomatic pressure, political will and courage. Three things I do not see in great supply among those who hold power and influence in the US. This makes me assume the evolution of politically motivated violence we’re seeing at home is going to be handled in much the same way that our prolonged War on Terror has unfolded. I’m visualizing trillions of dollars of spaghetti that doesn’t ever seem to stick to the wall while the sauce boils over and burns red all over the stove.

    I just learned Sheehan died earlier this year. Guess I better take a look at his book ‘Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves’ from circa 2008. Sure would be handy if that ‘Without’ part is at all possible.

  3. Avatar for ET82 ET82 says:

    You make me think of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ from Brothers Karamazov. A powerful tale about living by one’s own principles irrespective of others. Of course, performing miracles in public undermines behaviors at the top and must promptly be eliminated. But to believe for a moment that the impenetrable faith of the unknown stranger would overwhelm any Inquisitor feels like a quite a vanity. They woulda immolated every particle of the guy.

    So I guess martydom is not a particularly desirable answer either. Although the non-competitive nature of faith is occupying my thoughts quite a lot lately. Doesn’t feel dispiriting. Does feel intimidating. Anybody know where that mustard seed went?

    [Full Disclosure: The extent of my reading of Dostoevsky consists of the single chapter about the Inquisitor.]

  4. Hi Rusty, nice piece. As someone who has spent most of their adult life in Milwaukee, WI, where in 2012 a gunman killed six people in a Sikh temple, and Pittsburgh, where I used to pass that synagogue on my daily jog, it terrifies me how little this latest shooting has affected me emotionally - and that is coming from someone who tears up somewhat frequently. I drove by the synagogue yesterday and was mildly annoyed from the still massive media presence that caused traffic detours. I’m afraid that lack of feeling is becoming common amongst US citizens (it already is in places like North Korea, Brazil, etc…).

    Anyway, how would you respond to someone who has seen the scientific research showing that what people say and what people do are two entirely different things? How can you help them forget that research in the face of a need to bring people back together?

  5. Rusty, how to you resolve the disconnect of promoting “a longsuffering willingness to believe what other people say about their intentions” with your earlier claims that we should not take Dan Rather’s words at face value, and instead impute into those words an intention that may only be present in the mind of someone inclined not to read them at face value?

  6. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Enoch, it’s a fair question, but I don’t think accepting people’s intent means we must become literalists with regard to language. In context, Rather has been pretty explicit elsewhere in saying that he sees a connection between support of GOP candidates and complicity in events like this. It is a rhetorically powerful statement, and so it has become much more common to hear “blood on their hands” propaganda from both political poles.

  7. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Jason, resignation is a natural human response. 9/11 took place when I was in college. I was a musician, and was called to perform (an ugly word for it, but it’s what musicians do) at a number of memorial services - there were a lot of alumni of my school caught up in the towers. I remember this palpable feeling of emotion in the first one. We musicians connected with the crowd. There was an energy to it. A positive, life-affirming one. Then the second service. The third. It took three services to go from this solemn thing to a gig. A job.

    I’m not sure there’s a real answer to your last question, other than that I tend to think of any attempt to fight biology in analogs to dieting. We aren’t going to be able to change our wiring. We can change our disciplines. We can change our habits. We can change our processes. And we can change who we allow to hold us accountable. Everything else is really out of our conscious control.

  8. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Really interesting analogy, Thomas! I was not nearly as familiar with Sheehan’s work, but I just ordered it. Thank you!

  9. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I don’t think there’s any kind of incompatibility with a simple moral system. I’m more religious than Ben, so I frequently accuse him of stealing Clear Eyes / Full Hearts straight from Matthew 10:16. There are similar systems in other faiths that revolve around the power of both wisdom and humility, strength and tenderness, etc. All of our meta-jargon is simply more specific modern language for what these men would have been content to refer to as wisdom.

    It is dispiriting to say and hear that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The sprig of hope, perhaps, is the belief that we can change how much worse it gets, and accelerate how quickly it gets better by creating a strong enough seed of like-minded people of similar commitment to civil society with potentially highly different views on its optimal organization.

  10. Thanks Rusty. On a different note, it would be nice if a notification was sent out to the commenter when there was a response to a their comment, rather than them having to check back; or perhaps I’m doing it wrong.

  11. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Let me look into it!

  12. “Danger Danger Will Robinson!” Optimal organization may have unintended consequences even with the measured through-put of highly different civil views. We should avoid ‘you should…’.

  13. I’m sorry Rusty, but when I look at the above narrative map I see something far less balanced than you do.
    “False Flags” and “Character of our country” are both abstractions, I agree, but that’s where the similarity ends.

    Note how the “False Flags” cluster steadily repeats from the earliest days of this horror to the end of the measured period. Tellingly, it doesn’t change or fade as new facts develop (the way a natural, organic cluster would). It keeps banging away like a paid troll, whacking its spin onto each successive development.

    To quote Gimli, son of Gloin: “That is the sound of a hammer, or I have never heard one.”

    No other cluster is so clearly designed to widen the gyre of the American body politic, so clearly thumbing the scale, so clearly exogenous from reality.

    Let’s have some Clear Eyes and call this what it is, please: agitprop.

    And if that word doesn’t scare you, may I suggest some light reading on Jair Bolsonaro as a preview of we go when “the centre cannot hold.”

  14. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Good thoughts, John!

    I understand why the False Flag cluster looks that way, but the graphical representation doesn’t really convey all of that. When you drill into the articles, the early False Flag stories are pretty monolithic - a bunch of idiotic conspiracy theorists, and the media covering them. Then, once the facts are revealed, the articles in this cluster flip on a dime to people dunking on the deserving idiotic conspiracy theorists. All of that’s happening in the same cluster. What could be interpreted on the surface as a sort of weaving of the “false flag” narrative through other stories and clusters in this case, or the narrative evolving, grasping at straws to find some new ground to take root in, is often as simple as articles talking about and discussing the false flag narrative in very unfavorable ways. Don’t get me wrong - I still think it’s the center of this narrative map, but the data underneath are not as clear cut as the graphical representation presents them. The later False Flag cluster articles are mostly people making fun of it.

    Interestingly, it’s actually the OTHER, smaller abstracted narrative that evolved in the persistent, hammer-strike way you describe, incorporating kinda/maybe/sorta related events in Pittsburgh and Louisville, incorporating upcoming elections, slowly changing it from a MAGABomber narrative to a Culpable Trump narrative to a GOP Has Blood On Its Hands narrative to a A Vote for GOP is a Vote for Violence narrative. This story is now 4 or 5 layers of abstractions away from its original stories, whereas the False Flag narrative thankfully died on the vine, just in time for all of us to make fun of Jacob Wohl.

    I think this is why it’s perilous to get into ‘who is more right’ distinctions in a Widening Gyre. It isn’t that right and wrong don’t matter. Of course they do - intensely. And the missionaries of the political right clearly created narratives that were more wrong, in most cases unethically so. Agitprop? Maybe, but I think even more pernicious because of the decentralized nature of the formation of these narratives. Missionaries as propagandists are far more insidious than a government, and far more difficult to control. Yet, even as the political left was more correct, they have since taken the narrative ball and are using it to widen the gyre even further, mostly unwittingly.

    This is the core argument of the piece, which you may or may not believe. And that’s OK. But I do: Even when we’re right, if we are not careful, this environment will use that to bad ends that ultimately cause us harm.

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