Judging things by their side effects

Normally I’d feel like writing this on the blog would be gauche. Believe it or not, I am trying to avoid fueling the culture war when possible, but something very specific caught my eye, and I’ve been feeling the need to address it for a long time.

This Medium post has been written about the Google Manifesto. Please read it. And then please read the following paragraph five times:

I am not staking out a position on the Google Manifesto. I am not staking out a position on this blog post. I am not making any comment whatsoever on anything object level or anything meta level concerning the political event or the blog post. What I am doing is taking an excerpt from this blog post that concerns me, and that I believe to be broadly representative of a social trend, and using this blog post as a convenient springboard to provide a context in which I can introduce my discussion. This is not a response to the Medium author. If at any point you wish to respond to anything I’ve said with “the Medium post didn’t say that”, then please don’t. I am not responding to the Medium post. I am responding to a broad trend that I perceive across certain elements of society.

Have you read the Medium article in full? Have you read the preceding paragraph five times? Then let’s begin.

For a while I have been considering a vague, half-formed thought that keeps floating around the edges of my ideas. To be blunt: when interacting with people who fall in the general direction of “Social Justice Politics,” their comments and actions are sufficiently baffling to me that I have a very hard time assuming good faith. Of course, assuming bad faith is a rather grim disposition, and if you find yourself assuming bad faith, you should consider this a warning light that you are missing some key detail. I’ve spent a lot, a lot of time trying to identify a key detail that fits into my mystery. I’ve considered some candidates, but they all inevitably strike me as “how can someone possibly believe that?”

A passage in this Medium post has put words to one of my more promising candidate key details. I still find myself somewhat at a loss for how anyone could believe this, but at least it feels right. Consequently, it should be noted explicitly that this blog post is epistemic status: exploratory. Every single statement that I make in this post should be interpreted as something like “is this true?” or “suppose this is true, what happens?”

The passage I’m interested in is the bolded part. The rest is quoted for a little bit of context within the article.

So it seems that someone has seen fit to publish an internal manifesto about gender and our “ideological echo chamber.” I think it’s important that we make a couple of points clear.

(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.

(2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.

(3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.

The author does not think it important to address upfront whether or not the manifesto’s statements are true. However, the author does think it is important to address upfront that the manifesto’s statements are dangerous. Further, he elevates the danger to be his biggest and most important concern.

He appears to believe that the side effects of saying words are strictly more important than the actual information content of these words.

It is my position that normatively this is a bad idea. I have two main reasons. First of all, it plays into something I’ve been calling “active denial of causality.” In a nutshell, it supposes that if an action (in this case, a statement) correlates with any negative effects whatsoever, then this is automatically bad and must be stopped, by a point intervention that forcibly shifts society in the direction away from the bad thing. In this case: Manifesto Author wrote the manifesto (action), and then people were hurt (correlation), so we must do whatever it takes to punish him and stop him or others from writing things like this again (forcible shift).

The critical detail missing from that line of reasoning is the mechanisms by which any of those things are related to each other. There is a post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy: He wrote this post, and then people were hurt. There appears to be no rational evaluation of how or why this happened. No consideration of other factors in play, and no meaningful allowance for any alternative explanations. So, for example, it is assumed as an inviolable axiom that the manifesto author is the only person with agency. It is assumed that his action always necessarily causes the harms posited and that the only way to stop them is to prevent his action. The idea that someone could possibly disagree with him and address him head on without exploding into threats and insults is written off without so much as a thought.

This dogmatic, unthinking insistence on a direct cause-effect relationship, with no attempt made at understanding contexts or motivations, creates a bigger problem. If the causes are arbitrary and direct, then changes can be as well. There appears to be a sincere, genuine belief that all it takes to stop this from ever happening again is a well-timed banhammer. This completely denies any discussion of the underlying causes of why someone might write this. It completely denies any other underlying causes for why people reading it may be hurt by it. It completely denies that there will be any side-effect reaction to the implementation of this banhammer. It is an authoritarian high modernist fallacy, assuming that anything not legible doesn’t exist.

This is bad and dangerous, in general, because it will cause people to make mistakes. This kind of thinking leads to an attitude that underlying structures do not matter, and can be blown away without a second thought if they are inconveniently in the way. It is the philosophical equivalent of an architect who smashes down load-bearing walls without hesitation, purely because the room was the wrong size. This makes buildings collapse. Or, to use an analogy the left might like: “If we blow up terrorists, there will be no terrorists to blow us up” is an insane and ridiculous statement because, among other things, it assumes that blowing up terrorists will not radicalize any new terrorists.

The second reason is somewhat more mundane and practical, but even more important.

If, when somebody makes a statement of fact, our primary concern is with whether or not those facts are true, this is a tractable problem. We can establish, for a certain subset of claims anyway, an objective and unchanging standard of truth. This allows all of us to coordinate against that standard, which facilitates communication and understanding.

In practice, one of our main standards of truth is a cluster of ideas that are broadly referred to as “the scientific method.” Essentially: An idea is proposed, data is collected, statistical methods are applied to the data in order to validate it, and then a conclusion is written, tying the observed data to the proposed idea.

Observed data is not up for argument. It is not up for debate. You cannot deny it, unless your argument is “the person providing this data is lying.” Statistically concluded data is not quite as ironclad, but it still cannot be denied unless one has concerns about the underlying data or statistical confounders.

Contrasting to this, if one’s primary concern is not with whether or not a statement is true, but whether or not it is dangerous, this is a much more subjective thing. If I measure something at 100kg, it is 100kg. It is 100kg regardless of who you are, where you are, what you are. However, if your assertion is “telling me that this thing is 100kg is dangerous,” that is more subjective. You can’t make the claim “this is universally dangerous,” only “this is dangerous to me.” Because different people will have different thresholds for danger, this makes it much harder to coordinate, communicate, and understand each other. It creates impossible-to-understand situations. It creates fundamental disagreements that ultimately cannot be resolved without resorting to violence, whether symbolic or physical.

This is important when one is creating systems that are supposed to stand as absolute, objective standards that we coordinate around. For example, if your rule is “anyone under 100kg can attend”, this is a rule everyone can easily understand. If your rule is “anyone who is not dangerous can attend”, what then? How do I know if I am dangerous? Do we use my standard of danger? Your standard? What if our standards are different? How am I supposed to know ahead of time whether or not I am allowed to attend?

In extreme cases, major ambiguities in social norms like this can be exploited by sociopathic bad actors. I don’t think I need to get into details on this; if you read our blog regularly, you can think of some examples.

If we adopt a social norm that the side effects of speech are more important than its truth value, another problem arises: we can no longer trust the truth value of anything by default, ever. If we know that, when one’s priorities come in conflict with the truth, society prioritizes one’s priorities, then a necessary precondition to trusting someone is “knowing that their priorities are in line with the truth.” However, as priorities are subjective things, we can never know this for sure. Especially in a world in which people’s communication about their priorities is itself subject to the same truth/pragmatism tradeoff.

Once we can no longer trust the truth values of anything by default, we can no longer be confident in the correctness of our own reasoning or actions. At the extreme, this creates a miserable society, where nobody can trust one another, where everyone is disconnected from the fundamental constraints of reality, and consequently where everyone is constantly accidentally hurting themselves and each other with foolish mistakes and petty manipulations.

From speaking to many left-leaning people, I understand that many of them would at this point like to make an argument of the form “yes, yes, I understand that, but you’re seriously defending $REALLY_BAD_THING. Can’t you tell that $REALLY_BAD_THING is really bad, and that in this case the trade-off is not only worth it, but imperative?”. The problem with this is that your perception of its badness is not objective. The problem is that you think that this is the really bad thing that needs an exception. And that guy over there thinks a different thing is the really bad thing that needs an exception. He thinks that your thing is actually a really dangerous exception, and you think the same about his. And, because you have both thrown out the window any hope of an objective, absolute standard to measure your claims by, ultimately the only way to decide which of you two is correct is “might makes right” aka “whoever actually pulls off the deceit wins.”

So, consider the following. Perhaps you sincerely and in good faith believe that, despite everything that the Google Manifesto says being true (because if it wasn’t, you could just say “this document is false” and be done with it), it will cause harm and danger to many people and so it should be nonetheless denied. Well, so, here’s a problem.

In 2003, the Bush administration knew damn well that there were no WMDs in Iraq. However, they really truly sincerely believed, according to whatever weird messed up metric they were using, that not bringing war to Iraq would cause massive harm and danger to many people, so that nevertheless we should lie about there being WMDs in Iraq. In a world where truth is prioritized, they have to come to us and say, “Ok, so, we don’t have a slam dunk argument for why we need to do this, but we still need to do this because of XYZ”. And then we can say “yeah but if we do this, ABC,” and then we can do a proper discussion of the tradeoffs of XYZ vs ABC and, hopefully, come to a good path forward. But in a world where “But I FEEL that that would be bad” is considered the trump card, then this discussion of whether or not we should glass the desert doesn’t happen, and mans with guns go murder a fuckload of people unless you are smart enough to realize that they are lying to you before they start deploying a carrier group. I generally think that not-murdering people is preferable to murdering people, especially when they didn’t threaten us with weapons of mass destruction.

I believe that SJWs, activists, etc., in general, act-as-if they don’t think truth matters. I believe that this concisely explains a lot of things that otherwise appear to be irrational or nonsensical. I also believe that this is a very dangerous attitude to hold, and I am genuinely afraid of our society becoming one in which this attitude is the normalized, default attitude.

Ultimately, a focus on truth is equivalent to saying “I trust you, fully informed with all the facts, to do the right thing”. And a focus on harm (or any subjective metric) is equivalent to saying “so-and-so has the right to impose their decision on you”. Of course this probably sounds great when you’re doing the imposing. It’s just somewhat laughable that the people doing the imposing are also the ones claiming to be oppressed.

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Another Point Of View

Note: I wrote this several months ago, and promptly forgot about it. When I wrote it, the ElectronConf drama was current. Now it is not, so let me give you a quick refresher:

In June, a conference on Electron, sponsored/hosted (I think?) by Github, was announced. They did all their magic spells and ancient rituals designed to guarantee a good harvest gender balance in their speakers, rituals like blinded proposals and outreach to womens’ groups and the like, but they didn’t get the result they wanted. After all of this, they had a conference where every speaker was male.

So they did what any reasonable conference organizer would do in that situation: They took their ball and went home. They put up a splash page that said the conference would be delayed indefinitely, until they fixed their diversity problem. I went to go dig up the page right now, and it’s gone. In its place: ElectronConf 2018. Apparently, they just gave up on the whole endeavour.

Because in THE CURRENT YEAR, GitHub (one of the most internally progressive companies I’m aware of) can’t find even one qualified woman to give a talk, and so the obvious solution is that nobody gets a conference.

I saw a comment on HN the other day. It’s in the comments of a post about ElectronConf, which you can go read up about if you really want. TL;DR: diversity drama, same as it always is. I don’t want to antagonize the original author of the comment, so instead of linking it I will reproduce it in full. The context is that this comment is being written in reply to someone saying that quotas for underrepresented people is discrimination against overrepresented people:

I see this from another point of view.

Suppose a female new grad goes to Electronconf and sees all male speakers. Suppose she goes to other conferences and it’s the same story.

She feels there’s no way she’ll be able to break ground and be recognized as successful. She slowly drops out and leaves the industry and goes somewhere where she can make friends like her.

Now suppose she sees plenty of female speakers and she thinks to herself “wow this is awesome, I wanna be like her, she was like me 5 years ago”. She stays in industry, and possibly becomes a speaker on future.

Once the cycle of people being motivated and seeing others like you starts, you see a diverse set of candidates joining the industry.

Here is the reply I wish I could write, but alas, HN comments are a no-go zone:

I see this from another point of view.

Suppose a midwestern new grad goes to a new job in California and sees all blue state urban elite coworkers. Suppose he goes to other new jobs and it’s the same story.

He feels there’s no way he’ll be able to break ground and be recognized as successful, when he can’t bridge the culture gap. He slowly drops out and leaves the industry and goes back to the state he came from where he can make friends just like him.

Now suppose he sees plenty of midwestern speakers and he thinks to himself “wow this is awesome, I wanna be like them, they are like me five years ago”. He stays in California, and possibly becomes a speaker on future.

Once the cycle of people being motivated and seeing others like you starts, you see a diverse set of candidates joining the industry.

This may sound like a frivolous criticism, but if it does, that’s because you haven’t come from where I’ve come, and gone to California.

When I first moved to California there was dramatic culture shock. I come from Midwestern Canada, where things are quite a bit different. When I got here, I had a lot of adapting to do. It was hard. VERY hard. Not only were there dozens of times where I barely resisted buying a one-way ticket home without telling anyone, but there were more than a few instances where the stress was so severe that I considered more…. final and exhaustive ways of leaving the state.

First off there are the obvious ones. The ones satirized in virtually every “Bumfuckistani moves to New York” story. We don’t even have freeways back home, so I couldn’t drive for almost two years after moving here; I didn’t know how. I got slapped with a $4000 medical bill for sutures (1k per stitch) once, and, not understanding the US system, I paid it off in full before disputing it with my insurer. I’ve been violently assaulted on transit half a dozen times, and when searching for empathy from friends I was met with a cold “what the fuck, why would you ride the bus there?”

I was dramatically underpaid for the first two years I moved here. Fuck me, right? Back home, $50kCAD ($37kUSD) was a good salary for software, and unscrupulous Californian managers had no problem taking advantage of my knowledge gap.

But worse than any big city challenges were the social dynamics. The good ol’ micro-aggressions that y’all talk about all the time. See, when you come from a different place, with a different culture, often people will see you as a foreigner and exclude you. In the Bay area, where so much depends on socializing and back-channelling, this is economic oppression.

The greatest example of this was the friend who convinced me to move out here. She was the only person I knew here, who sold me on promises of a Nerd Mecca. A few months after moving here, she invited me to a party at her house. Lots of fancy people there. Tons of her college classmates from prestigious universities, with rich privileged upbringings. Lawyers and doctors and startup CEOs. I was invited to one party, but never again. In fact, after that party, we never spoke again. I don’t know why. But given the sneering looks I got from her friends, I assume I just wasn’t cultured enough for them.

Then there was the religious aspect. While I am not a Christian, I was raised as such, most of my family are still religious, and I respect the value it brings to their lives. Consequently, I was never willing to engage in the constant religious-bashing that everyone else seems to do. On the few occasions where I’d attempt to play devil’s advocate, I’d get insulted and condescended to. “You’re just young, dumb, and naieve. Some day you’ll see how evil those people really are”. “THOSE PEOPLE” ARE MY FUCKING PARENTS.

The best one, well, I’ll be a walking example right now. Back home, in Canada or in the midwest or in the 90s or all of the above, who knows, we don’t have racism. Of course, there’s a misleading reason: It’s so ethnically homogenous that most people have never even met someone with darker skin than them. But back home, none of this is a thing. I come here, and suddenly discover there are dozens of unwritten rules, that all Americans just intuitively understand, and if you break them you get ostracized. Like, apparently if you say “black person” that is racist. Back where I come from, it’s considered common practice to use adjectives to modify nouns, based on observations from reality. Here, if you don’t circumlocute five times before brunch, you’re a Nazi.

My biggest racial faux-pas, well, I still don’t understand it. I was poor and struggling to afford this place (see above re: dramatically underpaid), and ended up moving to a cheaper place. Unbeknownst to me, there was a reason that it was cheaper: Americans are racist as fuck and refuse to live in “black neighbourhoods”. I moved in to find that my girlfriend and I were the only light-skinned people on my block.

Oddly enough, most of my neighbours (all black save the one Indian couple) were totally fine with my being there. They welcomed me to the neighbourhood. They liked me, I liked them, and we were all nicely acquainted. But this wasn’t good enough for coworkers, who started looking at me funny. After the whispering at work got bad enough to impact my productivity, I pulled my most trustworthy colleague aside to ask what was going on. “Dude, you moved into their neighbourhood. You’re gentrifying the place. You are displacing people of colour and making them homeless. You are part of the problem”.

Imagine my surprise, a culture-shocked kid from the midwest, who just wanted to do the right thing, and who was on friendly terms with all his neighbours. I was told, by people who had the ability to accelerate (or stop) my career progression, that I was racist. Why? Because I didn’t segregate myself to the majority-white zip codes that they all lived in. You want to talk micro-aggressions? I dealt with gossip and slander like this for two years before I walked out of that company.

The worst part of all of this is the condescending attitude everyone takes about it. As if this is Just Something Everyone Knows, and that I am somehow not just bad, but stupid, for not understanding. For people who claimed to study Class Oppression in college, the classist undertones fly over their heads.

See, most of these people come from well-off families. Many of them grew up in wealthy suburbs, went to private magnet schools, had a full ride (courtesy of the “You’re my child” scholarship from the Mom And Dad Institute) to prestigious schools. They didn’t have to cold-call fifty different employers; tech companies came to their school before they graduated and hand-picked them. For fucks sake, an ex grew up in Palo Alto. She got to go to NASA space camp every summer. I only got to go to Bible camp, and only the two times my parents could afford it.

I didn’t grow up in a place with all this opportunity. I didn’t grow up with all this wealth. I grew up in a place where a large number of the guys in highschool are auto mechanics, electricians, and EMTs now. Most of the women got married at 20 and had children approximately eight and a half months later. If someone asked “what church do you go to” and you evaded the question, they probably won’t be talking to you anymore. There is no high culture back home, because we’re all too busy barely scraping by.

To come here and be faced with friends, coworkers, managers, and bosses who never did a day of manual labour in their lives, and to be belittled and insulted, have my background and culture near-constantly slandered, and to be told that I’m stupid and irresponsible and maybe even racist for not just magically knowing all these social quirks, it’s not fun. It’s fucking hard. Maybe you all don’t understand this, but in college, my friends and I read Hacker News specifically to “learn how to be techies”. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew what we had to do to succeed. While you were all out protesting cultural assimilation, we actively studied and practiced it because if we didn’t, we’d never find jobs here.

And the thing is, nobody cares about this issue. They keep on going on, making insulting comments about the retarded backwater people from my home region. And you know what? It sucks, but it’s fine. Because that’s life. Other people are not your personal concierges. The world wasn’t designed to cater to you. You make yourself useful, or make yourself scarce. I busted ass to make myself useful, only to see commendations and promotions go to the deadweight who know how to dress, how to speak. So when I see someone like the OP make comments like that, well, it pisses me off. The only adversity standing in her way is “people don’t look and act like me and this makes me mildly uncomfortable”, and because of this we get entire departments of companies dedicated to making sure that that never happens to her again.

You know, if you’re so weak-minded that something like that is enough to make you unwilling or unable to do your job, then maybe you should go get a different job. Some of us actually worked to get here.

I don’t write this to be a whiny little bitch, although I have failed in this endeavour. I tell my story to highlight that we all have challenges. In the tech industry, it seems like the only challenges they care about are the mild inconveniences that rich women have to face. At a professional level, this is massively disproportionate and inappropriate, and on a personal level it is a stunning lack of basic empathy. When people are using social pressure to enforce gender quotas, it’s really easy to sit there and snark from behind the safety of an LCD screen. But the people who get overlooked so that those quotas can get met, some of them worked hard to be here. They’ve overcome more adversity just to be here than the rich women will face in their entire lives. And then they get passed over, quite explicitly, with no explanation other than that they don’t deserve what they have. And when they say “hey, maybe this isn’t fair” they don’t get reasoned with. They get condescended to. They get “educated”.

The reality is that software engineering jobs are not magical privileges, not lifetime keys to the lands of luxury and riches. They are hard, important work taking smart, skilled, and highly practiced people a lifetime to master. Most people here will have struggles, because hard things make you struggle. Focusing on a very small subset of those struggles is a very curious definition of “fairness”. Respectfully: Check your goddamn privilege.

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Descriptive and Prescriptive Standards

Let’s play a game. Some of you may already know this game; if so, please don’t spoil it for everyone else.

Everybody, pick a number between 0 and 100. Whoever guesses closest to 2/3rds of the average of all the guesses, wins.

These kinds of puzzles are called Keynesian Beauty Contests and they are interesting, as they explore a unique area of ideaspace. Most kinds of contests and direct: Guess The Correct Answer. But the KBC adds a layer of indirection to the process. You’re not supposed to guess The Correct Answer. You’re supposed to guess What Everyone Thinks The Correct Answer Is. When experiments are run comparing the results of these different types of questions, researchers get radically different results.

It occurs to me that, in a sense, leadership means “winning the Keysean Beauty Contest game”. We like to imagine that great leaders do The Right Thing, but if they did that, they wouldn’t stay in charge for long. Like it or not, a large group of people will not all agree on what The Right Thing is. Perhaps they have different starting data, coming to different conclusions (which may or may not be legitimate). Perhaps they have conflicting interests, and associate The Right Thing (generally) with The Right Thing for them. Perhaps they are not the smartest people, and cannot properly grasp The Right Thing. Or perhaps it’s simply a noisy communciations channel, and something gets corrupted between their brains and yours.

Leaders find themselves playing this game. Their actions are constrained by popular opinion, and they must, in general, attempt to predict what everyone thinks the right thing is, and do that. Often times, this will already coincide with what they think the right thing is (this somewhat follows from the definition of “good leader”), but sometimes there will be a conflict. When such a conflict arises, what do they do?

There is a flaw in my formulation. Doing “What everyone thinks the right thing is” pre-supposes that everyone has coherent ideas of what the right thing is. It pre-supposes that people have ideas about the right thing, that are communicable to and understandable by a third party. It also pre-supposes that these ideas have a foundation. They will not change suddenly or arbitrarily. But are these facts true?

Here is a graph of Trump and Clinton approval ratings last year. It claims to be from Nate Silver, though I found it in a Google image search so maybe it is not. In any case, it highlights my point.

Imagine the polling question is changed from “who do you want to win the 2016 presidential race?” to the equivalent question “who do you want to have control over the button that ends life on planet Earth?” While somewhat manipulative, my question is still literally true. Now, while imagining that all along we were asking this manipulative question of survey respondents, ask yourself: do you really think that peoples’ answer to this question would swing so wildly? Do you really, truly believe that a rational person would on day 1 say “I have evaluated the data and decided that Trump is to be trusted with the nuclear football”, but, only a month later, change their minds and say “woops actually no he’s bad, I’d rather Hillary have it”?

I don’t believe this, and this implies a rather unpleasant conclusion: public opinion (“The Thing Everyone Thinks The Right Thing To Do Is”) doesn’t real. It does not represent the deep-seated beliefs and goals of the populace, at least not entirely. There is a component of it, a large component, that is highly context sensitive and subject to change with no fundamental reason. This admits a second, degenerate strategy, for rulers who aren’t really that great: The people don’t like your leadership? Let’s dissolve the people and elect a new one!

Framed another way: there are two different kinds of “what people think the right thing is” (hereby shortened to “the standard”). There is the descriptive standard, the platonic ideal of what I’m talking about. This is the honest expression of peoples’ collective goals, “the real answer” to the KBC. But there are also prescriptive standards. After all, if there is a lot of leeway in what people think The Standard is, why not pressure that leeway to shift in a way that makes your life easier?

This may be a mechanism by which preference falsification cascades happen. Because of the indirection of the question “what do you think other people think”, someone who influences sources of information can put a thumb on the scale. Depending one’s influence within society, as long as the gap between “what people think” and “what people think that people think” doesn’t get too big or noticeable, a bad leader can coast along on prescriptive standards for quite some time.

Even worse than this, though, is the power of prescription in the hands of a would-be social reformer. Someone who sincerely believes in the moral superiority of their position. Convinced of the fundamental goodness of their position, they will not exert as much self-control over the prescription of standards.

Ideally, if done slowly enough, this can cause lasting changes in society and, possibly, for the better. By slowly convincing everyone that everyone else is becoming more pro-social, you can incentivize everyone to become more pro-social! But it’s a knife edge. Human nature is only so malleable. And each individual case of success empowers more and larger future prescriptions.

This is a viable model to understand a lot of the culture war that we’ve seen recently. There have been moral reformers at the top. Undoubtably some have been cynical and self-serving, but we’ll exercise charity today and say that they sincerely believe in the goodness of what they’re dong. But they long ago stopped being good leaders. As I said earlier, good leaders honestly and fairly reflect the standards that are already there. They do not attempt to change those standards through manipulative fudging of the numbers. Ours, on the other hand, do.

Maybe this was ok. Maybe it was even good. But it can only go so far. We appear now to have become caught up in a feedback loop. Leaders twist, manipulate, and falsify information at the margins in order to push the prescriptive standard towards an ideal. They they observe the twisted reports as evidence that their prescription changed the descriptive standard. They follow through with another round of prescription, unaware that the first one had not yet completed.

Eventually, that gets us to where we are now: bubbled off elites, attempting to do good, but provided with such absurdly incorrect information that everything they try falls somewhere between ineffective and dangerous. Meanwhile, frank and honest discussion of the descriptive standard becomes impossible, as enough people outwardly (and possibly inwardly?) accept the prescription as the description, and write off dissidents as evil or stupid. It’s a powder keg, waiting to go off.

It’s as if someone came along to the 2/3rds game and started telling everyone: “2/3rds of the average will be X. You should pick X”. It might work once or twice, but it will not work forever.

The solution? Radical honesty and realism. A recognition that people aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t pretend they are. A deep-seated skepticism towards utopians. A healthy, rational, self-informed and self-aware electorate that is not snowed by manipulated data. Open and honest communication between people, so that people have a well-grounded idea of what others think. A recognition that the power of leaders to change culture is dangerous and should be avoided.

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Radical Book Club: the Decentralized Left

After reading Bryan Burrough’s DAYS OF RAGE, one of the things that really stayed with me was the concept of Institutions.

Institutions aren’t a concept explicitly mentioned or named by Burrough, but if you read his book they keep popping up again and again: the Left has organizations that work for the benefit of its causes and its people, and in the 1970s a number of them offered aid and support to violent radicals. Any organization involved in aiding Right-wing bombers, if somehow still extant, would be viewed as anathema to polite society, but the National Lawyers’ Guild — which aided and abetted the Lefty domestic terrorist group known as the Weather Underground — is still running just fine today, thanks for asking.

By contrast, the Right doesn’t really have Institutions or even that many effective organizations. Infamously, a lot of new Righty organizations that spring up are run by grifters, who collect donations but don’t actually do anything useful with the money. Even the honest mainstream Righty organizations tend to do more for the benefit of Righty higher-ups than for the everyday lives of people in the grassroots.

This failure of the mainstream has opened doors for more radical individuals to show value. The College Republicans and the Leadership Institute could have organized conservative students to peacefully disrupt Leftist speakers and Leftist activities in response to Leftist disruption, but they didn’t, so that opened a door for rougher guys like Based Stickman (on the off chance you don’t know, he’s a fellow named Kyle Chapman, who got internet famous when he was filmed breaking a wooden dowel over the head of a charging antifa at the First Battle of Berkeley; he has since worked to organize Righties as defensive streetfighters). Any number of mainstream Righty organizations could have organized Righty lawyers, but none did, so now Based Stickman is being aided in organizing the Based Lawyers’ Guild by Augustus Invictus, a former Libertarian congressional candidate who is — and I can’t stress this enough — absolutely garking insane.

(Full disclosure: I was 100% in favor of Invictus’s candidacy because I believed that Capitol Hill deserved to get him, good and hard.)

Is any of it showing value? Well, yes: as we’ve seen recently, it turns out that repeatedly streetfighting in Berkeley, California will eventually motivate that city to arrest antifa radicals who assault people. Jurisdictions across the country are realizing that you can keep leftist radicals from destroying property and assaulting people if you require them to choose between unmasking or getting arrested. /pol/ has actually gotten a college instructor arrested for allegedly hitting people with a bike lock during one of the Battles of Berkeley, and to keep this effort up blogger/motivational author/self-described “psychopath” Ivan Throne is building an organization dedicated to tracking antifa. There are existing groups that try to track radical groups, such as keywiki and Discover the Network, and private entities certainly track radicals who target their clients, but the focus on individual streetfighters is new. Detailed intelligence collection is something that the Left does already (they take down license plates at their opponents’ rallies), so it isn’t surprising to see the Right starting to develop its own.

The Right, in short, is starting to organize. And organizing isn’t an easy thing to do. Especially if you’ve never done it. Like ’em or hate ’em, you have to admit that the Lefties are very good at organizing, at getting what they want from campaigns — and at building Institutions to support their people.

So how do they do that?

I decided to read a bunch of Lefty organizing manuals and find out.

For some reason, many Righties are allergic to learning from the Left. THAT’S NOT HOW THE RIGHT DOES THINGS, they bellow, by which I assume they mean unpleasant stuff like “winning.” But you don’t have to do everything the way Lefties do it to learn some of the lessons they’ve learned. The Left has been working hard for decades, and they’ve been good enough to put some of their knowledge and experience into books that anyone can read. If you’re going to oppose the Left, it’s useful to know how the Left actually works. A lot of Righties have an inaccurate view of how the Left works, in part because our press is astonishingly incurious about one of the major power centers of our time.

The Left is diverse in its organizational schemes. In my reading so far, there are two kinds of approaches I’m seeing: centralized and decentralized. Centralized is the classic, old school Lefty playbook — think stuff like unions, communist front groups, that sort of thing. Decentralized is the (relatively) new hotness, particularly popular among the anarchist set, and that’s the kind that I’m going to talk about in this first installment of what I’m calling Radical Book Club.

hegemonyhowtocoverThe first book you’ll want to read is Jonathan Smucker’s HEGEMONY HOW-TO: A ROADMAP FOR RADICALS. Smucker, a Lefty from rural Pennsylvania who came out of the plowshares peacenik movement and later joined Occupy, uses the organizations he’s been a part of as case studies to explain how radical organization works, and also why it often crawls up its own ass and fails. His advice is extremely useful for anybody, Leftist or not, radical or mainstream, who’s trying to put human beings together to do anything at all. It’s a quick read, and you can skip through some bits; while Smucker has hugely important insights, he doesn’t have a vast number of them, so he tends to repeat himself a lot. But he understands power better than most Righties do. As Smucker notes: “Power tends to appear magical to those who have less of it, and mechanical to those who are accustomed to wielding it instrumentally.” Lefties think about mechanics. So should we.

Smucker’s analysis of Occupy addresses both why it succeeded and why it failed. Part of its success, he holds, lay in the fact that at its height, Occupy could be described by a Claude Levi-Strauss term: “floating signifier.”

What’s a floating signifier? It’s a symbol that has an imprecise meaning. And that broad vagueness is its strength. A floating signifier is “amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and see their values and hopes within,” meaning that it rallies people who ordinarily wouldn’t rally together.

You will immediately recognize two major recent floating signifiers of note: the term “alt-right” and the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. Obama basically ran for President in 2008 as a human floating signifier, which is why so many people poured their hopes and dreams into his candidacy. Richard Spencer created the term “alt-right,” but a) people were using “alternative right” before that, b) the term “alt-right” didn’t get popular for years, and, most importantly, c) the term “alt-right” didn’t catch on because people suddenly loved Richard Spencer; it caught on because tons of people wanted something to stand behind that meant “we’re not those fucking GOP guys.”

And that ambiguity matters. Smucker notes that “a good degree of ambiguity is necessary if the [floating signifier] is to catalyze a broad alignment.” He adds: “If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular — too associated with any one current or group within the alignment — it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.”

That’s what’s happening to the term “alt-right” since white nationalists, desperate for anything that vaguely resembles “not abject failure,” launched an effort to reclaim the term for themselves and themselves alone. Their thinking, I gather, went something like this: “the term alt-right is popular! If alt-right means ‘white nationalism and nothing but,’ then we’re popular!”

Well, no. That’s not how it works. If people don’t like a Thing, you can change the name of the Thing a bazillion times; they’re still not going to like the Thing. Floating signifiers are unifiers because they’re broad and vague; once they’re specific, people who don’t like the specifics back away. That’s exactly what happened to Occupy: it stopped being a floating signifier and meant, well … Occupy. Drum circles and shitting on police cars.

The reason that happened with Occupy, in Smucker’s view, is something Smucker calls “the political identity paradox.” As he explains it: “The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely its members are to become alienated from other groups and from society as a whole.” It’s social confirmation bias. Radicals and mainstreamers across the spectrum are vulnerable to it. And it’s a trap: the internal life of your group can be very meaningful, but that doesn’t mean the same is true of what your group accomplishes.

Bob Wing, a grassroots organizer, explains this nicely: “If winning feels impossible, then righteousness can seem like the next best thing.” But righteousness is not conducive to getting normies to join your team if your team cannot demonstrate ability to, at least sometimes, win. Nor does righteousness help you make real inroads with regular people.

Occupy, at the height of its power, turned people away, even snubbing prominent mainstream Lefties. That kept Occupy’s radical cred, but also cooled normies on Occupy: “If Occupy won’t welcome my hero John Lewis, it’ll never welcome me.”

In Smucker’s view, Occupy trapped itself in activist space, and started performing for an audience of themselves. What he argues is that activists need to leave activist space and focus on converting or nudging normies. It’s safe to say Smucker is not a fan of the Benedict Option. He champions its opposite: “seed work,” aka entryism.

If you’ve been wondering, the reason Lefties do entryism and politicize non-political spaces is a) they’re trained to, and b) this is how Lefty movements quickly scale. If you were a black civil rights activist in the 1960s, for example, you didn’t join the movement because you read about it in the paper or something. Your group — your church, your college club, what have you — got involved. You came with. This is, as Smucker notes, “far more effective than waiting for individual self-selectors to join a movement because they happened to see a flyer.”

Smucker sees Occupy’s failure to assimilate other organizations in this fashion as one of the reasons that Occupy flopped. He chalks up part of this failure to the fact that Occupy had to learn on the fly, because (in his view) the Lefty movement had deteriorated badly after the 1970s. Part of this deterioration was due to burnout, part to a split between liberals and radicals. The liberals professionalized, forming single-issue organizations that shamelessly milked donor money while not accomplishing much, while the radicals got completely out of touch with normies and crawled farther and farther up their own ass.

As a Righty, it’s a great comfort to me to know that NOTHING LIKE THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN TO US!

Ahem. Anyway, Smucker provides numerous lessons and observations on organizing a radical Leftist movement. These are useful to Righties, even mainstreamers like me, and they’re informative about how and why Lefties do the things they do.

As Smucker notes, it’s not individual disposition but proximity to activism opportunities that makes activists. So Lefties make sure to give people plenty of opportunities. That’s why they’re constantly doing stuff, constantly out talking, making fusses: they’re providing their people proximity to opportunities. This is also part of why Lefties no-platform Righties: denying Righties proximity to opportunities.

Smucker stresses that “Organizing is a mess, not a refuge.” What he means is: don’t get comfortable. Don’t make a nice cozy environment for yourself and stop there; if you do, you won’t be accomplishing anything. Your objective is accomplishing actual stuff, not feeling warm and fuzzy. This means you are accomplishing nothing if all you do is hang out in the same places with the same people. You need to bring in new people. And if you want to bring in new people, don’t use the language of people who are already with you. Use language couched to reach normies outside your movement. You don’t want to bring the same people to your events over and over again; you want to keep adding people.

One approach Smucker recommends for initial contacts is proceeding from an area of common ground, which he calls “narrative insurgency.” For example, if you’re an environmental activist and you’re talking to a devoted Christian, you don’t lead with “POLLUTION AND CO2 AND FUCK REPUBLICANS”; what you lead with is “God made us stewards of the Earth, and we should follow His will in caring for it.” It’s the same tactic you may have noticed where Lefties who ordinarily detest Christianity get Strange New Respect for Jesus when it comes to attempting to influence religious people on, say, immigration policy.

What if somebody’s already on your side? Then your task is probably selling them on some kind of specific action. If that’s the case, you have to sell the strategic value of the specific action. Don’t keep trying to sell the basic idea you both already agree on.

For example, if you’re trying to convince people to boycott a segregated store, your object is to convince them that boycotting the store will have a strategic effect, not that desegregation is morally important. For whatever reason, on a cognitive level human beings have a really hard time with this. Smucker cites an example of a Lefty roleplaying session where people were tasked with selling an action to people who agreed with them on principle but didn’t see the strategic merit of the action. Surprisingly, the sellers couldn’t make the conceptual switch to sell strategic merit: instead, they doubled down on THIS ISSUE IS IMPORTANT — even though it had been stressed to them that the people they were selling to bought into the importance of the issue. People react poorly to “this is important, so do WHATEVER I SAY”; they want to be convinced that what you’re proposing will work.

Some of Smucker’s most interesting insights come on the concept of hardcore, which is something people often want from radical movements. People want a hardcore experience; they want to be hardcore. If they don’t have the opportunity where they are, they’ll go elsewhere in search of it.

Smucker first experienced this in the plowshares movement, a Christian peacenik group that saw hardcore become a status symbol. Protesting was okay, but disruption was better, and actually breaking into a military base to destroy war equipment was the coolest ever thing you could possibly do. It turned out that this was a great way to screw over your own movement, because the plowshares folks were literally incentivizing their people to serve federal time. In a similar way, affinity groups who do black bloc tactics often make being black bloc part of their identity — so they’ll do it even in places where it’s counter-effective.

What does this mean, if you’re organizing a political movement? Two things, both of them crucial:

  1. You have to provide an option for a hardcore experience.
  2. You have to define hardcore carefully. Don’t let hardcore equal stupid.

This is, not kidding, one of the most important things I’ve ever read about political movements, and I think Righties, mainstream and radical alike, desperately need to pay attention to Smucker here. When it comes to hardcore, the mainstream Right is seriously deficient. There are not a lot of hardcore opportunities on the mainstream Right — at least, not directed at affecting politics. Going on mission for your church for two years in Godknowswhere is hardcore. Joining the military is hardcore. But if you’re a mainstream Righty and you want to do something hardcore as part of a movement to affect domestic politics? Crickets.

That’s one reason there’s an opening for Based Stickman. Existing Righty groups networking college students could have organized students to peacefully disrupt Lefty speakers in response to Lefties’ unanswered disruptions of Righty speakers. They didn’t. So other people are developing a hardcore response, showing themselves to be valuable, and providing a meaningful hardcore experience for the participants. That’s a failure for mainstream Righties. Let me stress this again: mainstream Righties need to provide some kind of option for a hardcore experience, or they’ll lose ground to radicals.

If you’re a Lefty? Holy hell are you awash in hardcore options. You wanna take over a city park? You want to go live out in South Dakota blocking a pipeline? You want to occupy a government building with protesters? You want to organize a fleet of kayaks to prevent an oil tanker from offloading? You want to go for a mass bike ride, frustrating every commuter in the city? If you’re a Lefty, people are tripping over each other to give you ways to be hardcore at varying levels. (The “varying levels” is important: people have different capacities and desires for hardcore, and different levels of ability to bear its consequences.) What Lefties are really great at, and what Righties should be better at, is providing an experience that feels hardcore to participants but still looks like moral high ground to everyone else. The classic example: SNCC going into the deep South to register poor black voters at a time when segregation is law, the Klan is powerful, and Lefty organizers are getting straight-up murdered. That’s hardcore. SNCC and Weatherman were both hardcore Lefty groups. But SNCC was smart. Weatherman was stupid. Hardcore that is unproductive is stupid by definition.

And that neatly sums up the challenge for radicals: they have to channel their people into constructive hardcore. Stupid hardcore doesn’t just damage the radical movement, it hurts the mainstream movement, and makes mainstreamers keep their distance from radicals. People who are hardcore may be inclined to dream about making some kind of sacrifice for the cause, as the plowshares advocates willingly sacrificed their freedom in exchange for the pleasure of a few minutes of taking a hammer to an F16, but Smucker stresses that sacrifice for a cause is a cost incurred to achieve a benefit. Without the benefit, sacrifice is stupid.

One mistake people make is falling in love with a particular tactic (streetfighting, for example). Smucker says: among tactics, message, and movement, be least attached to tactics. Tactics don’t define you. The movement is what matters. That said, when thinking about tactics, bear in mind that “a successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are not presently positioned to win.” It’s not just about the day of the action: you have to have a clear strategic idea of what you hope to win.

My take on Lefty swarming outrage, for example, is that the tactic is swarming outrage, but the strategy is operant conditioning. If there’s a Halloween party where white people wore sombreros or something, people get uncomfortable before the Lefties even react, not necessarily because they agree with the Lefty opinion but because they’re anticipating the unpleasant Lefty reaction. (Note: this strategy only works if you can coordinate and maintain said swarming outrage on a regular basis. Or the conditioning fails. Smucker serves up a great quote from organizer Nathan Paulsen: “A demonstration should be a sign of your power. That means [it] can also function to signify your weakness too, if you don’t plan strategically.”)

Smucker also provides some excellent advice on the mechanics of activism, and how to put a group together, based on his own experience. He uses as an example the anti-Iraq war group he started in rural Pennsylvania, where he’d grown up. Smucker’s local group, Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice, was an affiliate of the national organization United For Peace and Justice. Smucker started his group with a large public meeting, for which he managed to get a turnout of two hundred people. He divided those two hundred people into several smaller working groups to focus on specific tasks and projects. Eventually, Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice grew to 500 members, and it was just one of a bunch of national groups involved in the anti-war work.

While Smucker champions entryism, he acknowledges that at some points you do take new recruits one by one. Here’s what he did: Smucker got coffee with new recruits. Sat one-on-one for an hour to learn their skills, talents, experiences, interests, why they joined. He’d tell them about projects and campaigns, suggest areas the group needed help, and ask: where could you fit? what can you do? One woman said she hated meetings but loved rummage sales, and was willing to organize two of them a year. That woman never went to a single meeting, but her sales gave the group free publicity, recruiting opportunities, and thousands of dollars.

Smucker stresses that, as you build a movement, you should always keep the focus on accomplishing things. Make it easy for people to come on and help you do stuff. Even among Lefties, most people can’t put in tons of hours, because they have lives. So Smucker got a lot of help by getting people to make a long-term commitment to one small, well-defined task. Not everybody can be available for last-minute actions 24-7. A lot of people can find room in their schedule for a small, predictable thing: say, phone calls three hours a week. Make sure people know what they’re doing matters; make them feel valued and appreciated. And train them in new skills; somebody may have a hidden talent or two that they don’t know about yet, or that they can use in a future organization.

I highly recommend Smucker’s book. But if you think about it, his level of experience has some interesting prerequisites. The reason Smucker learned so much about how to run radical groups is that there were a ton of organizations that he had a chance to be a part of. Righties don’t have nearly as many options on the mainstream, and options for righty radicals are even fewer. So how was it that Lefties even had a radical culture to build on?

directactioncoverThat’s the subject of the next book: DIRECT ACTION: PROTEST AND THE REINVENTION OF AMERICAN RADICALISM, by L.A. Kauffman. The term “direct action” for disruptive stuff goes back to the Wobblies, but its essence is summed up in MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension… so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” That kind of action is Kauffman’s focus.

A lesbian feminist and organizer in New York City, Kauffman got started in activism in the 1980s. She has a varied background; she did a bunch of organizing work for NYC community gardens as well as organization against the Iraq War. In short, Kauffman’s the sort of person to write stuff like “on the whole, the period since the 1960s has been inhospitable for the Left,” causing a Righty reading her book to bellow things like “WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FUCKING ON” — but her knowledge of Leftist organization is deep, and she provides a great review of the intellectual/operational history of Leftist direct action: who influenced who, where ideas come from. If you’re a Lefty, you may have known a bunch of this stuff, but for a Righty it’s fascinating. Most notably, Kauffman points out that a lot of the techniques were transmitted by women, frequently lesbians, who were heavily involved in organizing.

Kauffman’s history begins on May 3, 1971, when the Mayday Tribe attempted to blockade Washington, DC with 25,000 people. The plan was based on a tactic Committee on Racial Equality had tried and failed to pull off in NYC in 1964. And it was seriously organized and ambitious: Mayday put together a detailed tactical manual about where to go, what bridges to hold, etc. Unfortunately for Mayday, the feds got hold of a copy of Mayday’s manual, mobilized the National Guard, and arrested 7,000 people. So Mayday was a failure — but an influential one. Because Mayday had a novel decentralized organizational scheme: its participants were organized into affinity groups, a structure crucial to a lot of Leftist movements to this day.

The term “affinity group” term comes from Leftist anarchists in Spain, who organized their guerrillas in units based on small groups of close friends who knew each other very well. This degree of compartmentalization meant they were hard to infiltrate or uncover, and even if they were, decentralization meant that uncovering one cell didn’t blow the whole network.

Affinity groups came to the attention of American leftists through Murray Bookchin, who mentioned them to a radical named Ben Morea, who’d created a group called the Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers. What Morea realized: on top of their other benefits, affinity groups (which he likened to “a street gang with an analysis”) could be useful for avoiding conspiracy charges — not just because they’re hard to break into, but because there are so many conspiracies that they’re impossible to untangle. And did I mention affinity groups are hard to infiltrate? It didn’t hurt that DC’s Mayday office was run by gay activists: the FBI had a hard time infiltrating them because they were all having sex with one another.

The Mayday Tribe fell apart for identity politics reasons that will seem astoundingly familiar to a reader in 2017. Basically, women and gay men demanded that everybody else (especially white men) subject themselves to consciousness-raising sessions and critique themselves over their own privilege (though that term wasn’t yet in vogue). If you look at the history of Lefty movements, this happens a lot, and usually the fallout is that straight white guys, in particular, get tired of being harangued and exit. That’s what happened to Mayday. But Mayday’s people took the skills they’d learned with them — and now affinity groups were everywhere, so they could and did organize their own protest actions all over the country.

By the mid-70s, life was getting more expensive. It was harder to live cheap and devote time to rabble-rousing. So activists went small. Basically, from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, a lot of the Left took the Benedict Option. There’s actually a long history of Lefty Benedict Options, as Kauffman points out, including 19th century efforts at communal living; and taking the Benedict Option didn’t mean Lefties were inactive. It meant their focus was localized, or laid ideological groundwork, or created varied institutions (some of which ran for decades).

This was a period where the term “think globally, act locally” functioned as a floating signifier. The term, Kauffman notes, was coined in 1972 by Rene Dubos, and what Dubos meant by it was roughly: “look, there aren’t going to be one-size-fits-all worldwide solutions to global environmental problems; each region has to work on these problems in its own way.” But radicals interpreted it numerous different ways: some organized neighborhood door-to-door canvassing, some focused on local government. Some employed it as a motivation for direct action.

So what did thinking globally and acting locally look like in terms of direct action? Well, for some people it looked like this: in August, 1976, 18 people from a group called the Clamshell Alliance were arrested reforesting the construction site of Seabrook nuclear plant.

Their second stage came the next week, when a hundred and eighty people got arrested doing the same thing.

This got a lot of media coverage (which they’d planned out, of course). Their approach, hugely influential, was called “prefigurative direct action.” What does “prefigurative” mean? It means your protest action foresees the world you plan to win. For example, trees growing instead of a nuclear plant. An earlier example of prefigurative direct action: black people sitting at a segregated lunch counter. The act puts people who witnesses it into an integrated future.

So how’d the anti-nuke protest come about? Who was the Clamshell Alliance? Here’s who: local residents, non-local radicals … and Quakers.

Yep. Quakers.

Righties may have a few different reactions to the mention of Quakers. Neoreactionaries will remember Moldbug’s characterization of the Quakers in his AN OPEN LETTER TO OPEN-MINDED PROGRESSIVES:

Actually, there is a 17th-century of extremist Dissenters whose beliefs closely track modern progressivism. They are not identical – that would be too much to expect – but you will have to work hard to find any point on which the two conflict, at least to the point where someone might get into an argument. Many superficial rituals and traditions have been discarded, but modern members of this sect are certainly progressives. And the sect, though young by Dissenter standards, has been quite influential ever since the writing of the Shortest-Way.

I refer, of course, to the Quakers. If the Time reporter had described the program of the Federal Council as super-Quaker, he might well have confused his audience, but his theology would have been if anything more accurate. The history of mainline Protestantism in America is more or less the history of its Quakerization. Basically, we are all Quakers now. Even I find Quaker writings remarkably sympathetic, and I’m a reactionary Jacobite.

There is a reason, though, that they were expelled from England.

Others may remember ALBION’S SEED, or at least the Slate Star Codex review of it that notes the Quakers “sort of tolerated themselves out of existence” to the point of losing all political power in Pennsylvania, where they’d once dominated state offices.

Gotta tell ya, on reading Kauffman, the idea that Quakers lost political power seems really, really, wrong. Because dig this: the Quakers at Seabrook were organizers from the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker pacifist organization. (If you read between the lines of the AFSC’s Wikipedia, you’ll realize that it was neatly parasitized by the hard Left, who took it over and used it to pay hard Left organizers’ salaries.) The Quakers at Seabrook got involved because one of them got a call from a friend involved with the Seabrook organization. The friend said: look, a lot of these guys were in SDS (the organization that got strip-mined to build Weatherman), they’re hardcore, they think nonviolence is a stupid idea, can you maybe come explain it to them?

Here’s what the Quakers at Seabrook did: they did role-playing exercises. They acted out different kinds of protest scenarios: some confrontational, some chill and peaceful. This was good practice for the protestors (if you’re into defensive pistol shooting, think of it as the Lefty version of IDPA stages). But not all of the protestors were roleplaying protestors, or cops. No: some were tasked with roleplaying average people watching the protest on TV, and giving feedback on how each option looked. Which made the protestors realize that to normies, violence wouldn’t play so hot.

And here’s how the Quaker influence got really huge: the Seabrook protestors were really impressed by what the Quakers had shown them so far, so the Quakers taught them something else. Not only did one organizer who’d been in Mayday explain how affinity groups worked, the Quakers taught the process of consensus decision-making, made without votes but through lengthy group discussion. Because that’s how decisions are made in Quaker meetings.

So if you’ve ever wondered why Occupy had those endless discussions: that’s why. It’s not just anarchism. It’s Quakerism. Yeah: much of the modern radical Left is essentially made up of secular Quakers who run decision-making like Quaker meetings. By “secular Quakers,” I don’t mean literal Quakers — I mean they’re basically running Quaker meetings without knowing it! This blew my dang mind.

Okay: so how do you organize affinity groups? Lefties have spokescouncils, to which affinity groups send representatives. They reach decisions through consensus, and the affinity groups take different parts and modes of the action. And the affinity groups train their people. Seabrook participants had to be part of an affinity group, and they had to have been trained for five to seven hours. If you met the requirements, you got a colored armband. If you didn’t have an armband and tried to take part in the protest, the marshals threw you out. They built handbooks to explain everything to newbies.

This is not something to be mocked or belittled. This is WORK, people. RESPECT IT.

The weaknesses of the Quaker model, Lefties found, are that it isn’t good at facilitating thinking strategically, nor does it work fast under pressure. Nor, as Occupy later learned, does it scale: you can do consensus decision-making when you’ve got smallish groups, but if you try to do it for thousands of people, what you’ve got is a goddamned nightmare that’s held hostage by lunatics. Or, potentially, outsiders — historically, the Polish Sejm ran on consensus decision-making for a good while, but in the late 1600s members started to using minority veto power to paralyze the institution; the Prussians, in particular, enjoyed creating havoc in Polish politics by buying members of the Sejm off. (That might be a means for Righties to create problems for Leftists organized into affinity groups, and I’m wondering if anybody infiltrating the Left is already doing it.)

Seabrook had a similar problem: when Seabrook’s coordinating committee did make a much-needed executive decision, they pissed off all the affinity groups under them: “who are you to tell us what to do without consulting us?!” So the movement split. The hardliners, now relieved of those annoying non-hardliners, wanted to do what hardliners always want to do, namely, kick ass and break shit. So the affinity group Hard Rain formed a new group: Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook. But although CDAS had 2500 people ready to fight, they weren’t any match for trained and equipped riot police. So instead of kicking ass, CDAS’s people got their asses kicked.

The Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook is an example of what Jonathan Smucker warned about in HEGEMONY HOW-TO: using a tactic for identity, not effect. There are a lot of examples like that. Another Kauffman writes about is the Women’s Pentagon Action, in 1980, which was 1500 Leftist women doing incoherent symbolic stuff as a protest at the Pentagon — weaving doors shut with yarn, that sort of thing. Basically, sympathetic magick. This was highly meaningful for participants, but in reality all it did was baffle the press and the people staffing the Pentagon. The Women’s Pentagon Action disbanded later in a fit of identity politics because it was too white. That’s not an exaggeration: the group literally decided it was too white to exist, and so it dissolved.

Being overly white wasn’t uncommon for Leftists practicing direct action in those days. Given that so many black radicals had been killed in the sixties and seventies, by the eighties, black activists were understandably nervous about drawing police attention. Whites were eager to get arrested for their cause; blacks — especially blacks who’d seen earlier movements — were not, because they’d seen how bad the consequences could be.

But when the Free South Africa Movement — ritualized arrests at the South African embassy — started, it was black-run — and organized as a top-down movement. If you joined, you did what you were told. And it worked.

College students started their own anti-apartheid direct actions around that time, and this got weird at Berkeley, where you had a black student anti-apartheid group and a white one. The white group’s founder had been at Seabrook, so he was all about the Quaker consensus discussion model. The black group’s students weren’t so much: lots of them had jobs, and it’s kind of difficult to work to pay your way when your student organization wants you to keep sitting in on five-hour consensus meetings.

Another thing the Lefties started doing in the 80s was recruiting outside their movement: they handed out fliers at punk shows. And this recruitment worked both ways; the punk in-your-face — dare I say trolling — attitude informed groups like Earth First! and the anti-AIDS group ACT UP. ACT UP, formed in New York, was preceded by the Lavender Hill Mob, formed of alumni from Gay Action Alliance, which was involved in Mayday. And ACT UP got a ton of work out of its people, in part because many were literally dying and had nothing else to do. And they decentralized well.

ACT UP itself was a loose network, using affinity groups, but it did not adopt the spokescouncil structure. A lot of ACT UP’s people hadn’t been leftist activists, so they ditched boring shit like rallies. Instead, they did colorful, memorable stunts. Gay men and lesbians hadn’t interacted that much before AIDS. But as gay men organized, radical lesbians joined them and trained them. Lesbians had political organizing skills. Gay men had money and time. Gay men also had work skills that they put to use. Plenty of gay guys worked in PR. When they turned to activism, do you think they might have made the PR for their group effective? OH YEAH.

ACT UP fell apart — you’ll be shocked, now — in large part because of tensions between white men, women, and people of color. Kauffman’s very evenhanded, sympathetic, and fair in her account of the break-up of ACT UP San Francisco. What happened, as AIDS exploded, was that the overwhelming number of people who contracted AIDS in San Francisco were gay white men. Naturally, when diagnosed, they got very personally invested in the cause of fighting AIDS. The leftist radicals running ACT UP San Francisco at that time took a very intersectional approach: they wanted to use AIDS activism as a crowbar, using it to fight poverty, racism, and lack of access to health care. The increasing numbers of white men who had AIDS were, as you’d expect from human beings, very understandably concerned with their personal survival, and felt that pushing for more research and faster drug approval was the way to go. The white guys tried to turn the ship, but the hard Lefties frustrated this by using the consensus decision-making to block any changes, and refused to change to majority rule. So ACT UP San Francisco split, with the white guys leaving to form ACT UP Golden Gate. It’s exactly like what happened to Mayday, and what’s almost certainly going to happen to the Democratic Party: control by radicals obsessed with intersectionality leading to fracturing along ethnic lines. (The hope of intersectionalists, I suspect, is that enough Leftist whites will get the intersectionalist religion that they can keep this fracturing from occurring.) Earth First! split for a similar reason: the group was formed by radical environmentalist men who didn’t care much for humans, and the people who took it over wanted to organize humans and de-macho it.

Around this time, the Lesbian Avengers debuted, pointing out reasonably that lesbians did tons of radical organizing for others, so why shouldn’t lesbians do radical organizing as lesbians for lesbians, focusing on lesbian concerns? Fair enough. The Lesbian Avengers did a bunch of nonviolent but in-your-face subversive stuff, like giving balloons to schoolkids that read “Ask About Lesbian Lives.” They also organized to help local gay organizations do political campaigning in very conservative states. And, Kauffman notes, the ground for Lesbian Avengers had been prepared by the 1970s Benedict Option they’d done — they’d built their communities, and were ready.

So you’ve got these ideas and tactics spreading out in a ton of different directions on the Left over these years. Here’s what’s next:

In 1995, New York radicals from a variety of groups blockaded bridges to protest Mayor Giuliani’s new budget — all on behalf of wildly different causes. Each group planned its action separately. There was a lot of autonomy. This was essential, because there was no one group the radical Lefties would all trust. And it turned out to be the way of the future, because there were a lot of disparate radical movements at this point. And this is key: they were sharing. So, gradually, a lot of different threads started to come together.

The Mexican Zapatista movement led a bunch of global commies to form the People’s Global Action, calling for groups to act worldwide. Some anarchists inspired by the PGA said, “Hey, let’s do something for the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting.”

They did. Organizers formed a collective to do overall planning and logistics. They divided the area around the WTO convention center into thirteen sectors. To control those sectors, affinity groups bonded together into larger groups, called clusters. The objective for all clusters was to blockade their sector to prevent WTO delegates from reaching the meeting. They were allowed to decide for themselves how they would do this. They were supported by autonomous working groups providing medical, legal, and press relations help.

And it worked. The 1999 WTO Protests were a stunning success, and changed everything. Here’s what the WTO did for the Left: not only was it galvanizing, it made them realize insane levels of cooperation were possible. Lefties don’t care who you are or what you’re protesting, as long as you’re out there and don’t get in each other’s way. Did you notice, for example, that black bloc fanatics and the Women’s March protested President Trump’s inauguration on different days? It’s not a coincidence. That stuff is negotiated.

As Kauffman sees it, the big struggle of Lefty movements has been getting disparate branches — especially white and black — to act together. But after the WTO, black activists started to learn from the anarchists. And eventually, that paid off in Ferguson, Missouri, with the protests following the police shooting of Michael Brown.

Kauffman’s account of how Lefty organizations were involved in the Ferguson protests is different from what many Righties might expect. Some Righties might have the idea that Lefties (or, if you’re Louise Mensch, Russia) organized the whole thing. That’s not what happened. Organizers showed up pretty quickly, but realized a) there was a lot of energy and b) it wasn’t organized.

There were basically two main established locally organized Lefty groups that came into play. These were called OBS and MORE. OBS, Organization for Black Struggle, was black-led. MORE, Missourians Organized for Reform and Empowerment, was white-led. In the beginning, the people on the street were not OBS and MORE people. They were just people. OBS and MORE, and the Lefty movement in general, had to get in.

Here’s what the Lefties did: they let protestors do their thing, and just did everything possible to help them do it. Including breaking out the Rolodex to bring in experienced advisors and radical lawyers. “What do you want to do?” “We want to be out in the street.” “Okay, we’ll train you to deal with tear gas, and bail you out of jail.” That simple.

The Lefty groups didn’t astroturf or even organize the protests. But without them, the protests couldn’t have continued — because key people would have been in jail. The Lefty groups, in short, didn’t start off in Ferguson by giving lectures. They started off by demonstrating value.

It helped that black activists’ fear of incurring police ire had, at this point, largely dissipated: a lot of the young black men and women in the street figured, well, there was a good chance they were going to be arrested anyway. There was a good chance they were going to be shot by police anyway. So why not get arrested or shot working for their cause? A lot of black groups started forming at this point — and many were organized by, guess who? Lesbians!

The next step was Ferguson October: four days of direct actions. These, now, were heavily organized and astroturfed. Lefties brought thousands of people to Ferguson. By direct actions, we’re talking banner drops, blockades, flash mobs in malls and public buildings, school walkouts, all of it. If you don’t remember much of this, that’s because the press didn’t cover Ferguson October much. Guess what: Lefties didn’t care. Ferguson October was for networking and movement-building. The radicals who’d proved their worth at the beginning in August used that trust in Ferguson October to do movement building and recruit black direct action trainers. They used the contacts and infrastructure developed from Ferguson October to build a new, dedicated coordinating structure: Ferguson Action.

After Ferguson October, Ferguson Action, Black Lives Matter, and other national networks coordinated with each other in conference calls for weeks. When the grand jury announced officer Darren Wilson was not being indicted for shooting Michael Brown, they were ready. They’d been ready. When the grand jury’s verdict was announced in late November, plans were already in place and awaiting the go signal.

Result: within 48 hours of the verdict, there were protests in 170 cities. THAT IS WHAT EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATION CAN DO.

One thing I’ve realized from doing my readings is Righties and Lefties take very different approaches to thinking about direct action. Righties are kind of on-and-off-switch, direct action-wise. Either they’re sitting around at home, or they’re all BRING DOWN THE GUBMINT. The Lefty approach to direct action is kind of a dimmer switch. Sometimes it’s way up. Sometimes it’s low. You will realize this means a) the Lefties get a lot more practice, and b) the Lefties have a lot more options. And being organized only increases the number of options. By orders of magnitude.

Okay. So now we’ve got an understanding of some of the principles, but you’re probably thinking: what’s in it for me? How can I do some of this stuff?

Well, if you want to experiment with the affinity group structure: look left. Look right. Do you have friends you’ve known for a long time who share your politics? Congratulations, you’re an affinity group. Give yourselves a name. Don’t think you have to go do huge stuff. Just get together regularly with local Righties you know, and start doing small stuff, and then build on it.

(If any Righties out there decide to experiment with the affinity group structure, do us all a favor and give yourselves a goofy name. I keep reading about Lefty affinity groups with wannabe badass names like “Hard Rain” and what-have-you, and it’s kind of laughable. I’ve worked in dangerous circumstances where my colleagues and I were guarded by bad-ass operators, and lemme tell you something: my colleagues and I, the wussy civilians, all had bad-ass radio code names, but the actual bad-ass operators had the goofiest call signs imaginable.)

But say you’re not interested in setting up an affinity group. That’s fair; a lot of Righties are allergic to the Lefty way of doing things. If you don’t want to go that route, can you still use useful things from decentralization?

Yep. Because that’s what the Bernie Sanders campaign did.

rulesforrevolutionariescoverThe next book is RULES FOR REVOLUTIONARIES: HOW BIG ORGANIZING CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING, Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s account of their work for the Bernie Sanders campaign. There are some very useful tidbits in here, though the book itself is more worth a skim than a serious read — there’s not enough meat for a book of this size.

Also, you have to spend time with the authors, who are, as you’d expect from die-hard Bernie types, a little bit insufferable. I find myself quite liking most of the Lefty authors I read, just as people. But Bond and Exley are the sort of people who say, “What do big organizing goals look like?”, answer their own question by reeling off a laundry list of pie-in-the-sky goals, and then add, “And it’s not crazy to ask for them all at once.”

They are, in short, the annoying sort of revolutionaries. The good news is that they’re revolutionaries who are out trying to do the work, so at least they’re practical. They don’t just sit around spouting polemics about how righteous their cause is; they want change, and they know they have to work to get it. Some examples of the bracing slaps to the face herein:

  • “There is no provider of revolutionary conditions whose job it is to set everything up just right for you.”
  • “The upside to the counterrevolution is that it is a pretty effective filter for identifying who truly wants to work for change.”
  • “Revolutions usually are begun with no central source of funding. Start with people, not with money.”
  • “The revolution is not something you order to your own specifications. You have to take the obstacles with the opportunities.”

In short, “do the work.” Which I why I picked up the book: I was interested in the mechanics of the Sanders campaign. How’d they do it?

The Sanders campaign had a centralized organization and goals. What they decentralized was the work. To do this, they distributed work, gave lots of people leadership roles, held those people accountable, and maximized efficiency. The Sanders volunteers worked in teams, led by volunteers who had proved themselves to be effective and accountable through work. That’s your basic formula: recruit people, empower them, and grow.

Okay, but let’s go back to step one: recruiting. How did the Sanders campaign get those serious volunteers? It was a multi-stage process, and you can do it too.

  1. Email 100 (if targeted) to 1000 (if randomly selected) people. Invite them to a conference call. Typically, 10-50 will sign on. If you give short notice for the conference call, you’re more likely to get people who are available on short notice — i.e., respondents who have a lot of free time.
  2. On the conference call, explain the team’s purpose, what they’re doing, and the big picture.
  3. At the end of the call, give people a task as a shit test to see who’s serious.
  4. Invite everybody who did the task onto a second conference call. Choose a leader.
  5. Give them a means to communicate with each other — a mailing list or Slack channel or something.
  6. Sacrifice a goat and pray to Cthulhu.

And that’s how to quadruple your organization’s capacity. Once you have those people, one of the authors, a former union organizer, holds that phone calls are essential to movement-building — so once you have those leaders set up, speak with them on the phone regularly. Not email, not Slack; YOU MUST, ABSOLUTELY MUST, WORK PHONES. The human voice is essential. Phone calls let you get a read on people, strengthen relationships. Talk to people one-on-one for that, but it’s also part of what makes conference calls effective.

The biggest problem the Bernie campaign had at first was figuring out how to manage all of those people dying to volunteer. Job one was literally to set up a volunteer-staffed help desk that would deal with other volunteers’ stupid questions, in order to free up the actual organizers. Job two was figuring out what skillsets the campaign had available: what did those volunteers know how to do? As an example, the campaign’s paid map tool crashed. A fan made a better one, so the campaign used it instead. The Sanders even used their massive numbers of volunteers to A/B test instructions for events: they’d send different versions to different groups of volunteers, and see who was more successful.

There are some notable people-managing ideas in all this. In one particularly interesting anecdote, the authors recount an experience of a fellow who ran a Lefty email list. The list-runner sent out an email asking for people to come get arrested in a protest. Lefties obliged, because getting arrested protesting is something Lefties like to do, but one dude at the protest in particular stood out for the list-runner. When he got home, the list-runner looked up that one dude in his database. (Lefty groups track their members’ activity levels hard.) It turned out that the dude in question had never so much as signed a petition, but he came out to get arrested because he was asked to do something that felt important. The lesson the authors should take from this is that if you want to ask people to do something big, it a) has to be worth their while b) has to be part of a plan c) has to make a difference. That said — and this is also important — not everybody can do something big. So you need to have small, medium, and big ways to contribute, because people will have different capabilities/availabilities/etc. Another takeaway from this story for me is that Righties looking to do grassroots organization need to do a lot more to keep track of, mobilize, and evaluate people. (You may be able to use work skills to identify high-value people: per the Sanders folks, for example, “Nurses make amazing revolutionary leaders.”)

The Sanders campaign held mass meetings to get people involved. That means they ran tons of mass meetings and have good advice for how to run them. Their advice: be timely. Make sure your meetings have a clear agenda. Shut down blowhards; you don’t have time for them to talk and talk and talk. The focus of your meeting is tactics, the timeline, and the path ahead. If you want to have an impact, you have to shift online activity to the real world. So at your meetings, ask your people for strong, specific stuff; have them commit to doing it RIGHT THEN AND THERE. Follow up with support outside of the meeting.

One thing the Sanders campaign did a lot of at mass meetings: they deliberately called women, young people, and people of color to tell personal stories. This was not done, as you might think, for diversity points or for imagery. They were playing the odds: in their experience, those were the people most likely to tell stories that were a) inspiring and b) brief. It didn’t always work; one author had to eject a pro-Sanders woman who seized the mic and went on an irate anti-Clinton rant. But IMHO this will be an interesting dynamic to watch among progressives in the future; I’ll be curious how it works for them, or if it winds up alienating progressive white guys.

One big challenge the Sanders movement faced was getting its phone banks going. For a big political campaign, phone banks were essential, but it was hard to get people to shift from hosting Bernie parties to hosting phone banking. They had to do it in person. Here’s what they did:

  1. recruit phone bank hosts
  2. invite potential callers to an event to meet campaign staff
  3. at the event, have phone bank hosts pitch themselves with time/date/location of phone bank party, tell people in crowd to remember who worked for them
  4. mad scrum at the end as the Bernie campaign staff told would-be phone callers to find their ideal party host!

The Sanders campaign did tons of those things. It led them to suggest what I think is a good rule: come up with stuff you can do that can be repeated and results in growth; do it over and over to scale.

None of this, they stress, was easy. It was very difficult to go big. One problem of particular note was that the web-based dialers, which volunteers used to automate dialing numbers for their pro-Bernie phone calls, were a bear to get started with. The campaign used them anyway, even setting up their own tutorials to get around the very user-unfriendly software. And guess what: those clunky, unfriendly dialers proved to be essential. Thus, one of Bond and Exley’s major principles: “Get the work started and figure it out as you go along.” (There are a bunch more principles, but to me the most important are 1) speed over perfection 2) you want high input but low democracy; the outcome should be your focus, not how you get there 3) NO EMAIL OR SLACK DRAMA. If there’s disagreement, talk on the phone or face to face to resolve it.)

One big technique the Bernie campaign got a lot of mileage out of was — and this shouldn’t be a shocking idea — promoting its best workers. You want to find the people who do the work for your movement, reward them, and promote them. In the Bernie campaign, people who proved themselves through work became known as “super volunteers,” and they got more responsibility and power. It reminded me a bit of how legendary low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman staffed his films: after a movie, he ranked his crew members with an A, B, or C. As were star performers; if you’re making a movie, get them. Bs were good performers; work with them again, unless you’ve got an A available. Avoid the Cs. Corman started doing that with his first movie. By his third film, he’d collected one hell of a crew.

Not all the efforts to help Bernie came out of the Bernie campaign. Occupy was involved as well; being radicals, they didn’t join the official campaign efforts, but rolled their own. To close out RULES FOR REVOLUTIONARIES, let’s look at what Occupy did. It’s bloody impressive.

The first thing Occupy did was send out an invitation to a conference call. They invited everyone who had ever liked Occupy Wall Street on Facebook. They didn’t need a massive response rate, because that was one million people.

The conference call (Occupy uses a tool called Maestro) opened with an introduction and discussion led by one of Occupy’s best organizers. The discussion laid out why people were on the call, why they backed Bernie Sanders. Then two big Occupy muckety-mucks, including Occupy leader Winnie Wong, took over and laid out how people could help. When the organizers finished, they literally said, “If you’re interested in doing this, press 1.” Pressing 1 automatically transferred you into a second conference call, led by Wong, who explained further details on what they were doing, and began the process of organizing the teams.

About a hundred people pressed 1.

Here’s what Occupy was recruiting for: they were going to organize pro-Bernie groups on social media groups targeting tons of different constituencies, and they wanted volunteers to run them. Wong had set up ten different Facebook groups up already (examples Bond and Exley give are Asian Americans for Bernie, Jews for Bernie, and Vets for Bernie: like that). She explained what they were doing, told everybody they’d set up the framework; they were looking for moderators to run the groups. Wong gave out her email address, and told people to email her directly to let her know which constituency group they could help lead.

Then she took some time to get to know everybody who sent her an email. To figure out who they were as people, get reads on them. Winnie Wong decided who she trusted.

Then Wong told them exactly what to do. Wong sent out directions on what an “X for Bernie” post looked like, how often and when to post, and strict guidelines on what not to post. (Again: high input, low democracy.) She set up a private Dropbox account loaded with photos, and gave teams access — they had plenty of choices for imagery, but all of the choices were provided by Occupy. Then Wong wound her new workers up and let them go. She continued to provide mentoring via calls and social media. If anybody burned out or flaked, she just repeated the process to get new respondents, and winnowed those down to get moderators.

Amazing, right? No matter how you feel about Occupy, you should agree: that is truly impressive work.

But, again, it doesn’t take up much space in RULES FOR REVOLUTIONARIES. As I said earlier, that’s the key weakness of the book: it has some very good stuff in it, but there’s not nearly enough to fill out the page count. So it’s worth a skim, but only a skim.

beautifultroublecoverIf you want more information on pulling off stuff like Occupy stunt, though, or other bits of creative activism, the book you really want to check out is my last recommendation today: BEAUTIFUL TROUBLE, edited by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell. The idea behind the book was to collect “core tactics, principles, and theoretical concepts,” as a toolbox rather than an instruction manual. And boy, did they: ten radical Lefty organizations and over seventy Lefty activists contributed. This book is fantastic, and if you’re interested in political activism yourself it’ll give you some great ideas. (Check out their website, beautifultrouble.org.)

BEAUTIFUL TROUBLE is divided into five sections: Tactics (specific forms: flash mobs, occupations, etc.), Principles (guiding insights), Theories (how Lefties believe the world works; some bits are highly informative but other bits Righty readers will skim), Case Studies (individual stories of how actions were performed), and Practitioners (biographical sketches of Lefties and Lefty groups; again, Righty readers can skim or skip around).

Each of the five sections has a series of subheadings. For example, in the section on tactics, each entry tells you common uses of the tactic in question, groups that use it, how to do it, what key principle is involved, references to additional principles and case studies, and a couple of bibliographic citations for further reading.

Let’s consider the entry on blockades as an example. Contributor Joshua Kahn Russell, of The Wildfire Project, the Ruckus Society, and the Bay Area Solidarity Action Team, points out that blockades, be they soft (linking arms) or hard (chaining people to stuff), are usually done to accomplish one of two things: protecting a space (say, preventing a forest from being logged), or hampering people, i.e., your enemies.

A blockade that hampers people usually targets a place Lefties call “points of intervention.” What’re those? They’re “specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of a system and open the way to change.” There are five different kinds: points of production (your enemy builds stuff here), destruction (your enemy is going to destroy something you like here), consumption (your enemy shops here), decision (your enemy’s headquarters), and assumption (your enemy’s symbolic places). Those are the things Lefties see as worth blockading.

During your planning session, you want to know if your blockade is going to be concrete or communicative: do you actually want to block people physically, or just send a message? Know which it is you want to do, and plan for it. If you do want to block people physically, then make sure you set things up to create what Lefties call a “decision dilemma.” A decision dilemma means simply “giving your enemy a bad choice.” Whatever they choose, they look bad: if they don’t stop your blockade, they don’t get access to their space and they look weak. If they do break your blockade (you’re “just peacefully standing there!”), they look like thugs. That’s the idea, anyway.

Okay, so you definitely want to do a blockade? FIGURE OUT WHAT YOUR GOALS ARE FIRST. Then (principle alert!) CHOOSE THE RIGHT TARGET. Then DEVELOP YOUR STRATEGY. Pick your tone carefully, make sure your message is clear, and know what levels of risk and escalation you feel are acceptable. Then (principle again!) CHOOSE TACTICS THAT SUPPORT YOUR STRATEGY.

… “tactics that support your strategy?” How does that work, exactly?

Well, let’s turn the page to the Principles section for a minute, because Janice Fine has helpfully contributed a whole entry on just that very thing. “Choose tactics that support your strategy” means you figure out where you’re strong, and how to use it to get what you want. You don’t choose just one tactic; the basic idea behind a campaign is to deploy not one tactic, but a series of tactics designed to increase pressure over time.

When building your strategy, analyze the problem. What’s your goal? Translate that into specific demands. Then choose the right target(s): a) who has the power to meet your demands? b) who has the power to pressure those people? Finally, analyze those targets’ weaknesses: what power do you have over people in groups A and B above, and how can you concentrate it?

If you’re targeting a company, you want to target their wallet by costing them sales or effort/time. If you’re targeting a politician, you want to target their office: deprive them of contributions or votes. Embarrassment is not enough unless embarrassment leads to your target experiencing an actual material loss. (This explains why conservative admonitions of media for bias never, ever, ever work.) You can go for secondary targets, as well, and in some circumstances that’s more effective. For example, during a janitors’ strike, the janitors knew picketing the cleaning companies they worked for would do no good — the company buildings were in industrial areas not trafficked by the customers, and it’s not like customers went to the company buildings, anyway. Also the cleaning companies were run by assholes who didn’t care. So the janitors went out and picketed the customers of the cleaning companies, focusing specifically on real-estate agencies that depended on classy looks and foot traffic. The realtors freaked and began pressuring the cleaning companies to make the problem go away.

So, back to tactics now, and blockades. Say one of the tactics you’re using in your campaign is a blockade. The Ruckus Society — which, let me remind you, is a nonprofit organization that gets funding from the Tides Foundation — has a handy pamphlet on how to blockade the streets, and they do trainings in the subject. Again, I’m reasonably sure that a Righty nonprofit that did stuff like this would be torn apart by the might of the federal government, but if you’re a Lefty, this is totally cool.

Joshua Kahn Russell quickly sums up the Ruckus Society’s advice. To give you the basic idea: you need an action crew (well-trained) and a support team. Know what your limits are; be pragmatic and don’t overreach them. Scout the hell out of your location. Figure out where the choke points are, and blockade there. You don’t want your opponents to be able to beat the blockade easily. Practice your action, and make plans for every contingency. This one’s important: “DON’T PLAN FOR YOUR ACTION, PLAN THROUGH YOUR ACTION.” The action is the middle of what you’re doing. You should “expect a ton of prep work and follow-through — legal, emotional, and political.” Make sure your action is clear: people should understand what you’re doing, and why, especially the media — you need a media strategy. Don’t take risks you don’t have to. Pay attention to power dynamics — yours and the enemy’s. Dress for presentation and comfort.

Good stuff, huh?

That’s a recap of literally three entries (one tactic and two principles). Seriously: YOU WANT TO READ THIS BOOK.

I won’t go through all of BEAUTIFUL TROUBLE — it’d take forever to pull out all the good stuff; just read it — but one other principle that I think is particularly important for Righties to understand is spectrum of allies analysis. According to Joshua Kahn Russell, this tool (or a variant of it) was used by SNCC in planning 1960’s legendary Freedom Summer, when they bussed tons of Northern white college students down to Missisippi in 1960 to help register black voters.

The idea behind spectrum of allies analysis is figuring out where various groups of people are in relation to you and your enemies — and moving them toward you, and away from your enemies. It uses a barometer-like graph with five segments: active allies, passive allies, neutrals, passive opponents, and active opponents. This version of it is drawn by Russell:


  • Active allies are on your side, and they fight alongside you.
  • Passive allies are on your side, but don’t fight alongside you.
  • Neutrals don’t know about you, don’t care about you, and don’t fight for or against you.
  • Passive opponents are not on your side, but they don’t fight against you.
  • Active opponents are not on your side and are fighting against you.

Your job is to figure out where various individuals and groups rank in terms of the spectrum of allies. Then you figure out who you can nudge, and how you can nudge them. The goal of Lefties is basically to isolate or neutralize active opponents (including their campaign targets), and to nudge everybody else one segment to the Left.

The other half of the spectrum of allies analysis is that you want to avoid pushing people away from you. You don’t want passive allies to go neutral, you don’t want to flip neutrals to passive opponents, you don’t want to flip passive opponents to active opponents. (The folks at New Tactics in Human Rights have good summaries of this stuff; download their PDFs on identifying and placing allies, opponents, and neutrals.)

So back to the case study: how did this work for Freedom Summer? SNCC took a look at who their allies and opponents were. Especially their passive allies and neutrals.

SNCC had passive allies among Northern white students. They liked what SNCC did, but weren’t in a position to do anything. Solution: SNCC gave them the chance to bus down and do voter registration in the South.

As SNCC knew going in, the reception the students got from segregationist Southerners was, to put it mildly, hostile. Northern white students from nice families got threatened, got arrested, got the shit beat out of them.

This did not dissuade the Northern students, as segregationists had intended. It did the opposite. It radicalized them. They became active allies. More so, the families of these students — who hadn’t give a crap about segregation before — became angry that their kids had been beaten up, and so went from neutrals to passive allies. This weakened the segregationists’ position, and put the civil rights movement in a better one.

Neat, huh? That’s how spectrum of allies analysis works. The New Tactics folks have a pretty good summation of how to handle people in each category:

  • If you have active allies, your task is to figure out how to engage them.
  • If you have passive allies, figure out how to get them more interested and active.
  • If you have neutrals, inform or educate them toward becoming passive allies. Make sure your tactics don’t push them toward your opponent’s position.
  • If you have passive opponents: “create doubt about their position, raise fears that their position may be ‘costly’ in some way. You want your tactics to move them to a ‘neutral’ position and NOT to an active opponent position.”
  • If you have active opponents, they’re probably seriously invested in opposing you — it’s hard for them not to. To them, you make it clear that anything they do against you will cost them. The goal is to make them decide actively opposing you is not worth it, and make them become passive opponents. Failing that, isolate them.

If the only people you talk to are your active allies, and you make your whole subculture increasingly self-referential and geared toward active allies, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. If you treat everybody in every other category — passive allies and neutrals included — as if they’re all active opponents and you’re the righteous few, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. Per Joshua Kahn Russell, “Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opponents but by shifting the support out from under them.”

Again — that’s a few small bits out of BEAUTIFUL TROUBLE (with some stuff from the guys at New Tactics). Think you should read it yet?

I’m hoping that by this point some Righties who bristled earlier at my notion that Righties need to do organization are starting to realize that hey, maybe he’s onto something here. 

Organization isn’t something you can just pick up when it’s needed. It takes time and practice. It’s taken the Lefties over forty years. And no movement lasts forever. Waves of activism recede. But if activists organize, pieces will remain, and future movements can carry those pieces forward. If they have them.

Righties write polemics. Lefties write how-to manuals. THIS IS WHY LEFTIES WIN, AND WIN, AND WIN.

You don’t have to do everything the way Lefties do, but knowing how they do what they do can give you ideas to be a more effective Righty.

But, I hear you cry, all of this stuff about decentralization isn’t how Righties do things! Righties like hierarchies! Righties like organization! Righties like neat little checkboxes on stuff!

Well, so do some Lefties. And Lefties have centralized organizations, too.

That topic, next time.

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Cosmopolitans Stay In The Lobby

Part I: Exiting a Decaying Modernity



Under Nick Land’s The Dark Enlightenment, the first section you see signals you towards the overarching theme of his writing: “Neoreactionaries head for the Exit.” It’s succinct, it’s easily put into a tweet, and, when unpacked, it becomes a way to question the state of affairs we are in. Modernity having failed, the project of the Enlightenment becoming a progressive minefield of indignities, Land’s NRx take is to signal the way out.

What exactly is this modernity that we are exiting? A general, all-encompassing answer would make the mistake of leaving behind some of the more personal components that I would like to bring to this conversation. The demographic changes in Peru around the turn of the century made the conversation around Exit possible. Indeed, in Peru, the prospect of Voice was obliterated by the corruption endangering the place since the beginning of the Republican era. Democracy turned into a working, but decaying machine in this country. So exiting became a Dream to work towards to, to strive and sacrifice anything, just for the chance to Exit this place.

Of course, this is a familiar migration story. But it became more pronounced around the 2000’s, where in Peru the average narrative was that in order to get ahead, and get some money for you and your family, you would have to immigrate to Europe or the United States. There were economic incentives for people who were skilled enough to make it out, and no one will attest that the Visa applications were or are easy to go through. In order to Exit, you have to go through the mechanisms put in place and prove your worth in front of a bureaucratic body. I regard this as essentially a good thing, as I do not believe opportunities to Exit should be handed out if the nation-state to which you want to go to does not deem you capable of fulfilling a productive role in their society. To this I add the qualifier that Peru needs no handouts; we have had, historically, plenty to work with and create economic growth. Due to leftist governments, dictatorships, and corruption, this was squandered. There is a reason why we never reached the era of Industrialization, and it is not for lack of opportunities.

The options of Exit for people in Peru are limited. Peru is mainly a Spanish-speaking country despite the many languages that are trying to be recovered by the Government. However, the ideal was to settle in an English-speaking country and chase the American Dream, or as members of my family succinctly put it, “something better, because there is nothing better here.” For those with a limited arsenal in terms of languages, Spain was a sufficiently decent option to get something better.

My mother was one of the people who, around 2006, had to look into her options to chase the dream of Exit. The feeling of being stuck psychologically and economically in a city which bears no future for your family is pervasive. She wanted to set an example: “you can Exit this place too.” Her plans were not so successful at first, as the US rejected her, and she was put through a bureaucratic nightmare to get a Work visa. Like many people from Peru who Exit the place, she had emotional ties to the place: family, friends, memories. So she came back. However, she had raised me to head for the Exit, but I had to find it within myself why I wanted to Exit. Her examples were clear enough, but they were not mine. By the age of 7, even before she migrated, I knew Peru was not my place. A decaying modernity rotted before my eyes.

Peru is a neoliberal country, economically, that is. One could be facetious and call it “hyper-liberal” since the corrupt Alberto Fujimori regime, but it’s a place where market logic has accelerated the pace of decay of various institutions such as the University, the transportation system, and the press, among other institutions that are being worked on to this day. Alongside this, a political reactiveness feeds Peru’s consciousness, as various political parties proliferate (more than 10) into nonsensical and disorganized competition. Peru swings mostly neoliberal as a response to the failure of Leftist governments, policies around the Region, and our personal days of rage in terms of terrorism in the name of the Left. However, this means that the country, with unfinished basic infrastructure, centralization, and waves of internal migration, is effectively a Chaotic Territory. Diverse, yes, but at the cost of basic infrastructure being left behind. Oh, and democracy, we’ve got that. It is one of the platforms that has effectively given rise to corruption and, well, most of our Presidents are either in jail or being investigated for corruption. Not to mention the congressmen, public servants, mayors, region managers and other politicians that have been involved in major cases too embarrassing to even list. The country, seen from my perspective, is an endless source of shame.

Culturally, Peru is stuck looking at the past. But political economy has a funny way of getting countries such as ours that did not go through Industrialization to jump straight towards post-industrial/information economies pretty fast, and in doing so, fostering a culture of innovation that is growing to eat up anything resembling tradition. The food stays the same, though (colourful and delicious, but toxic in the long run). Women’s rights is still something fought for, abortion rights and LGBTQ rights all the same. It is a broken system.

With Democracy (corruption), the State (corrupting), and Politics (corrupted), both the economic perspective and the cultural perspective leave one with a feeling of lethargy.

A lot of these different decaying characteristics became obvious to me at an early age, so much so that I simply took it as a reality that nothing was gonna get better. I did not pine for a Leftist government, having known the misdeeds it can achieve. The gospel was that you just had to work with the system, even knowing that it was completely corrupt to the bone. Growing up as a person with several diagnoses, I had to separate what biologically and culturally made me depressed. Some things can be treated with pills; others, however, cannot be treated or dealt with. You just have to walk out.  The cultural, social and political structures engendered more broken modernities, more corruption, more degeneration of basic values. It all hangs by a thread, and in the Third World each shock is felt more resoundingly. I have always been distrustful of Institutions, believing they were corrupt, dumb, and essentially managed by idiots. I still believe this, but as many people told me (told, not taught, crucially) this is something I had to negotiate with, not reject altogether. And work until my eyes bled.

This is how I exited a decaying modernity.

Part II: The Lobby of Modernity

The United Kingdom is a curious place. Tradition and modernity collide in a particular kind of cultural passive aggression, both polite and repressed and eternally condescending. The problems I had seen in Peru were back under a new, shiny, pathological guise. To put it all in perspective, while Peru is a decaying modernity, or a butchered post-modernity, the UK prides itself on being a successful one. At the very least, London is always quick to show its diversity credentials, its tolerance and the magnificence of its openness, no matter how hypocritical it is.

Western Modernity sings a new gospel, and it is the gospel of Progressivism and an acceptance of Leftist frameworks of thought as common sense, as simply the thing you should think. Having encountered this in both the media and academic circles, I could not help but think this was an inflated version of what I had encountered during my University years in Peru. See, Peru being the decaying modernity that it is, it does not fully buy into progressivism wholesale. Rather, the values of something like Marxism are taught in disparate places, such as public Universities and private Universities. In Lima alone, the amount of private Universities teaching these surpass the public ones by sheer fact: there are simply more private Universities. Even an analysis of the media and overall politics will give out that Leftism/Progressivism are not being bought. Furthermore, the teaching of Marxist theory in private Universities was a paradox, as both the teachers and students (in both cases, upper middle class, if not Upper class) were trapped inside a bubble. To understand Marxism in a Third World country is to look around you, as shanty towns are minutes away from so called “modern cities”. But private Universities in Peru being what they are, students would not so much ignore these realities but actively deny them.

However, in Western Modernity, the situation happening in some Universities in Peru can be extrapolated and elaborated. The Progressive Leftist gospel is canon, and Modernity demands you believe it. A lot of the condition of leftism, taught in theory but more easily accessible through practice in Peru, had been simply indoctrinated and assimilated by various institutions. The situation becomes even more complex in the context of London, and it generates its own bubble, with a different set of characteristics. This is what I have come to term “cosmopolitanism”. It is worth having a definition of the word, as it has denoted “world-citizen” many times, but needs fleshing out, for in the term I see the condition from which the UK suffers, a condition brought about by modernity and its programme of all voice and no exit. From Wikipedia,

“Cosmopolitanism can be defined as a global politics that, firstly, projects a sociality of common political engagement among all human beings across the globe, and, secondly, suggests that this sociality should be either ethically or organizationally privileged over other forms of sociality”

In a country such as the UK, that this type of sociality be embraced is a kind of “no shit, Sherlock!” But I would like to emphasize the two conditions that make the concept of cosmopolitanism useful for characterizing Western modernity. First, the characteristic of “common political engagement” assumes that all people, regardless of wherever they come from, have grounds in common. Behind this, there is an appeal to emotion, that we are all the same in our Humanity, and surely, we can find commonality even in our differences. This first characteristic becomes more precarious when coupled with the second one, that of “privileged over other forms of sociality”. The point is quite simple, and it bears writing it simply: whereas practices of Western colonialism are often linked with popular culture and thought-control from, usually, a bad government trying to get to the minds of its people, neo-colonialism under the guise of Modernity imposes a framework of Progressive Leftist thought-control through the Media and the University. The suppression of difference that many people denounced in both academic and activist circles transforms into an assimilation of difference, but under a distinctive Leftist framework. One either buys into this configuration or is quickly purged to the margins.

Cosmopolitanism’s essential guiding light is a Leftist, progressive framework that projects a sociality of common political engagement and privileges this framework over other forms. If you want Out of this common political engagement or simply do not agree with its framework, only demonization occurs. “You have assimilated the Imperial mindset!” An Us and Them frame, characteristic of any kind of society that privileges Voice over Exit (also known as a Political society), imposes itself. As a person from the Third World, you are denied any political agency, be it formal or informal, and are essentially a token and bargaining chip for other Leftists to rally around their righteous cause. You are a victim. Part of the oppressed. As I was condescendingly reminded by a native-born Briton, “as a migrant, you have rights, you know?”: if you are not feeling subaltern, you will be beaten down until you assume the position from which the Left can fight for you and tell you how to live. You become a cause, not a person. Let us remember that for many of the Western Moderns, the Third World seems like an old dream, something that is in the past, surpassed the obvious superiority of Modernity and its ruthless cosmopolitanism. If you do not feel any attachment to the Left and think the ideology is essentially a disaster waiting to happen, you will be made to feel like Imperialism has infiltrated your mind and you are now at the hands of the enemy, Capitalism! If you point to your own history of Leftist failure at a National scale, you will be told that that was not Real Communism. They will educate you on what you thought you knew about material reality. The wounds and the scars, the death and the pain you and your family felt because of the ideology they espouse, usually a combination of Marx, Lenin, Mao and the like, much like Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path, will be reframed for their convenience.

What is worse, being in trapped in a decaying modernity or in a Western one? The answer for many people in Peru was being trapped in an incompetent system, therefore Exit was a choice to be made and worked for. The people who did not make it through the filter remain trapped in Peru, which politically maintains itself by a thread. Corrupt Democracy can only ever subsist for so long, and the path towards rebuilding something, anything, is only glanced with its decay, be it via the path of authoritarianism or a hard reboot.  But if the Third World is closer to an Exit from itself than Western Modernity, it is only because it never actually believed the narrative being woven by the cosmopolitans. The Third World merely saw the Nations that comprised Modernity as a means to an end, an Exit.

In the case of Western Modernity, there is really nothing that can be done to counteract Leftist Progressivism, except letting them run themselves to the ground. Cosmopolitans have been characterized as “white leftists” or “baizuos”. The elegance of the term is undeniable, but I think we have quite a large vocabulary to characterize people who behave in such a manner, borderline assaulting and no-platforming people from Third World countries or quite simply, other backgrounds, to compel them to submit to the Leftist narrative they have created. The Cosmopolitan does not ask, they assume, and by doing so they universalize beliefs regardless of any proof put in front of their faces. At every attempt to help, they hurt. By appointing themselves priests of the Sacred Church of All Truth, in all their condescending mediocrity the Cosmopolitans put you in your place, like a paternalistic dunce stuck in a maze of their own making. While neoreactionaries head for the Exit, Cosmopolitans stay in the lobby of their risible maze, bending over backwards to make sense of themselves.

Let them be trapped.

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The Four Blind Men, the Elephant, and Alan Kay

First off, a brief apology. I made a New Year’s resolution to finish at least one post a month, and, well, you can see how well that ended up. Back in January, I changed jobs, and I’m now CTO of a company that’s building a platform for digital cash as humanitarian aid. I wasn’t expecting my available Copious Free Time to increase, exactly, but I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t be quite so much of a Major Life Transition. Ha ha!

People will tell you that managing engineers is nothing like being an engineer oneself. This is mostly true, but like most important career lessons, the ways in which it’sunnamed obviously true are its least interesting aspects. Management is, more than anything else, a change in perspective. As an engineer, you’re behind the wheel of your project, and it’s your job to get it to the finish line. As a manager, your job is to get your entire team to the finish line, and their projects assembled into whatever Voltron configuration your specification calls for, on time and on budget.

This isn’t where all conflict between engineering and management comes from, but it sure does account for a lot of it. The engineer’s top priority is getting it done right. The engineer’s manager also cares about getting it done right, but cares more about getting it done at all. When these priorities come into conflict, so do the people they’re attached to.

But differences in perspective aren’t all bad. They can obscure, but they can also illuminate. A Hindu folktale illustrates this:

Four blind men, making their way along one day with their canes and dark glasses, encountered an elephant. One of them touched its trunk, one touched its leg, one touched its side, and one touched its tail.

“An elephant is like a python,” said the first blind man.

“No, an elephant is like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man.

“No, an elephant is like a wall,” said the third blind man.

“No, an elephant is like a rope,” said the fourth blind man.

And they never could agree on what an elephant was really like.

The blind men can’t agree on what an elephant is really like — but the person who hears the story can listen to all four blind men’s perspectives and synthesize them into a more complete mental image of an elephant. The arguing men are foils for the listener, who is meant to draw a lesson from the characters’ folly.


A couple of months ago, I was on the phone with one of my teammates, a guy I’ve known for about twenty-five years. (We lived on the same street in high school, were on the debate team together, and stayed in touch over the years.) He’s an expert in geographic information systems and data collection, and I hired him to design and implement a simulation engine that we can use with real-world map data. This lets us test our application in a simulated version of the environments where we’ll actually deploy it. He’d been focusing on the geographic and econometric aspects of the simulator, whereas I was looking at the project in terms of its components.

“We’ll need a network simulator,” I said, “to be able to model what happens under all different kinds of network conditions. And the econometric simulator, which you’re already working on. And a traffic simulator, to model people moving around on foot or in vehicles. I found –”

“Holy shit,” he interrupted. “I can’t believe it.”

“What’s up?”

“You’re absolutely right. I was really starting to worry about how we were going to keep track of all these agents, because the econometric simulator is already starting to get a little top-heavy. But you’re right, we can use a traffic simulator as a separate component. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”

I have had these kinds of kicking-myself moments before, and they are no fun. The polar opposite of fun, really. But if I could give him my perspective, I could end the misery.

“Don’t sweat it,” I told him. “There’s an Alan Kay quote that applies here: Point of view is worth 90 IQ points. You’ve been working on this from the bottom up, down in the gory details of spending patterns and shape files. I’ve been looking at it from the top down, thinking about how to put it all together. I saw it because of the direction I was looking at the problem from, that’s all. So don’t feel like you’ve messed up by focusing on just that one tree and not seeing the forest. That tree is your baby. Taking care of the forest as a whole is literally my job.”

Maybe that sounds like one of those meaningless reassurances that’s only supposed to make people feel better. It is, however, entirely true. If I’d had a head full of facts and figures that I were trying to distill into patterns a simulator can replay, I probably wouldn’t have seen it either. Nor is top-down necessarily the point of view that gives the effective-IQ boost, either! Just as often, a person looking at a problem from the bottom up can identify the optimal substructure that makes a large problem easy to break down and solve, even if from the top down it looks like an implacable monolith. Nor, for that matter, is structure the only useful change in perspective! Switching from near mode to far mode, or vice versa, or between System 1 and System 2 or vice versa, can often bring details you were missing into sharp relief.

Let’s talk about that sharpness in a minute. First, though, a digression.

I made one other resolution this year: Get better enemies.

By and large, individual people make pretty terrible enemies. Our monkey brains are wired to experience prevailing over an opponent — even just a perceived opponent, and possibly even just a perceived prevailing, if social media is any indication — as pleasurable, but the pleasure is short-lived. You won, great. Now go do everything else you were neglecting in favor of the fight.

If that individual person also happens to be a figurehead, then the triumph is even shorter-lived, as the United States military keeps failing to learn in the Middle East. Synecdochically conflating Osama bin Laden with radical Islamic terrorism made for compelling prime-time narrative, but lopping off that head — or any other, for that matter — has utterly failed to kill the hydra. Any organization with a bus factor of 1 — that would collapse if a single key person were disabled or eliminated — is by construction fragile. It’s easy to want to think that social organization is simple and orderly and key persons are easy to identify, but, well, it’s nice to want things.

Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action: The other kind of individual who makes a terrible enemy is yourself.

Challenging yourself is one thing. That’s friendly competition. But punishing yourself — especially for things like “not being omniscient” or “not having all the answers” — is self-sabotage. You can motivate yourself with a stick, but you can beat yourself up with one pretty effectively, too. When someone else’s perspective illuminates a solution so sharply it makes you wince, if beating yourself up is what you’re used to, it can be really tempting to snap off one of the sharper, pointier bits, fix it to the end of that stick, and see whether stabbing makes for any more effective motivation. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. Not in the long run, anyway.)

If individuals make poor enemies, what else is there? I said “three times is enemy action” above, so I must be thinking of something as an enemy. And I am: all the many and varied opportunities to take on someone (yourself included) as an enemy that day-to-day life throws at us are just one kind of attractive nuisance.

Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to crappy local maxima is paved with attractive nuisances. Which kinds of nuisances are attractive to which people is a highly idiosyncratic matter; de gustibus non est disputandum. Under conditions of information overload, which we’ve been in for decades and are probably never getting out of barring civilization-scale collapse, any conflict with an attractive nuisance is necessarily a defensive, specifically an evasive, action. You defeat an attractive nuisance by avoiding it, because if you confront it, it’s reeled you in to expending your limited attention interacting with it. Another thing that is Literally My Job Now is helping the rest of my team avoid their own attractive nuisances, if they ask. Which they actually do, sometimes. I’m taking that as a cue that I’m doing something kinda right there, at least so far.

Having entered the domain of Conflicts With Abstract Concepts, it merits thinking about which kinds of abstract concepts make for quality enemies and which ones don’t. The ongoing Wars on Drugs and Terror have been such expensive, miserable failures, with such enormous negative externalities, that to do otherwise would also be self-sabotage. LBJ picked poverty, and mobilized vast federal personnel and materiel resources, to mixed results, and by the middle of the Clinton administration his war machine had mostly been dismantled. On the “fewer negative externalities” end of the spectrum, the War on Cancer continues to fuel basic research, and although much of what we have learned about cancer in the last 50 years amounts to “JFC we have a lot more to learn about how cancer works,” overall incidence rates have gone down and overall survival rates have gone up. This is not a lot of examples from which to generalize, but when you’re spending billions of dollars annually on actions that gain you little or no ground against an abstract adversary, perhaps it is time to take a step back and reflect on what the last half-century of Wars On Things has taught us about target selection.

But this is also a very black-and-white way of looking at the situation. “War on X” has become a metaphor for “committing all available resources, even to the point of austerity, in the effort to defeat X.” It evokes the concerted nation-scale efforts of the World Wars that were still well within living memory for many voters when the term “War on Drugs” was coined in the 1970s. Yet already by the 1970s, and even more so today, actual warfare has evolved into something much more asymmetric. Total war loses against asymmetric warfare, by attrition: eventually the commitment required to keep up the state of total war is simply too costly for the warring actor to bear.

Not every fight has to be a war. If the lessons of history are any example, perhaps a better metaphor is guerrilla action.

This new phase of my career, in effect, is going to be spent in guerrilla action against poverty, famine, and unnecessary complexity in systems design. We are going to be constantly ambushed by nature, both the hurricanes-and-earthquakes kind and the human kind. And even though some of us blind men have felt their way around nontrivial amounts of the elephant, enormous swaths of elephant remain as yet unperceived.

What the blind men in the story forget is something foremost in a guerrilla’s mind: they can move. Which, in the realm of ideas, translates into perspective-taking. The corollary, then, to Alan Kay’s maxim is that if you find yourself feeling like you’re down 90 IQ points, it’s time to start looking for different points of view.

So that’s what we’re doing. We’ve found, these last few months, that incorporating a broad diversity in points of view — both practical and ideological — from different people who focus on different things, leads to a much more effective concentration of effort. It allows us to pay attention to the micro and the macro at the same time, without disregarding anyone’s contribution to the task at hand. It’s easy, from the 50,000-foot view, to get stuck trying to perfect aspects of a system that will never become relevant in practice. That system’s going to have to work in an environment, after all, not a vacuum. Actual, practical solution-making is a work of coordination, both with respect to the problem you’re solving and to the people you’re solving it with. If you can avoid the attractive nuisances that try to sidetrack you — as a first approximation, simply disregarding them works far better than it has any right to — then you’re well on your way to optimizing your own inventory of perspectives in a way that maximizes your ability to use the resources you have.

Give me some time to finish figuring out how to optimize the way I look at time, and I’ll have plenty more to say about all of this. Hopefully sooner rather than later.


Thanks to Giancarlo Sandoval for his editorial advice.

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The Backchannel is the Message

chinese-whispersThere’s a pernicious problem in rule making: it is much easier to introduce a rule than to remove it. To borrow a phrase from Pascal, “if I had had more time, I would have written a shorter rulebook,” and this applies just the same whether those rules are meant for computers or for people. The fewer parts there are, the less they can interact in surprising ways.

If we lose sight of this in our rule making, we invite the same kinds of pathology we see more readily with technology. We suffer exploits due to unforeseen consequences, and we are prevented from fixing them due to an ever growing maintenance overhead. Rather than try to untangle the resulting monolith of interactions, often the only compassionate action is to take it out back and put it out of its misery. If too many people are invested, though, this rarely happens, and we simply truck on.

Furthermore, what is left out can be as important as what is said. Rules are only as useful as the environment in which they are enforced. If that environment is one with hidden layers and unseen levers, the result may be quite the opposite of what is written.

Continue reading

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