Letter From a Birmingham Museum


[Ed. note: I wrote this post in the summer of 2018, the very first note published as a completely independent Epsilon Theory. Since then, I’ve reposted it every MLK Day – in my opinion, the most important national holiday of the UNITED States of America.]

As regular readers of Epsilon Theory know, I make my home in the wilds of Connecticut today, doing my best Eddie Albert / Green Acres impersonation here on Little River Farm, but I grew up just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. My father spent his entire adult working life as an ER doc at Lloyd Noland Hospital in Fairfield, Alabama (trust me, about as far from Fairfield, Connecticut as the Earth is from Mars), starting back before emergency medicine was even a thing. My mother kept their two sons from getting into too much trouble and created a wonderful home from a (quite) modest house in an unincorporated area that’s now part of Hoover.

Lloyd Noland Hospital itself is an interesting story for a brief Epsilon Theory aside. It was the old Tennessee Coal & Iron employees hospital, dating back to 1919, acquired by US Steel when it bought TCI in the 1950s, then immediately spun off as a nonprofit foundation. The Foundation sold its assets to Tenet Healthcare in 1996, and the senior Foundation executives made a fortune. A lot of the staff, both doctors and nurses, were fired. Funny how that works. Tenet flipped the hospital to HealthSouth just three years later in a deal backed by public money. Funny how that works, too. In 2004, HealthSouth imploded in one of the largest accounting frauds in American history, and Lloyd Noland Hospital was shuttered for good. Funny how that … ah, who am I kidding … none of this is funny at all.

At least the HealthSouth CEO, Richard Scrushy, went to prison for a few years. A few.

He’s found Jesus now, of course, and if you’re looking for “a dynamic risk taking entrepreneur with a powerful track record”, he’s available to speak at your next corporate retreat. Maybe you’ll catch him on Fox Business or CNBC. Or you could buy his book. Barf.

Anyway, my wife and I took three of our daughters down to Birmingham last week to visit their cousins and their Nana, and we decided to take a morning and go see the museum at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It’s been open since 1992, and I’ve only heard rave reviews. But I had never been to the museum. It’s been open for 25 YEARS, and I had never been. Why not? As my father would say, Ben, you have plenty of excuses, but not a single reason.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I had a reason, just not a good one. My bad reason: I didn’t want to be lectured on civil rights. I didn’t want to be served a heaping dish of cold spinach and feel like it was my social duty to smile wanly and say “why, thank you, that was delicious. May I have some more?” What I told myself, and this is the excuse part, is that I’m a modern, educated man. I told myself that I already knew pretty much everything that needed knowing about the civil rights movement.

NARRATOR:    He did not know.

Nope, not even close.

I wasn’t lectured. I wasn’t put down. I was uplifted.

Yes, it’s spinach. Yes, I walked through half of the exhibits with a lump in my throat. Yes, I was ashamed for only coming now, 25 years late. And you know what? That’s okay. I deserve that feeling of shame. I welcome that feeling of shame, because if you don’t feel shame you’re a creature of the flock, not a creature of the pack. Frankly, we need a lot more shame in the world, not as a permanent scarlet letter or as a bureaucratic tool of the Nudging State, but as a catalyst for the gut check that we all need from time to time. The gut check that requires you to come to grips with the painful past or the painful present and DEAL WITH IT as honestly as you can. The gut check that MUST be passed if you’re ever going to succeed or move forward with ANYTHING.

That’s what the Birmingham Civil Rights museum gives you. A gut check.

What makes the museum so effective in communicating a difficult story well? Just that. They present it as a story, as a narrative. Not a cartoon story of Superheroes, although it’s impossible to avoid some degree of hagiography when it comes to this stuff, and not a cartoon story of Social Justice™, either, although here, too, it’s impossible to eliminate completely the heavy-handed nudging of the Smileyface State. No, it’s mostly a story of … people. Of the actual lives of actual people. It’s immersive and it’s real. It creates a compelling narrative arc, but not in a way that feels scripted or forced. What do I mean? I mean that the very last exhibit of the museum is a gigantic room, filled only with photographic portraits of African Americans who endured the civil rights struggles of Birmingham in the 1960s. Not activists, necessarily, just people. No one famous. No one with a statue somewhere. A chemistry teacher. A church deacon. A housewife. Not photographs of heroic actions back in the day, but a simple portrait of how they look today. Which is … old. Weathered. But oh my god … PROUD.

And that brings me to the point of all this. Because my gut check wasn’t just an examination of the shame I felt in coming to this museum 25 years too late. There was another gut check, too. Where was my family in all of this? Because unlike the people in those photographs, I wasn’t feeling particularly proud.

I was born in 1964 at St. Vincent’s Hospital, on the edge of downtown Birmingham. I think that’s where almost everyone of my cohort and my race was born in Birmingham in those days. And unlike Lloyd Noland Hospital, St. Vincent’s is still around. Looks like it’s going strong, in fact. I understand that lots of babies, white and black, are born there every day.

Eight months before I was born, not two miles distant from St. Vincent’s Hospital, these four girls were killed in the dynamite bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, right across the street from where the museum stands today. It took 14 years to bring one of the killers to justice, 38 years to convict two more.

The girls’ names are (left to right) Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. I’d like for us to remember these names and not the killers’ names.

Twelve months before I was born, even closer to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Bull Connor sicced dogs on civil rights marchers and ordered the Birmingham Fire Department to attack with high-pressure hoses.

You’ve probably seen these photographs before. They’re pretty famous. Or infamous, I guess. What you might not know, however, is that most of the people in these photographs are children.

Yes, black children were intentionally attacked and detained by Bull Connor’s Police and Fire Departments, specifically because they wanted “to send a message”, something that seems particularly poignant given the “deterrence” rationale given by today’s White House in defense of its immigration policy, where brown children have been intentionally separated from their parents and detained indefinitely.

What’s also true, of course, is that there was nothing accidental about the Birmingham Childrens Crusade of 1963. Children didn’t march in some organic display of civil rights awareness.

Children were intentionally deployed by march organizers – “used”, if you will – in order to galvanize national public opinion against segregationist policies and political leaders.

That, too, seems particularly relevant given what’s happening with our immigration policy today and the Fiat News constructed both in favor and in opposition to those policies.

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On that note … this most famous picture of the Bull Connor era in Birmingham? It’s not at all what you think it is. The young man in the photo had nothing to do with the protest. He was just trying to get home. And the policeman in the photo was trying to restrain the dog and protect the young man, not sic the dog on him. But the photo was so evocative, so perfect for the narrative that civil rights organizers and journalists wanted to disseminate, that it didn’t matter.

Malcolm Gladwell devoted a wonderful podcast to this picture and its (mis)use, available here.

But my question remains. Where was my family in all of this?

How is it possible that all of this was happening just down the street from where I was born, just a few miles from where I would live my entire pre-adult life, and I NEVER got a glimpse or heard a word about ANY of this? How is it possible that I would grow up without these events touching my life in any way, shape, or form? Because they didn’t. At all. More directly, why didn’t my father do something … no, scratch that … why didn’t my father do ANYTHING to support the civil rights movement happening in his backyard? Because he didn’t. At all.

To be clear, my father wasn’t a Bull Connor or George Wallace supporter. He thought they were thugs. He definitely wasn’t a segregationist or an avowed racist, and – quite the rarity – he wasn’t an unavowed racist, either, the sort of man who mutters the n-word under his breath and laughs uproariously at the “jokes”. I mean, I’m not going to say something stupid like “he didn’t have a racist bone in his body”, because I don’t think you could say that about any white person born in America in 1934, like my father. Hell, you couldn’t say that about anyone born in 1964, like me. But I’ll say this. For his day and his place, my father was as colorblind and as woke in his personal and professional life as anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve got a hundred memories of watching my father act with grace and humanity and camaraderie in interracial social settings, and not one – not ONE – of hostility or a mean-spirit. But in his political life – in his life as a citizen – he was AWOL from the defining struggle of his day. Why?

I think I found the answer to that question at the Birmingham Civil Rights museum, and I’ll use the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 – 1956 to illustrate.

We’re all familiar with Rosa Parks, the seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man, and was duly arrested, tried, and fined for breaking this prototypical Jim Crow law. What we’re less familiar with, however, are the politics and the NARRATIVE of the civil rights protest that followed in the wake of Parks’ arrest.

First, it wasn’t just Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat, and several of those arrested were children.

Look at the charges filed against this 15-year-old girl – assault and battery for refusing to give up a bus seat. Look at the sentence here – the girl is declared a ward of the state, legally and permanently separated from her parents. This happened nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested.

Like the Childrens Crusade of 1963, it was no accident that a 15-year-old was on the front lines of a civil rights battle. The girl in this case – Claudette Colvin – was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and her mentor – Rosa Parks – was the secretary of the NAACP Montgomery Chapter. Like the Birmingham children eight years later, Colvin was intentionally placed in harm’s way with the explicit goal of becoming a cause celebre that would be sympathetic to a national audience.

And it worked. National media coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott was highly critical of the arrests, particularly Colvin’s. In fact, the Colvin case – much more so than Rosa Parks’ own case – was the backbone of the Supreme Court decision in Browder v. Gayle, which struck down the Montogomery bus segregation laws as unconstitutional.

But Alabama media coverage – the media coverage that my father would have seen – focused entirely on the agency of the NAACP in breaking the law. There was zero assessment or discussion of the law itself. There was enormous assessment of the de facto illegality of the acts and the intentional use of children to perform illegal acts. In fact, E.D. Nixon, the head of the NAACP in Alabama during this span, decided not to proceed with a boycott of the Montgomery bus system after Colvin’s arrest precisely because – as effective as the Colvin Narrative might be on the national stage – he thought the child-used-by-NAACP Narrative would undermine the boycott’s effectiveness on the ground in the Montgomery area. Instead, he wanted an adult to be the face of the event, and that’s why Rosa Parks, arrested nine months later, is on a postage stamp but Claudette Colvin is not.

This War of Narratives, one acting nationally and one acting locally, escalated dramatically as the Rosa Parks arrest catalyzed a full-scale boycott of the Montgomery bus system in December 1955. Just as he had chosen Rosa Parks as the public face of the arrest, Nixon chose Martin Luther King, Jr., then a 26-year-old minister new to the Montgomery area, as the public face of this largescale protest action, MLK’s first. As with the choice of Parks, Nixon’s choice of MLK was brilliant from a Narrative construction and delivery perspective. E.D. Nixon played one hell of a metagame!

The white Narrative response was pretty effective, too, though. Rather than fight the boycott on the “merits” of segregation and Jim Crow laws, the status quo Narrative effort focused almost entirely on the illegality of the boycott. Yes, I know this sounds bizarre to the modern ear, but calling for a boycott of a commercial service used to be illegal. I’m not making this up.

Let me say this again, with emphasis: only a few decades ago, you would be arrested if you said out loud that people should stop going to Starbucks or Walmart or Amazon or SeaWorld or Chick-fil-A or Exxon or Red Hen or whatever.

This wasn’t just an Alabama thing and it wasn’t just a segregationist South thing. It was an anti-Labor thing across the country. It was a status quo political thing.

The Montgomery bus boycott was defined as illegal, which allowed the construction of a VERY effective Narrative that the organizers were, by definition, criminals.

That MLK mug shot at the start of this note … that’s not from his Birmingham arrest, where he wrote his masterpiece “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, but from his Montgomery arrest, where a grand jury indicted him and close to 100 others on felony charges of “conspiracy” against a business enterprise. MLK was sentenced to a $500 fine or a YEAR in the state penitentiary. No joke. More than a year, actually. He spent two weeks in jail before the fine was paid. For his words. For the criminal harm done by his “hate speech”, as it was defined then.

THAT’S the Narrative that my father heard. THAT’S the Narrative that moderate whites all over the South heard. It didn’t turn my father into a segregationist or a racist. But that was never the intent. The intent was to take my father off the political board. By constructing a dominant and immersive Narrative where opposing the status quo was defined as criminal, status quo institutions made it impossible for my father to actively support the civil rights movement. Why? Because to act in that way would mean self-identifying as a criminal, and that’s something my father would never do. It’s not that my father was oh-so concerned about the State seeing him as a criminal, although yeah, there’s that. My father’s pack was his family, and he wasn’t about to do anything that might draw the gaze of the State, which he distrusted immensely, onto his family. The bigger issue, though, was that my father could not abide seeing HIMSELF as a criminal, and that was the meaning of civil rights activism in the Narrative ocean in which 1960s Alabama white people swam: civil rights activism = criminality.

This is the awesome power of effective Narratives and the Common Knowledge Game. They don’t control us directly, like high-pressure fire hoses and billy clubs. No, they’re much more effective than that. Narratives and the Common Knowledge Game drive us to control OURSELVES.

The goal of Narrative creation by status quo Missionaries like politicians and oligarchs is rarely to change your mind. It’s rarely to try and switch you from one side to the other side. It’s rarely to get you to vote FOR them or to buy FROM them. Because you already do.

The goal of most Narratives is to take you off the board.

The goal of most Narratives is to convince you to sit down and shut up.

In our investment lives, we are told to sit down and shut up when it comes to industrially necessary eggs, investment products like ETFs and passive index funds. We are told by trillion dollar asset managers, who just happen to dominate the market in ETFs and passive index funds, that our fiduciary fitness is defined by our opposition to “high fees”. We are told that we are acting against our client’s best interests – i.e. we must self-identify as bad guys if not outright criminals – if we don’t focus on investment fees as our be-all-and-end-all consideration. None of this will turn independent-thinking financial advisors into outright Vanguard-indexing pod people. But it will absolutely make independent-thinking financial advisors doubt themselves and their own virtue if they start to question the party line. You’re not one of those bad guys trying to screw over your clients by putting them into actively managed funds, are you? No, of course you’re not.

In our political lives, we are told to sit down and shut up when it comes to law-breaking Others, like child-using MS-13 gangbangers or Muslim-country-originating ISIS terrorists or … on the other side … statue-protecting Charlottesville Nazis or Putin-loving White House traitors. We are told by trillion dollar political/media machines that our patriotic fitness is defined by our opposition to these cartoon foes. None of this will convince independent-thinking Republicans to vote Democrat or independent-thinking Democrats to vote Republican. But it will absolutely make both independent-thinking Republicans and independent-thinking Democrats doubt themselves and their own virtue if they start to question the (literally) party line. You’re not one of those bad guys trying to screw over America by supporting the criminals/terrorists/Nazis/traitors, are you? No, of course you’re not.

Last summer I wrote a note – Always Go To the Funeral – to introduce the social and game theory dynamics in play with all of this. At the time I didn’t see how our Narrative shock collars could possibly get any stronger.

And yet here we are. The shock collars are zapping us harder and harder. Our respective yards encompassed by our respective invisible fences are getting smaller and smaller.

Red Hen … ZAP!

Child prisons … ZAP!

Supreme Court … ZAP!

MS-13 … ZAP!

Russia … ZAP!

I’m not saying that you should fight the Man, whatever that means to you.

I’m saying that the Man is very, very active in these Narrative efforts to take you off the board, to convince you to sit down and shut up as an investor or as a voter. I’m saying that once you start looking for these efforts, you will see them everywhere.

I’m saying that the Man is very, very skilled at defining your choices in ways that don’t seem at all like they’ve been defined for you. In ways that seem like common sense. In ways that seem like common decency. In ways that make you believe that YOU are the bad guy if you question the Narrative.

I’m saying that’s not true. I’m saying that you’re not a bad person for questioning the party line. I’m saying that you may still make the choice to take yourself off the board, but make it a choice. I’m saying that the sense of shame you may feel when you wrestle with these issues isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. I’m saying that you may feel alone and besieged and full of self-doubt as you wrestle with these issues, but only because that’s the way that your social animal brain is hard-wired. Not because you are truly alone.

If I could go back in time and tell my father, gone more than 20 years now, ONE thing it would be that. You are not alone. Because I suspect he felt pretty darn lonely as he wrestled with all this. I think it would have meant the world to him to talk this through with a member of his pack, to try and figure it out together.

And that’s why I write Epsilon Theory. This is the blessing it has given me. To connect me with other free-thinking and truth-seeking human beings, from all over the world and from every walk of life, who are wrestling with this most basic question: how do we make our way in a fallen world without losing ourselves in the process?

I never had a chance to talk with my father about that. Not directly, anyway. But I can talk with you. And I’ll tell you what I wish I had been able to tell my father.

You are not alone.

We are Second Foundation Partners, the publishers of Epsilon Theory, and we are committed to real change in the practice of investing and the practice of citizenship. We are an independent voice for change, with no obligation to anyone but our readers, our clients, and our partners – our Pack!

We invite you to join us, not just because we can help you become a better investor, but because ALL of us can help ALL of us become better citizens. This is the power of the crowd watching the crowd. It builds cathedrals, it starts revolutions, and it moves markets. It’s the most powerful force in the social world, and we invite you to join us in figuring it out … and putting it to work.

We call ourselves the Epsilon Theory Pack, because The Long Now is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better, and there is strength in numbers. Watch from a distance if you like, with our email updates and digests, or with our podcasts available on iTunes and Spotify.

And when you’re ready … join us!


This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things


Here’s the most powerful animal on our farm — a deer tick, well embedded, gorging itself on human blood.

Of course, it’s not the tick itself that is so powerful, but the Lyme disease it can transmit, caused by a spirochete bacterium named Borrellia burgdorferi, pictured below. As you probably know, Lyme is a terrible disease, difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat once established. Once transferred via tick saliva, the wormlike burgdorferi bacteria quickly spread throughout the human host, particularly into joints, the heart and the brain. From there, the bacteria cause symptoms including intense arthritic pain, palsy and paralysis, loss of memory and extreme fatigue. Our immune systems typically fail to create the necessary antibodies to fight the infection, due to both the antibody-suppressing qualities of tick saliva and the antibody-hiding qualities of burgdorferi. And in a process still not entirely clear but suspected to be connected to an autoimmune failure spurred by burgdorferi, these crippling symptoms can persist for years, even after all of the bacteria have been killed through aggressive therapy. This is a potent parasite, and if you’ve lived for any length of time in Connecticut, you surely know at least one family that has been hit hard by a tick-borne disease.

But Lyme disease isn’t the reason that the deer tick is the most powerful animal on our farm.

No, it’s not Lyme disease. It’s Lyme disease!.


Lyme disease is a physiological ailment caused by bacteria and injected into your body by ticks.

Lyme disease! is a mental ailment caused by words and injected into your mind by humans.

Lyme disease! is the IDEA of Lyme disease. It’s the mental construction of a world where Lyme disease and the bloodthirsty deer ticks and the grotesque burgdorferi bacteria are EVERYWHERE, an omnipresent threat to you and your children. Lyme disease! is an infectious meme, in the true and powerful meaning of the word, not the ha-ha cartoonized meaning that we see every day on social media. Memes are self-sustaining ideas that live in the human brain. They are as alive as any bacteria or virus, and they infect every aspect of our social lives.

What do I mean? I mean that families infected with the meme of Lyme disease! don’t allow their children to hike or play in our woods. I mean that the meme-infected next door neighbors have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to wall off — literally wall off, including river barriers — their 20+ acres from all animal life that can’t fly. I mean that we have been sued — literally sued — by meme-infected parents who thought their child might have “caught rabies” (not Lyme, but close enough) from petting our dog some hours after the dog found a dead raccoon. No, I’m not making this up. And just wait. I can promise you that I’ll get “well, actually” emails from meme-infected readers of this note.

What we have in the wilds of Fairfield County, Connecticut (and I suspect in every exurb in the country), is a large population of wealthy people who for a variety of reasons want to live closer to nature, but are scared to death of nature! … the memes that infect our brains about the risky parts of nature, memes like Lyme disease! or rabies! or coyotes!. It’s not that these aren’t actual dangers. Lyme disease is a real thing and a real risk. So is rabies. So are coyotes. But our social lives aren’t governed by the actual risks of the real-life things. They’re governed by the memes. They’re governed by the metagames.

I wrote about this from the perspective of the real-life thing in Too Clever By Half, where I described why the coyotes in our woods always lose the metagame. They win every direct interaction with us tame humans because they’re smarter and braver than we are. But they lose in the larger metagame because the townfolk have access to armed animal control officers who are required — begrudgingly and remorsefully — to kill the real-life coyotes when the coyote! meme infects enough civilians. The lesson for all coyotes, four-legged and two-legged alike, is pretty simple. Don’t trigger the townfolk. Yes, you’re smarter and braver than they are. You can win the immediate game. But you will always lose the metagame if you’re too visible in your “winning”. Always.

There’s a larger perspective here, too, and a larger lesson. It’s the perspective of all of us. The meme-infected. Like me. Like you.

In my eight years on the farm, where I spend a lot of time clearing brush and cavorting around tick-rich environments, I’ve been treated for Lyme disease twice. Both times I had an attached tick, so I pulled it off and went to the doctor. Both times the doctor didn’t even bother testing me for Lyme, but just started me on antibiotics, because you can knock Lyme out if you treat it early enough. Maybe I had Lyme and maybe I didn’t. We’ll never know.

In the immortal words of Remo Gaggi when he and his fellow mob bosses of Casino decided to whack a loyal lieutenant who had the misfortune to have a slight opportunity to rat them out, “Why take a chance?”

Look, I get it. There is zero upside for the doctor to make a measured calculation of the actual risk of Lyme disease. There’s zero upside because the doctor knows that as bad and prevalent as Lyme disease might be, Lyme disease! is even worse and more prevalent. THAT’S the disease that the doctor was treating when she prescribed the antibiotics — Lyme disease!, not Lyme disease. Because she knew that even if the correct and rational treatment for Lyme disease was to do nothing or carry out some more tests, the absolutely correct and rational treatment for Lyme disease! was an immediate course of broad-spectrum antibiotics. It’s a no-brainer. There’s no doctor in the world who can stay in business for long if she doesn’t recognize the memes that infect her patients, who doesn’t nod understandingly and overprescribe when a mother wrings her hands over her child’s “exposure” to this dread disease! or that dread disease!, regardless of the disease truth. This is the metagame of modern health care.

Ditto with financial advisors.

You’re not going to stay in business for long if you don’t recognize the memes that infect your clients, memes like the fundamentals are sound! and we’re cautiously optimistic! and stocks for the long haul! and value! and bet on America!, all of which are most effectively treated with a profound over-allocation to U.S. equities under any and all circumstances. It’s not that these aren’t true and real things. They are absolutely true and real, just like Lyme disease is absolutely a true and real thing. But the true and real thing isn’t what drives our behavior. It’s the meme! that does that. There is zero upside for a financial advisor to make a measured calculation of the actual portfolio risk of a client’s under-exposure to U.S. large-cap stocks, because the actual portfolio risk isn’t the driving risk! that the client is infected with. So all financial advisors overprescribe U.S. large-cap stocks for their clients. We all know it’s true. We don’t like it, just like no doctor likes overprescribing antibiotics, but we do it anyway.

As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone, this is the business we have chosen. This is the metagame of modern investment management.

But like I say, it’s bigger than that.

Five years ago, I started Epsilon Theory to talk about capital markets, and it will always be a core part of what makes me tick and what I choose to write about. But as important as it is to recognize and call out the memes that infect our markets, it’s even more important to recognize and call out the memes that infect our politics. And the human ticks who spread them. That effort starts today.

A preliminary observation before we get to the stuff that will annoy a lot of readers … everyone I’ve ever known, including me, comes at the question of memes and their influence on our decision-making from a very simple starting point — yes, they’re effective on other people, but not on me. I am smart enough and independent enough to be effectively immune from a meme infection.

No, you’re not.

If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this: we are ALL hard-wired — literally hard-wired through millions of years of neurological evolution — to respond positively to effective meme introduction. We are ALL programmed — literally programmed through tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution — to respond positively to effective meme introduction. It’s no exaggeration to say that our biological and cultural symbiosis with memes defines the modern human species. This is a feature, not a bug.

Eusocial animals (the “pure” form of what it means to be a social animal) swim in an ocean of constant intra-species communications. It’s why these species — the ant, the termite, the bee, and the human — are the most successful multicellular animal species on the planet. Eusocial animals have the ability to store, retrieve and broadcast information (yes, eusocial insects communally “remember” incredibly complex informational structures) in a way that non-eusocial animals simply can’t, and it allows the eusocial animal not only to survive its environment, but to master its environment. Any environment. Humans are essentially giant termites with opposable thumbs and fire, and that combination is particularly unstoppable. But it’s the termite-ness … it’s the swimming in an ocean of constant intra-species communication … that’s the most important of these qualities.

The downside, of course, is that we can no more resist the language of Hero! and Wizard! and Enemy! than an ant can resist the pheromones of its queen. These are the Old Stories and the New Stories alike. Memes are our greatest strength as a species. And our greatest weakness as individuals.

Memes are the stuff that Narratives are made of.

Fortunately, the human animal is a self-aware animal. For the most part. Kinda sorta. At least we have the ability to perceive our infection. Through a glass darkly, as the Old Stories would put it.

Self-awareness doesn’t mean some magical immunity to being influenced and played by the other players. On the contrary, if you think that you are immune to all this, well that’s prima facie evidence that you are not self-aware at all. That’s prima facie evidence that you are, in fact, the sucker in this big poker game of citizenship. No, self-awareness means a recognition that you ARE being influenced and played by the other players, so that you can use that knowledge of HOW you are being influenced and played to maintain YOUR personal liberty of mind and play YOUR best game.

We can’t change our nature as meme-susceptible human animals, but we can absolutely become better human animals, both instrumentally as game players and ultimately as citizens. We can absolutely NOT be suckers. We can absolutely NOT lose our liberty of mind — which is the only liberty that really matters — to the incessant meme-generation of the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

So how do we avoid being the sucker within this largely invisible poker game of memes and narratives that we are immersed in from birth, a poker game that we are biologically and culturally evolved to play rather poorly?

First and most importantly, we can simply recognize that there is a logic and a process to meme introduction and contagion in the human animal. Here in Epsilon Theory I like to focus on one powerful contagion vector — the Common Knowledge Game — but there are many others. Like all of the invisible forces that drive our lives, once you start looking for embedded memes and the logic that drives them, you will see them EVERYWHERE.

Second, we can use the new tools of AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to visualize the meme introduction and contagion process. This is what I’ve called the Narrative Machine, and it’s as useful for understanding the behavioral drivers of politics as it is for understanding the behavioral drivers of markets. Why is visualization so important? Because it taps directly into the way our brains are hard-wired. Seeing is, in fact, believing, and by showing you visual evidence of political meme introduction and contagion, you will be far more likely to accept the worth of my broader argument. It’s why data visualization is such an important topic, and it’s why Ed Tufte is a personal hero of mine. [Optical Illusion / Optical Truth]

More generally, NLP can help visualize what I described as the “cartoonification” of political candidates and political issues. From The Icarus Moment:

Cartoons aren’t just created to mobilize positive sentiment and supportive social behaviors (although that’s pretty much all we see in capital markets, because it’s a positive-sum game, not zero-sum like politics). The negative cartoonification of Hillary Clinton was both the most vicious and the most effective gambit in the last 100 years of American politics. To be sure, The Clintons™ brought soooo much of this on themselves. If there’s ever been a political candidate more ripe to be transformed into a negative cartoon than Hillary Clinton, I am unaware of who that might be. But where Donald Trump embraces and actively creates his obvious cartoonishness, Hillary Clinton had her cartoon imposed on her unwillingly, to disastrous result. Today’s key to political and economic success is controlling your own cartoon. Yes, this is why Trump won.

So what does the Narrative Machine show us about meme construction and contagion in the last U.S. presidential election campaign?

Here’s an NLP analysis of 124,000 articles on Hillary Clinton published in non-paywalled top-tier U.S. media over the year prior to the presidential election — where linguistic similarities create clusters of articles with similar meaning, essentially a linguistic “gravity model” (for methodology background on all this, see The Narrative Machine).

[all graphics constructed under license from Quid, Inc.]

It’s a dense narrative map because of the quantity of articles, but we can simplify the analysis by re-coloring the clusters by sentiment, and then isolating the negative attack memes.

Here’s the sentiment map. 20% of the articles are negative, including lots of negative articles in non-attack memes like Primaries! and Supreme Court!, 45% are neutral, and 34% are positive. Hold that thought.

And here’s the re-spun narrative map after isolating the negative attack memes:

Beyond the frequency of articles associated with this or that meme (Emails! clearly dominating on that dimension, with 42% of all negative meme articles published), there are three critical dimensions in an interpretation of a narrative network: geometry, time dynamics, and affect. The map above gives us our geometry, and I’ve found a scatterplot (below) to be the best visual representation of time dynamics and affect. Between the two graphs a fascinating meme contagion pattern emerges.

First, geometry. There’s no real information in the north/east/south/west orientation of a narrative map, but there is significant information in distance, center/periphery orientation, and inter-cluster links, all of which can be understood with a simple gravity metaphor. The greater the distance between meme clusters, the less similarity in vocabulary and grammar employed in the individual articles that comprise the clusters (less gravitational attraction between the clusters). The more central the meme cluster to the overall network, the more coherence it provides to the overall narrative (a gravitational pull exerted in all directions). The more inter-cluster links (the long strands that connect one cluster to another), the more articles that explicitly have one foot in each camp, visualizing the gravitational tethers.

What we have in the Hillary meme network is a clear outlier in the Benghazi! cluster, as well as a clear super-cluster comprised of Wall Street!, Clinton Foundation! and Emails!, with Wall Street! and Clinton Foundation! being more central to the overall Hillary cartoon-ification, despite the far greater frequency of Emails! articles. The way to think about the peripheral nature of Benghazi! and Emails!, I think, is that these memes didn’t “take” in the same immediate and easy way that Wall Street! and Clinton Foundation! “took”. To use the deer tick metaphor, whatever ticks were trying to inject the Benghazi! meme never really got fully embedded in the body politic, while the Wall Street! and Clinton Foundation! ticks gorged easily to their little tick-hearts’ content. What’s really interesting, though, is the Emails! meme. Whatever the Emails! delivery ticks lacked in embeddedness, they more than made up for it in effort.

That’s my takeaway from the scatterplot representation of time dynamics and affect, where the green dots (sub-clusters of Emails! articles) are high in affect (the x-axis, representing the strength of “emotion” in article word choice, mostly negative, but some positive, too) and almost constant in duration (the y-axis, representing time). That second phenomenon — the degree to which there was an almost constant drumbeat of Emails! articles over the course of the campaign — is particularly rare and unusual.

Here’s what a typical meme infection looks like, as shown in a histogram for Clinton Foundation!. The meme percolates in the background for a while, explodes in an outbreak of virulence and Sunday talk show segments, and then dies back down again just as quickly.

Emails!, on the other hand, had multiple outbreaks and never died down. Sure, it got crowded out by other memes here and there, as the sum-to-100% histogram above shows, but I can’t tell you how unusual it is that a meme like Emails! persisted in such a virulent form for an entire year.

In the overall narrative network, not just the negative meme creation stuff, but the entire universe of media coverage, 6% of EVERYTHING written about Hillary Clinton for a YEAR was about Emails!.

This is nuts. It’s not an accident.

And please, I’m begging you, don’t send me a “Well, actually” note yelling at me about how Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email servers was a ridiculous, mendacious and probably illegal thing, that it was, in fact, a big deal.


The Emails issue was a real and true thing, just like Lyme Disease is a real and true thing.

But you are the sucker at the poker table if you don’t recognize the incommensurability between the real and true Emails issue and the Emails! meme, if you don’t recognize how YOUR political behavior and YOUR liberty of mind was impacted by Emails! in a way that Emails could never achieve.

Mine certainly was. I was so righteously aggrieved by Emails!, thinking all along it was Emails. Emails! angered me for months. It made a difference to me. And then I did this analysis and saw how the meme was constructed and promoted. I saw how I had been played. If I knew then what I know now, would it have made a difference in my NeverTrump + NeverHillary position? No. But I’m not going to let it happen again. I’m going to do everything I can to protect my liberty of mind.

And in the spirit of in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound, here’s another sure-fire aggravating observation on the meme construction process around the most recent U.S. presidential election, this time from the Trump narrative map.

Above are all the different meme clusters associated with Trump for the year prior to the election, all from top-tier U.S. media, colored by sentiment. Lots of incendiary memes in there, right? But here’s the thing. First, the overall narrative network is comprised of 167,000 articles, about 35% more coverage than Clinton received. Second, of that coverage, only 15% of the articles are negative, with 50% neutral and 34% positive. Third, of the negative memes, none had a persistence pattern like Emails!. They all spiked and faded like Clinton Foundation!.

Trump got significantly more coverage than Clinton in major media outlets.

Trump got significantly more positive coverage than Clinton in major media outlets.

Trump suffered from no infectious meme like Clinton suffered from Emails! in major media outlets.

I’m not saying whether all this is good or bad. I’m just saying that it IS. And what it isn’t.

This isn’t a Russia thing.

This isn’t a Facebook thing.

This is a mainstream media thing. A mainstream media thing comprised of people who, for the most part, would rather rip out one of their own fingernails with red-hot pincers than help Trump, but who, driven by the systemic pressures of their business and its utter reliance on Fiat News, did just that.

So what do we do about this?

Well … nothing. Or at least nothing to “fix” mainstream media directly. I say that because I don’t think it CAN be fixed, just like I don’t think mainstream political parties CAN be fixed. They can’t be fixed because both of these social institutions — media and political parties — are not broken from an  internal perspective of institutional profits and personal agency. On the contrary, they’re thriving.

Media and political parties are institutionalized ticks, and the tick business has never been better.

Look again at that Trump narrative map. Look at all the obvious negative attack memes — SNL, Late Night TV, Meryl Streep, JK Rowling, KKK, Megyn Kelly, Russia, Funny or Die, Judge Gonzalo — they’re not red! I mean, there’s some red in there, particularly for Megyn Kelly because it linked into the highly negative (and politically effective) Sexism meme, but for the most part the sentiment of the articles themselves is neutral to positive, even though they’re part of an obviously negative meme. How can this be? Sure, Fox and its ilk are going to be neutral to positive on all this, but they’re a small fraction of the universe here. Why is the “Failing New York Times” using neutral language to talk about Trump and the Ku Klux Klan? Why would they use language like “Trump’s ‘very fine people’ remark was taken by many as an endorsement of the KKK and other white supremacist groups”? There’s nothing inherently negative in those words. Why aren’t they hitting Trump harder?

Because metagame. Because the long-term evolutionary stable strategy for a tick species is not to maximize blood-sucking and egg-laying, but to balance resource gathering and reproductive success against the minimal requirements to keep the host species alive.

There’s that word. Balance. Like in “balanced” media coverage that of course is not balanced at all, but observes the forms of the free and fair press! meme that thoroughly infects all of us, not least the media participants themselves. Like in the balance of an equilibrium.

The current state of intense political fragmentation and conflict is a very stable evolutionary equilibrium for all of these professional meme-generation entities. Ratings are up. Subscribers are up. Engagement and participation are up. The host species is showing signs of exhaustion and stress, but nothing potentially fatal. If Trump did not exist, professional meme-generation entities would have to invent him.

So they did.

And once the miracle of Trump does exist, professional meme-generation entities must be careful not to kill him.

So they won’t.

Successful ticks have the same secret as successful coyotes — they play the metagame really well — and there is no more effective metagame player than giant corporate media.

They’ve been manipulating memes for a really long time. It works really well for them.

It just doesn’t work very well for us.

We are infested by ticks.

And yes, I understand that this is a horrifying photograph. I’ve used it because I want everyone to be equally horrified by the degree to which OUR ears are stoppered up by these monsters. Because as revolting as this picture may be, all of those ticks won’t kill the dog. They just destroy his hearing and ruin his brain.

Seeing is believing. Once you see the meme introduction and contagion process, you WILL take every step necessary to rid yourself of them. You WILL become more self-aware. You WILL achieve a greater liberty of mind, which is the only effective treatment for a meme infection.

And that’s what we can do. That’s what Epsilon Theory can do. Not try to be a “fact checker”, because that’s a fool’s gig in a world of Fiat News, where everything you hear is in service to this Narrative or that, a self-serving political or economic view served up with some veneer of “fact”. No, what we can do is measure what IS, without attaching any affect or opinion as to whether it is RIGHT. What we can do is visualize what has heretofore been HIDDEN, so that we can go beyond the immediate communication game and SEE the metagame.

Because you’re smart enough to make up your own damn mind.

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