We Are All NFTs Now

A digital image, inscribed in specific code on a blockchain, sold for over $69 million. There was a great deal of outrage, shock, mocking, amusement, and consternation over this price for something that appeared to be the equivalent of any shareable image on the internet. This was the first widely-known public eruption of part of a spending spree and gold rush in cryptographic assets, including cryptocurrencies and the images that I described (known as NFT’s – Non-Fungible Tokens). A NFT is a digital marker referencing an object placed on a blockchain which acts as a signature identifying the object as unique. NFTs of NBA highlights are trading in the thousands of dollars every day. While those may seem extravagant examples of conspicuous consumption, the hysteria and moralism surrounding the sale and purchase of NFTs (along with other examples of so-called “tokenization” – the creation of a digital asset representing a real or intellectual property) conceal some revolutionary changes occurring in the world of finance and our broad understanding of capitalism[1], along with how we organize and structure society itself.

The Internet, the greatest social innovation of the 30-year boom of technological innovation, has continued to shift the world in a way that is both subtle and extreme. Personal and public matters are irrevocably altered. We set our alarm clocks by talking to an electronic device, our friendships exist in multiple planes of communication, our employment is more impersonal. You pick-up a to-go order in a restaurant, ordered and paid-for online, not a word spoken to a waiter or host. A discreet, digital-only connection between a dictator’s secret police and a criminal organization leads to a targeted hack of a rival nation’s nationalized oil company. Big and small – everything is changing, though often hidden from our sight. Our present doesn’t look like the imagined future because we were thinking of physical changes: 5000-story skyscrapers, ubiquitous humanoid robots, flying cars and other visual immensities and oddities. Instead, the revolution animates an alternate world confined to invisible space and we are now a society looking down and inward (and constantly toward one another) instead of up and outward toward those still-fictitious colossal skyscrapers. Communications flow ceaselessly through wires and wi-fi disconnecting us from long generations of undisturbed face-to-face human contact while strengthening the bonds we share that are purely emotional and intellectual. Meanwhile, many of our most extraordinary technological innovations have discovered things that are so physically small, they are invisible to all except the most sensitive methods of detection. An example of this being the revelations presented from the particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, experiments from which confirmed the existence of a previously unknown particle, long after mathematical models hinted at its existence. In the mundane and tangible world, the force drawing our gaze inward is most often a smartphone. That communications-device may be the superlative tool representing the irony of humanity’s advancement: we are freeing ourselves from the natural restrictions of nature while binding ourselves closer to each other and our own impulses. As a particle accelerator reveals the hidden structure of physics when it collides particles, rapid, decentralized mass-communications reveal the most basic human psychological machinery.

Our interconnectivity, on an individual level between people, has fragmented the world and revolutionized capitalism in a way that may be intertwined with financial bubbles, but shouldn’t be confused solely for the bubbles themselves. Laws of governments, the constraints of supply and demand, and the conception of social equity have not necessarily changed all that much, just our relationships to those institutions and concepts. The changing relationships between person and power has devalued traditional authority, accelerating the rise in a peer-to-peer economy of individuals – a model now coming under threat from the traditional and centralizing forces of civil society, commerce, and government. There is a struggle between platforms and people, with immense rewards available to those who are able to extract more value from the centralized platforms than the platforms can extract from them. OnlyFans, NFTs, a politician’s social media presence, blogging, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, the effusion of podcasts, the cloistered chambers of Telegram groups and Discords – all are part of the same phenomenon of commoditizing the individual in digital space. We are all NFTs now – if we so choose.

Photo by Ru016bdolfs Klintsons on Pexels.com – Things like Dogecoin show the power of media and technology while concealing more basic changes.

Our public discourse and policy thinking is stuck in the past along with our major government institutions and the frameworks of civil society. Born of the 20th century when technological advances allowed singular forces to monopolize modes of communication, our perceptions of the threat of centralized power are skewed by the extremities of that calamitous 100 years. The internet, for the most part, is resistant to the broad forces of centralization that allowed Totalitarianism to flourish in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is more difficult for a nation to completely control all media and all communication in the Information Age (China is doing its best, though). Destruction of traditional media gatekeepers launches us to the past even as it compels us into unknown territories. Modern independent journalists and media analysts are reminiscent of the effervescent pamphleteering and journalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. These tabloids and polemics were resistant, but not immune, to government and corporate centralization by the mere fact of the difficulty of communication. These realities often made persuasion and propaganda more valuable to those who wished to control a citizenry than suppression. Internet-based dissemination of information may be resistant to centralization simply because of their profusion. Floods of data are the greatest natural constraint now for human endeavors, mirroring the troublesome deluge of abundance in other arenas. People themselves, our base needs and desires unchanged by plenty, are not immune from methods of control and influence.

Novelty and innovation vastly outran regulation and control in the last 30 years, leaving governments lagging in reasserting authority over people inhabiting virgin digital terrain. Innovation also outstripped our ability to consider the consequences resulting from our world-building. I imagine that in the future it will be clear that this was an era of peak freedom and anarchy in the Digital World, maybe only comparable to other periods of leap-frogging technological advancement. Pre-modern society was characterized by repressive hierarchical social, governmental, and economic systems, where the oppressed would revolt with sudden violence from time-to-time. The methods and severity of control have changed and moderated, but they still exist. No people, in any society, have ever had complete freedom and autonomy, of course. An individual’s freedom is always constrained by the forces of social pressure[2], and by inherently human biological and communal vulnerabilities. Now, these vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exploited by corporations, governments, and, most-of-all, social media platforms.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com – The Matrix was pretty prescient…

There are three important features of social media: the first is addictiveness, the second is enabling virality, and the third is, of course, facilitating networks for people. Addictiveness keeps people coming back, allowing algorithms to refine the most engaging content for them to interact with, and to project more and more advertisements to meet their eyes. Virality is a natural consequence of the ability to rapidly share popular, digestible content. A feature of virality is that something small: a brand, a movement, a political ideology, can become something very large. Virality is further enabled by the creation of social networks. Tribalism is the salient quality of human social networks: a consequence of allowing people to self-sort, especially in blank spaces where people will create social structures out of chaos. Tribalism is important in our world because it perpetuates rivalries and cultism. To these three volatile ingredients there is one more additive which makes an explosive solution – we had, have, and always will have, the only thing for which there is endless demand and never enough supply: the desire to be entertained.

Back when Trump was first running for President and rabid fan-groups appeared online on places like the social media site Reddit (the now-banned message board community r/The_Donald being the obvious example) I referred to them as a “grassroots cult of personality.” I think I had that partly right. I was using the outdated model referring to the aberrational centralization of the 20th century and I discounted the forces of entertainment in Trump’s digital popularity. This phenomenon became clear as being merely one example of an eruption of digital tribes. These digital tribes can become dangerous mobs which threaten to hijack public discourse and policy every time a critical mass is reached and a catalyst triggers a riot. Trump’s rise is an excellent example of those four ingredients I mentioned and the incredible force they can create, but not of the commoditization of the individual – another politician is an even better example of that phenomenon.

Every day, or almost every day, for a period of months toward the end of 2020, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was seen on the “front-page” of Reddit. Almost always as a screenshot of a Tweet moralistically ripping on GOP or neoliberal policies. In a way, AOC is now a commoditized symbol, instead of just an elected official. Her tweets and viral moments speaking in the House are her intellectual property – generating value for her brand. I haven’t done any formal study, but it appears that attention afforded to her has fallen sharply after Trump was booted from Twitter and left office. I believe this gives some indication that her popularity is tied to a broadcasted battle played out through traditional and social media.

Addiction. Virality. Tribalism. Entertainment. Those four ingredients combined with the revolution in the production of digital assets create feedback loops and form resilient social groupings which can have real power in the real world. Any individual who has the ability and desire can use these new social groupings to attain money, influence, and power – and now and in the future – especially money because of tokenization.

NFTs selling for seemingly outrageous sums of money and AOC’s domination of Reddit’s front page in her digital war with the GOP are two sides of the same coin. Everything is being commoditized, including our digital personas. Monetization of intellectual labor is going to be a key fact of the world from now on. This is not just a world of direct-to-consumer products and psychologically-savvy corporations, it’s a world of each individual and their intellectual output as a potential brand and business to a degree that was impossible even a few years ago.

Changes in technology and social structure are a Pandora’s Box. This is a good development for society in that it can advance individual freedom, broaden prosperity and the reach of justice, and accelerate innovations. This is a bad development for society in that it can precipitate physical and digital riots, allow small groups of bad actors, or even single individuals, to cause grave harm to large numbers of people, and foster new and harmful addictions in millions of people. I think addiction deserves special attention, and is most likely to present the greatest sustained cost to society-at-large as a side-effect of our advancement.

One of the most painful problems with addiction is that it often takes an extreme adverse event or events to pull people out of their delusion that they can continue to feed their compulsion without consequences. As people are addicted to social media, and that addiction is reinforced in a multitude of ways, these new communities act as enablers, shielding addicts from reality and the harm they may be causing themselves or others. Addiction is a massively harmful, intractable problem, and I’m afraid it is increasing everywhere.

Wild freedom and the darkest oppressions are both freely available to people now: every person a potential brand and every person part of a potential mob.


[1] I don’t like using the word capitalism as it has been both politicized, decontextualized, and made overbroad and non-specific – here, I use it to refer to the general system of property rights and the relatively free flow of goods and services between different entities – perhaps close to its basic definition.

[2] You think “cancel culture” and “social justice” are out of control now? Imagine being an atheist in 1100 AD in Europe, or questioning why Serfdom was hereditary.

Creating the World

 

The Conversion of St. Paul (second version), oil on canvas by Caravaggio, 1601
(Source: SCALA/Art Resource, New York)

Creating the World

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1, KJV

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8, KJV

               Creation myths all spring the universe into existence ex nihilo (even the Big Bang Theory, ultimately, after all, everything must have a beginning). From nothing comes something, thereby producing an orderly certainty in the unknowable and random. These myths present stories which serve as explanations for the existence of all things and mark the basic scope and confines of reality. In the first verse of the Book of John in the New Testament, Christ is associated with the omniscient force in the universe, one which spoke the world into existence. In the Book of Revelation God is associated with the creation and destruction if the Universe, using the beginning and ending letters of the Greek alphabet as a metaphor. These examples display the importance of telling stories to create the intellectual structures which support Belief.

               As old myths and religions crumble in the face of ineffectiveness, and of new technologies and modes of communication, the whole world struggles to find new tribes to assuage their existential anxiety. Overwhelmed with complexity, with randomness, and with uncertainty, people need a fixed point around which a narrative of an orderly world can be created. The creation of these new narratives center in non-state-sanctioned social centers of belief: cults. A cult, as I am using the word, means an ideological system which includes moral and spiritual rules considered to be unerringly true, and constituting a minority of members of a general population who ascribe to those tenets. Further, all cults are tribes, but not all tribes are cults (but I will sometimes use the terms interchangeably). A tribal affiliation can grow to any size and may not have an object of veneration, while a cult is outside the mainstream of society and contains objects of Fetish-Worship. A cult can become a “religion” when it begins to imbed itself in society using coercive structures of organized force and attains legitimacy for its version of the Truth and becomes ubiquitous in ordering commerce and association in commonplace society.

               The path of Christianity, from a small cult of Jews to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, is an example of the one of the most successful and impactful journeys on which any association of individuals embarked. An important feature of Christianity compared to Roman Paganism was that it offered equality and certainty in the future, even (and especially) beyond the bounds of our mortal lives. Ancient society was dominated by an elite aristocracy, and most people were slaves or otherwise shut-off from paths to self-determination by the social structures which permeated all Classical societies. The Ancient Roman Empire, in the first several centuries AD, may have had up to 15% of the total population as slaves (the numbers are understandably difficult to discern, but it is relatively certain that it was a significant amount of the population). Populist movements, through their nature of championing the prerogatives of average people, tend toward challenging hierarchies of all sorts. Justice and certainty are amply provided to new believers though new avenues – Christianity was once a tiny religion in an obscure part of the world, and it became Archimedes’ lever which moved the Earth. The early Apostles, prophets, saints, and missionaries of Christianity reveal much about its history and appeal in their extensive writings, where they both establish a story, the object of Truth, and codify the laws of the nascent religion.

               Another dramatic and history-turning social upheaval is the French Revolution. It is plausible that the French Revolution marked the beginning of mass society (as much as any line of demarcation can be pinned to one event, or series of events). Medieval hierarchies and notions of privilege and fixed caste were directly challenged and overthrown by a revolt of a mass of people. The Catholic Church, as an adjacent feature of the state, was severely damaged by the Revolution, and the cult-turned-religion of Eternal Salvation was replaced by a new cult of Reason and Science.

“Observe, however, that of man’s whole terrestrial possessions and attainments, unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming; under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this life-battle: what we can call his Realised Ideals. Of which realised ideals, omitting the rest, consider only these two: his Church, or spiritual Guidance; his Kingship, or temporal one. The Church: what a word was there; richer than Golconda and the treasures of the world! In the heart of the remotest mountains rises the little Kirk; the Dead all slumbering round it, under their white memorial-stones, ‘in hope of a happy resurrection:’—dull wert thou, O Reader, if never in any hour (say of moaning midnight, when such Kirk hung spectral in the sky, and Being was as if swallowed up of Darkness) it spoke to thee—things unspeakable, that went into thy soul’s soul. Strong was he that had a Church, what we can call a Church: he stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew. Such virtue was in Belief; in these words, well spoken: I believe. Well might men prize their Credo, and raise stateliest Temples for it, and reverend Hierarchies, and give it the tithe of their substance; it was worth living for and dying for.” (Chapter 1.1.II, Realised Ideals)

               The above quote is from an early chapter in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a history of that seminal event. Carlyle (who lived in the mid-19th century) was a Scottish polymath and writer of beautiful prose-poetry, and translator of German transcendental literature. There are three notable things about this work: first, it is a rigorous history, carefully employing sources to back its recitation of events; second, it is written in an astonishing style, one that borders on poetry; third, it is a narrative told in the present tense, as if we were following the various principle characters as they lived day to day as if they were characters in a novel (for reference, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote comes to mind as a rough analogue – very rough). Carlyle is also well-known for positing “The Great Man Theory” of history, which determines that mythologized, dynamic men influence the outcomes of history by channeling the popular currents of society. Such a view of history places individuals as the inevitable catalysts for movements, providing a sense of certainty and justifying “cults of personality.”

               Carlyle’s history is not the most rigorous or up-to-date work on the French Revolution and is generally forgotten except amongst historians of the period or fans of 19th century literature. But Carlyle knows things which many of us do not remember. And in an era of unrest, uneasiness, and uncertainty, what could be more valuable than remembering things forgotten?

               Now, amid the Communications and Information Revolution, where we face the proliferation of voices and demands on humanity, expressed largely through digital means of communication, we have a profusion of new cults, not the least of them being Bitcoin, a new form of money (There is much debate about “what” Bitcoin actually is, some may dispute its function as a currency, but that is not my concern here). The pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, left his own thoughts on the technical and social aspects of Bitcoin in blog posts, on forums, and in emails. The impetus for its creation and founding beliefs can be derived directly from those posts and subsequent commentary.

               Secular regimes lose credibility when they suffer through economic crises. Periods of economic recession often act as vectors for claims of moral decline and create targets for assaults on the legitimacy of social institutions. Economic decline features a prominent role in the fall of the French Monarchy. Unpayable debts piled-up as taxation and economic innovation lagged. And in Ancient Rome, a period of one hundred years of currency debasement and disruption of commerce coincided with the rise of Christianity. Bitcoin was invented after the GFC. Economics, once largely concerned with issues of starvation, is now associated with issues of access to employment and personal debt. But regardless of the scale, economic failures create doubt in the continuing benefit of maintaining the current social structures. All is relative, of course. The privation faced by the worst-off groups in Ancient Rome was unconscionable compared to those disenfranchised groups in Revolutionary France, and the hardships faced by the worst-off groups in Revolutionary France are appalling compared to those of oppressed communities in present-day Europe and America.

               The narratives, the explanations, the causality, all follow from a fixed point which serves as the reference for all belief for those inducted into the mysteries of a cult. Whether your affiliation is Bitcoin, AOC’s Squad, or MAGA – the encompassing theme is present mystery, hope for the future, and rigid certainty. This certainty is fixed, and all other justifications for belief are formalities. There is no replacement of Fiat Currency, there is only King Price. There is no concern over Stolen Elections, there is only The Tribe of the Common Man. There is no Green New Deal, there is only Social Utopia. Those stated causes I just mentioned do exist, but they are mere justifications for membership, rather than the impetus for the formation of those groupings.

               What we watch every day on social media is a new society being spoken into existence. QAnon started as posts on 4Chan and now has supporters marching in the streets. Incel terrorists started by being “blackpilled” on message boards, the world watched horrified (and, tellingly, titillated) as well-produced videos of people being murdered were posted by ISIS. Belief and faith will find new outlets if their old passages are blocked. We see it in young men’s shooting rampages who, in their deranged self-styled “manifestos,” proclaim their fears of economic collapse and immigration and “white replacement.” We see it in Bitcoin maximalists who trumpet “the end is nigh!” on their digital street-corners. We see it in Extinction Rebellion, who stop-up commerce to desperately prevent the imminent doom of all human life.

               As a principle, the longer the time-period without reform, the more violent the upheaval. Traditionally, conservatism (in the sense of preserving existing social norms and institutions) is the general political condition of the world. It has often taken long periods of stagnation and ignoring problems to make new and disruptive ideas popular. Many of the so-called “Revolutions” are closer to regime change where the underlying social order is not significantly disturbed. A true Revolution overturns the bases of society.

               An oft-forgotten idea in the time of the internet-eating-the-world is the effectiveness of violence in ordering behavior. This is still a key factor in political and social life. As much as the internet allows the creation of mobs, the organization of cults of choice, as much as online communities creep into reality, they cannot compete with violence and death in the moment of the imposition of that ultimate power of physical coercion. Risk is what ties us all to reality, regardless of any other beliefs we may hold. Violence and mortal fear are a refiner of perception. No matter how deeply our distortions of the world are held when they are egged-on by online communities, few can pass the test of withstanding violence. Christianity withstood the tests of violence and conquered the world.

 

Estates-General, by Charles-Emmanuel Patas
(Source: Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris)

Certainty and Corruption

               Some cults have changed the world by growing into something massive and all-encompassing. Christianity is one such cult – and Christianity grew into such a formidable social force (and eventually a political and economic one) because of its ability to provide people with certainty and with a new community. What began as, perhaps, a movement against Roman occupation, or with more certainty, one of many Jewish sects in modern-day Israel, spread throughout the whole world and became the dominating social feature of all of Europe. Christianity was an innovation of thought. As an entirely new belief system it was invented and then spread by believers in order to gain adherents. The Conversion of Paul is a good place to begin the secular history of the Christianity. Paul’s conversion was the origin of the first great Christian missionary, and had the impact of reinforcing the divine nature of Christ to potential followers. The emphasis on the Truth of events and the exhortation to have Belief, to hold a non-falsifiable idea as being irrevocably true, was the beginning of the Cult of Christianity and a movement away from the contextual, secular history of the events in the life of the historical Jesus Christ. Christianity’s belief contained the object of eternal bliss at its center, containing the promise of justice, fairness, and equality for the mass of people – something sadly elusive on Earth. In the time it originated, in a deeply oppressive and unequal society and culture, it had broad appeal. A cult creates tomorrow’s history today in adherents by producing the craved certainties they lack and generating hope for justice and happiness in the future.

               We derive much knowledge of early Christian theology through the letters of Paul, his epistles to satellite churches across the Mediterranean (some of which he himself founded). In these Epistles, Paul explains the basis of the beliefs of Christianity. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, for instance, he encourages belief in Christ as justified by faith alone and the current wickedness and decay of the moral and institutional world. Starting at Romans 1:18 Paul states that the people of Pagan religions have caused the world to be corrupted as punishment for not acknowledging the one, true God. Moral decline is a theme in these letters, as well as veneration of the Resurrection of Christ as the focus of worship. In another one of his letters, First Corinthians, Paul vigorously defends the Resurrection as the object of worship, the mystical font of certainty which promises justice at the end of life, and treats the spiritual nature of the death and resurrection of Christ as a literal fact (1 Corinthians 15). This creates a miracle, a mysterious myth, out of factual history. Making an event into a myth and then treating that myth as the Truth is a method whereby future hopes and certain outcomes can be attached to the mythologized object or event.

               A series of political and economic crises gripped Rome in the 200’s AD. This background of turmoil gave Christianity an impetus to spread – as people lost their ability to believe in their institutions, the cult of Christianity filled the void. The standard recitation of the story is that the Roman Empire stopped expanding and thereby stopped receiving plunder from its conquests and was unable to tax efficiently enough to maintain its armies which fought in endless Civil and Frontier Wars. The Roman Empire therefore resorted to currency debasement. The Roman State went bankrupt, and famines and other evils attended this collapse. Coinciding with this was the rapid spread of Christian faith. After Paul’s seeding of Christian communities himself, it continued to spread in urban centers around the fringes of the Roman Empire.

               Presently, almost all the most vital movements in the world are driven by cults and their cultist’s non-malleable beliefs. The implacability of faith and certainty attract potential members and build press and social media coverage. The internet has allowed people to communicate and congregate in any cult (or tribe) they choose, and those online identities are spilling into real life. Much the same thing happened in France on the eve of the Revolution: new ideas, new associations, salons, clubs, and pamphleteers stoked thoughts of change, of a complete rejection of the old world.

               France had long had a centralized government that was increasingly oppressive in its laws and which created ever-swelling financial crises. Also observed in this was the perceived destruction of morals, where France was overrun with lying and cheating and fraud, perpetrated by a burgeoning middle class and the aristocracy. New ideas from philosophers and writers like Voltaire and Rousseau promised to create a fair and just world for the people of France. Rousseau wrote about populism and the non-divinity of Kings and about wealth inequality. He wrote about the lack of morality pervading France (in reference to past scientific and cultural advances which brought other societies the collapse of their virtues): “It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste.” Voltaire was particularly incensed by the Catholic Church and what he considered their corruption and argued against treating Christian miracles as reported fact (undoing Paul’s work in his Epistles). He was a fierce opponent of the Eucharist, the object that was to become the focus of Fetish-Worship in the matured Catholic Church:

 “They say that as almost all popular opinions are built upon ambiguities and abuse of words, so the system of the Roman Catholics concerning the Eucharist and transubstantiation is founded solely on an ambiguity; that they have interpreted literally what could only have been meant figuratively; and that for the sake of mere verbal contests, for absolute misconceptions, the world has for six hundred years been drenched in blood.”

               Taking literally what was meant figuratively was the flaw that undid the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Christian Faith according to Voltaire. He argued that the construction of the tenets of Catholicism was the creation of a story, a fiction which led to repression and violence. Voltaire’s critique was one, along with other Enlightenment philosophers, which engendered hostility to the French Church and undermined belief in the story of Christianity. Decay of belief in Christianity in places which had resisted the spread of Protestantism during the Reformation was an ominous indication that the foundational institutions of the secular State were at risk.

             These cultural and philosophical changes were important, and the Revolutionary movement needed leaders, apostles, martyrs, and missionaries to do its work. But truly, the old faith was crushed by the Ancien Régime’s (a term for France’s government before the Revolution) inability to change, its sclerotic body unable (or unwilling) to work on behalf of the will of the people. A succession of ministers tried to reform and fund the State, but found no traction, and argued and schemed amongst themselves to the neglect of their objectives. In the more “mundane” causes of the French Revolution, financial collapse figures prominently. Attempts by a series of ministers to stem State spending and to broaden the tax base were refuted when they attempted to tax the nobility. Attempts by at least four different Finance Ministers to reform taxation in the 1780’s (The French Revolution “began” in 1789 but an acute preceding crisis lasted for about five years before) did not work.

“Alas, yes! a whole world to remake, if she could see it; work for another than she! For all is wrong, and gone out of joint; the inward spiritual, and the outward economical; head or heart, there is no soundness in it. As indeed, evils of all sorts are more or less of kin, and do usually go together: especially it is an old truth, that wherever huge physical evil is, there, as the parent and origin of it, has moral evil to a proportionate extent been. Before those five-and-twenty labouring Millions, for instance, could get that haggardness of face, which old Mirabeau now looks on, in a Nation calling itself Christian, and calling man the brother of man,–what unspeakable, nigh infinite Dishonesty (of seeming and not being) in all manner of Rulers, and appointed Watchers, spiritual and temporal, must there not, through long ages, have gone on accumulating! It will accumulate: moreover, it will reach a head; for the first of all Gospels is this, that a Lie cannot endure for ever.” (Chapter 1.2.III, Questionable)

               Carlyle frequently associates debt with corruption – the financial bankruptcy of France is tied directly to the moral bankruptcy of France. Here Carlyle is constructing a story, telling the reader what it is that led to the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Moral decay is an often-observed phenomenon by historians and political essayists, but it seems to be more of a feeling backed by cherry-picked examples. Subjective judgments such as this are easier to construct now with the exponential increase in decontextualized information.

               Surrounding us on social media, and other modes of communication, are those constantly spreading their evangel and rooting-out heresy. Just as Paul reinforced specific narratives of Christianity in his letters chastising wayward Christians, we find MAGA-evangelists telling people who a “real” Republican is, or Bitcoiners telling us that “Altcoins” are false prophets, and there is no other way to salvation than through BTC.

               At the moment of creation of the first “mined block” of Bitcoin, a message imbedded in it by the inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, noted that the British government was on the verge of a second bank bailout. As the bank failures of the Great Financial Crisis continued, the disappointments which increased to calls for regulation and sanction of the financial system grew. Bitcoin’s rise in popularity was directly connected to the Great Financial Crisis and the Euro crisis (and attending banking crises). The Great Financial Crisis spawned any number of political and social movements in the United States and around the world, as the financial crisis, stock market decline, and economic recession led people to remark and act on inequality, moral decline, and the illegitimacy of governments.

               Again linking moral decline and financial decline, the online community of Bitcoiners revolves around a moral and political philosophy, particularly in attacking the banking system. Satoshi Nakamoto once wrote: “It’s very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint if we can explain it properly. I’m better with code than with words though.” The earliest mythology which grew around Bitcoin, promoted using the words of the half-mythic Satoshi, was that it appealed to a much larger group, a political group, than programmers. This is the beginning of creating a story which separates the historical Satoshi from the mythical one. Satoshi disappeared, he stopped posting or responding to emails in 2011. While speculative, he may have left because he was worried about criminal sanction from the government or a general desire for privacy. His reason for the disappearance being relatively unimportant, it allowed a mythology to be built around him without the person himself being there to refute any of it.

               In our post-modern world, where spiritual belief is consumed and destroyed by science and replaced with ravenous consumption, the sins of excess are generalized. Grave sins of inequality were in a different context in the past, one where people owned other human beings as property as a matter of routine social convention. It is not the absolute but the relative that matters in most things, as it always has, but especially in the era of mass communications. It is the distance between oppressor and oppressed that is important for social cohesion. From a panoramic view of society, one that is cold and bloodless, it could be said that the object of social reform should be to break down the barriers created by class (or any other prominent social marker) as much as possible to maintain stability. This pinions the wings of the civilizational evils of war and revolution, which harm people as they initiate change.

 

La Liberté guidant le peuple, painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830

 (Source: Louvre Museum, Paris)

The Paper Age

               What broke the French social system (Carlyle posits) is the lack of belief in the efficacy and justice of that social system. Inching into the ideologies of France came a creeping nihilism that seems so familiar to us now. It was not really the starvation, the taxation, the uncaring brutality of the regime that radicalized the people of France, it was the destruction of hope for the future and the simultaneous emergence of faith in new forms of hope for the future. This is not as easy to measure as many things, it is something hard to quantify, but the basic cause of the Revolution was the sins of the Ancien Régime, the moral collapse that continued until people lost faith in the leadership of the government. Many may see these same themes now in our lives, pervasive. In any story involving the great movements of the world it is axiomatic that, in an era of uncertainty and hope for the future, frauds and conmen surround the scene, becoming heroes for one forlorn group or another. Repeatedly, the concerns and condition of the great mass of people (25 million dispossessed people in the case of France, as Carlyle reminds us) were utterly ignored. Met with contempt or hangings, protests leading up to the convulsion were not enough to change the foundations of the government.

               That author called this “The Paper Age” in France, the era proceeding the Revolution which was full of fraud and perfidy. Corruption of philosophy, of finances, and Christianity pervaded the state:

“For indeed it is of apoplexy, so to speak, and a plethoric lazy habit of body, that Churches, Kingships, Social Institutions, oftenest die. Sad, when such Institution plethorically says to itself, Take thy ease, thou hast goods laid up;–like the fool of the Gospel, to whom it was answered, Fool, this night thy life shall be required of thee!

Is it the healthy peace, or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France, for these next Ten Years? Over which the Historian can pass lightly, without call to linger: for as yet events are not, much less performances. Time of sunniest stillness;–shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of God? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities,–beautiful art, not only of revealing Thought, but also of so beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper.–What wisest Philosophe, in this halcyon uneventful period, could prophesy that there was approaching, big with darkness and confusion, the event of events? Hope ushers in a Revolution,–as earthquakes are preceded by bright weather. On the Fifth of May, fifteen years hence, old Louis will not be sending for the Sacraments; but a new Louis, his grandson, with the whole pomp of astonished intoxicated France, will be opening the States-General.” (Chapter 1.2.I. The Paper Age)

               As discontent increased, the clearly delineated objects of outrage disseminated by the pamphlet-writing evangelists fueled mob violence and the increasingly bold and public displays of antipathy toward the venerable institutions of the past. One of the prefiguring riots of the Revolution was an attack on a local factory-owner instigated by a mob’s misinterpretation of an essay he wrote about wages (Chapter 1.4.III. Grown Electric). A mob does not have an ideology, it cannot provide sustained belief, it burns out after it has expressed its rage, but the use of violence as a communal social act was an act foreshadowing the violence to come. What started as riots ended in Holy War. All of the organs of the state were ripped down one by one as false idols. In their place was founded a committee for the People, and a new national religion founded on science and rationality with the sovereign authority emanating from the “Will of the People” and not from God. An important figure in the early stages of the Revolution, Mirabeau, told a representative of the King at the meeting of the Estates General: “’Go, Monsieur, tell these who sent you that we are here by the will of the People, and that nothing shall send us hence but the force of bayonets!’” (Chapter 1.5.II, Mercury de Brézé).

               The Storming of the Bastille (a fort and prison in Paris, a symbol of the oppressive Regime) marks the “official” beginning of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789. Direct, physical attacks would henceforth occur against the State, attacks that were not countered by important military and law enforcement arms of the State. Simultaneously attacked along with the symbols of the Monarchy was the Church in France. A church was attacked a few nights before the assault on the Bastille, the mob accused the Priests of hoarding food and destroyed and burned the building (Chapter 1.5.V, Give us Arms). Many such attacks occurred all over France from citizens inspired with Revolutionary fervor. A year to the day after that first attack on the Church (Saint-Lazare) the  French National Assembly (the Revolutionary government that uneasily coexisted with the Monarchy before its destruction) promulgated the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” which stripped members of the Catholic Clergy of all their special and separate rights in France.

               After the Fall of the Bastille, pamphleteer Claude Desmoulins (who personally incited mob-violence a few days before) wrote:       

“The return of that liberty to the French people was reserved for our days. Yes, she has already been returned to us; she does not yet have a temple for the States General, like that of Delphos in Greece, for the assembly of the Amphictyons; or that of Concord in Rome, for the assembly of the Senate; but she is already adored in tones louder than a whisper, and the worship of her is public. For forty years philosophy has been undermining the foundations of despotism in all its parts; and, as Rome before Caesar was already enslaved by its vices, so France before Necker was already enfranchised by its intelligence.” (La France Libre, https://melkam.livejournal.com/693.html)

               In this pamphlet the rot of the old regime and a search for an entirely new object of worship is stated plainly. All old things were dying, their deaths spurred by new ideologies and hopes which existed before the financial crises and calls for reform began under the French Finance Minister, Jacques Necker (his first term, his second term ending was the catalyst for violence of July 12, 1789). There was an attempt to sweep away all the vestigial limbs of past belief. Revolutionary government in France systematically dismantled the secular powers and wealth of the Catholic Church in France. The new French State created a calendar, the French Republican Calendar (with a “rational” ten-day week), to replace the Catholic one. Priests were placed under secular authority, the traditional role of the Church in maintaining records of births, deaths, and marriages was usurped, the wealth of the Church was seized, members of the clergy were executed and massacred, and aspects of public worship were banned. After several years, there were multiple attempts to establish a new state religion. Two of them were created and celebrated as official religions, the Cult of Reason, and Robespierre’s competing Cult of the Supreme Being. In a quite theatrical Revolution, the theatricality of the celebrations for the Revolutionary religious cults stands out. The Cult of Reason was a belief in the philosophical precepts of the Enlightenment, with an embrace of atheism. A Festival celebrating reason was conducted in none other than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, including symbolic representations of Liberty and Reason (Chapter 3.5.IV, Carmagnole complete). The famous Robespierre, leader of the political faction known as the Jacobins and the architect of the Reign of Terror, and for a time, the de facto dictator of Revolutionary France, thought the atheism of the Cult of Reason was destructive, and called for the veneration of a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. Quoting Carlyle (again): “Catholicism being burned out, and Reason-worship guillotined, was there not need of one? Incorruptible Robespierre, not unlike the Ancients, as Legislator of a free people will now also be Priest and Prophet” (Chapter 3.6.IV, Mumbo-Jumbo). In this manner Robespierre tried to combine both secular and spiritual authority, but these new religions failed to take hold, unable to replace Christianity’s monopoly on belief.

               The various councils and written works of Christians, starting with the Pauline Epistles and stretching to, say, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, established the “rules” of Christian belief. That process of codification and creation of the distinction between “Truth” and “heresy” allowed the Cult of Christianity to exist with a uniformity of message and institutional cohesion. The firming of a set of rules and the consequent knowledge that others believe the same things you believe potentiates the viability of conversion to non-believers. Irenaeus, a Christian who wrote a refutation of heresies and affirmation of the power and faith of the both the Early Church and the Truth of  Paul’s and the Gospel’s interpretation of the life of Christ, was an early example (in the mid-100’s AD) of the firming of rules against direct spiritual revelation (generally known as Gnosticism). The Ecumenical Councils decided the books which would be included in the Bible, and the order in which they would appear and they decreed which beliefs were heretical and which were not, creating a centralized form of governance and belief for the Christian religion. After long and trying wars, famines, and economic strife, Christianity became to be seen by secular powers as a method of instilling social unity in the people of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, ending almost 300 years of persecution of the cult by the State. Becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire also gave the decisions of the Church’s councils the force of law. This phase of codification and consolidation of Christianity strengthened its path toward the social dominance of a religion.

               Bitcoin’s technological innovation of creating a chain of trust, backed by mathematical verification, is a tool and tools are merely instruments of the will of those who wield them. New modes of trust, faith, and belief are being created and tested, the arguments about them now reverberating through to consensus. Some arguments will win, others will lose. There is a burgeoning codification, but there does not exist a uniform belief system yet. The orientation of Bitcoin-believers is toward freedom from the failed financial system of the State and cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin are in the social phase of codification. There is a struggle to define what the meaning and place of these digital innovations are or what they will be; there is a struggle to create a narrative that will place them in society as a new institution. Acknowledgement of Bitcoin’s existence and rudimentary forms of regulation hastened Bitcoin’s adoption. A Federal Judge declared Bitcoin a “form of money” which could be then regulated by the government in 2013 and the period from 2012-2014 saw a host of companies declare that they would accept Bitcoin for payment. Its first great battle, and one it is still fighting, is the war against the idea that Bitcoin is used only by criminals and for criminal activity. The adoption of BTC’s use by corporations and some regulation of exchange provided a counter to this argument. BTC won the narrative battle to become something seen as acceptable to society, but it is still a fractured community, with other prominent crypto-currencies and “forks” in the blockchain serving as opposition.

 

(Source: Wikimedia Commons from user – Onov3056)

Rise and Fall – from Cult to Religion

“It is thus everywhere that foolish Rumour babbles not of what was done, but of what was misdone or undone; and foolish History (ever, more or less, the written epitomised synopsis of Rumour) knows so little that were not as well unknown. Attila Invasions, Walter-the-Penniless Crusades, Sicilian Vespers, Thirty-Years Wars: mere sin and misery; not work, but hindrance of work! For the Earth, all this while, was yearly green and yellow with her kind harvests; the hand of the craftsman, the mind of the thinker rested not: and so, after all, and in spite of all, we have this so glorious high-domed blossoming World; concerning which, poor History may well ask, with wonder, Whence it came? She knows so little of it, knows so much of what obstructed it, what would have rendered it impossible. Such, nevertheless, by necessity or foolish choice, is her rule and practice; whereby that paradox, ‘Happy the people whose annals are vacant,’ is not without its true side.” (Chapter 1.2.I, Astræa Redux)

               Examination of basic cause and effect, or the imposition of a facsimile of cause and effect (for events do not travel in orderly fashion) to give us a sense of order and understanding of events is a basic feature of history. A conclusion which can be safely drawn from approximately 500 years of the process of scientific inquiry is that causality is hard to establish with any degree of certainty. Every major event or turning point in human history follows a path-dependent route with an almost infinite chain of causality.

               Creation of a narrative – especially the mirroring of nature with a “rise and fall” narrative – is the goal of Carlyle’s writing. Placing the reader in the middle of a story provides a structure where they can observe what the author thinks is important. This is ironic because we know these narratives are always untrue (if not useful); Carlyle is revealing the nature of faith and belief while advancing his own understanding of the world. Our lives are proscribed at inception, with no appeals accepted and no motions for relief granted. Of course, this is true of all things, every being, institution, and organization flashes into being and then slowly subsides. So when we tell stories about empires, or social movements, or wars, or lives there is an innate structure of rise and fall to which we are attracted and repelled. This narrative is a lie as the only certain things are beginnings and endings. Middles are messes. But, those beginnings and endings can be complex, too, often muffled and hazy – we cannot see them even though we know they exist. Birth and death, the points compassing our linear journey through life, are clouded and ineffable – inconceivable. And, like our lives, so are the beginning and endpoints of leaders and civilizations. One moment they existed and the next they did not, their forms never truly visible, but only existing in the collective minds of their participants. The seat of belief is not a trifling matter, if enough people believe the same thing, they will certainly exact change.

               There is a pattern to the adoption of novel ideas. Believers swell their ranks with other believers, and collective action begins to impress an impact on the world outside of the confines of the cultists’ minds. There is no more powerful result of belief than the ascendancy of Bitcoin in terms of its price in United States Dollars. Price increase is a measurable sign of success, it is an idea around which one can build a story, any story – if it involves Bitcoin becoming the Reserve Currency, or a replacement for Gold, or a bet against hyper-inflation. The continuous rise in price recently spurred renewed interest from important financial institutions in Bitcoin – the narrative of price increases creating a direct line to adoption enabled by the secular State. Five reasons for Bitcoin’s surge in price are enumerated in this piece: (1) “For professional investors, there’s no longer career risk in buying bitcoin,” (2) which means “institutional money is starting to pour into bitcoin,” (3) “The U.S. government is flashing a green light [that Bitcoin will not be over-regulated], (4) “Bitcoin has a breakout new evangelist,” and (5) “A lot of people are nervous about the global monetary system — especially the dollar.”  All five of those reasons are molded by sentiment based on price action and not by qualities inherent in Bitcoin, it’s part of another story being created at this instant.

               As I noted, Carlyle’s history consciously attempts to tell the story of the French Revolution as if he were narrating an action in front us. Descending into the chamber of Louis XV to recite the actions of characters milling about as that King lay on his deathbed, as if the author were an omniscient, unseen observer, for example, brings to the reader an immediacy of emotion and feeling which is lacking in a dry recitation of facts. In this immediacy lies a truth about the French Revolution: the overthrow of the monarchy and Dechristianization were not enough to satisfy the mass of people, who were, first and foremost, hungry. Carlyle’s narration highlights the struggle of regular people (while ironically following the “Great Men” who turn belief into action), who were, for one of the first times in history, and only for a short time, the master of events. With nothing viable given to replace their former beliefs, the people, and therefore the national Revolutionary movement, descended into chaos with hundreds of factions and belief-systems vying for control of the nation (Chapter 3.3.I, Cause and Effect). It is secular power that was vital and disputed as a result of the absence of the unity of Belief, leading to the Reign of Terror and the ultimate collapse of the Revolutionary government in Napoleon’s coup. The horror of so many events in the Revolution given immediacy by Carlyle’s interpretation displays the powers unleashed (or kept in check) by Belief, especially when these Beliefs can harness violence which is used or condoned by the secular State.

               Christianity was given a formal place in society by Constantine, but the Catholic Church did not have true secular power – it did not become the monumental edifice of the Middle Ages – until the “Donation of Pepin” in 756 AD. This was a grant of conquered territory by the secular French power to the Church, to control physically and rule over (what became known as the Papal States). After this point, the Catholic Church had the power to defend its own interests, beyond social and cultural impact. France became allied with the Catholic Church, intertwining their powers, though France was not yet what could be called a nation-state at this point. Give or take a hundred years, this time period marked the end of formation of Papal and spiritual authority in the cult of Christianity, and the beginning of the exercise of that authority as the Catholic Church. 700 years of increasing social, cultural, moral, and physical power ended in a catastrophe of corruption and conflict with incipient nation-states and the forces of populism unleashed by increased literacy and communications technology during the Reformation. The ability to impose law by physical force is the last marker of the transition from cult to religion. It was only through a grant of power by another regional force that finally secured the place of Christianity as a world power.

 

Creation of Adam, Fresco, by Michelangelo
(Source: Sistine Chapel)

The Past is not the Future

               The relationship between the present world and the examination and construction of history is as a person walking forward and looking backwards. The only thing you can learn from history is what types of obstacles may be in your path after you’ve already passed them, but it does not predict when and how those obstacles will be encountered.

               If modern tools can reveal to us the hidden worlds and movements of the past, can their use also conceal obvious truths? The matchless abundance of computational power which defines our modern world is also its most disorienting feature. In gathering enormous amounts of data, we are easily drowned instead of buoyantly uplifted. History was once clouded by lack of information, by an inability to see an entire scene or sequence, by limited records and facts. Now even recent history is clouded by an abundance of these same features. We must make peace with the fact that history is not the Truth, it is a story, as all human institutions and ideas are. They are stories-in-motion or they are dead and hollow. We cannot make sense of the immensity that is “everything” – we must simplify if we are to act and to attempt to understand how we got to where we are standing now. Is it all random? At times, yes, at others, no. Careful examination of data may sometimes find things that are deeper than the incorrect assumptions we often make about the world, but we may also conceal obvious truths. The three stories I just outlined (of the rise of Christianity, the convulsion of the French Revolution, and the rise of Bitcoin) are all narratives, wherein we take events and imbue them with meaning based on what happened following each action.

               All cults exist as a refutation of state power, as a well-spring from which discontent flows toward the dominant social institutions. But not all cults succeed in becoming the new social institutions. There is always a tension between our knowledge of events and our knowledge of their causes and the past is not a blueprint which can be used to construct the future. A series of beliefs, held and acted on by enough people, can construct the future, however. The Catholic Church’s dominant grip over Europe eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. Emperor Napoleon outlawed the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, restoring Catholicism as the official religion of France. Bitcoin may be co-opted by the State, outlawed, fail completely, or become the international reserve currency. The future is not predetermined by the past.

               If one wanted to make a rule out of these stories, it could be: (1) cults arise in eras of perceived moral and financial decline, which (2) cause people to lose faith in the primary institutions of the day, (3) the downfall of old orders are mythologized through stories of decay and the founding of the cult is mythologized by modified interpretations of the founder – who often is the object of worship, cults then go through a phase of (4) strengthening their message of salvation and certainty for the future through codification and elimination of heresies and spread as faith in present institutions continues to decline, and finally, (5) successful cults become religions intertwined with, or possessing on their own accord, the secular powers of the State and become part of the ruling institutions.

               No two stories are alike, however, but processing the general paths of cults as they are born and then spread can restore clarity to the mass-mobilization of ideas. Ideas become actions and the link between those two points are the forge of social change. Dissemination of ideas becoming ever-more ubiquitous and rapid accelerates and decentralizes this process and causes an eruption of cults, each a possible source of foundational change. Everything told between birth and death, and as obscured as those two encompassing moments might be by myths – they are indisputable, is pure fiction. The fiction of the “rise and fall” has a tight hold on the imagination of people, and ultimately of their opinion. These stories, themselves, create the momentum of change by bending people’s beliefs.

               Belief itself is sovereign. Near the end of the Gospel of John, there is a line that sums the purpose of the book and highlights the power of constructed belief, the object of worship, and of certainty and hope in the future:

“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” – John 20:31, KJV


[NOTE] There exist the lesser cults of celebrity worship, a facet of mass media being that anyone in front of a camera enough times will become globally known, regardless of their achievements or merits. Insult Beyonce or Kanye West online and you will feel the wrath of their supporters. Celebrity worship lacks the all-encompassing simplicity of “One Big Idea” which successful cults provide, and therefore does not generate the strength of belief that the other cults do. Celebrity-worship may be intense, but there must be an object of faith and certainty beyond mere admiration and reason to create the types of cults which may yet become religions. Other modern cults that will never become religions include QAnon, belief in which can be falsified by the mere passage of time, and Scientology, which is too exposed by media to become more successful (it’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, supposedly once said “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” h/t @valuestockgeek via Twitter).

Mobs and Riots

Reconstruction

Ulysses Grant, Union General and President of the United States, is more popular now than at any time since the 1880’s. After his death, he was long regarded as an inferior general, a poor President, and an unremarkable and flawed man. With a host of biographies and changing views on racism, his formerly withered reputation is blooming.

Grant’s military career and Presidency are an excellent example of the sandy foundations of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The moral clarity of his Presidency will henceforth protect him, inasmuch as there is a public memory of him at all in our relentlessly forward-looking society. But in the focus on the shifting opinions of Grant’s career, the context of his moral-firmness is a revelation of vicious inhumanity and tribalism.

Reconstruction is (probably, though I’m sure there are other contenders) the most shameful period of American history.

After the Civil War ended and slavery abolished it became clear that the true driving force of Southern society’s defense of slavery was not its economics, or based in regional conservatism (in the sense of unchanging institutions), or competing views of Federal power – it was based on social tribalism.

Subjugation, the institutionalized inferiority of black people for no other benefit than maintaining a particular division of social standing, became the primary goal of radical Southern political movements.

And the history of that tribalism and those political movements is shockingly depraved and revolutionary.

There were:

  • Massacres of black people, in some cases hundreds at a time
  • Literal coups, where state government’s were overthrown by armed force
  • Widespread Terrorism across the former Confederate states
  • Massive Federal military intervention, including the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus

By the end of Grant’s second term in office, Reconstruction was abandoned. And why did Reconstruction end without enforcing the rights of full citizenship of freed slaves? It was subsumed by national politics.

In the last three weeks, there were two nationally-known incidents (several others but these received the most attention) which intimately concerned race and policing.

The Destruction of Amy Cooper

A white woman used the police as an implicit threat on the physical health and safety of a black man. The reaction to the video of the incident being made public was animated by a modern mob, a digital one. Without passing judgment on her digital destruction, it is an example of the power of social media to amplify tribal signaling. Much of the backlash became about showing everyone else that “they were on the right side,” dare I call it virtue signaling?

The Murder of a Black Man

The murder of George Floyd was a clear example of the aggression and callousness of modern policing. But these protests, riots, and the reaction to them, have gone far beyond this initial outrage. Looting, arson, and people dissatisfied about other aspects of the social order have joined in, and muddied the focused protests over policing.

A Riot is a Signal

Mob violence is an expression of rage and tribalism. A mob, a riot, is a thing-in-itself, not connected to any particular ideology – in the post-Civil War south, riots were anti-black affairs. They were both political tools and a signal of dissatisfaction with the current social regime. We now judge this harshly, but it was, at its base, a signal to the occupying Federal forces, and enough northerners grew tired of constant intervention that they became effective political tools.  And public perceptions of those riots became the currency of national politics, deeply influencing the course of political events.

One thing that people tend to forget when they’re caught-up in idealism or discussions on policy: organized violence is effective. It goes both ways, the violence of the mob can produce real change, the suppression of the mob through violence can stifle it.

These incidents now are also in the process of being subsumed by national politics. The construction of narratives in relation to these protests both destroys nuance and is necessary to try to resolve the deep unease generated by chaos.

If I were to exhort people toward one action it would be to resist, and resist deeply, the temptation to blame all of  this on one of our two political tribes. These tribes will use this chaos to advance their fight over the throne, and not for reform.

Sound and Fury

Sound and Fury

Amid the uproar over the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, documenting (supposedly) the inner workings of the Trump White House and campaign, two incidents have not gotten the attention they deserve. And they portend grave ills in our political system.

First, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempted the state of Florida from natural gas and oil drilling off its coast. Republican governor Rick Scott met with Zinke and afterward Zinke indicated that he had allowed the exemption at the governor’s request. Zinke has not indicated that democratically-run states could get similar exemptions. Along with the tax bill recently passed this is a clear example of Republican punishment of blue states.

Second, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released testimony by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS (commissioners of the infamous Steele dossier) without the consent and approval of Republicans. This action outraged the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Partisan clefting in the Committee displays an utter lack of cooperation and shared goals by the individuals tasked with running our government.

Winner-take-all

Key to these two incidents is evidence of intensifying winner-take-all effects in American political life. Laws are not passed and policy changes are not made unless one party controls majorities in the branches of government.

This fact is salient: Government has shifted from the mean to the outliers. While it may be true that our government was not as bipartisan in the past as it may seem from our current perspective, the political parties no longer shift to the middle in order to enact policy or win votes. Intolerant minorities now control policy and because of people’s political tribalism they will vote with a party or candidate with an extreme view as long as they are labeled Republican or Democrat. That is to say: people would rather vote and support a viewpoint with which they do not strongly agree as long as those candidates and policies are labeled and marketed as being part of their party.

Going as far back as the Affordable Care Act’s passage under the Obama Administration, passed with no Republican votes, the political parties have shown an inability to compromise. While this changing landscape has been analyzed, remarked-upon, and derided it has recently lost some attention due to the abhorrent and tumultuous Trump Administration. It is clear that the Trump Administration is a symptom, not the disease.

Going Forward

Partisanship, particularly the takeover of the Republican Party by an intolerant, radical minority, will stretch beyond the current administration. It is myopic to believe that all will be well after the inevitable downfall of President Trump – the American people and political system are not dealing with the causes of Trump’s rise in the first instance.

It is an irony that part of Trump’s appeal was in not belonging to a political party, that he was not part of the stagnant and dysfunctional establishment, but that his election has exacerbated the partisan divide in the country.

Dysfunction in Washington is here to stay, and while the issues of collusion and incompetence are important, in the arc of history it will be remembered as being “sound and fury” and not the central issue of the time.

Asymmetry Between Trump and the Media

Lies and Truth

Modern political history is replete with an interesting oddity. One politician is accused of inappropriate conduct in a salacious sex scandal and their career is ruined. Another is accused and nothing happens.

President Trump lies incessantly. No one truly disputes this, even supporters. At this point, Trump’s lies present an exclamation point on his out-sized personality and don’t have any truly negative consequences. On the other hand, if CNN makes a slight error in its reporting on Trump, there is outrage and disaster.

Since Trump’s swearing-in there have been dozens of stories that were negative of the Trump administration that have been retracted or corrected. Every time this happens it provides ammunition for Trump and those who maintain his cult to fire broadsides against the “fake news media.”

Every time Trump lies nothing happens, every time a news outlet “lies” there is serious harm to their credibility, especially in the eyes of Trump supporters. This asymmetry in consequences for mistakes and untruth is devastating to news organizations.

Since the philosophy and public function of news organizations is centered around truthfulness they have more to lose by being seen as “untruthful” than someone who has no credibility in terms of honesty. Failure to be accurate and honest in covering the Trump administration may only happen a very small number of times in any particular “news room” but that happening undermines honest, incisive reporting of abuses by the government.

The Ethics of Journalism and Bias

At the founding of the nation, there were not “journalistic” ethics like we currently have. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, in particular, ran newspapers that reported unverified, scandalous and insulting stories and opinion pieces attacking one another’s political parties. There was no pretension to high ethics and impartiality: newspapers were on the parapets of an ideological battlefield between differing visions for the government and country. People were deeply divided and the interest of party often predominated over the interests of the nation, there were unsettled legal questions as to what powers belonged to which segments of government, and there were abuses of the peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. In spite of all this venom and difficulty, the nation continued to grow and prosper.

What now?

It is foolish to directly compare any two historical time periods, narratives and anecdotes make two eras appear more similar than they actually were. But what we can take from journalism at the founding of our nation is the idea that perhaps the secret to dealing with a lying President and a media with no credibility is to ignore them both. Time will reveal the successes or failures of the current President (and I believe time will not be kind to him) and it will smooth the breathless, semi-hysterical coverage proffered by news organizations.

When there are severe abuses and corruption, they should be checked, vigorously inspected, and the information used for opposition, but the reports should truly be scandalous. In the recent past a major headline may have presented itself to a reader twice a day, or once on the evening news. That gave both journalists and the public time to ingest important information and for journalists to check the accuracy of their reporting. Speed in reporting and the constant inundation of news has made the signal indistinct from the noise. Ironically, news outlets not interested in placing themselves on the pedestal of journalistic ethics lose their asymmetry in regards to their coverage of government, and this President and need not worry about this danger of speed in reporting.

Media companies on the right, with no pretension of pure and absolute integrity, have a tremendous advantage over the media organizations which claim they are journalistic watchdogs. Breitbart, for instance, can propagandize without losing legitimacy for inaccuracies. Once again, it all comes down to the people who read the news, and ignorance is bliss.

Individuals who are less plugged-in to the news, who are less concerned about both the stream of lies from the President and catching the President in a lie, are more likely to eventually receive truly accurate news about the state of the country and the government. On the other hand, this present state of affairs is probably not going to be “solved.” It is naive to think that news organizations who only propagandize can produce critical reporting, just as it is naive to think that “traditional” news organizations will stop rushing to produce headlines (and thereby suffer the reverses that erode the public’s faith in them). It is also totally naive to believe that people will suddenly become more careful and cautious consumers of media, people will remain as they have throughout history. They may be periodically influenced by journalism, advertising, and propaganda, but they will certainly not suddenly become aware of all their own biases and shortcomings and correct themselves.

Our country and government survived the vicious “journalistic” atmosphere at the founding of the nation by simply persevering until new standards and technologies and beliefs changed the cultural and social landscape. Disasters will force action, otherwise people and nations will continue to plug along. In short, there is nothing much the public, or journalism, can do to confront the issues made plain by the asymmetry between Trump and the media outlets which report on him. We may all be a little healthier by trying to unplug a little more, however.