Silicon Valley Viewed from the East

Here is a guide to Bay Area culture, by and for East Coasters. All of these articles are really good.

Nick Bilton on the Silicon Valley “bubble” for the New York Times (2012)

Rebecca Solnit’s San Francisco diary in London Review of Books (2013)

Charlotte Allen’s “Silicon Chasm” in the D.C-based Weekly Standard (2013)

Joel Kotkin on “America’s New Oligarchs”. Kotkin lives in Orange County, but he has a keen eye. (2013)

The New Yorker on A-list programmers in the Bay Area (2014)

New York magazine on a 16-year-old tech entrepreneur (2014)

Sam Frank meets the LessWrong people for the New York-based Harper’s (2015)

Posted: February 17th, 2015 | Kultur

On the meaning of France

I wrote this post originally as the result of a Facebook discussion. I’ve revised it, adding some material on Russia, for this blog post.

Regarding the attack today on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, there seems to be a misconception floating around that the magazine was “anti-Islam”. In fact it was anti-religion, anti-censorship, and anti-authority generally. Many of its past covers have depicted beloved religious, political, and cultural figures saying or doing obscene things, and would be considered far outside the rules of dignified discourse by basically any American media. I was pleased to see Rachel Maddow outline this simple fact on her show this evening.

I was recently at an Airbnb in Belgium, and one of their coffee table books was a lengthy comic book about penis-shaped fish being force fed to starving Africans by fat capitalists. There is no way such a comic could ever see print in America or Japan, but in France and Belgium it is par for the course in adult cartooning (my parents also own some French cartoons like this). Such absurdly obscene cartoons are not meant to inspire anger or to convert people to the cartoonist’s preferred ideology; they are meant to tear down the walls of your ego, and the things that you believe make you a good person because you hold them sacred, and thereby drag you down to the level of laughing alongside the cartoonist. This is one meaning of Meister Eckhart’s enigmatic saying, “He who blasphemes praises God.”

This intentional and meaningful testing of the limits of freedom of speech is one of France’s great accomplishments, in my opinion. Compare to Russia, where the overwhelming cultural consensus is that nobody benefits from obscenity and blasphemy, and blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed or the Orthodox Church is actually illegal; Pussy Riot intentionally broke this law and were prosecuted for it. Compare to America, where blasphemy is considered distasteful, but plenty of people do it anyway simply to be mean to people and prove how cultured and intelligent they are. The tradition of French cartooning does not try to be particularly clever or prove a political point: it merely looks upon all of the world’s attempts to establish order and narrative with the knowing grin of a Dionysus.

How did things turn out this way in France? Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopédie were a start, but in fact there is much more to the story. For example, during the reign of Louis XVI, peddlers of pornography would gather in a square inside the court where due to an archaic law they were free from all censorship, and sell slanderous erotica about Marie Antoinette. Parisians at this time were naive, and believed the slander being published in these books—which is one of the reasons Marie Antoinette became so hated, and why the constitutional monarchy of 1789 dissolved into violence. The maturity needed for all of society to accept obscene fictions as part of the national character is hard-won, and the result of centuries of battle. An attack on this culture is an attack on France itself.

The Danish paper Jyllandsposten commissioned cartoons of Muhammad with the conscious intention of making Muslims angry, and put them all on a single page to prove that they could. This proves only that while Danes may think themselves more courageous than Americans and Germans, in fact they are insensitive and have no sense of humor. None of their “cartoons” were funny anyway. When Charlie Hebdo “republished” the cartoons they were actually importing them into a totally different cultural context. There is no such thing as “reprinting” a Danish idea in Paris: it immediately becomes a French idea. Charlie Hebdo’s idea was not “Muslims are barbarians,” but instead “Muslims are Europeans and French, and we can prove to them how welcome they are by making fun of their sacred cows.”

As one of the guests on the Rachel Maddow show pointed out, France is the most feared nation for Islamic extremists precisely because of their cultural sway; they demand that sacred cows be allowed to burn, and high and mighty egos set aside, for the shared goals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. This is a clear and immediate danger to ignorant, barbaric, ego-driven terrorism, and the centerpiece of this culture is Charlie Hebdo. This is why all of France says “Je suis Charlie” tonight.

Posted: January 8th, 2015 | Kultur 4 Comments »













Posted: September 13th, 2013 | Kultur

Overtures to the White Cargo Cults, 2007-2011

“Before [Nietzsche], no one knew the tempo of history,” said Spengler. “Nietzsche lived, felt, and thought by ear.” He had no teacher to explain to him how the music rose and fell. Still today, this music has never been rendered a perfect science, but remains an intuition among those few, noble historians who can trace a path from tapestry to skyscraper. How shall the 21st century be seen to the players of the Glass Bead Game? How shall its world-rhythms be felt in the hearts of the psychohistorians?

The peak oilist John Michael Greer, who obsesses over sanctifying skills that will be needed in our grandchildren’s time, possesses a strong historical awareness, and has predicted the appearance of cargo cult movements in America. It is interesting to note the influence of American culture on the examples supplied by him and others of revitalization movements: cargo cults, Ghost Dances, UFO prophecies, Great Awakenings. All of these have the indelible imprint of American culture — the belief that man can shape his own destiny, and that the failure of a well-intentioned ritual comes only from a lack of sincerity or numbers. Germany, where the Will to Power means something more than the feeling experienced when a ritual is performed, will not have cargo cults. England, currently 80 years into a humiliating decline (Japan surpassed their GDP in 1963!), does not have any. Most of the West suffers material decline with grace.  But in America, the slightest material losses of the 1970s led to the Faustian bargain of 1980, which brought us Reagan-Bush-Clinton; and now that the devil has shown signs of wanting to reap his side of the bargain, the obvious predecessors to cargo cults are manifesting themselves.

I will not become hyperbolic, as political writers so often do, and claim the cults are already among us. Yes, there are the get-rich-quick schemes of the day, and strange beliefs about money appearing on doorsteps through positive thinking. These omnipresent American superstitions, which have always entranced white and black, young and old alike, have not yet become linked with institutions of power. Nor will I accept politics up until now as the product of a cult. Yes, Reagan-Bush-Clinton promised a prosperity that will not last. Yes, the election of Obama had a weird mass superstition around it, something about using the Presidential post to complete the work of the civil rights movement, as if slavery and racism were not an indelible aspect of our history but a curse placed on us by an evil wizard, which was the only thing standing between us and success, and which we could make a clean break from by chanting the right spell at the ballot box. These things are slightly irrational, but they are readily understood, and politics has never been a rational sport.

No, the cargo cults which are to come will not be born directly from either of these currents, although they may adopt some of their traits. Rather, their direct ancestor shall be the unique flavor of political protests which have spilled into America’s cities since 2007. The basic flavor of these protests is the centuries-old battle of left versus right, but some odd new elements have appeared. The protests are not “about” a single issue, nor are they even about “raising awareness” of an issue which does not personally affect the protesters. Rather, they aim to express a feeling of unease generally, gaining relief in the knowledge that they are not the only ones with this odd malaise. The primary complaint is that the government (to the Tea Party) or the corporations (to the Occupy movement) do not represent them, i.e. that these powers are not stitched from the same cloth as the “ordinary folk” protesting. The message of the protesters is not that America together can be made better, but that Americans are losing control of themselves to an outside force which also resides in America.

Neither side discriminates on the basis of race, for they are true Americans. But it should not be too surprising that the people who subscribe to this narrative of losing control are overwhelmingly white.

This alienation from power contains the seeds of defeat. To be sure, both sides may win temporary victories. But the feeling of protest will continue, even if the protests themselves end. Both sides must remain on guard against an enemy that manifests itself in a far more insidious way that mere policies. Therefore, engagement in a political party is not helpful to the protesters, and may in fact be against their principles, since both political parties are agents of the Enemy.
Lacking any strong idea of what they are there to protest besides the Enemy Himself, the protests lack direct confrontation with anyone. Sure, there is the counterprotester and the occasional annoyed policeman. But there is no attempt to move the group beyond the feeling of protest. Soaking in the vibes of shared discontent is good enough, and thus these are not protests but Be-Ins. Both sides are allergic to political action or organization of any sort that might attract the Enemy to their movement, to the extent that the population of both movements is primarily on people who have physically shown up at a be-in, and secondarily those who sympathize with the be-ins, and they wish they had attended. Not for anything they could have achieved, you see, but because it would have felt nice.

The protest of 2007-2011 does not lead to any further action, but it is meant to make things change merely through its own impact, and its failure comes only from lack of numbers. The protest cannot be concentrated at any single place and time, for the Enemy is everywhere. Instead, like the Ghost Dance, protests appear throughout the country, all performing the same ritual, repeatedly over a span of months. Most of the elements of revitalization movements are already here. All that is missing is the actual revelation, that is to say, a clearly marked strategy to defeat the Enemy and save the country, one that has nothing to do with how the world actually works, but is just crazy enough for Americans to try. We are not yet ready for the revelation, because we are not helpless enough. But economic decline will do that to you. At some point in the next 50 years, the protests will transform into a full-fledged cargo cult, attempting to regain lost prosperity through the repetition in every major city of a completely irrational and bizarre ritual that vaguely resembles a political protest.

Naturally, this will be a secular revelation. The prophet will not be a religious figure, but rather, like Rick Santelli, Alessio Rastani, Glenn Beck, Michael Moore, or Howard Beale, a news commentator. Perhaps it will come in the form of a new economic or political theory. It will be, in essence, an American revelation for a very American response to imperial decline.

Appendix: Differences to be resolved

The left and right cannot unite their protests as they currently stand. There is the obvious disagreement between government and corporations. One of these two huge groups must accept all the blame for doing everything wrong ever, and the other is the only way out of this horrible situation. This is what leads the Tea Party to hold up signs reading “government hands off my Medicare”, and what leads the Occupy movement to write convoluted sentences such as:

Corporate forces of the world … have participated in a directly racist action by accepting the contract from the State of Georgia to murder Troy Davis.

The only way to reconcile this conflict is if the protesters agree that they have both been betrayed by both forces of evil, and that the one they thought would solve their problems also failed them. Obviously, the Occupy movement has been betrayed by Obama, whom many of them must have placed their hopes in. With the economic climate, more betrayals are certainly on the way.

Appendix: The force of conviction

A Yale opinion poll recently generated some news for claiming that Tea Partiers deny global climate change. In fact, it shows that their opinions are divided 55-35, certainly out of step with mainstream political groups, but nothing like a unanimous consensus. Where the Tea Party does excel is in its firmness of belief. This does not mean they possess a religious commitment to climate change denial; presented with some imaginary shocking new evidence, they claim they could change their minds about as easily as Democrats. But 52% of them need no more information to reach a firm conclusion on global warming; their minds are completely made up (compared to 17-22% of other political groups interviewed). 50% have absolutely no concerns about the issue.

They possess conviction, in a country where conviction was outlawed decades ago, and was already unusual in 1860, as G.K. Chesterton wrote:

Exactly what gives its real dignity to the figure of Lincoln is that he stands invoking a primitive first principle of the age of innocence, and holding up the tables of an ancient law, against the trend of the nineteenth century; repeating, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, etc.,’ to a generation that was more and more disposed to say something like this: ‘We hold these truths to be probable enough for pragmatists; that all things looking like men were evolved somehow, being endowed by heredity and environment with no equal rights, but very unequal wrongs,’ and so on. I do not believe that creed, left to itself, would ever have founded a state; and I am pretty certain that, left to itself, it would never have overthrown a slave state.

UPDATE: Lee Harris on “fantasy ideologies”.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

Posted: October 1st, 2011 | Kultur, Politics 4 Comments »

Hipsters are Dead, the Counterculture is Dead

In 2009 Adbusters (v. 81) published a letter I had sent them. I learned about this from someone else, but I never looked for it myself because seriously, who over the age of 17 reads Adbusters? Today I finally got a chance to take a look, and discovered that they only printed the first two paragraphs. Now I know how writers all around the world must feel when an uncaring publisher just flat out butchers their work. I’m sure they had the best of intentions, probably they liked my letter but wanted to make room for other letters amongst the mess of their faux-zine design, but still, I’m sufficiently annoyed that I’m going to reprint the entire letter here. Unlike some things that I wrote years ago, I still believe this letter to be mostly accurate.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: April 18th, 2011 | Kultur 3 Comments »

Marriage and Divorce

Your parents, who brought you into this world and raised you, should rightfully be the most important figures in your life. On the bedrock of one’s forefathers are civilizations built and raised. Yet the Western cult of the self attempts to subvert this and create a society of orphans. Adults are constantly rewarded for putting their personal or professional goals before their children. Parents think nothing at fighting in front of their children. Above all, the insipid practices of divorce and premarital pregnancy create selfish adults and miserable kids; the hedonistic adults perhaps happier in the short term, but eventually dead, and the kids passing on dysfunction to the next generation. In short, in popular culture children are expected to have no reason to respect their parents and every reason to hate them.

In the midst of this society of orphans, I had the incredible fortune to be born to two perfect parents. To my knowledge, they have never quarreled; if they did it was not in my presence, which to a realist historian means the same thing. They never demanded recognition or respect, but earned both by pouring their hearts into raising their children with selfless love.

What is the result of this labor? The creation of children who can feel the presence of love in their homes, and have the means to distribute that love throughout society. The false, selfish “love” of a temporary obsession should crumble before this almighty goal. If “love” brings you to overlook alcoholism, brutality, and dishonor, then it is no grounds for a marriage that might expose children to these things. Similarly, if you yourself engage in these things in the presence of children, then it is you who must be shamed and removed from the pool of desirable partners.

The purpose of a marriage is not to memorialize a selfish, limited love between two people, nor is it (as Christian leaders suggest) to “produce” children. Only a couple who cannot think rationally about the society they want to live in will settle for one of these shallow goals, and only a foolish individual will promote them. Humanity as a whole deserves better than that. Marriage must engender an outward, contagious love conducive to raising healthy children.

I’m still on the fence as to the meaning of human existence, but I feel fairly confident in saying that raising children who carry both wisdom and love with them to the next generation should be among humanity’s highest goals. Let us hope, then, that we can enshrine that goal both in our laws and in our stories.

Posted: January 28th, 2011 | Kultur 2 Comments »

The One Thing You Will Never Learn at a Liberal Arts College

Life isn’t fair.

It seems like a simple enough lesson, but it’s apparently forbidden in the ivory tower. I’ve seen a stunning amount of work put into academic deconstruction of the unfairness of the simplest statements, demonstrating a scholarly grasp of the intricacies of a situation, but a five-year-old child’s demand for some grown-up out there to set it right. There is an unwritten law that academics are not allowed to identify any social problem that originates in their own thinking. They might be able to correct the scholarly consensus, but in the end, the solution to the problem always lies in changing someone else’s behavior. And merely identifying an external agent, whether real or imagined, doesn’t solve anything. Life doesn’t operate by the ethics of what ought to be.

In college you are exhorted to go out there and make things fair, but life isn’t fair; some small parts of your life may have been fair, but the majority of it wasn’t. Having identified the cause of all your problems, you are told to remedy it and thereby fix the world. But you’re not going to fix the world. Your ability to fix things will vary deeply; if you’re very lucky and very courageous, you get to fix the lives of the people around you; if you’re merely average like most of the world, you fix yourself and maybe your family; if you’re unlucky, not even that. They don’t teach lessons on how to move from the unlucky to lucky tier at your school. You might pick it up from a church or a community group, but most likely you will have to learn as you move along.

College does not teach you how to operate in humanity’s complex web of power and relationships, or even its own section of that web. In fact, if you really, truly believe what you are taught in college, you will never learn to navigate this world. Instead, you will protest the human reality that you live in, refusing to respect the existence of power and desiring an end to its constituent parts. On the personal level: You will learn how to protest any unfair treatment of you yourself, or perhaps someone around you, by making a big fuss.  You will see the lawsuit as the ultimate weapon in your personal life, and public shaming as the ultimate consequence. You will not understand how to shrug off the small stuff and resolve the larger issues quietly to the satisfaction of all involved. If you have integrity, you will lean towards religious asceticism, and may find some peace in separating yourself from the world entirely; if  you lack it, you will simply be known as the most troublesome person in your circle of acquaintances.

On the political level: Anyone who refuses to adopt your message will be either ignorant, bigoted, or evil. You will discover that most of the world falls into one of these three categories. You will find that your personal vision of a just world and a fair life differs from that of others who naively desire a total end to injustice, and you will be doomed to fight with those comrades instead of “the enemy”. Meanwhile, your actual participation in society, through part-time jobs, freelance work, or street protests, will be irrelevant — not because rebels have never won, but because true rebellions are born out of more than theoretical ponderings. The true operation of the world will be beyond your grasp, except for a small circle of friends.

Those who reject what they were taught, or majored in economics or business instead, will be rewarded with both success and wisdom. Perhaps they will never understand the extent of injustice around the world and the tools needed to right it. But, over time, they will come to understand the smaller worlds that they themselves live in. That form of knowledge is truly power, and whether they use that power for good or evil is up to them; but it will become theirs to wield.

The founders of many American liberal arts colleges were solid Protestants who hoped to use the influence of the university system to spread their values. In the most superficial sense the collegiates of today have rejected that Christianity. But, on a much deeper level, they carry on the 19th century Protestant message of utopia on earth, and parade through the streets proclaiming their absolute truths and rallying fervent believers to their personalized causes. They can do what they want, but the facts will not change. Life isn’t fair.

Posted: December 18th, 2010 | Kultur 6 Comments »