By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.Psalms 137:1-3
Each year around this time we make the journey back home to Texas.
It’s an opportunity to see family. It’s an opportunity to surrender our bodies to enchiladas. It’s an opportunity to take our youngest son to check in with the neurosurgeon who took his skull apart and the plastic surgeon who made sure it came back together correctly.
OK, I’m being a bit dramatic.
The procedure he underwent has remarkable success rates, and in expert hands has pretty low risk. Empirically. But let’s make a deal: you hand over your sleeping two-month old to a group of doctors who have told you they intend to put him under general anesthesia for three hours to cut out five strips of his skull and see what kind of stoic Enlightenment scientist you turn out to be.
But even as I say that, I know I shouldn’t. Many of you have experienced this kind of powerlessness before – and worse. After all, our inability to control every circumstance we face is, shall we say, a fundamental feature of the world.
It’s also a good reason not to turn over any more of that autonomy than we must on those rare occasions when we actually have a choice in the matter.
Last week I made a comment on social media saying that I found it really hard to dislike Andrew Yang. A commenter told me they couldn’t understand how that might be possible. After all, his policies were absurd and expensive.
Opinion gatekeeping like this is an occupational hazard. If you haven’t been informed that an opinion you expressed isn’t allowed because someone else perceived some measure of inconsistency with another opinion you expressed, then you simply haven’t said enough. Give it time. When it happens, you too shall marvel at the gaps in your views others are willing to fill in for you.
Someone else told me they were surprised. Wasn’t Yang’s use of “Freedom Dividend” the sort of Orwellian newspeak I usually rail against?
It was an earnest question. And fair. As it happens, I don’t have a problem with the branding because I don’t think Yang’s campaign is summoning “Yay, Freedom!” memes to tell me how to think about the policy. No one is positioning his UBI proposal in a way that would characterize my opposition to it as a lack of belief in freedom itself. I think the guy truly believes his policy is like a successful business’s dividend – sharing more broadly the prosperity that free enterprise brought about.
Corny, yes. Misguided? I think so. Malicious? Meh.
When we attune ourselves to the special dangers of a world we experience and understand through stories, it is easy to become cynical about every analogy, every example of symbolism, every bit of branding that abstracts the reality of something into some other frame chosen by the speaker. There is no cure for this paralysis. Sorry. The difference between the harmful, malicious use of meme to tell us how to think and what to fear, and the empathetic use of shared imagery to establish common understanding is often one of magnitude, not of kind. Of intent. No flashing lights. No klaxons.
I wrote an essay a couple years ago about this unusual challenge.
It is a lesson in two parts: Life is too short to surrender autonomy of mind. Life is also too short to see a tyrant in every poet.
We obnoxiously intone the mantras of clear eyes and full hearts because they generalize a process to evaluate something that is unavoidably subjective. Only you know and only you can judge if someone’s words or the collective common knowledge being promoted by a missionary is affecting your autonomy of mind. When we DO actively assert the belief that someone is acting as a missionary for a narrative in an objectively harmful way, it is almost always because that person occupies a seat from which we are right to demand an uncolored description of facts: The media. Government officials. Scientists. Chief financial officers.
Anyone in one of those seats who tells you how to think would carry you away as captive and require of you a song. They would steal your autonomy of mind.
It’s really that simple.
Except in most other cases, it isn’t that simple. Not remotely. Most of the stories we will be told and memes we will be subjected to in a day won’t come from scientists and journalists. They will come from friends, loved ones, colleagues, prospective business partners, community leaders and national political leaders. Or from ourselves. Some missionaries, some not. That means that citizens of a world awash with meme and narrative face two risks to our autonomy of mind: that we would become paralyzed, perceiving manipulation in every empathetic use of symbol, or that we would ignore or fail to perceive true acts of manipulation.
Both are real, but I think the second is the greater risk. Why?
Well, in small part, it’s because we already have a good answer to that inevitable cynicism when we feel like we see narrative everywhere: full hearts. Grace and mercy, and a willingness to consider intent go a long away. But the bigger reason lies elsewhere:
Because the danger of powerful memes, cartoons and narratives is not that they demand our acquiescence. It is that they demand our participation.
When we are asked to hold up our Yay, Democracy! signs, we are not only told how to think about the importance of elections and our role in collective oversight of government institutions. We are compelled to participate in voting for ridiculous candidates who do not deserve the office on the basis of manufactured existential fear. You don’t want to be to blame for Trump being elected again / the socialists destroying our capitalist foundations, do you?
When we are asked to hold up our Yay, Military! signs, we aren’t just being told how to think about the right kind of moral, financial and spiritual support we should provide to our veterans and active warriors. We are being compelled to participate, told that if we do not stand up, salute the flag and support every expenditure, every conflict, and every explanation provided to us for the same, that we are failing them. You don’t hate the military, do you?
When we are asked to hold up our Yay, Peace! signs, we aren’t simply being told how to think about the right posture on foreign policy. We are being compelled to participate, told that we must support and vote for political candidates who cyncially claim that he or she will be the one to “end our endless” wars, only to once again shift the goalposts like so many officeholders before. You don’t hate peace, do you?
When we are asked to hold up our Yay, Work Ethic! signs, we aren’t simply being told how to think about the classic American values that unleashed capitalism. We are being compelled to participate, told that if we don’t willingly invest ourselves in pointless work divorced from its underlying purpose we have somehow repudiated some entrepreneurial spirit. You don’t hate hard work, do you?
When we are asked to hold up our Yay, Alignment! signs, we aren’t just being told how to think about the right way for principals and agents to align. We are being asked to participate, told that resistance to a particular compensation model represents an opposition to alignment per se. You don’t hate being aligned with your clients, do you?
When we are asked to hold our our Yay, College! signs, we aren’t just being told how to think about the importance of higher education to a functioning, growing industrial society. We are being asked to participate, to turn a blind regulatory eye to the ever more bloated cost and administrative strucures of American universities, to support their ongoing growth through debt forgiveness, to join in the rousing chorus of “Well of course smart kids should to go to college.” You don’t hate education, do you?
When we are asked to hold up our Yay, Capitalism! signs, we aren’t just being told how to think about the indispensible role a system which rewards risk-takers has played in creating a prosperous world. We are being asked to participate, to be always-on, always-long and always-indexed in US large cap equities, regardless of valuation and regardless of potential sources of artificiality in the costs of capital for many companies. We are told to treat management teams like entrepreneurs, voting for conflicted boards, extravagant salaries for an army of EVPs and rich buyback-immunized share grants in exchange for sector benchmark matching returns. You don’t hate capitalism, do you?
Ben has already written about the way out. It’s included in one of the links above to a note called a Song of Ice and Fire. He suggests the only way for those with clear eyes to do battle against the songs used to steal our autonomy of mind is to remember that we may sing our own songs, too. There are words we can write and symbols we can revive. We can use them to tell true stories – sing new songs – about education and equality and freedom and faith and capitalism and country and entrepreneurialism and risk-taking and sovereignty.
We can create new common knowledge that, within our community at least – at first – is in fact a reflection of what we all believe and not what we all want others to believe.
We are the human animal.
We are non-linear.
We ARE a song of ice and fire.
It’s a song that has built cathedrals and fed billions and taken us to the moon.
It’s a song that can do all of that and more … far, far more … if only we remember the tune.A Song of Ice and Fire (Epsilon Theory, May 2019)
If you are interested in maintaining autonomy of mind in a world awash in narrative, This is The Way. But before we can sing a new song, we must stop singing theirs.
So deny them the mirth they require. Deny them the song they demand. Withhold your participation in their cynical game.
It’s time for the clear eyed to hang their harps upon the willows.