I get a lot of mail. Every now and then, though, I get an email that I can't handle, that is asking questions that are so deep and so profound about what it MEANS to live in a fallen world, that is written with such keen yet unpolished first-hand observations ... that I have no choice but to publish it.
Those emails are almost always by soldiers.
There's a long tradition of the soldier/writer, going back to Xenophon and the Anabasis (March of the Ten Thousand). Xenophon wrote his chronicle 2,500 years ago, and it's as fresh and as meaningful a book as any you will read today.
I certainly don’t have the (or, probably, any of the) answers to this wrenching cri de coeur, but one thing kept echoing in my head as I read it - The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger Editorial from 1993 “No Guardrails.”
I am not promoting the editorial here as either an answer to the many issues raised or as something I personally agree with in whole, but I think it could be part of the discussion and I think T.E. would find it interesting.
Here is a link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122521124435776541
Ben, if T.E. doesn’t have a subscription, it is legal for you (or me, but I don’t have his email) to email the article directly to him; it isn’t legal, I’ve been told, to post it to a public site without permission (so I won’t). I’m looking forward to reading what others in our pack think about all of this.
I’ll email it directly, Mark, and thanks. Very much on point.
One big point and one little point.
The big point is that commenters shouldn’t feel compelled to make a big point about this post, or to come up with an Answer. If there’s one thing to get out of Epsilon Theory, it’s this: no one has an Answer.
But we do have a Process - Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose - and that will be enough.
The little point is about Process, in particular the need to see the Metagame as part of having Clear Eyes. In my experience (and maybe it’s just that, which is why I’m posting more broadly), I find that vets tend to be poor metagame players. They’re very earnest and very direct in their business environment interactions - I would say too earnest and too direct - and it doesn’t serve them well in the larger metagame of career-building. Curious to know if anyone else would agree or disagree on this.
It appears the first soldier pulled himself out of the system while the second soldier is trying to reintegrate back in. People like the readers of Epsilon Theory are a special sort. We kinda recognize the “matrix” that makes up the fabric of society, yet we cannot bend it to our will. We can’t wish for ignorance either. Soldiers discover this through the context of war which makes it all the more challenging.
I’ve personally found that understanding more of this “matrix” that makes up the nature of humanity actually gives us freedom, but not in the traditional sense. It gives us freedom of choice because the choices we make are actually our own. We understand the consequences of our actions (as much as we can) while majority rarely does. If we have a goal in mind, it’s actually attainable in a very meaningful way through this authentic version of choice.
With this choice, I’ve personally resolved to “love my neighbor” but not in the hokey sense. Rather, I’ve resolved to love my neighbor, even in the irrationality of their humanity, even in their limitations (although, I too am not without sin, in need of forgiveness). They truly don’t know better and for many of them, they never can (biological limitations are real). But it’s okay because I love them. And when it’s time, I’ll show them a little more of “the matrix” if they want, if it helps.
When I take this resolution to the sum of the entire population, I realize that one person’s entire life can only conceivably convey one message for all of humanity to absorb. You can influence individual people very deeply whether it be your wife, your children, your close friends. But as you reach farther and farther out of your personal circle, anything you have to offer gets attenuated. This leads to feelings of insignificance, helplessness. But the reality that by understanding the “matrix”, you have one real message, one concept, one idea that can actually make the world a better place. It’s because you actually understand what needs to be done. But you only get to make one cosmic chess move in this grand universe.
So what would you be willing to spend the rest of your life telling the world, even knowing that you may fail? What is the one thing you wish your family, your friends, your enemies, even strangers knew that if they understood this one thing, all of humanity would move one step in the right direction. Once you have this single message, you can design your course of action around it.
It’s the best I’ve got. Thanks Epsilon Theory for the opportunity to contribute.
Your commentary spoke volumes to me, a Navy retiree who’s a few decades further down life’s road (and much closer to journey’s end) than you are.
Here are some random reactions and thoughts.
By relentlessly searching for the voices to whom you “could assign some measure of trust” you’ve discovered one of same keys that I have. My list of trusted sources is very different from yours, but the process is the same and that’s what counts. Obviously, our lists overlap to include Ben Hunt and Rusty Guinn. Since you’re a pack member, I’ll extend trust to you and get to know some of your intellectual mentors.
Re the political, especially since the 2016 watershed: I find it more and more meaningful to focus on the local while keeping a weather eye on the global and national. I reside in a politically “progressive” corner of my home state and have spent the past couple years paying close attention to what’s happening in this small democratic laboratory. I now know the perpetrators of oppression, from both political parties, by their names and by their votes. For me, political sanity lies in the local and the specific. When action is needed, I align with fellow citizens to try to make incremental change. (Or at least, to raise our voices against unfairness or wrong-doing.) I’ve abandoned hope for a remote, abstract messiah like Senator Sanders.
Re the financial. I aspire to independence as I age. That means not doing stupid stuff with my carefully accumulated financial and real property. Ben’s explanations of game theory and narrative have been golden. As an idealist who swore to protect and defend an abstraction called the Constitution, I need his gimlet eye and unromantic version of the metagame.
Our dream when we took Epsilon Theory independent was to find voices and wisdom like Jane’s. This is solid gold.
Eric knows his “I am.” Beautiful.
I have always felt more comfortable standing on the outside of common discourse, observing in. Few of the developments I have witnessed in the world-narrative over the course of my adult life has made intrinsic sense to me, the spark of questions rather than answers. But questioning the narrative is often a lonely position. Fortunate and privileged enough to have, mostly, avoided the gyre of economic and social hardship bestowed upon many by the self-absorbed few, my despair of what we have become is more for a fear of the world my daughters will inhabit than my own. Sitting in Norway, it would be presumptuous of me to expect more than a distanced view of the deterioration of the Empire, a land I have lived in and whose people I have had a long-standing love affair with. But what happens over the pond will also shape us, as it has done for the entirety of the modern world.
These letters, as well as the totality of Ben and Rusty’s work, invokes in me a feeling of belonging and companionship. I think that in the pack I have found some of my people, albeit ones that seem staggeringly better read than myself. The goal of this ramble, and as it is early Sunday morning, I do not yet presume that my mind had a goal in commenting when it started, is perhaps nothing more than to let you know that you have a friend on a distant shore, who reads and cries and fights with you and who believes in you. And one that would happily sit down for a beer with T.E as well as you other magnificent people.
Your observation of vets is, IMHO, spot on. The ones I went to school with and have worked with have both an earnestness and directness (especially the closer in time to their military experience that they are) that is great at assigned short-term goals, but struggles with the, sadly, chess-like thinking (the metagame) needed to manage a career.
Not coming from a family of professionals, and while never having served, I was taught a similar approach of honesty and directness (“work hard, be honest, do as you are told and it will be recognized”) that it took me several years to realize would only get me a few rungs up the ladder. As with anything in life, you either learn, adapt and advance or hit your level and plateau. Former vets might be “handicapped” at first or not - those metagame impairing traits are, as noted, good at getting one up the first few rungs - but many realize the new game and adjust and learn how to play it.
But here’s the bigger ET thing about this - you can learn the metagame without giving up your honesty / without giving up who you are. Will you ever fully “fit in” to Corporate America that way - probably not. I didn’t and don’t - but you fit in on your terms and it will work. You might have to go through a few organizations or areas within an organization to find the company, manager or sleeve that will accept you on your terms, but it/they exist.
And while you might not be known as the best “company man or woman” or as a “perfect” employee, you will be respected - “he’s a bit odd, but you can trust him,” “he calls it too straight sometimes, but he gets things done.” And, lastly, and this will be the true reward - when looking for work (and who hasn’t in the last three decades in finance), you’ll find a lot of people who will go to bat for you / will put their reputations on the line because they know you won’t embarrass them / you won’t let them down with your words or deeds later. When you see that support - even from people you’ve butted heads with - you feel pretty good about how you’ve conducted yourself.
I’ll say right up front that I don’t have anyone else’s answer. I don’t know anyone else’s truth.
For me, the assumption of a social contract was also a point of great confusion. I joined the Navy, in part, to fulfill my part of it. Even in the 80s I could see the beginnings of abandonment of it by those in power, but I didn’t recognize that then. We now seem to be in headlong flight from whatever unwritten social contract I thought I was part of when I joined. The idea of service instead of self-service seems to have gone out of American politics. Perhaps this is a long cycle; perhaps it’s part of a permanent decline. I don’t think we can see that from here.
I had a choice when young between medicine and law. I chose medicine because it was about real stuff, and, even then, law just seemed to be elite people arguing about stuff they made up. Now, unfortunately for my daily piece of mind, I don’t see medicine as much different as I saw law back then. I have no idea where you can best serve, T.E.
Politically, I’ve abandoned the two part system and am Libertarian. I’ve met two broad groups of people who so identify. One, I call small “l” libertarians. They want their rights, their money, and their guns and have realized that they need to engage in political action to secure them. I’ve also met big “L” Libertarians who are motivated by everyone’s rights being secure and figure theirs will be ok if they take care of that.
I’ve got no advice for you, no blazed trail that I’m on that I can invite you to join. Sometimes the next right thing is just finding out who’s the pack you want to travel with and see where history takes them. This may be one of those times.
Thank you so much for that link, Mark. Remarkably prescient.
Glad you enjoyed it. This line from T.E.'s piece is what started Henninger’s article pinging in my head: "When did this all happen? Wasn’t somebody supposed to be guarding the walls of our social contract while my generation was still crawling towards maturity? "
“And most of the teenage girls in the Midwest who learn about the nuances of sex from magazines published by thirtysomething women in New York will more or less survive, but some continue to end up as prostitutes on Eighth Avenue.” We’re supposed to infer cause and effect here? The Devil Wearing Prada made her do it??
Yes, I’m a WSJ subscriber and yes, I make a point of regularly skipping its editorials. This sententious and superficial recitation of cherry-picked history is a good example of why.
[ed. note - from @jonboguth]
I’m a Twitter follower, not a subscriber, and saw your post on T.E.’s plea for guidance. The Jane VanFossen reply in the comments resonated with me (“By relentlessly searching for the voices to whom you “could assign some measure of trust” you’ve discovered one of same keys that I have. My list of trusted sources is very different from yours”).
One of the best things about Twitter is the ability to self-select our own trusted voices, rather than being at the mercy of professional newspaper editors for what they think is worthy. JVF and many of the others read ET surely engage in that practice, even if not all see that that’s what we’re doing.
My comment to T.E. is to add to that list. Maybe a voice that resonates with me would help someone else who hasn’t heard it. I have plenty of disagreement with everyone I read, the below recommendations included, but there is more to be learned from these voices than there is to be ignored.
Slatestarcodex.com - so much gold there. See the about/top posts. I would commend him to I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, particularly in light of ET’s Things Fall Apart.
MrMoneyMustache.com - a call for radical departures from the typical lifestyle, and finding what makes one happy. Disguised (openly) as an early retirement blog. He also has a “Start Here” page.
SamHarris.org - He is one of the clearest thinkers I know, and his project is ours: improving our world by avoiding things that will create unnecessary suffering, and moving toward what he calls “peaks” on the fabric of our “moral landscape.” His book of that name was great. I know his atheism is off-putting to many, but it shouldn’t cause people to discount the truths that he finds in the course of his public conversations.
Jon, have you checked out the Sam Harris/Jordan Peterson long-form discussions on YouTube? Highly recommended. Jane
I’ve been wrestling with how to respond to this post for the last several days. I was the first poster on the original “Clear Eyes, Full Heart” post and this letter struck my heart deeply. It’s many of the things my wife and I have struggled against, without the massive benefit of some of the gifts we’ve been given. It’s both a reflection of some of my worst fears about our nation and where we’re heading alongside the things that I think made us great in the first place. T.E., my heart goes out to you. I have no answers, but I’ll try to share some of what I’ve learned.
First, I preface everything I say with some background. We’ve been blessed, our story is NOT the story of most simply because the advantages and access we had are not broadly available. Take anything I say in this context. My wife and I come from pretty simple backgrounds. However, we were both smart as whips and through the sorting mechanism that strains the best and brightest out of most of our communities we found our way to Princeton for undergrad. I paid for it through an ROTC scholarship. I made my way through the Army from 2005-2009, most of my time spent in Iraq. We both ended up and Stanford (her for Law School, me for Business school) and spent about a decade out in San Francisco. She worked for the biggest of big law – Jones Day. I spent my time in big consulting (McKinsey) and then tech (LinkedIn). We made a good amount of money out in SF, a lot from our jobs, even more from timely investments in SF real-estate. Not things that are incredibly duplicable.
3 years ago, we had our first child (a little girl), and decided we were wasting our lives. We set out to achieve some level of financial independence to enable us to leave our life draining corporate jobs. We succeeded to a degree. We were able to quit our big-law/big-tech jobs and moved back to my home town of Kansas City early last year.
So with that background, let’s talk.
First, why do we feel so unmoored? Ben pointed out in an earlier comment that Soldiers make particularly poor players in the game we inhabit. You’re feeling the brunt of this. I felt it. Many of my veteran friends have felt it. The world makes no sense, but it REALY doesn’t seem to make sense for those of us that wore uniforms and carried rifles. Why?
I’ve struggled with this question since I came back from Iraq. I’ll try to put the shapes of the understanding I’ve found in terms that other ET readers can comprehend. Soldiers (and cops and firefighters, etc.) are the ultimate creatures of the pack, but we’re not wolves. What are we? We are sheepdogs. We’re the protectors, the ones that guard the borders of things, we’re oath-swearers and honor-bound. We lay down our lives and loyally obey masters. Masters that we always trusted would send us in the right direction to protect our vulnerable pack. A pack that we love intensely. We now seem to find ourselves in a world in which those masters have betrayed us, gone crazy. They sold the farm, slaughtered the sheep, and are now entering us in a dogfighting competition. The loyal sheepdog that used to sit in front of the warm fire when he wasn’t guarding the flock with his life can’t even comprehend this change in the world.
As for the lack of success, I’ll use another ET metaphor. We’re also the consummate stag-hunters. We join our strength to thousands of others, subsuming our egos in service of greater causes, believing that this is the best for all. The concept of going out to hunt rabbits never even crosses our minds. It just seems so stupid and shortsighted. We now find ourselves in a world populated by rabbit hunters. The rabbit hunters can barely contain their laughter when we suggest that it might be worthwhile to pursue some bigger game.
Animals of the pack that protect and obey and stag hunters don’t do so well in a world populated by raccoons, coyotes, and rabbit hunters.
So what do you do? As many others have said, there’s no answer. Not one that’s going to work for everyone. Most ‘answers’ someone is going to give you rely on assumptions that almost never hold true outside of narrow circumstance. I could tell you to follow our rough path – “Achieve financial independence and bail out of corporate America.” – Bullshit and malarkey. That’s only applicable if you already have a super high paying job and a pile of investments. Good luck to anyone else trying to get there in a reasonable timeline.
Best I can do is a rough process – get close to actual businesses and organizations helping actual people solve real problems. Get close to reality. As Ben would say – go short on abstraction.
That process is going to look very different for everyone. But it starts with finding something real in whatever place you call home. I’d recommend against trying to find it in anything that seems to aim at “changing the world”. Avoid national politics (I considered running for Congress when I first got back to KC, short answer, don’t get involved with anyone trying to do that). Find real people doing real shit and help them do it better. Find some stag hunters in this rabbit hunter’s paradise. The only place to find those people are around small, local projects and problems. The big national stags are just way too big – they only attract the worst of the charlatans at this point.
In practice, what are we doing? My wife joined a small (three attorney) law firm working with small businesses. I joined a startup but will be transitioning to a local real-estate management/investment firm in the near future. My wife and I invest in local businesses that need small capital infusions (think local brewer who needs new machinery). We’re trying our hand at starting our own little business helping actual people in our community - in the process of opening a couple Coder School locations (Hansel and Wayne are great people). A lot of our stuff is premised off having some resources that many don’t, but the process is what I recommend. Go local, go small, go concrete. Go short on abstraction.
So much of this sounds so familiar. I have a similar combination of “ardent loyalty and stark realism”. I desperately want a community I trust with a shared goal I believe in. Give me comrades and a good cause and I will give you everything I’ve got. I’ve spent most of my life so far joining organizations in search of this, only to be disappointed. I point out dysfunction and inconsistency in good faith, I raise concerns in open forums for the group to tackle, and I become a problem real fast. I am practicing, with much discomfort and uncertainty, the process of carefully evaluating people before giving them my energy, and evaluating them even more before giving them my trust. It means going slow(er), which is hard for me. It also means I have to value myself enough to disqualify people, which is also hard for me.
As for that liberal notion of “normal” that’s never coming back: I continue to learn that some people simply will not engage with the systemic collapses we’re facing. Trying to force these people to reckon with what is happening will only make you both miserable. Instead, connect with other people who are already engaged, already reckoning. One of the best things I get from Epsilon Theory is a sense of connection to people who aren’t looking away, but also haven’t collapsed into despair or bitterness.
I’m also wondering how to do work that actually has meaning. I’m not a vet, but I come from a blue-collar family and a long line of alcoholics, and my clever brain got me into a fancy college. I went into software engineering because I thought it would help me help others. Now I have a nice job with nice people where they serve me breakfast every day. Last week we had an avocado toast bar. Gallons and gallons of avocado. We didn’t even have to cut them open or take out the pits. I’m building a data lake (don’t even ask).
What am I doing here?
I never intended to stay at this job, and I know it is time to move on, but where? What would be meaningful to work on at this point, as things fall apart? Per Eric’s comment, I don’t have one thing I want to say. I have about 20 things I’d like to say, and I also just want to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and scream.
I do have one bit of…advice?..caution? I spent the last 3 years of my marriage being the “practical one”, the one who held down a job while my husband tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. In my case “practical” really meant “trained from birth to put my needs last and sacrifice myself for my loved ones”. I had just as many questions and doubts and shattered expectations as he did, but I shoved them in a box to ensure our survival. The pressure of being the only reliable source of income, and the resentment at not getting an equal chance to flail around, wrecked hell on our marriage. We made a mess of it. I don’t know you, or your wife, or your life circumstances. My experience may have nothing to do with you. But just in case, it might be worth checking in with your wife about what it is costing her to be the practical one in this collapsing world.
I’d like to second everything Molly says in this note, especially the bit about checking in with your wife. There’s no substitute for having a partner there in the foxhole with you, and even less of a substitute for BEING that partner.
[ed. note - from Justin E.]
I recently discovered your site. I have found it intriguing and also found many of the ideas useful. For example both emails reference the common knowledge game… everyone knows things are falling apart even if they can’t articulate it yet. We seem to be stumbling towards a modern day Archduke Ferdinand moment. Something that in retrospect will be so obvious, and so avoidable. As our current institutions fall apart we look for the man behind the curtain… there must be a “they” or “them” behind all of this. It easy to see why conspiracy theories and the like are gaining traction. It is deeply unsettling, to acknowledge that when we look behind the curtain we find nothing. There is nothing steering the ship. Just a complex system of variables, interactions, feedback loops, and emergent properties that defy our ability to comprehend it all.
Thats the macro level, but what do I do about it? Can I realistically even influence the macro level? The question has taken on more urgency as I welcome my son into the world. As a long time martial artist, the thought that comes to mind is survive first, or the common saying in Brazilian Ju Jitsu “position before submission.” As I’ve looked around the world I see no safe harbor. The same forces tearing America apart are at play across the world, and it is questionable that any of the places which are thus far withstanding those forces can continue to do so.
I also find myself asking if mere survival is a life worth living. Where do I choose to take a stand? What hill am I willing to die on? How do I have a positive effect on the world? We as a species have been asking these questions for millennia, it may be unrealistic to think that we will find the answers now, or perhaps asking that question is the answer. Strip the rest of it away and our common humanity is one of the few things we can fall back on. Our humanity has the potential for both positive and negative. In response to the question posed in the second email, each of us can choose to be a force for positive whatever our sphere of influence ends up being. Perhaps that is enough on the personal level.
At the macro level it is clear that we need new ideas. Its my opinion that there is a collective desire for new ideas. Our lack of collective imagination is leading us to rehash old arguments, while forgetting timeless truths. If there are new ideas they are not well formed and lack missionaries and a easily understood narrative. We are a unique species in that we construct the rules for the reality we inhabit. We can build structures and algorithms that result in positive outcomes - a daunting endeavor. I don’t know the answers, and I suspect such and endeavor requires a collective effort. I think there are pieces to the puzzle which can be found in philosophy, biology, AI and technology, and sociology. For example, do the complex ecological systems found in nature offer any insights into how we might synthesize AI and decentralized systems to create better societal outcomes. Perhaps the conversation is a good starting point.
[ed. note - from Greg H.]
The author several times makes statements like ‘hiring managers can tell that I’m not well-suited to just pretend we can patch-work our way along until a liberal notion of “normal” returns via the ballot box’.
I think the problem is the hiring managers have consciously picked a tribe.
Perhaps he should create his own tribe. I suspect there are a large number of current and former service members that feel like him. Many probably cannot articulate the situation as he can.
The first pack is the pack of one: you have to get your own house in reasonable order to be of value to yourself and any larger pack. The second pack, for me, formed when I met my girlfriend 21 years ago. We have both been the practical ones at times supporting the other as it natural fits. The third pack is the pack of friends that you have - for me, that is a very small pack that has culled all the negative energy people out and that is all but effortless to maintain as we all have a similar value system (not talking politics, talking core right and wrong / decency / honesty values) and outlook (despite incredibly diverse backgrounds). I’m hoping ET will be the fourth pack.
This is wonderful.
[ed. note - from Jesse H.]
Hi T.E. - I found your email very eloquent and moving, and I wanted to weigh in on a couple of things you said. First, I want to say that with soldiers and citizens like you, I feel more hopeful about the future of our country. While many challenges exist at all levels of government and society, I would urge you not to take your eyes off of an eventual focus on public policy. You may well make a great congressman / senator / other kind of leader one day. Specifically, I would hope that those among us with your level of sincerity, thoughtfulness and intellect would aim high, come hell or high water. God knows we need you. Please know that.
Secondly, after reading and reflecting more deeply on your comments, my gut sense was simple and heartfelt — you might want to consider writing a book or other literary piece (or series of pieces) communicating what you have said here in a more fleshed out fashion. America needs more people like you to be heard, and your story and reflections are profound. I know many people who would enjoy and benefit from hearing your story. It is powerful on quite a few levels.
Why write such a book? Wouldn’t such writing simply be another abstraction and distraction from making a “real” difference in the world? To the second question, I would say yes and no - yes, it is an abstraction in a sense from daily humdrum activity and immediate economic contribution, but no it is not a distraction in any sense. It is more of a concentration of the mind and an act of focused reflection - too many of us piddle away our time in do-nothing, paper-pushing jobs which have no real bearing on the American mind or the American economy. You would be shaping at least one of these in potentially real ways.
To the first question, it is in the act of writing that your next steps may clarify themselves. This is especially the case if we go in with “clear eyes and full hearts,” to quote Ben’s article. Writing is a paradoxical act of unravelling and consolidation which is both conscious and subconscious, in my view. I reckon that many things will come up which you did not at first expect, once you seriously get stuck in. Only thing to keep in mind, of course, is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint…and so results may take time and there may be a daily grind. Again, to quote Ben’s brilliant article, “it’s a process,” not a product.
Finally, my own sense, from having looked at quite a lot of writers at “great” universities over a decade ago now, is that you have a gift. It is pretty cool to behold, and I’m willing to bet I won’t be the only one who notices (in fact, I know I’m not, since Ben already singled out your email for publication).
Sorry for the long comment and hope you found this useful.
Wishing you all the best with whatever you pursue.
-JH, United Kingdom
[General note from T.E] I have since been added to the pack and will make time to respond in kind to all the voices here. The responses truly are wonderful and thoughtful which is exactly what we can hope for. If anything, the internet does facilitate for disparate individuals to connect across otherwise insurmountable distances/experiences. Generating sustainable community value across that expanse is still very tough to pull off, and like anybody else, I’ve arrived here with earnesty and modest expectations. Good things can happen, let’s see.
The purpose of my letter to Dr. Ben was specifically seeking advice around pursuing a type of employment in the federal service. On his recommendation, I agreed to withhold using my full name for the time being. I welcome anybody who challenges that decision as I very much believe we’ve arrived in a time that demands far more speaking out despite the excommunication it can trigger from legacy institutions.
Now I know where the use of ‘no guardrails’ came from. Hat tip, Mark.
It is always instructive to learn about another one of the waypoints from the past which continues to influence the present. My reading of ‘No Guardrails’ makes it out to be an excellent example of how individual actions or personal behaviors can be deliberately conflated to camouflage larger structural faults which significantly influence horrific outcomes. A sentence that immediately jumped out at me: “In our time, the United States suffers every day of the week because there are now so many marginalized people among us who don’t understand the rules, who don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.”
My brain immediately rephrases: The United States suffers every day of the week because there is now so much concentration of power among those who don’t acknowledge any rules, who don’t think that rules of fair play or social responsibility apply to them, who have no notion of limiting individual self-gain.
A lot of my bewilderment about the present state of affairs derives from looking at the intense consolidation of economic and political power in America. This relates also to where ‘social contract’ is used in my letter, as I am picturing the largely expired deal that was on offer to many working Americans in the latter half of the 20th century. As the story used to go, if you work hard and play by the rules you can create a life for yourself and your family. This deal certainly wasn’t available to all working Americans, but certainly was a real thing not that long ago. I don’t believe that broad cultural shifts in personal behavior or lack of self-control are significantly responsible for renegotiating that bargain with workers. Yet there certainly have been shifts in economic incentives which have promulgated a lack of institutional restraint and control. The example of lenders peddling sub-prime mortgages who were prodded on by entities creating labyrinthine securities that were marketed by ratings agencies being paid to promote such products and on and on to the detriment of our entire economy is damning enough. Where was any adherence to rules and restraint within the supposedly upstanding and responsible financial-political establishment?
Out of curiosity, I ran a search for Henninger and find that he continues to write interference to this day for powerful interests. Henninger’s article on Sept. 24th regarding Kavanaugh reminds me of Dr. Ben’s recent note on the same (http://www.epsilontheory.com/schrodingers-senate-hearing). Of course, Henninger argues that the cat only dies if Kavanuagh does not get confirmed. He is not prepared, or rather, his salary almost certainly depends upon not acknowledging the quantum-state of politics we have transcended into.
After looking up ‘No Guardrails’ another editorial that struck my mind was Buckley Jr.'s soul chilling ‘Why The South Must Prevail’ from 1957. There is a version of it is currently available here: https://adamgomez.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/whythesouthmustprevail-1957.pdf
In it, the very fine person of Mr. Buckley makes a rather compelling case why self-restraint and control, up to sanctioning the use of violence, do not apply in defending one’s civilization against the intrusion of an inferior human presence. After reading the piece, the warning from Maya Angelou was truly welded onto my understanding of America: “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.”
My tendency is to also to avoid high profile editorializing in the present era. This crosses the board from the likes of WSJ to the more eloquent technogrifters installed at The Atlantic. Minus those smaller holdouts and independent gambits trying to produce hard nosed reporting, almost any publication or information source that still upholds a pretense of objectivity comes across as increasingly absurd to my eyes and ears. However, I have to admit that Megan McArdle’s faultlessly civilized viciousness really is an impressive achievement of prose. She can almost make one believe that prudent protective measures against deadly building fires are a wasteful theft from property owners because renters could potentially lose their lives in some other unrelated manner.
I largely agree with this point, and there is an unfortunate misalignment of the value veterans can bring and the underlying interests of contemporary corporatized America. I am most dismayed to discover that my local public sector is not particularly committed to capturing that value. Although I believe this also has much to do with competition for what are perceived as the scarce supply of virtuous stable jobs among those who are not interested in working for private industry. It was sobering to read that nationwide ranks of state and local civil servants are equivalent to levels in the late 60s. (https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/nation/public-sector-employees-are-losing-their-foothold-in-the-middle-class/)
My exposure to the non-profit sector to date is very similar, where the metagame largely revolves around attracting philanthropic funding sources or servicing grant requirements. Surprisingly the private sector, including some large names within corporate America, are doing a better job at grabbing up veterans and converting them into productive workers. It can be one of those win-win moments earning good PR and getting a high-value employee. But this only works for veterans who are primarily motivated to earn a living in industry and are not greatly disturbed by the contradictions of global security.
For myself, I am relatively aware of my penchant for being forthright and I think I wrongly expected it to be recognized at my local level for being something valuable. The most compelling opportunity I interviewed for this year was to work for my U.S. Senator who happens to be among the few lawmakers that are willing to risk some leadership on vitally important matters. But revealing my level of concern about the world we exist in was not regarded as particularly valuable in that setting. The core job was to assist in public appearances around the state and therefore the job was above all about positive engagement with voters. Already today I would not approach such a job opportunity in the same manner, however, I am questioning if supporting existing electoral politics is really something worth pursuing. The capture of both major political parties is so extreme that I am reassessing what feels like a situation that is going to devolve into a more severe confrontation. Dr. Ben’s series on Things Fall Apart is affecting my thinking along those lines.
Where then to turn from here? I can play a metagame if I believe there is a generally good reason for doing so. I am very at sharp odds with our legal system but seriously consider doing that training nonetheless. Alternatively, law enforcement in the US is particularly rife with moral hazards but I do not avoid it for that alone. Emergency management seemed a fair compromise yet my years as a military officer have not been deemed to be particularly qualifying for a local position thus far. Academia would seem a delightful place to collaborate with others on complicated ideas, yet my working class soul is truly hostile to the broad lack of risk the publishing crowd is willing to adopt. The better idea brokers have already clearly identified much of what we are up against and yet have no influence to implement but the merest shred of it. Also, one metagame I am very bad at playing is the cosmopolitan identity politics which coincides heavily with academia. I will staunchly uphold the need to respect diversity and will gladly call anyone by any title they request, but I do not believe that requiring employees to state their gender pronouns in an email signature block equates to any meaningful practice of respect. Such is the informal rule for a veteran friend who works for a local community college. Schooling to accumulate credentials appears to be a relatively feeble process for confronting the widening gyre, or else our ample supply of well-degreed elites would not have delivered us into these circumstances. So I am reevaluating what other professions could at least stab in the general direction of our systemic troubles? Freelance independent journalism? Dear lord, what hell am I willing to endure…
Interesting thing about that Ned Beatty speech in Network is that most of those companies aren’t around anymore. Yes, there is something beyond the shadows we see on the wall of the cave, but that is not it.
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
Thank you kindly JH. My relationship to writing or almost any creative endeavors has been fraught for much of the reasons you described. This brings to mind a longtime friend of my parents, a savvy gentleman who’s family originated from Jordan and had come to the US and found much success in starting businesses. He strongly urged me to go to college because getting an education is so important. I was noticeably dithering towards the end of my high school days, but nonetheless, I remember distinctly replying to him that, “The things I needed to learn can’t be found in any classroom.” He went on to retire in Lake Tahoe and not long thereafter I became a chimney sweep in central Pennsylvania Dutch country. Not kidding, an actual broom-wielding ragamuffin chimney sweep. No top hat unfortunately. Still, despite whatever I intuited about the need to acquire authentic experiences, that savvy gentleman was telling to me to go school because he knew far more about power and the mundane mechanisms that influence our world. In many ways then and still now I remain an acknowledged disciple of the passions. Although not quite a slave to them.
I’ve certainly had the opportunity to carry more than a chimney broom since back then and it eventually led to a rudimentary study and understanding of how our interconnected global system operates. Unfortunately, that same study has largely revealed the stakes of what’s occurring but no sufficiently unifying prescription for what to do about it. I related to Dr. Hunt in a follow-up message my furious dissonance whenever encountering a writer or work of analysis that convincingly describes real dangers that lie ahead. And yet those writings went totally unheeded. It feels like there are more wise things forgotten between closed covers sitting on bookshelves than any of us seem to know about today. Does that relegate the process of writing and careful investigation of things simply to the benefit of the individual? Or at best, to finding a suitable pack of compatriots who also understand the comic-tragedy of today? The answer, as you say, is yes and no.
In practical terms, I am quite certain that being openly expressive with ones ideas and even more deeply with one’s identity is inexorably intertwined with what is also happening across modern societies and economies. That doesn’t mean that projecting one’s identity alone is any sort of corrective, as the various end states of becoming a beloved personality tend to allocate much of the benefits of attention back onto the individual. This is a horrific problem for my service-oriented mindset to combat with. Becoming a peddler on some book tour or barking from a talk show feels like a relative dead end to me. Again, if this is an effective form of public influence then how did we arrive in such mayhem? In my own context of a military background, I can think of good and bad examples of inventing the public persona. Jason Kander is a good case of conversion from military into civilian public service. He wrote a book, became a lawyer, successfully won his race for Missouri Secretary of State, and nearly ousted Roy Blunt for the Missouri Senate in 2016. What a shame, if only there had been a similarly genuine candidate running for President on the democratic ticket who didn’t severely damage the prospects of almost every down ballot candidate. By comparison, Eric Greitens was a former Navy Seal who became an Oxford Rhodes scholar, wrote a gripping book about his time as an elite warfighter, founded an impressive national community service non-profit organization, successfully won his race for Governor of Missouri, and then after attempting every possible strategy to avoid consequences, he resigned in shame as Governor after the revelation of blackmailing his mistress hairdresser with explicit imagery that he coerced her into photographing.
Suffice to say I am neither of these gentleman, nor could I follow either of their paths. Thankfully I’m dumb enough to be faithful and just shrewd enough to know that our present governing systems are in much worse trouble than polite discussion is able to tolerate. Such it is that ET is place where I have migrated towards because it at least acknowledges a much broader scope of what is happening.
So what does that leave for the beneficial ‘process’ of writing or other deliberative thinking? At the very least, it is a form of developing readiness. That much I am convinced of without any subsequent doubts over what publishing involves in shaping the ideas of others or just trying to attract a following. Earlier today I learned a relevant example about how Frederick Douglass was directly solicited by John Brown to participate in his failed raid to seize the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. It feels safe to assume that Douglass’s deep process of writing and public oratory shaped his understanding of the antislavery movement in such a way to help inform his wise decision to not join the risky maneuver. Would the larger confrontation over slavery which both Douglass and Brown sought after happen anyways if there was never a raid on Harper’s Ferry? Very likely. Did Douglass help move forward the cause through his writing. Definitely.
Again, that time is not now and literacy is not what it once was. We face a more basic world-ending question: Can democracy be sustained in a society that does not read very much at all? I wonder if Dr. Ben or Rusty would care to take either side of that bet? I haven’t put in the necessary grind to explore that idea. But for some more insightful discussion about writing in contemporary times I would point to a recent Joe Rogan sit down with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8ZCX0eywXw] Apart from Palahniuk’s assertion that the most compelling narrative storytelling is now taking place in video games, he also reveals why the very best parts of Cheryl Strayed’s mega-seller Wild had to be cut out before publication.
Whatever work I turn towards from here, I agree that I would benefit from incorporating a better process for this manner of thinking and writing was always the most natural form I am able to conjure up. I feel it is a mistake to imagine outcomes of writing rather than working through its process. Even having written this response, I can see now that what we called readiness in the military is rather similar to process which Dr. Ben describes. Or as Bruce Lee put it, “The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.”
Thank you tremendously for the kind words of encouragement and about my writing style. Will endeavor to remember the former and not let the latter go to my head.
Thanks for joining the conversation directly, Thomas. I know that I speak for many when I say that your original email touched a nerve that desperately needs jangling every now and then!
I felt this way back 1969/70 but did not do anything about it, sadly.
I have been meaning to comment on this for a while. I saw the original comment that Ben referenced when it was posted and was very moved by it, and by the other post and the comments. I don’t profess to have any answers, but if any of these soldiers are in NYC I would be proud to share a coffee or other beverage.
A proper reason to go to NYC! Thank you ma’am. Just being willing and open to hear about this sort of stuff means a lot for me. I imagine the ET pack are generally serving in the ranks of the professional class but are also curious enough to question what’s happening to our world. That is tremendously valuable, tremendously hard to put into action. Good company and libations should always come first. We’ll have to settle for this digital drip-drip for now.
The last time I went thru NYC was to interview with one of those high-profile humanitarian aid outfits in the spring of 2016. This is where I began to relearn that I connect way faster with people from or who have lived outside of the USA. The recruiter who originally brought me in was from the Netherlands. The actual interviewer was from the west coast. And despite my wife already being onboard there wasn’t a home for my kind there. It might have been the unfortunate topic of my former employer destroying a hospital in Afghanistan and killing several of their workers, although I thought it was a sign of resilience to be asked about it. But my primary guess is that describing myself and my wife as a dedicated unit was not perceived as desirable. The organization was not doing missionary work and wanted individual professionals. Couples don’t fit. Where do they in any professional context for that matter? Oh yeah, the military context. At least I can say the Army goes out of its way to make special considerations for couples serving together. Egalitarian values can still be had as long as you’re willing to go out and kill somebody.
The only other time I went through NYC was to catch one of the final months of The Daily Show before Jon Stewart called it quits. Both Stewart and Colbert were staunch advocates for soldiers while reminding viewers of the falsehoods and mounting failures surrounding the War on Terror. When I arrived in Afghanistan I could hardly believe my eyes that Daily Show/Colbert Report were being regularly broadcast over AFN (Armed Forces Network). Stewart even showed up for a USO tour while I was deployed although I wasn’t able to see it. He later relayed the words from some E-4 who told him, “We are often disappointed, but never ashamed.” Much respect for the guy. I’d never been to a live TV recording before or since but the one my wife and I went to was particularly poignant. Watch the clip and it will be evident why: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/w42j6j/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-the-rummy-returns---learning-curves-are-for-pussies
That’s about it for my tales from NYC. Don’t know when I may ever head that way again. Hopefully, the subways won’t be flooded out by rising seas. Or even worse, converted into those “autonomous subterranean vehicles” that some techie barnacle wrote about earlier this year.
I’d that nobody properly schooled me on the mechanisms of power while I was very young. I was afforded tremendous opportunities to observe its consequences on the lives of others, but it was still from a distance. Emotive connections rather than concrete. It took a long time to find the linkages that pointed back to our economic, political, and social systems. And I’ll admit I avoided studying any of it for quite awhile because I already knew it would be utterly disappointing and repulsive. Experiencing some hardship needed to come first in order to acquire a taste for looking at nasty things. But still, I wonder if somebody could have confronted me earlier with the underlying reasons why our world works the way it does. Illustrated why it is that short of becoming a power, you would likely be crushed by it. Or at the very least, somebody could’ve given me some records by The Clash. I’d say there are always opportunities to perform that service for any number of disregarded youths. And if I ever get a work routine sorted again I’ll be looking forward to finding a context to do some youth mentoring. I think direct access to adults who won’t bullshit young people is extremely limited.
Seeing beyond the shadows on the cave wall takes a truly unique perspective. I’d say the best representation I’ve seen of it in modern media was from last years Twin Peaks: The Return. Watch Part 8 and see how David Lynch depicts where the Mother of All Evil comes from. Not since Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ have I been impacted by motion picture imagery and sound in such a penetrating way.
^^^^ I’d say that nobody… ^^^^
Just discovered that the ET comment section can be as brilliant as an ET note. Pretty blown away at the depth, insight and sense of connection in this pack. Going short on abstraction feels relevant to me in May of '23. This place is awesome.
Thank you, Joey. Honestly, the note comments are the best thing on the interwebs today!
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