Cosmopolitans Stay In The Lobby


Part I: Exiting a Decaying Modernity

 

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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.

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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.

So.

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.

Where am I going with this?

Over at the farm of ribbons, Sonya Mann has written a very interesting piece about community governance. She posits a dichotomy between two approaches, the content-oriented and the process-oriented. Or, more simply, ends versus means. It applies to the kulturkampf, of course:

“It’s okay when we do it, because our ends are just.” vs “I will defend their right to say it, even if I strongly disagree.”

Those focused on content seek to achieve satisfaction in the result, desiring correctness of values. Those focused on process seek to achieve consistency in the methodology, desiring fair application of rules.

As a model, it’s lovely, and it can help to bridge the often insurmountable gap between two camps. If you are unable to model why someone does something, you are left to ascribe to idiocy or malice what is, to them, actually a principled stance. Accusations of bad faith naturally result, as do the 140 glyph bursts of thinly veiled vitriol and quick dismissal.

The only issue I have with this model is that it flies in the face of reality on the ground. I’m a fan of the process side of things, but the problem I have with the social justice contingent isn’t that they don’t do enough rule making. Quite the opposite.

For most of the last decade, we’ve been pushed to adopt Codes of Conduct. Notably in Ada Initiative’s anti-harassment policy, and now the Github-approved Contributor Covenant, what we find is a long list of prohibited behaviors and processes for enforcement. This is scoped to exceed any individual project and extends into the public sphere.

Reading the language, it sure looks like they didn’t want to leave any stone unturned:

“Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, or other protected class status, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.” (Ada)

“Project maintainers have the right and responsibility to remove, edit, or reject comments, commits, code, wiki edits, issues, and other contributions that are not aligned to this Code of Conduct, or to ban temporarily or permanently any contributor for other behaviors that they deem inappropriate, threatening, offensive, or harmful.” (Covenant)

This is not the work of someone who values content over process. No, this is rule making supreme. Indeed, this is the result of long discussions and threads, arguing over the exact wording. The people who introduce and adopt this sort of language clearly think the precise rules matter. This picture really starts to crack in two distinct ways.

One is that there’s always a final rule, an “etcetera” catch-all clause. It will, for example, prohibit “other conduct which could reasonably be considered inappropriate.” This by itself should be odd: why bikeshed over a long list of detailed sins, if it turns out they’re just illustrations after all?

The other is that these rules are put in place through decidedly soft power: contributors and speakers have explicitly promised to boycott those who do not adopt them. Arguing for a markedly different approach altogether is treated as defection. This is the surest sign that the real rules are not the ones on paper at all.

If you look back at particular incidents of modern witch hunting, there’s a pretty consistent theme: it’s okay to break the rules to catch a witch. Despite a rulebook that says you must use “welcoming and inclusive language,” insults easily fly left and right towards the targets, as do the calls for violence, ironic or not. Being “respectful of differing viewpoints and experiences” doesn’t apply to viewpoints or experiences that are too different. “Showing empathy towards others” has a very limited action radius, as certain notoriously noxious individuals have demonstrated.

It gets even worse, as seen in the most recent case in the Drupal community. Not only were the rules broken to dig up dirt on a dastardly unperson, but the target was actually found not to be in violation of the rules at all. Not even by applying catch-all clauses. Did the aggressors put down their torches and pitchforks in shame, did the committee “show empathy towards [its] community members?” Nope.

What happened instead is extremely illustrative. The Community Working Group rejected its own verdict based on its own rules, and escalated the issue to the backchannel. This led to a long and drawn-out PR exercise by the powers that be. The community was left to guess and argue over the resulting secret meetings and edited statements, while the accused in question felt his only recourse was to blog openly and at length about his private life.

The flaw in the model, as I see it, is that the content side doesn’t just think “it’s okay when we do it.” It would be easier to swallow if that were the going premise, openly admitted. No, it’s that they insist up-and-down that rules are absolutely necessary for everyone. That diversity officers and arbitration committees must be established, with official seals of approval (and handsome paychecks to boot). The net result is that the language of compassion and tolerance can be seamlessly used to paper over destructive and vindictive personal agendas.

None of this is in the rulebook, but it doesn’t have to be. The rulebook is the foot in the door, used to legitimize everything else. It is undoubtedly well intentioned, but it is wide open to abuse, and the 0-day exploits have been in the wild for years. Good intentions are worth nothing when bad actions consistently result.

In the resulting discussions, there’s a particular flip that occurs, too. These problems are denied, at first, up until a plaintiff demonstrates a solid enough case. Then, without skipping a beat, we are told nothing is perfect, and that the alternative would be far worse. The rationale that the ends justify the means only comes into play when pressed. The argument has actually changed completely, but the emotional valence is the same: we’re right, we’re the good guys, and you’re bad for not following along. Cognitive dissonance averted. The resulting radioactive fall-out is fine by them, as long as it’s aimed in the general vicinity of the right group of wrong people.

I don’t think the choice to backchannel and deploy PR tactics is an isolated one, either. It’s hard to miss that as public discourse has gotten more polarized, more and more social interaction online has moved into private or semi-private venues. Products like Slack and Discord have ridden this trend to great success. While it’s true the old realms of Usenet and IRC were equally fragmented, what those networks had that the new ones lack is the simple ease of discoverability.

In the search for more welcoming and inclusive environments, it has become standard policy to adopt a process of soft vetting and gatekeeping through obscurity. This in itself is a noteworthy trend, as it’s normally a hallmark of totalitarian societies, where real intellectual freedom only happens behind closed doors. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be selective, but it does fly in the face of oft-repeated intentions. One might also wonder about the supposed safety of said closed venues, when they’re fully controlled by a handful of tech companies with an increasingly restrictive political monoculture.

It doesn’t take a genius to notice this and worry that you might be next. When faced with an unpatched exploit, people will adapt their behavior to mitigate the danger regardless. Worse, in the eyes of the justice seekers, this is a good thing, for their ends are being achieved—in this, the model is spot on. But to do so, they are not abandoning process, no, they are adding ever more rules, embedded into the very social fabric of their communities. We can expect goalposts to be moved towards legislating values rather than conduct, as the conditions that set off the witch detector will have to be necessarily broadened. The cure for the dysfunction that results is ever only more of the poison. This too is an unwritten rule.

It does, however, bring us closer to the heart of the matter: certain ideas themselves have become sacred, which was already observed years ago in comics:

No amount of actual discussion can take place as long as the critics view the very act of counterargument as morally indefensible because of the class or gender of the defenders, or the language used. Only one side is accusing the other of being scum, only one side is insisting that the other side should just shut up and stop speaking their mind. And it’s not Team Dickwolves.

Maybe the real dickwolves were wearing sheep’s clothing all along.

It’s supremely naive to take people at their word, especially when their words are law, and their actions say the exact opposite.

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The New Confessional is The Porcelain Throne

Today’s political struggle is a nebulous, stormy quarrel. We do not lack for storytellers to inform us, nor channels to express our views in. Nevertheless, correctly diagnosing the nature of the problem appears to elude us. Despite our rational, pluralistic society, we have regressed further into that overt tribalism we may as well call Eternal November. Two increasingly polarized camps give a subtly medieval tone to the whole affair, as the information trebuchets fire their volleys in the general direction of the enemy fort, obliterating the middle ground in the process. No clear victory conditions exist in this fight, only an endless, general siege.

This is a most peculiar state of affairs, and it conflicts entirely with how we think of ourselves as enlightened, rational beings. If we wish to untangle this Gordian Knot, we need fingers of utmost dexterity, and it must be a team effort. Cleaving it with the sword of truth and justice does not work, for it is intricately woven into it, wielded by each side to smite the other. The evidence is already here in abundance, what is required is to turn off the reality distortion field that prevents it from snapping into focus.

The religious dimension, it turns out, is key.

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Religion in Action

It’s a popular thing to criticize the Catholic Church, particularly in the skeptic community. Atheist icons like Christopher Hitchens acquired great fame in documenting its hypocrisy and duplicity.

While preaching charity, it sits on an opulent treasure of gold to rival the best dragons. It works for the good of the community, yet harbors and protects abusers. Under the guise of care, it encourages needless suffering and honors the Mother Theresas who set it up. All the way down, it lays out policies on contraception, marriage and homosexuality that seem to contradict its own beliefs and inclinations, stated or otherwise. This is an open secret, such that the news that a Vatican-owned property happens to house a gay sauna merely elicits knowing snickers all around.

Beyond its contemporary failings, there is a long history to look back on. The persecution and torture of heretics and witches is a topic of many a medieval tapestry. The long list of religiously motivated wars and political power grabs are plentiful, by the Grace of God.

None of this is news. We understand there can be an enormous gap between stated moral values and actions taken. The guilty and self-loathing hide best among the holy, and no-one is as committed as the person who hurts you thinking it’s for your own good. Shaming the heretic into silence, or forcing the accused into confession, are very effective means of social control. But most of all, institutional pillars are political entities with a will of self-preservation beyond their individual members.

This is the power of sanctity. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, it is a concept that is pervasive—even instrumental—in the development of human civilization. By establishing certain concepts as sacred, we can erase doubts, transcend differences in moral foundations, coming together in shared purpose to achieve both great and terrible things.

Mainly because of the latter, the West has shifted strongly towards a post-religious, secular self-image. Separation between church and state is, ironically, an accepted dogma. With the exception of a few hold-outs like the United States or Poland, we are overwhelmingly post- or recovering Christians.

Religious devotion belongs to the past, or so many think.

 

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It should therefor be a very bitter pill to swallow, if we discover we have fallen into the same old trap. The skeptic community is an enlightening example of this.

Gripped by moral strife in 2011, it perfectly foreshadowed the years to come. The details are irrelevant to the point here. What matters are the tools that were deployed and the effect they had.

Preaching from her YouTube channel, skeptic panelist Rebecca Watson chastized a conference goer for a transgression, which she saw as representative of the community’s norms. It prompted well-known figure Richard Dawkins to respond in dismissal. This made it news-worthy and caused various activist journalists to respond, heaping on the shame and censure. The resulting flood of posts and articles got shared virally on social media, prompted follow-up discussions, triggered more scandals offline, and ultimately lead to a splintering of the community, from which it never recovered.

It’s a neat package: moral pulpits, public shaming, witch hunts, targeted career sabotage and character assassination, all for the greater good. Years before “harassment” became a buzzword on everyone’s lips, the same demographic that now laments it the most was using it to fight perceived white male privilege for the sake of diversity. The resulting Atheism+ group wasn’t long for this world, but an extensive account of their inflicted grievances from 2012 should sound eerily familiar and convince you it never actually went away. All the information is still out there, it’s just been lost in that dustbin of recent history that passes for an eternity on the internet.

There’s a very important contradiction here though, well observed by counter-YouTuber Karen Straughan. How did a community of skeptics and rationalists find itself divided on ideological grounds, becoming the first notable example of a community rift in the current culture war? Shouldn’t they of all people have been the most rational, the most grounded, the most immune to such collective self-sabotage?

But it’s not that complicated, the explanation is pretty simple: the division that was revealed was there all along. On one side you had people who were skeptical in nature, and found others to practice their skepticism with. On the other, you had people who were looking for a shared tribal and religious experience, who were merely dissatisfied with what the conventional options for God had to say about sexuality, abortion, drugs, gender roles, etc. They didn’t mind the adherence to a strict moral code per se, they only minded conservative norms. They didn’t mind purity tests and witch hunts, they only minded it if any of the flames shot back in their own direction. What they were looking for was a sense of belonging.

When forced to choose between skepticism or tribal identity, their differing priorities were revealed, and the tribalists won, undergoing their own schism, supported by willing preachers in media both social and traditional, operating their individual little printing presses.

It is exactly this distributed and decentralized religious movement that has grown over many such incidents to define popular political discourse on the left. Despite fancying themselves skeptics who oppose religious dogma in all its forms, they eagerly established their own moral authority, merely substituting privilege for original sin.

Labelling it is difficult. You could call it contemporary social justice, intersectional feminism, progressivism or social liberalism, but you’d only capture part of it. You’d also be easily baited into arguing the professed ideals instead of the lack of consistency in practicing them. It makes it easy to dismiss detractors as being anti-what-we-stand-for instead of anti-hypocrisy.

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Egregore Studies

In making this comparison, a few obvious rebuttals pop up.

For sure, the people involved will deny any religious intent, the same way antifa will instantly dismiss any accusations of complicity when rioting against perceived fascist oppression. It’s a sobering truth nevertheless: when you define yourself primarily in opposition to _____, it makes you exceptionally vulnerable to _____ism in disguise, especially if it’s a holy war.

You might say there’s no formal mass, no built churches, and no Vatican to point to, but we can tease out structures that carry the same role. You only have to factor in the now omnipresent role of social media in establishing social consensus, along with the increasing atomization of subcultures.

Their Vatican is the ivory tower of political orthodoxy and postmodernism in the humanities, devoid of real ideological diversity. Their churches are the various outlets and communities that publish only the party line, with comments under heavy moderation. Their mass is the churn of the social feed, the rosary beads traversed over and over again in ritualistic consumption. Their dogmas are the foregone conclusions about victimhood, their heresies the inconvenient scientific truths about the nature of humanity and the role of biology. Their piles of gold are the multitude of public grants and patrons buying indulgences and insurance from retaliation, kissing the ring in submission.

You might think we are more skeptical than ever, as fake news has come and gone as a buzzword du jour: Who is saying it, and can I believe them? But we rarely see people question how and why the news reaches us. Why are they telling story A and not B? and Who benefits when it gets shared? The answer is usually that a different story would lack that particular infectious je-ne-sais-quoi that makes you and your tribe want to share and discuss it. It acts as a giant filter on what is possible to hear, confusing coverage for occurrence. The content isn’t newsworthy, the newsworthiness is the content.

Enough people have sensed this that the fake news-genie quickly escaped from its bottle, repurposed to encompass all forms of media malaise, much to the originators’ horror. No! Stop noticing we’re all doing a terrible job! If a paper has to convince its readership that it’s actually publishing the truth, it’s not unlike a parent insisting to their incredulous teenager that they’re actually “cool”. No Mom, if you were cool you wouldn’t have to say it, everyone would just know.

It’s important not to overstate the nature of virality though: the populist model of bottom-up grassroots popularity is a rarity, and does not actually match how most fads spread. What gets popular is what’s shared on already popular platforms, and as such, top-down still rules, spreading along the existing channels slowly carved out by culture.

Direct audience engagement has not made the media apparatus redundant, it merely operates on a much longer tail of distribution scales than it did before. The fact that concepts and catchphrases like fake news, don’t normalize this, alt-right and pepe is a nazi can reach ubiquity in a day, across timezones and through busy workdays, should be proof of that. All it takes is a few well-connected channels all saying the same thing at the same time. The eruption of responses that follow are often misread as targeted mobbings, as the participants underestimate just how far and fast the right trigger can spread.

Moral violations are the guaranteed ticket. It creates a nice interplay between preachers and their congregation: denounce sinners, demonstrate your allegiance to your flock, and allow the watchful eye of social censure to herd you towards the currently most correct moral stance. Deviate too much and you will find yourself ejected, excommunicated and unpersoned. The most charming heretics are left to shout against invisible shadowbans and communal blocklists, as platforms are bullied and coopted into taking sides. Here, Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council has the exact same connotation as a Ministry of Truth. It isn’t enough to censor people, they downplay and hide that it’s being done in the first place.

Just like traditional religion, the twins of guilt and shame are a constant undercurrent, pairing the carrot of acceptance with the stick of rejection. To atone for your privilege, you must act as a good ally and share enough of the right content to focus on the less fortunate. Momentary lapses of faith may be shared in performative flagellation: Does anybody else feel like…? How do I explain to my kids that…? Insecurity and fear of reprisal manifest as approval seeking, with only the speakeasy of pseudonymity acting as a relief valve. Throughout, purity must be preserved by purging the toxic, gross and disgusting outgroup. In times of excessive vice, a moral brigade will form to collectively hunt and report offense. Those suspended in violation must first acknowledge their sins and ritualistically delete the offending posts before being allowed back in. Confess.

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In this social one-upmanship for ever more pure and pious stances, we can observe the impoverished spirit on the public square, in the neighborhood bar and in the intellectual arena. Religion appears to have been more built-in than rationalists would like to admit. In our pride we have dismissed the associated rituals and spaces without first understanding what they were there for, and inadvertently replaced them with invisible egregores, distributed organisms, living in the cloud. These appear to act like coordinated conspiracies, even as those involved are not consciously aware of it, and that’s exactly why they’re so pernicious. We make ourselves miserable so that they can be happy.


The writing’s been on the wall for a while, the precedents in plain sight to learn from. In light of this, it is particularly amusing to watch the political left recoil in horror as their more irreverent opponents embrace religious irony, espousing devotion to old egyptian gods, celebrating the rituals of meme magic, longing wistfully for a crusade and the retaking of Constantinople. The political right has won in recent times, but not because their tactics are better. Indeed, they merely copied what the left has been doing and excusing for years now. No, they are winning because they at least have a faction that is self-aware in recognizing the role of religion and tribalism, and it is enough to drive their counterpart clerics across the battlefield into apoplectic fits. This is also why they are having fun.

On the flipside, it’s been difficult to miss the widespread depression and hopelessness displayed in recent times by many on the left, along with side-excursions into the other stages of grief. They can never seem to complete their via dolorosa though, as if their egregore won’t let them.

The critical step seems obvious to me at least: stop equating differing viewpoints with immorality and kick the regressive-progressive priests and nuns to the curb. It’s as simple and as hard as it was to extract the eager hand of organized Catholicism from the institutions it considered its eminent domain for centuries.

It’s supremely bizarre when you think about it though. Muslims may pray to Mecca five times a day in devotion, but the committed progressive enters the confessional booth of Twitter and Facebook with every bathroom break, unaware, in search of penance and absolution.

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What I Believe

A week or two ago I wrote up a post on Tumblr, entitled “What I Believe”. It was my attempt at a work-in-progress accounting of my politics, philosophy, and worldview. I’m cross-posting it here. Hopefully I can cajole the other authors into writing similar posts, and we can compare and contrast our differences. That would be fun!

While I’m at it, worth mentioning: We have an irc channel! If you want to say hi, point your client to irc.upstandinghackers.com and hop into #status451.


I believe in objective truth and objective reality. There is a category of things for which we can definitively say they are true. Gravity is real, at 9.8 m/s^2. I believe that truth and reality have intrinsic value, and that it is important to always stay calibrated to them.

I believe in the value of data and information. I believe in driving decisions by data as much as possible. I believe there is intrinsic value in collecting information for its own sake, in order to have a better understanding of things and to make better decisions.

I believe in pragmatism, practicality, and usefulness. Things that do not have actionable consequences on the world usually do not matter. The perfect is the enemy of the good. An 80% solution that gets adopted is better than a 100% solution that never ships. A conclusion of this I hate to admit is that Javascript is the best programming language.

I believe in stewardship. I believe that taking this attitude is an important virtue. We should all strive to take care of ourselves, each other, our community, and our environment, in order to leave them better than when we found them.

I believe in individualism. I believe that at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is making a positive impact on individuals, not groups, not countries, not identities. The measure of success isn’t whether this group or that group wins whatever battle. It’s how many people go home happier at the end of the day.

I believe in agency and personal responsibility. I believe that people are happier and more prosperous when they take ownership over their lives and choices. I believe that greater things are accomplished when individual people are held responsible for their actions and outcomes.

I believe in accountability. Both holding people accountable to each other, and holding people accountable to reality. I believe that it is important to make sure that people keep their commitments and fulfill their responsibilities. I believe it is important to always make sure things are held accountable to reality, by ensuring they are practical, realistic, and sustainable.

A consequence of this is that I believe that often times we must make hard decisions, trading off different downsides. These are not arbitrary. These are not one human oppressing another. These reflect real-world hardships, constraints imposed by reality. I believe it is very important to recognize these for what they are, and work to resolve and improve them instead of passing blame around.

I believe that crediting people with agency is a sign of respect. I believe that infantilizing people is an insult. I believe that assuming other people are problems to work around does them a disservice, denying them of their humanity. I believe, for example, that the implicit assumption that minorities lack the ability to participate in various institutions, and must be carried through them, is an incredibly bigoted attitude. Paternalism is not good.

I believe in mentorship and apprenticeship. I think that life is the best education. I believe that hands on experience is usually better than book theory. I believe it is important for older, wiser, and more experienced people to mentor novices and help them grow as people.

I believe in meritocracy over credentialism. I believe that everybody should have the chance to demonstrate their ability, regardless of their background or history. I value strongly the fact that my own industry holds this in high regard, and am saddened by trends in the opposite direction.

I am aggressively anti-identity. I think the obsession with identity politics does everyone a disservice. By focusing on identity, you stop focusing on the people behind the identity. The identity takes on a life of its own, and when its interests diverge from the interests of its individuals, those individuals suffer. It is much better to approach people as a holistic synthesis of all that they are, than to stereotype them as members of identity groups.

I believe in the value of syncretism, of borrowing the best from everyone so that we are all better off. I believe in consciously building better cultures. There are good things and bad things about each cultural tradition. I believe in aggressively sharing and elevating the good things, and aggressively culling the bad things. Culture does not have to be a package deal. I do not believe it is a bad thing to reject one’s existing culture in favour of making a better one.

Along the same lines, I believe in the value of taking ownership over one’s personal identity. Just as we can cherrypick the best elements of culture to build a better one, we can cherrypick the best elements of personal culture to become better ourselves. I eat Asian food whenever I can, and prefer their tech and consumer goods to American ones. I listen to Northern European music. I value character virtues held important in British tradition. I appreciate Germanic family traditions. I like the cosmopolitan amenities and attitudes of blue state urbanism, but also believe in the importance of hospitality and self-sufficiency valued in red states. I do this all because, when combined, they make me a better person than the things I was raised with.

I am a committed political pacifist and non-interventionist. I believe that force should be used only in a last-ditch effort at self defense, when everything else has failed. I believe, at both the personal and political level, in the non-aggression principle. I believe that part of respecting other people is appreciating that they will do things differently from me, and that I have no right to tell them not to. I believe in the right to be neutral, and not to be conscripted into others’ battles.

I reject the idea of obligation to action. People are always allowed to opt out. I believe that it is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. I believe that most artificial social interventions for which we have data have not worked out, and that heuristically we should prefer to make fewer of them, per In Praise Of Passivity.

I believe in the value of well-designed boundaries, interfaces, and encapsulations. I believe that it is important to create political structures and social institutions that facilitate this. I believe that in this world, people will have irreconcilable differences between each other. By encapsulating those differences behind robust interfaces, we can cooperate effectively despite our differences. My go-to example of this is the supermarket. Safeway, Sobeys, Pirate Joe’s, are encapsulation technologies that let me cooperate with farmers. Maybe they’re horrible racists. Maybe they belong to a religious faith that would have me executed. It doesn’t matter; all that matters is that we cooperate towards the shared goal of making me a sandwich.

I believe that this applies just as much to social and personal interactions as it does to group and institutional interactions. By hiding potentially controversial details about ourselves and focusing on commonalities and shared experiences, we can come together and build happier, supportive communities.

As an addendum to that, I believe that we can have healthy, constructive relationships at varying levels of intimacy. I can maintain valuable friendships with political partisans, for example; we simply avoid talking about politics. I still love my bigoted and homophobic family members, I just focus on our shared history. It is not always important for the people around me to fully accept every element of me, and often going-along-to-get-along is the better thing to do.

I believe in the value of evolutionary thinking. Things change, everything is always in flux, and stasis is death. Individuals as well as systems change in response to incentive pressures, and evolutionary dynamics are always in play. I believe that this is a good and healthy thing, as it ensures we are always on a quest for constant self improvement. I believe that this is a fundamental element of reality, and cannot and should not be denied. I believe that attitudes, behaviours, and policies designed to prevent this will always and inevitably have grave consequences, as we become bogged down by dead weight ideas we refuse to reject.

I believe, as a descriptive statement of truth about the world, that at the end of the day, might makes right. I believe that ultimately this is true, and attempts to conceal it or fool ourselves into denial are damaging. I believe that this is a very unfortunate fact about the world, and work to set a better example in my own life. But ultimately, because might makes right, any better system will ultimately depend on the mightiest person making the conscious choice to maintain the better system.

I believe in a sort of nomadism. I believe that in some sense everybody starts from scratch, and it is on them to set out in life and blaze their own trail. I believe that often times, physical relocation is a necessity and preventing or resisting that is postponing the inevitable. Physical stasis is death as much as memetic stasis is.

I believe that in virtually every circumstance, exit is preferable to voice. I believe that, when things are not going the way you want, it is usually more effective to leave and go your own way, rather than changing the existing way. I believe that this is best captured by a great hacker axiom: “Don’t fix a broken system; build its replacement”.

I believe that being explicit is always better than being implicit. Communication is hard, and subtle signals will be misread. It is always better to be honest, direct, and straightforward. It is always important to speak and act in good faith.

I believe that authenticity is very important, and that pomp and circumstance are wastes of time. I value being down to earth and appreciate others who are as well. I’d rather eat at a hole-in-the-wall than at a fancy restaurant. I’d rather wear jeans than a suit. I’d rather be raw and honest with people than putting on airs. Pretension is infuriating.

I believe that consent matters. I believe that, as individuals are the ultimate arbiters of what is good for them, disrespecting and violating their consent means imposing badness on them. I believe this on the personal level, not taking advantage of people or acting against their wishes. I believe this on the political level: policies imposed by force on unwilling political participants are violations of consent. This fairly straightforwardly leads me towards a libertarian mindset.

I believe that sometimes conflict is inevitable, and as long as you have acted honestly and honourably, and attempted as much compromise as possible, it is not immoral to prioritize your interests over the interests in conflict with them. It is ultimately your job to advocate for your interests, and if you don’t, nobody will.

My word is my bond. I believe it is important to take commitments seriously. A violation of a promise is a very bad thing, trivially avoided by not making the promise in the first place. In the economic world, I believe that mutually agreeable contracts are a very important and valuable technology for holding people accountable to their commitments.

I believe that ethics is nothing more than an attempt at a heuristic to maximize human flourishing. Formalisms are fine, but there is no perfect system. The best we can do is pursue norms and guidelines that will tend towards better outcomes. A corrolary of this is that abstractions only matter if they are good heuristics. I don’t care which political party wins, eg., I care that their actions have good outcomes.

I have little patience for incompetence and shoddy quality. I believe that things worth doing are worth doing well. I believe it is right and good to judge things based on their quality outcomes, and to insist on good ones.

I hold the merchant mindset. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is flexible and negotiable, and it is usually possible to find mutually beneficial agreements. It is always acceptable to assert and negotiate your needs.

I believe that taking care of the environment is important, but that environmentalism is dangerous. Common environmentalism acts like a religion, treating it as a sacred, inviolable thing. I believe that this causes us to make bad decisions, and focus on high-visibility-low-impact things. I believe that eliminating all pollution is an unrealistic goal, and that it is important to stay grounded in the world of reality when evaluating the merits of environmental policy. I believe that, for most environmental issues, market mechanisms are more effective than policy interventions or cultural changes.

I believe that it is important, when criticizing something, to understand why it is the way it is. Very little is arbitrary, and if you wish to improve something it is important to understand what the something is you are trying to improve. Chesterton’s Fence should not be torn down.

I believe that belonging to a community is important for human well being. I believe that religious traditions are humans’ evolved solution to this problem. While I myself am not religious, I appreciate the value that churches bring to peoples’ lives. I believe that the increasing secularization of society, and the shift away from churches, will be bad if we do not come up with better communities.

I believe that people, all people, are deserving of respect-by-default. However, I believe that I am not obligated to respect people who have betrayed me, acted dishonourably, or have otherwise taken actions not worthy of respect.

I believe that people are not equal. Individuals are individuals and have unique strengths and weaknesses. Some people are good at one thing, others good at some other thing. I believe that the dream of a society of strict equality is a fantasy, will never be achieved, and that the pursuit of it is highly damaging. I believe instead that it is more important for everyone to find the position in society that works for them.

I believe that things are ethical problems only when they are not solvable in principle. Once they are solvable in principle, they cease to be ethical problems and start to be engineering problems. I believe this is good, as engineering problems are much easier to solve. For example, I do not believe access to water is a justice issue, unless someone’s access is being intentionally blocked. Provision of water is a purely engineering challenge.

I believe in the right to free association. It is reasonable for people to wish to curate those who they interact with, including or excluding people for arbitrary reasons. I believe that ensuring everyone has access to a space that works for them is more important than ensuring they have access to every space.

I believe in the value of free speech. Ideas should never be suppressed. Suppression of ideas loses valuable information. How can you tell if an idea is good or bad if you are not able to communicate it?

I reject the notion of blasphemy, be it secular or religious. Words are symbols, they cannot in themselves harm us. People have the right to say what they like, in whichever words they choose. Nothing is off limits for humour.

I believe in the right to self defense, up to and including lethal force. However I would prefer at all times to resolve conflicts by other means, if possible.

I believe in the right to take informed risks. I think it is a gross ethical violation for society to attempt to protect people from themselves. Any such protections should be provided in an advisory capacity only.

I believe in the power of drugs to improve the human experience. Drugs are powerful and potentially dangerous, but that they have dramatic benefits for those willing to accept the tradeoffs. For example, I consume daily the performance-enhancing drugs caffeine and nicotine. These improve my performance on my job, and we all benefit as a result.

I believe in letting people eat the consequences of their own actions. If we bail people out whenever they fail, they will never learn not to fail. I believe it is more important to facilitate the process of bouncing back than it is to prevent failure in the first place. Crash early, crash often.

I believe that social and economic mobility is more important than social and economic equality. As long as people are empowered to make their own success, I am not concerned if they choose not to do so.

I believe in the right to bear arms. Not because of any wider political reason, but purely because rifles are fun.

I believe in the power of human innovation. I believe that the march of technology eventually solves most problems that we deem intractable. I believe the future will be better than the past.

I believe in transhumanism. I look forward to the days when cyborgs walk among us. I believe that we can use technology to improve human capabilities and the human experience, and I believe that this is a very very good thing. I believe in using medical technology to become the person you wish to be.

I believe in the power of feedback loops and self-regulating systems. With the right system of feedback loops in place, a single action can solve a problem permanently. Without it, constant effort is required.

I believe in getting things done more than in doing things. Most people wish to measure their progress in terms of effort expended. I believe that wasted effort is zero value. Work smarter, not harder. Progress is measured by proximity to one’s goal, not by how long one runs.

I believe in effective altruism. When doing charity, it is very important that we do not waste our scarce resources. Often times peoples’ most effective contributions are not the obvious, visible ones. For most people, donating an hour of their salary is more effective than volunteering an hour of their time at a charitable organization. I believe that things like this are the most important ways to be charitable.

I believe that traditional-ish gender roles are mostly right for most
people most of the time. I believe that the proliferation of gender politics and unconventional genders and sexualities are a net negative for most people. I believe most people would be happier if they embraced traditions. That said, I believe that for some people these traditions and norms are very, very wrong (such as myself), and I wholeheartedly believe that it is important for alternatives to be available for them. Further, I believe it is nobody’s business how one chooses to live their life, and that we should respect everyone and treat them with kindness, regardless of what roles they choose to take.

I believe that money is a useful tool for keeping people accountable. I
believe that most of the complaints people have about money and wealth are actually complaints about people abusing their power. I believe that power derived from money, even though it ends up poorly, is fairer than power derived from other mechanisms, which would end up worse.

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Days of Rage

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” — Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

Recently, I had my head torn off by a book: Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, about the 1970s underground. It’s the most important book I’ve read in a year. So I did a series of running tweetstorms about it, and Clark asked me if he could collect them for posterity. I’ve edited them slightly for editorial coherence.

Days of Rage is important, because this stuff is forgotten and it shouldn’t be. The 1970s underground wasn’t small. It was hundreds of people becoming urban guerrillas. Bombing buildings: the Pentagon, the Capitol, courthouses, restaurants, corporations. Robbing banks. Assassinating police. People really thought that revolution was imminent, and thought violence would bring it about.

One thing that Burrough returns to in Days of Rage, over and over and over, is how forgotten so much of this stuff is. Puerto Rican separatists bombed NYC like 300 times, killed people, shot up Congress, tried to kill POTUS (Truman). Nobody remembers it.

Also, people don’t want to remember how much leftist violence was actively supported by mainstream leftist infrastructure. I’ll say this much for righty terrorist Eric Rudolph: the sonofabitch was caught dumpster-diving in a rare break from hiding in the woods. During his fugitive days, Weatherman’s Bill Ayers was on a nice houseboat paid for by radical lawyers.

Most ’70s of the bombings were done as protest actions. Unlike today’s jihadists, ’70s underground didn’t try to max body count. And ’70s papers didn’t really give a shit. A Puerto Rican group bombed 2 theaters in the Bronx, injuring eleven, in 1970. NYT gave it 6 paragraphs.

Protest bombings started on college campuses. The guy who moved them off-campus was a dude named Sam Melville. Melville was an older radical (mid-30s). He’d thought idly about bombings before, but in February ’69 he hooked up with two Quebecois separatists on the run. Melville was fascinated by their knowledge of revolutionary tactics. He admired them so much, he even drove them to the airport so they could hijack a plane to Cuba.

Logical next step for Melville: emulate them. Specifically, find an explosives warehouse, steal dynamite, start a bombing campaign against United Fruit. Except United Fruit had moved their warehouse, so he bombed a tugboat company instead. Whoops. Next: a bank, injuring 20. A bombing spree ensued, but the FBI had an informer, and Melville was busted red-handed with a sack full of bombs. He became a hero to the movement, and later a martyr: he was one of the inmates shot in the Attica uprising.

After Sam Melville, bombings were A Thing.

One thing Burrough makes clear: the 1970s underground was not primarily focused on Vietnam. It was domestic. Focused on the black cause. Burrough traces black radicalism through guys like Robert Williams, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Huey Newton, but for me this particular thread really takes off when it gets to Eldridge Cleaver, whom I haven’t read and really feel I should.

Cleaver, born in Arkansas, moved to California, attained his fame based on two things: 1) he was a rapist and 2) he could write. Leftists have this weird thing about deifying criminals who can write. Norman Mailer and Jack Henry Abbot being the most famous example. In Cleaver’s case, he viewed the rape of white women by a black dude like himself as a revolutionary act.

Cleaver wrote to a radical attorney, impressed her, and seduced her; she secured his release & promptly set him up with a gig at RAMPARTS. White radicals fell hard for Eldridge Cleaver. This became an trend, part of a couple of uneasy dichotomies that you see a bunch of.

Example #1: Huey Newton, Malcolm X used the idea of violent resistance mainly as a recruiting tool. Eldridge Cleaver believed that shit.

Example #2: Some white leftists (like SLA) worship black revolutionaries, crave their leadership. Others (like the Weathermen) want to lead.

Cleaver hooked up with the Black Panthers, so we’ll see him again when we talk about them. For now, let’s look at Weatherman.

The Weathermen (technically, the name of the group was Weatherman, singular) came out of a group called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS was a college organization with a bunch of campus chapters. That meant existing machinery that worked, and membership numbers. A fantastic resource, if you want to mine it to build a guerilla movement.

SDS started radicalizing in ’66. By ’67, Burrough notes, an SDS leader is saying in the New York Times, “We are working to build a guerilla force in an urban environment.” He backed down quickly, but the genie was out. And then 1968 happened, and things went completely batshit.

You have to understand: in 1968, many radicals absolutely believed that the United States was getting ready to collapse. One Weatherman puts it: “We actually believed there was going to be a revolution. We believed 3rd World countries would rise up and cause crises that would bring down the industrialized West, and we believed it was going to happen tomorrow, or maybe the day after tomorrow, like 1976.”

They believed the revolution was imminent. BELIEVED IT. Like Alex Jones’s audience believes in chemtrails. That level. Absolute, apocalyptic. The SDS got angrier and angrier, and wound up doing an occupation at Columbia University, which got attention. At the same time, they read up on the foco theory of Che’s buddy Regis Debray: that small guerrilla groups could overthrow the US.

If you think this sounds completely insane and crazy, you’re absolutely right. But think about it this way: who’s in SDS leadership?

SDS leadership is disproportionately well-off Jewish kids at elite universities. The kind of people who create Facebook.

Well, in 1968 you can’t go to the Bay Area & create a killer app, so if you want to disrupt stuff you literally have to start a revolution. And that’s the equation: Paranoid fervor of chemtrail-sniffers + Silicon Valley’s faith in its ability to change the world = the Weather Underground.

When it shakes out, two of the big SDS movers and shakers are John “JJ” Jacobs and Bernadine Dorne. Their goal: to take over SDS entirely. Because, remember, organization is critical. SDS is a nationwide organization. And college campuses are receptive to radical messages.

How receptive? In fall of 1968, there were 41 bombings and arson cases on college campuses. We’re not talking letters under doors or vandalism, here. We’re talking about Molotov cocktails setting shit on fire. Here’s how radical SDS was: Burrough notes that Weatherman’s opponents for leadership in SDS elections were “Progressive Labor,” who were literal Maoists. To distinguish themselves, Weatherman called for white radicals to live like John Brown: ie, to kill the enemies of black liberty.

The election was nuts; Weatherman literally expelled their opponents from the party before the vote, so SDS split. But Weatherman occupied the national office, which meant they could evaluate SDS members as potential recruits.

The FBI was up SDS’s ass, and Weatherman’s. They harassed the core cadre. Beat them. Threatened them. This does not dissuade revolutionaries. Weatherman started doing crazy stuff with SDS: street brawls, public nudity, sexual orgies, ordering established couples to break up. If you think it sounds like a cult, you’re right. This is literally cult indoctrination stuff. They were remaking people, seeking the hardest of hardcore.

The Black Panthers, erstwhile allies, thought Weatherman was nuts. But Weatherman, despite pro-black rhetoric, didn’t care. (Weatherman’s pro-black rhetoric was mainly Phariseeism, done to win acclaim from other whites. Basically, they’re Tim Wise.)

Just to skim through some of the stuff Burroughs addresses: Weatherman’s Bernadine Dohrn goes to Cuba, meets a North Vietnamese delegation, and literally discusses forming an American VC (!!!). Weatherman-controlled SDS chapters around the country are taking over classrooms, running through schools yelling, promoting Days of Rage. As commies, Weatherman is into in fomenting revolt among the working class. Their problem, they keep discovering, is that working class wants to beat the shit out of them.

But Weatherman kept molding their people. They did Maoist “criticism/self-criticism” sessions, lambasting people for weaknesses. If you think the Maoist self-criticism technique sounds like it bears a resemblance to privilege workshops, you’re not wrong. But Weatherman went farther.

They planned to get thousands of people in a massive protest: October 8, 1969, the Days of Rage. But only a couple hundred showed up, so they decided to turn being small into an asset. Weatherman abolished SDS, and went underground.

At about the time they were doing this, the Chicago police stormed Fred Hampton’s apartment and shot him to death in his sleep. Bernardine Dohrn’s reaction to Hampton’s murder included (infamously) praise for the Manson family murder of Sharon Tate.

It’s about this point where you would think even the most dedicated of hard leftists would realize that things are going off the rails.

But Weatherman is locked in, and getting increasingly insular and cultish. Eventually, there are maybe 150 Weathermen left out of all of SDS. And now they turn to a new organization: the underground, which offered (among other things) a market for new identities. If you’re thinking “hey, I bet that market has something to do with Vietnam-era draft dodgers,” spot-on. They established covers.

And then they started bombing.

Bill Ayers claimed that Weatherman never meant to hurt anyone; this is absolutely a lie. Their first bombing (which they never officially claimed, but which members admitted to Burrough) was a police shift change in Berkeley. Weatherman remains the prime suspect in a police station bombing in the Haight that killed a police officer, though they deny this. In 1970, Weatherman planned to kill a bunch of people at a dance at Fort Dix… but instead blew up their own NYC safehouse in a work accident.

This up-close encounter with death made Weatherman realize they had no stomach for it, and they decided to not try to kill people anymore. (Okay, they did try to kidnap a Rockefeller, but they fucked that up and couldn’t find their victim. Because they were shit.)

Weatherman is facing a few problems at this point: 1) they’re on the run 2) flower children are now dominant in the movement, not hard left 3) people are less supportive of bombings after a postdoc was killed by a Wisconsin car bombing of a university math building that did army research 4) as Burrough very amusingly points out, Americans had decided they actually liked the counterculture in parts: they liked the music and the fashion and a lot of them discovered they liked weed; what they didn’t care about were the radical politics — i.e., literally the only thing Weatherman was trying to sell them.

So Weatherman tried to suck up to the flower children by helping Timothy Leary (doing 10 years for 2 joints) escape from prison and to Algiers. They thought about freeing Huey Newton, but Leary was in minimum security and Newton was in max and WELP (Newton was free soon, anyway).

But none of it mattered. Nobody cared.

Weatherman had fucked themselves. They’d abandoned the Black Panthers, who now looked down on them. They were leading nobody. They could have made a difference with the organization of SDS, but they’d set it on fire to build Weatherman. And now they’d decided they weren’t going to kill people any more.

So if you’re a radical who’s willing to kill, but decide you won’t… what does that leave? How long can you keep bombing bathrooms until it gets boring? Well, Weatherman is about to find out. Enter the long suck.

A reminder: during this period Weatherman is being hunted by the FBI. So how are they staying fed, sheltered, alive? Part of it is fake I.D.s. The other part of Weatherman staying alive and free is: they are being funded and supported by the National Lawyers’ Guild.

I just want to emphasize this: radical lawyers are literally giving fugitive domestic terrorists who are still bombing money and support.

And it’s harder for hippies to sneak bombs into places. What’s great cover? Parents with children. Weatherman used radical lawyers’ kids. Dohrn actually convinced a radical lawyer’s wife to leave her husband and take the kids and go under with the Weather Underground.

Weatherman bombed the Pentagon in ’72, but by 1974, they’re fighting among themselves, arguing about feminism (hence their name change to Weather Underground). And this is where Weather Underground becomes incredibly relevant to 2016 again: because they decided to re-enter mainstream politics. To do this, they decided, they would take over the radical left, and use that as wedge/entry point to change society.

This was the plan: 1) Publish a manifesto (Prairie Fire) 2) Make an aboveground group, the Prairie Fire Distribution Committee — not Weather! oh, no! not Weather! — no, just people who admired Weather 3) Turn the PFDC into a permanent group, the PF Organizing Committee 4) Hold a PFOC conference to unite the entire radical left under PFOC 5) Weather’s people deals with their legal issues, then officially take PFOC over, ta-dah!

Weather prints Prairie Fire themselves, distributes thousands of copies to radical organizations and bookstores, does bombings to promote it. This is, Burrough notes, a pretty impressive achievement just in terms of logistics, especially considering they’re on the run from the FBI.

Everything goes smoothly in Weather’s plan until the PFOC conference happens, which looks stunningly like what we’re seeing emerge in today’s Democratic party politics. The white leftist elites (Weather) are stunned to discover that the diverse radicals (black, American Indian, Puerto Rican) they’ve imagined leading actually have opinions of their own, and perfectly rational desires for their own power, and no desire to be ruled by Weather’s upper-crust radicals.

One of Burrough’s Weather interviewees notes that she was very upset and rattled to continually be called racist. This was before white leftists started to unpack their invisible knapsacks and bewail their whiteness as original sin. She couldn’t grasp it.

In the end, Weather was ignominously expelled from their own conference by a Communist who had been one of their former members. (Said Commie later got arrested himself by the Feds when he tried to start a bombing campaign of his own).

Meanwhile, the DOJ, searching FBI files in response to an unrelated civil rights lawsuit, found evidence of black bag jobs and illegal wiretapping against Weather Underground. So at the end of all this, who faces legal trouble? Not Weather. The FBI. Not big trouble, mind. The FBI guys got fined for the black bag jobs against Weatherman. They served no jail time, and President Reagan pardoned them in April 1981.

In the end, the Weather’s fugitives turned themselves in with little trouble. To give you an idea: Bill Ayers was scott-free. Cathy Wilkerson did a year. Bernardine Dohrn got three years probation and a $1500 fine. The radical lawyers, accessories to Weather’s bombings? Nada. Zip. Zero.

They did pretty well afterwards. Bernardine Dohrn was a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University for more than twenty years. Another Weatherman, Eleanor Stein, was arrested on the run in 1981; she got a law degree in 1986 and became an administrative law judge. Radical attorney Michael Kennedy, who did more than any to keep Weather alive, has been special advisor to President of the UN General Assembly. And, of course, Barack Obama, twice President of the United States, started his political career in Bill Ayers’s living room.

This is the difference between the hard Left & hard Right: you can be a violent leftist radical and go on to live a pretty kickass life. This is especially true if you’re a leftist of the credentialed class: Ph.D. or J.D.

The big three takeaways for me about Weatherman, when it comes to political violence in America as we might see it in 2016:

  1. Radicalism can come from anywhere. The Weathermen weren’t oppressed, or poor, or anything like that. They were hard leftists. That’s it.
  2. Sustained political violence is dependent on the willing cooperation of admirers and accomplices. The Left has these. The Right does not.
  3. Not a violent issue, but a political one: ethnic issues involving access to power can both empower and derail radical movements.

Moving from the white Leftists to the black revolutionaries, let’s talk for a second about George Jackson. Massive criminal history, seriously violent dude: his own father actually testified against his parole. Jackson was in Soledad prison in 1970 when a fight between white and black inmates broke out in the yard. With no warning, a white guard ended the fight by shooting three black prisoners dead. In retaliation, George Jackson and two other inmates murdered a guard by throwing him off the tier. They became known as the Soledad Three.

Fay Stender, who’d defended Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, also defended Jackson. She got the radical community backing his freedom and published a book of his letters. So George Jackson got famous.

This is where radical professor Angela Davis comes in. Davis, if you don’t know, is so dedicated to communism that she literally got her Ph.D. behind the Iron Curtain. From a moral perspective, that’s a little like somebody getting a Ph.D. in old South Africa specifically because they dig apartheid.

On August 5, 1970, Davis had a long meeting with George Jackson in prison. After her meeting with George Jackson, Davis bought Jackson’s little brother Jonathan, still in high school, a shotgun. Two days later, Jonathan took hostages in a courtroom and demanded the release of the Soledad Three.

Jonathan killed the judge before being killed himself. Two other hostages were badly wounded. As for George, on August 21, 1971, somebody — prison officials held it was Jackson’s lawyer — gave him a gun. Jackson took seven hostages before he was killed by snipers while trying to escape prison. Five of the hostages were found dead in his cell.

Jackson wasn’t the only black radical of the period to meet a violent end. The contrast in the fates of 70’s black radicals and white radicals is pretty stark. A lot of white radicals came out okay. A lot of black radicals came out dead.

But Angela Davis did great. She’s had a successful career and remains celebrated. Arrested for her part in Jonathan’s plot, Davis was acquitted, and became a radical icon.

I think an underappreciated factor in Angela Davis doing so well afterward is her position as part of the credentialed class. Like the Weathermen — and unlike most black radicals — Angela Davis had access to Institutions.

Institutions are one of two major assets that the Left has and the Right lacks. The other is Shock Troops.

Institutions are organizations the Left controls that operate for the benefit of the Left’s people. The Right doesn’t really have these. As an example, there are occasional hard right lawyers, but so far as I know there is no such thing as the Reactionary Lawyers’ Guild.

The other thing that the Left has that the Right doesn’t are Shock Troops: unshameable actors.

Institutions and Shock Troops are important resources for the Left. They work together. The Left’s Institutions accept, cater to, train, and/or employ its people, including Shock Troops. And, in the cases of several Weathermen (and Davis), give them cushy jobs in their Shock-Troop retirement.

What happens when you have Shock Troops, but no, or few, or short-lived Institutions? That’s the story of black radicalism in the USA.

Burrough’s Days of Rage provides a quite good overview of several parts of black radicalism. We’ll review three groups here: BLA, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Family. (There’s also a little mention of the NWLF, who aren’t a black radical movement but fit in timewise with the SLA.)

Odd fact: in 2016 we saw a lot of news stories about police being targeted for murder, including a spectacular attack in Dallas…and I didn’t seen a single news article mentioning the Black Liberation Army. That’s how forgotten this stuff is!

The short answer to “Who were the BLA?” is “they were a splinter group of the Panthers.” The longer answer requires a little bit of backstory.

In January, 1969, 23 Black Panthers attempted a combination of bombing and sniper attacks on police and at a board of education office. As in a lot of these cases involving radical groups plotting violence, two of the Panthers in question turned out to be undercover NYPD. The actual Panthers involved became known as the Panther 21.

The Panther 21 were found not guilty after an 8-month trial — pretty impressive, because while the undercover cops gave them two fake bombs the Panthers also got real dynamite from another source, so their third bomb actually went off! With the informants and acquittal, in some ways it’s similar to the Malheur Occupation thing, only with an actual murder plot attached.

But can you imagine if a famous conservative like, I dunno, Gary Sinise had tried to raise money for the Malheur Occupation dudes? Okay, well, exactly that happened, but it was Leonard Bernstein raising money for the Panther 21, who actually tried to murder people! Tom Wolfe wrote a classic article about Bernstein’s party and the period’s radical chic.

The main reason Burrough discusses the Panther 21 episode: it showcases a growing problem for the Black Panthers. Namely, for a good number of their members, the Black Panthers are not nearly militant enough. And there are a LOT of Panthers at this point. When Huey Newton gets out of prison in 1970, he finds a Black Panther Party that’s grown bigger than his ability to run. Meanwhile, Eldridge Cleaver (remember him?), who’s been running stuff with Huey inside, has set himself up in Algiers with, I shit you not, a nice stipend and an actual embassy paid for by the Algerian government, which I guess really means by the Russians. (The Panthers didn’t have their embassy long. It was gone by the fall of ’72, probably bc some Soviet beancounter said WHAT.)

As you can imagine, at this point Newton and Cleaver absolutely loathed each other, so clearly the smart thing for the party to do was have a phone call between them Live. On. Television. On a local San Francisco talk show.

Sadly, this is not on YouTube.

The TV chat went as well as you’d expect, which means it ended with Cleaver and Newton literally expelling each other from the party. The factionalism was so bad that a Cleaverite Panther was murdered by a Newtonite. The Black Panthers expected a civil war.

If you’re going to have a war, it makes sense to organize for one. So a NY Panther named Dhoruba Moore organizes the Black Liberation Army. One of Moore’s BLA recruits is a young woman named Joanne Chesimard, later known as Assata Shakur. Another is a fellow named Sekou Odinga.

But the Panther civil war never actually happens. And then cops stop three Panthers on the street, it turns into a shootout, and a Panther is killed. The Panthers are understandably enraged, and — wouldn’t you know it? Dhoruba Moore has his new wing of hitters just sitting there.

So the BLA shrugs: eh, forget the civil war; let’s go kill some cops.

In May 1971, BLA started going out shooting cops in NYC. Two cops were killed with a submachine gun fired from a car. Then two more were brutally short down in the street (Burrough gives the details; they are horrifically graphic). Moore’s group claimed both killings. In truth, a copycat Panther group killed the second two.

The challenge for the BLA is that, while Weatherman has radical lawyers willing to fund and abet them, the BLA, like most radical groups, does not. So the BLA takes to robbery to secure funding. Founder Dhoruba Moore is arrested in one of these attempts, but the BLA keeps rolling.

Eldridge Cleaver, BTW, is totally down with this mayhem. But he does not want to coordinate it. Cleaver’s instruction calls for autonomous cells. In theory: autonomous BLA cells cannot be rolled up wholesale by the cops. In practice: none of the cells know what the other is doing. This leads to batshit crazy things like two BLA cells trying to rob the same bank at the same time.

The point of the robbery, though, let’s not forget, was to enable BLA to better kill cops. BLA used robbery money to establish training camps down South. They killed cops there, too. Within nine months of start-up, BLA had attacked ten cops, killing seven, in four different states. Not a furious pace, but steady.

Chesimard’s cell was finally arrested in 1971, after a massive car chase and gunfight in South Carolina. They were caught with a gun that belonged to one of the murdered cops.

So, of course, they were back walking the streets in NYC by fall ’72.

Yeah: in 1971, you could get in a gunfight with cops, shoot a cop, be carrying a gun stolen during a different state’s double cop murder — and get out of prison in less than a year!

Ever wonder why the American public got behind the idea of mandatory minimums and stiff sentences? The Seventies. The Seventies are why!

As BLA attacks continued, a lone wolf perp in New Orleans, a black radical named Mark Essex, shot 19 people, killing 9, 5 of them cops. Then NYC saw two BLA attacks on cops in 53 hours, and people started thinking that there was a nationwide conspiracy. (It wasn’t that huge.)

In 1973, Chesimard was shot and captured following a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which a policeman was killed. Not much later, the police finally landed an informant, and after a few stakeouts and gunfights they arrested or killed BLA’s shooters. Sekou Odinga got away. But that’s basically the end of the BLA. Except…

Except this flurry of activity and press has all the radicals who weren’t involved thinking, “Dang, I missed out!” And guess where there’s been a ton of radicalization? In U.S. prisons!

Weatherman had tried to rally the working class. No luck. They weren’t into being radicalized. But black prisoners really, really were.

And white radicals — many the kind who’d be really into privilege confession today — started getting into the idea of black leadership. I mean: really into the idea of black leadership. To the point of fetishizing it. Fetishizing black convicts, especially.

I told you this gets crazy, right? Well, here’s a little taste of the stuff Burrough gets into. Check this out:

In 1972, a group called Venceremos, from the Bay Area, literally broke out a black convict named Ronald Beaty during a prison transport so he could train them in guerrilla tactics and lead a revolution.

That was their actual plan. That was their entire actual plan.

Exactly that one bit from South Park, but a bunch of ’70s white Bay Area radicals going, “Token, you’re black; you know guerrilla tactics.” (Spoiler: when Beaty got arrested again, he promptly rolled over on the white radicals.)

But where there’s a demand, a supply will surface, and in 1973, a black inmate named Donald DeFreeze capitalized on the trend. To better explain Donald DeFreeze: imagine that Eldridge Cleaver & George Jackson are YouTube stars, ok? Well, DeFreeze is the comments.

DeFreeze escaped prison and hooked up with a Berkeley, CA radical named Patricia “Mizmoon” Soltysik. DeFreeze and Mizmoon assembled a small cell of eight men and women. Say hello to the Symbionese Liberation Army. Slogan: “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the blood of the people!

So their first target, of course, is Oakland’s first black school administrator, superintendent Marcus Foster!

I know. You’re thinking, “Wait, what?”

Foster had dared suggest ID cards for kids and using police to curb in-school violence. For this, the SLA murdered him, on November 6, 1973. In 1974, the SLA kidnapped 19yo heiress Patty Hearst, demanding her family do massive food giveaways (which they did). The food giveaways actually got the SLA some favorable attention in the radical press, for forcing the rich to give to the poor. Meanwhile, the SLA was indoctrinating Hearst and raping her repeatedly. Then the SLA offered her a choice: to join them, or be released.

Let me ask you a question: in the shoes of 19-year-old Patty Hearst, how much would you trust the assurances of Donald DeFreeze and the SLA? That’s exactly how much Hearst trusted them when they said they’d let her go. So she said of course she’d join them. Hearst famously robbed a bank with the SLA and went on the run with them. The account I’ve given of her decision is hers, which I believe.

The press was going nuts. Imagine a Kardashian were kidnapped, then resurfaced having become a terrorist. That’s what this was like.

The SLA’s darkest day came when they were busted for shoplifting in L.A. It turned into a gunfight. They split up: Hearst and a couple in one direction, DeFreeze & the rest in another. Hearst’s party got away. DeFreeze’s took over a random house, and was indiscreet about it. Cops closed in. There was a massive gunfight and a fire. DeFreeze and his party died horrible deaths.

Hearst’s survivors sought the help of a radical named Kathy Soliah, who had championed the SLA at a rally that got newspaper attention. Literally, I think that’s it: they’d read her name in the newspaper, and looked her up. And of course she helped them. Soliah not only arranged shelter for them, she helped them re-recruit. #the70syall

Soliah also started a study group called the Bay Area Research Collective, publishing a radical paper called Dragon. Dragon published bombing news, how-to bomb manuals, communiques from underground groups. You could send them letters to claim your bombings. The Bay Area Research Collective also had its own terrorist group: the New World Liberation Front. More on them in a minute.

The SLA, now restaffed, robbed a bank in Sacramento, murdering a bank patron, Myrna Opsahl. This turned the heat on them again, hard. They returned to San Francisco and started bombing for revolution and fighting among themselves. The cops picked most of the SLA up (Hearst included) not long after, and that chapter was concluded.

But what about that NWLF thing?

NWLF was an oddity: domestic terrorism by creative commons. If you wanted to detonate bombs in their name, you could! That was its thing. And people detonated bombs in the name of the NWLF. Regularly. For three years.

In 1975, NWLF bombs went off in San Francisco once a week for nine months. They targeted local politicians, including Dianne Feinstein’s house. NWLF bombed a trial, country clubs, the opera. The bombings didn’t wholly stop until 1978. The reason NWLF bombings stopped: the guy who did most of them went insane and killed his girlfriend with an axe.

But to return to the black radicals, and Institutions: one of the most insane stories is that of Lincoln Detox and the Family. July and November of 1970, a gang occupies the South Bronx’s Lincoln Hospital and presents demands to administrators. The demand: Lincoln Hospital facilities are shitty. The gang demands a drug treatment center, and they demand to operate it.

They got nearly a million bucks from the government to do it. That’s what the 1970s were like. This was Lincoln Detox. It was run by militant leftists. (They gave the BLA medical supplies, to give you an idea.) Methadone came coupled with Marxist education, paid for by the city. Political education as a cure for heroin addiction.

I’m not kidding! This really happened! New York City was paying for it all!

Lincoln Detox was, in short, an Institution for leftist radicals, paid for by city tax dollars. And it was robbing the city blind. Burrough’s accounting of how blind is stunning: in 1973, Lincoln Detox was treating half the patients its contract called for, at rates *four times* those of other city clinics. In 1976 HHC found nearly $1 million in unsubstantiated payroll, with staff absentee rates up to 71%. The clinic refused to share its personnel records, but during an auditors’ visit only half the 45 listed staff were on duty. Despite this remarkable absenteeism, the staff were still managing to make thousands of dollars in personal phone calls.

NYC’s Addiction Services Agency was supposedly in charge, but when Detox refused to give required information they’d cut all funds in 1973. So Lincoln Detox got money from Health and Hospitals Corporation, another city agency, which gave money with no strings. Any effort to control the clinic caused massive protests — the clinic staff occupied HHC’s offices and smashed stuff at one point.

Clearly, the only logical thing to happen at this point in the story is for Tupac Shakur’s future stepfather to study acupuncture.

Look, I told you today’s installment gets crazy.

It turns out that Marxist education is not actually helpful in curing drug addiction, so clinic staffer Mutulu Shakur learns acupuncture. He learns from a doctor working at Lincoln Detox, but his education is interrupted when the doctor dies of a heroin overdose. IN THE CLINIC.

But he finds a new teacher and he and others eventually get doctor of acupuncture degrees from the Acupuncture Association of Quebec. Naturally, with a cushy city gig and a growing acupuncture practice, Shakur comes to the same decision you would in such a situation: “I should use this place and its connections to start robbing banks so I can raise money to start a revolution.”

“Also,” he doubtless added, “to pay for a cocaine habit that is already considerable *fnorrrrrrrrkkkkkk*

Reminder: this is all happening at a drug treatment clinic that is fully funded by the tax dollars of the City of New York!

But Shakur has never robbed a bank. He needs an experienced bank robber and oh look here comes Sekou Odinga, formerly of the BLA! Naturally, Shakur and Odinga need some logistical support, and what better place to find this than a bunch of white communist feminists —

Look, I told you this story gets crazy.

The feminists are the May 19 Communist Organization, whom Odinga knows through a white radical named Marilyn Buck, who had bought ammo for BLA. Black leadership fetishization is in full effect, so May 19 looks at Shakur and Odinga and assumes OF COURSE they know WTF they’re doing. This union of Lincoln Detox, the last of the BLA, and a bunch of feminist commies gives birth to the radical group known as the Family.

It came at an opportune time. Ed Koch was elected Mayor of New York in 1978, and he had no patience for the Lincoln Detox radicals. Koch evicted them, closed the clinic, and reopened it in a new location under complete city control.

This left Shakur a bit adrift, but bank-robbing was going well. Shakur and his white feminist allies decided: hey, let’s jailbreak radicals. They broke a FALN bombmaker out first (more on that in a moment). Then they went for Joanne Chesimard.

Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, was serving life for the murder of the cop killed during her capture. But under little security. How little?

Sekou Odinga — who was a wanted fugitive at the time — went to visit Chesimard, and brought her a gun. That was it. Chesimard sheltered in Pittsburgh for 9 months, then managed to get to the Bahamas, and after that Cuba, where she lives today.

So now the 1980s roll around, Mutulu Shakur has a new acupuncture clinic in Harlem, and the Family’s robbing banks for revolutionary funds. This is a great set-up. Or it would be, if the revolutionary funds weren’t going straight up Shakur’s nose. If you believe the May 19 crowd — and it’s embarrassing enough to be plausible — the feminist commies had no idea about the cocaine; they just naively thought Shakur & his fellow black revolutionaries (cokeheads all) had tons of wonderful revolutionary energy. It goes back to the white ’70s radical black leadership fetishization. “It’s all right, they’re black, they know what they’re doing!”

Turns out massive amounts of cocaine and firearms are never a good mix. The Family killed a Brink’s guard during an NYC armored car robbery, which drew serious NYPD attention. And then October 20, 1981 happened. An armored car robbery. White radicals driving, black radicals shooting.

During the robbery, the perpetrators opened fire, killing one guard, wounding two. They took 1.6 million (leaving 1.3 more). The shooters made rendezvous with the switch vehicle, driven by David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, formerly of Weatherman. But the switch vehicle parked in the wrong spot. A line of sight was left open. A witness saw everyone, all the cars, the cash, the guns. The witness called the cops, and the police pulled over Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. In the back of their U-Haul trailer, under a blanket: Mutulu Shakur, and four more Family members, heavily armed and coked to the skies.

Boudin and Gilbert were asked to get out of the vehicle and sit beside the road. The police went around back to search the U-Haul. Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert proceeded to create a distraction, drawing the police’s attention. And the shooters came out of the U-Haul and murdered two police officers.

Two Family members carjacked a doctor’s car and drove off. David Gilbert hopped in another of the getaway cars. Kathy Boudin was nabbed by an off-duty corrections officer as she ran down the highway. The local police chief followed the two escaping cars. One crashed, and he rounded those people up (including David Gilbert).

Marilyn Buck, of May 19, escaped, but the cops found her apartment. She was the logistics officer, so she had the records of the safe houses. And the building superintendant had the license plate numbers of a bunch of their cars. Further round-ups were only a matter of time.

But because I keep coming back to the power of Institutions to shelter leftist radicals, to close our time with the Family: Kathy Boudin, accomplice and facilitator to multiple murders, was paroled in 2003.

She is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s school of social work.

So, looking at the BLA, SLA, the Family, wth a detour to NWLF — what do we learn about political violence? Looking, in particular, through the lens of our the concepts of Institutions and Shock Troops, and why these matter:

Institutions are crucial to the longevity of organized campaigns of political violence by Shock Troops.

Shock Troops that don’t have Institutions fare worse and have shorter careers than Shock Troops that do.

Shock Troops without support from Institutions tend to turn to crime, often violent crime, for money.

Doing violent crime to raise money eventually bites Shock Troops in the ass.

The bigger a Shock Troop army, the more financial support it needs, whether from an Institution or from criminal activity.

The Shock Troops that succeed without Institutions have as few members as possible & avoid violent crime (the NWLF guy didn’t do robbery; he grew tons of reportedly amazing weed), and keep a low profile outside of their Shock Troop actions.

Having an Institution is no guarantee of keeping it; Institutions can be attacked by adversaries or other outside forces (see: Lincoln Detox).

All of which is to say: in some respects, a resurgence of political violence in the United States would look similar to previous versions — but in others, it’d look very different.

The last story I’ll share from Days of Rage is, I’m not gonna lie to you, the craziest of the lot. How crazy? Let me ask you this:

What if fanatics made a serious and nearly successful attempt on the life of the President of the United States?

What if those fanatics got into the Capitol building and committed a mass shooting on Congress while it was in session?

What if those fanatics conducted bombing sprees, for years, in multiple American cities?

And what if people really did do every one of those things, and you’d never heard of them? That’s the story of Puerto Rican separatists.

I’m not kidding.

The President they tried to kill was Harry Truman, in 1950, as told in the book American Gunfight. They shot up Congress in 1954, wounding five Congressmen (who recovered). They bombed American cities like mad in the 1970s.

The ’70s bombing campaign was done by a group called FALN. The FBI’s working theory is that the FALN was a creation of Cuban intelligence.

I’m still not kidding.

FALN starts from a couple of different places. One path goes back to a dude named Filiberto Ojeda Rios, a Puerto Rican communist.

Ojeda Rios trained in Cuba, worked for their spy service, and then went back to Puerto Rico to start a revolution. It didn’t work. Plan B: go underground & start bombing. Castro approved. so Ojeda Rios formed a group, MIRA, to attack in Puerto Rico & the US mainland. It didn’t last. MIRA was rolled up when the police caught their NYC bomber. Ojeda Rios was arrested in PR, but he skipped bail and vanished.

The second path to FALN traces back to Chicago, and a young Puerto Rican named Oscar Lopez Rivera. He and his high school buddies were young activists.

The story is Oscar Lopez Rivera & friends were recruited by Filiberto Ojeda Rios. Raising the q: …so, uh, could FALN be considered an act of war?

It’s murky. Per Burrough, there’s no evidence Cuba gave FALN operational orders. More that they wound them up, let them go.

That said, FALN had an amazing set-up in the hard left. Not only were they trained in bomb-making by Weather Underground, they had possibly the best Institution any radical group has ever had: the Episcopal Church.

I’m still not kidding.

FALN started bombing in ’74. Their demands were 1) Puerto Rican independence 2) release of PR separatist prisoners. Their deeds were nasty. FALN targeted cops with a fake call and a boobytrap, disfiguring one. They bombed a restaurant on Wall Street, killing 4, injuring over 40. Outrage at the deaths changed their approach. They started bombing at night, setting off department store fires — nonlethal, but harrowing. More harrowing: FALN opened new fronts in Chicago and in Washington, D.C. Bombing in three cities demonstrates serious logistics.

Eventually cops lucked out: a Chicago guy robbing his new neighbors found shitloads of explosives, and tried to sell them to a police informant. Using building records, the Chicago PD and the FBI got a name: Carlos Torres, a Puerto Rican community organizer whose wife worked for the feds — she was an equal employment specialist at the EPA.

The FALN safehouse also yielded a copy of a business letter to one Maria Cueto, of the National Commission on Hispanic Affairs. The NCHA was a charitable organization affiliated with the Episcopal Church. When the FBI started looking into it, their hair stood on end. Basically, every. single. person of interest in the FBI’s FALN investigation was, or had been, on NCHA’s board of directors.

Maria Cueto was FALN. She had used her position to put a half-dozen FALN members, including chief bombmaker Guillermo Morales, on the NCHA board. Let me emphasize how amazing this was: these were *paid positions.* Puerto Rican terrorists were being paid thousands of dollars by the Episcopal Church. Like cannibalizing and repurposing a nonprofit. It may be the greatest Institution in American radical history. FALN was literally using a charity run by the Episcopal Church as a front.

Yeah. It gets crazier.

You would think the Episcopal Church would be outraged. Horrified to be dragged into the legal proceedings. You’d be wrong. Liberal Episcopal bishops were enraged — with the FBI! Claimed govt was out to stop the church from funding progressive Hispanic groups! The institution the FALN had compromised went full-force to defend them and mobilized mainstream institutions on FALN’s behalf!

Cueto and a colleague were hauled before a grand jury. The National Council of Churches (!!!) rallied behind them even as FALN went on a new bombing campaign specifically demanding the grand juries be halted.

Progressive ministers accused the FBI of illegal harassment. FALN radical actions were being supported by mainstream legal lawfare. And the various cases against FALN wore on through 1977, getting nowhere.

On August 3, 1977, FALN called in bomb threats to seven sites, causing mass evacuations in downtown Manhattan. But they weren’t just threats. Carlos Torres’s wife left a bomb at Mobil Oil HQ’s employment office. The explosion killed one person and injured several more. The Torreses and Oscar Lopez Rivera were indicted based on fingerprint evidence, but they were in the wind.

And now the story gets even crazier. As 1978 rolled around, the FALN cases were falling apart. Several suspects were freed, even as the bombs continued. Then, on 12 July 1978, FALN’s chief bombmaker Guillermo Morales had a work accident. With a bomb. Morales blew off nine fingers, his lips, and his left eye. The explosion broke his jaw to boot. Devastating injuries. Knowing the cops were coming, a crippled, bleeding, disfigured Morales still tried to flush incriminating FALN documents and rig a gas explosion trap for the cops to get the police when they showed up. With. No. Hands. (The trap didn’t work, thank God.)

All of that is not yet the crazy part.

This is the crazy part: Remember Mutulu Shakur and the Family? Who jailbroke radicals?

If you think a bunch of coked-up black radicals and feminist commies can’t come up with a plan to spring a handless Puerto Rican bomber all I can say is, you don’t know the Seventies, brother. Check this shit.

By May 1979, Morales is as healed up as he’s gonna get. He’s down to one eye and one thumb. He’s in custody, under 24-hour guard. He has a window. But there’s a metal grate on it. And it opens onto a sheer forty-foot drop. He’s not going anywhere.

Radical attorney Susan Tipograph, who insisted that attorney-client privilege exempted her from search, visited Morales on 18 May 1979. Mysteriously, after that, Morales had wire cutters. Tipograph was never charged.

Laboriously, with basically no hands, Morales cut through the grate over his window. Punched out the screen. The Family had brought a ladder. But ladders look longer when you’re coked out of your gourd, or they just fucked up, because the ladder was only twenty feet long. The distance to the ground was forty feet.

Morales had no rope. And no fingers. He had a ten-foot length of bandage. And brass balls. Somehow, this dude with no fingers lowers himself from the window on the bandage. It snaps. Morales falls 20 feet onto an air conditioner, then another 20 feet to the ground. Injured, but alive. The Family and FALN whisk him away.

The guard on Morales’s door slept through the whole thing. Morales was not missed until an hour after dawn. Their bombmaker returned to them, FALN embarked on a new campaign of robberies, bombing, and interfering with elections.

Wait, what? Yeah. In 1980, the FALN attacked the NYC campaign HQ of George H.W. Bush in an effort to destroy voter-registration lists. Another team smashed up the Carter-Mondale HQ in Chicago. The FALN even threatened delegates to the party conventions. Nobody remembers!

The FALN round-up, when it came, happened by accident as they were getting ready to rob an armored car near Northwestern University. The FALN stole a panel truck to use as a switch vehicle. A campus cop spotted it, and police put it under surveillance. They nabbed 2 FALN. Another call led police to 2 more vans: the ambush awaiting the armored car. The people in the vans were disguised: wigs, false moustaches. The cops took them in. The arrestees were totally silent. The cops began to wonder if this was above their paygrade, and called the FBI. An FBI agent recognized several of the suspects.

Just like that, most of the FALN had been rolled up. All the suspects refused to mount defenses at trial. They were found guilty, sentenced for eight to thirty years. Another indictment for seditious conspiracy piled decades on top of that. But Oscar Lopez Rivera and Guillermo Morales were still free.

In Christmas 1980, a new group called the Puerto Rican Armed Resistance bombed Penn Station in NYC during rush hour. No one was hurt. In May 1980, the PRAR called in bomb threat to JFK. A Pan Am handyman found their bomb, and alerted people, but the bomb killed him. Two more bombs at the airport were found in the aftermath. It was all getting going again. And then, just like that, it ended two weeks later when Oscar Lopez Rivera and a new recruit got stopped for an illegal U-turn. Lopez Rivera got 55 years.

Guillermo Morales was arrested — in Mexico, which refused to extradite him to the US. He eventually emigrated to Cuba. Got clean away.

Let me ask you a question: how the hell did I not know this story? Forget the presidential assassination attempt. Forget the mass shooting in the Congressional chamber. Just look at the FALN stuff: a years-long bombing campaign in multiple American cities, by perpetrators trained and initiated by a foreign power. A terrorist organization that parasitized a church so effectively, it got the church infrastructure to act on its behalf. A stunning escape from custody almost too astounding to believe.

Why is this not a movie? Why is this not two or three movies? This story is amazing! And it’s just totally memory-holed. Here’s how memory-holed it is: I didn’t even know that, in 1999, seeking Puerto Rican voter support in New York for HRC’s senate run, President Clinton offered clemency to 16 imprisoned FALN. 14 accepted. Congress condemned it at the time. But people remember the Mark Rich pardon. Not FALN.

What does it mean for us? First, let’s be blunt: most political violence is not going to be as well-trained & highly disciplined as FALN. You’re not going to see that level of skill again, unless the Cubans decide they want to come to play. What you might see, on both sides, is what to me is the most amazing part of the FALN story: its parasitization of the Episcopal Church.

Organizations don’t have to fully capture institutions. They can latch onto them, and come to be seen as limbs. One person in a position to hire effectively suborned the Episcopal Church to give violent radicals jobs, stability, and even protection. As with everything, the Left will be much better at this kind of operation than the Right will. But the Right might do it on occasion.

The other takeaway: again, Lefty radicals have more opportunities and more acceptance from their mainstream than Righty ones. I don’t see Eric Rudolph getting clemency, no matter the administration. He shouldn’t. Nor should have FALN.

Of course, that didn’t stop President Obama, in the last days of his administration, from commuting the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera. The decision caused ecstasies of delight in Lin-Manuel Miranda, celebrated author (and former star) of HAMILTON, who pledged to reprise in the role in a Chicago performance especially for Lopez Rivera, whom Miranda referred to as “Don Oscar.”

That’s everything I want to cover from Days of Rage. There’s more in it. Buy the book; read it; you won’t regret it. It’s amazing history.

But it’s the implications of Bryan Burrough’s book that scare the willies out of me.

I am afraid that the United States is in for political violence in 2017. It could be as bad as or worse than the 1970s. I have some ideas as to what some of it may look like. It really isn’t pleasant to think about.

Political violence is like war, like violence in general: people have a fantasy about how it works. This is the fantasy of how violence works: you smite your enemies in a grand and glorious cleansing because of course you’re better.

Grand and glorious smiting isn’t actually how violence works. I’ve worked a few places that have had serious political violence. And I’m not sure how to really describe it so people get it.

This is a stupid comparison, but here: imagine that one day Godzilla walks through your town.

The next day, he does it again.

And he keeps doing it. Some days he steps on more people than others. That’s it. That’s all he does: trudging through your town, back and forth. Your town’s not your town now; it’s The Godzilla Trudging Zone.

That’s kind of what it’s like.

I’m going to talk about some nasty things here. I do not want any of it. But some or all of it could happen. Some of it already is. In 2017, I am very pessimistic about America’s future, to the point that I think the country should seriously consider a National Divorce.

Everyone feeling nice and at ease now? Good, let’s get started.

Let’s not mince words: the United States of America is currently engaged in a cold Civil War.

In North Carolina, the Republican governor lost re-election, so the Republican legislature convened a special session to limit powers of the post. Democrats nationwide howled with justified outrage; as we all know, legislators who dislike a governor should flee the state to block quorum, facilitate occupation of government buildings by mobs, and have allies execute secret raids on homes on the governor’s supporters. All of those are things that the Democrats did to oppose a Republican governor in Wisconsin, and the Democrats were pretty cool with it.

This isn’t a cutesy “both sides” argument. Nor am I calling out the press for bias, or politicians for hypocrisy (that’s later).

My point is: did you notice the Left and the Right use fundamentally different tactics?

This is no accident. They’re different cultures. The Left and Right don’t just want different things. They also have different abilities, goals, resources, and senses of propriety. Meaning contemporary political violence from the Left and from the Right will look very different.

Now, 2017 isn’t going to be the 1970s. Goals, situations, and cultures change. The actors want different things. But we can look to the ’70s for hints.

Like: what kind of people will do this stuff?

The mental model we have for domestic terrorism in 2017 is shaped by what scares us: mass shooters and jihad. ’70s radicals were different. ’70s radicals wanted to get away with their crimes. They wanted to avoid detection, they didn’t want to get arrested, and they didn’t want to die. Most ’70s bombers had no moral objection to killing people, but they also didn’t go to any great lengths to maximize body count. That’s pretty different from 21st-century mass shooters (who tend suicidal) & jihadists (for whom a high body count is part of the message).

Some suicidal mass murderers choose political targets, though it’s uncommon. Overseas jihadists draft depressives, but that takes organization (and willingness to use suicide attacks). When we’re talking about domestic political violence, we’re mostly talking about stuff that is coldbloodedly plotted by serious people.

So maybe we can hope that political violence in the US, ’70s-style, won’t go all-out for massive numbers of deaths? Well… maybe. The way I see it, domestic conflict in the United States could operate in basically four stages:

  1. cold Civil War
  2. targeted political violence, mostly short of murder
  3. political violence with murder as the default
  4. Civil War II

The United States should start seriously talking about National Divorce before we get to stage 3.

We’re in Stage 1 now. Stages 2 and 3 are what we’re concerned with: the public getting mobilized. What would that look like, on Left and Right?

People tend to think that the Right will be an awesome, horrific force in political violence. The SPLC’s donations depend on that idea. Righties tell themselves that *of course* they’d win a war against Lefties. Tactical Deathbeast vs. Pajama Boy? No contest. Why, Righties have thought about what an effective domestic insurrection would look like. Righties have written books and manifestos!

It’s horseshit.

The truth: the Left is a lot more organized & prepared for violence than the Right is, and has the advantage of a mainstream more supportive of it.

You think that’s unfair? Okay, well: imagine an abortion clinic bombing ring getting presidential clemency.

Imagine an abortion clinic bomber getting a comfortable job at an elite university.

Outrageous, right? No way the Right could get away with that. But the Left does! And the press gives them cover.

(This is the “hypocrisy and media bias” section, by the way.)

The press freaked out and called for a National Conversation every time some shithead punched a protestor at a Trump rally. If Trump fans pulled a Portland, running through the streets, intimidating motorists, smashing windows, what would press reaction be? You don’t need me to tell you: pants-shitting hysteria fascism OMG Hitler. When Lefties really did that: “meh, that’s what Lefties do.” No need for a National Conversation. Certainly not a Clinton disavowal.

Organizing protests like Portland and the other cities takes experience, efficiency, and a lot of people you can call out. The Left can do that. The Right can’t. That is a logistical advantage that is enormous, and it matters. Because a Left that can tell that many people to do that stuff in that many places can also tell at least some of them to do something else.

The hard Left selectively uses violence, normalizes it with weasel words: “Direct action.” “Diversity of tactics.” “Nonviolent property damage.” “Antifa.” If you want to know why Righties will get down with streetfighting, if it comes to that: take a look at Antifa. A good long one.

Part of the bargain of civilization is ceding the authority to commit violence to the State. (Has its own problems. Beats the alternative.) Lord knows there are people I’d love to beat the shit out of in the street, but if I don’t get to then neither do you. No, I don’t give a flying fuck who they are; you don’t get to do that.

Lefties say, “Well, that’s Nazis, they only do that to Nazis; Nazis are different, you have to shut that shit down, etc.” Great. Except that Lefties pull the same “shut this shit down!” stuff on mainstream Righties on college campuses, all the while calling them Nazis.

Hell, Lefties said Ted Cruz was a Nazi, Mitt Romney was a Nazi, George W. Bush was a Nazi. I’ve done human rights work that had me working in proximity to the U.S. military, so at a professional meeting a Lefty called me a Nazi.

So if you tell me that I’m a Nazi, and tell me people I respect are Nazis, and tell me you’re in favor of going out and beating up Nazis, guess what? I am suddenly very interested in the physical safety of Nazis.

And I’m Jewish.

Lemme tell you a true story.

In 209 BC, two Qin Dynasty army officers, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, were ordered to lead their troops on a march to provide reinforcements. Massive flooding delayed them. They couldn’t make their rendezvous time. In the Qin Dynasty, this carried the death penalty. No excuses.

“What’s the penalty for being late?”

“Death.”

“What’s the penalty for rebellion?”

“Death.”

“Well — we’re late.”

And that’s the story of the Dazexiang Uprising.

How does full-on streetfighting start in the United States of America? My guess is: pretty much like that. “What’s the penalty for kicking the living shit out of Leftist protestors?” “Oh, Jesus, we’d be demonized as Nazis.” “…what’ll they do if we don’t kick the living shit out of Leftist protestors?” “They’ll — hmmmmmmm….

So, what’re the odds of Righties kicking the living shit out of Lefty protestors actually happening? Depends on what happens January 20th, and after. Before the inauguration, the movement DisruptJ20 announced plans to screw up the inauguration.

Here’s a pre-inauguration article on DisruptJ20. Notice the variety of things they had on the agenda at that point.

Now reread that article, and think about how the national press would react if instead of a commie it were Richard Spencer.

The thing about commies is you have to pay attention to what they don’t say: “This is a nonviolent protest and we will not attack anybody.” Instead, it’s: “We are preparing for the possibility of sporadic fights breaking out because people are very emotional about this.” Cute, huh?

Protests like DisruptJ20 operate on a sliding scale from disruption to violence. This is deliberate. They harass their opponents, and try to bait opponents into attacking them. One tactic you often see: if one of their protestors does get violent, other protestors will loudly call, “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!” This is not an attempt to dissuade the violent person, but to persuade onlookers that they are not seeing what they are seeing. At the very least, the protestors figure, onlookers will assume “they’re not all like that! They’re trying to stop the bad one!” Of course, that’s a scam.

If at any point in 2017 Trump supporters are harmed or harrassed like the rally in Chicago, expect Righties to get very interested in forming street defense leagues: goons and headhunters to make Black Bloc spit teeth. And they’ll be purely defensive. For a while. But they’re human. So then they’ll think about getting proactive.

Bluntly: this is dangerous. The people who do it for the Left are literal Communists. What kind of Righties will it draw? Oh, I dunno, I’m guessing people who’re comfortable with violence, who don’t mind breaking norms or being arrested…

…if you’re now thinking, “Oh shit,” well, guess what? So am I.

If streetfights start happening on a regular basis on American streets, our democracy will corrode very quickly. We’ll see rapid radicalization at both poles, meaning normalization of political extremists.

The usual story American politics tells of how extremists get politically normalized is, to say the least, inaccurate. “Extremists get normalized bc the mainstream says things so beyond the pale it invites extremes.” ie, “Republicans make Nazis.” Bullshit.

How extremists really get mainstreamed: because the extremists have organization, logistics, and manpower that the mainstream finds useful.

Mainstream Lefties happily go to protests they favor that are organized by the literal Stalinists of ANSWER & the Worker’s World Party. Why? The commies are really good at getting people signs and making sure there are enough port-a-potties. When you’re great at organizing signs & port-a-potties, Lefties overlook that you’re into an ideology that murdered a hundred million people.

So how far would this go? Would mainstream Nazi-hating Righties be ok w/ literal Nazis on the streetfighting squads that keep them safe?

I dunno; how’d you feel about folks who voluntarily get their bodies between your peaceful gathering and a crowd trying to intimidate you?

Lefties could keep that very human thing from happening. But they’d have to de-escalate. And they won’t. Mellow out on college campuses? Quit disrupting righty events? No chance. It’s too much fun. So the hard Left is going to do more to normalize literal Nazis in America than anyone since Charles Lindbergh.

Let me be blunt, though: with or without literal Nazis, if Lefties pull another Chicago, Righty defense groups will happen. I honestly don’t think think the literal Nazis are going to be as involved in streetfighting as you might think. It’d be a distraction. The big thing the hard Right is trying to do right now is create organization and infrastructure. They have, historically, sucked at it. The hard Left has great infrastructure. Look at DisruptJ20: they know enough lawyers to have 2 teams dedicated to getting them out of jail! Think any Righty group has gotten around to organizing lawyers on tap like that? Nope.

Why are the Lefties so good at this? Communism. The American Communist Party got fantastic hand-me-down Russian-facilitated training, and shared. But hard Righties learn from overseas compatriots now, too. And a bunch of overseas hard Right movements are aided by the Russians. It’s not gonna happen overnight. But in ten or twenty or fifty years, you could have a superbly organized hard Right movement in America.

Now, you can do two things with radical infrastructure: use it to nudge the mainstream (SDS) or use it for radical action (Weatherman). I think Righties have to go SDS, while Lefties have room to go Weatherman. This is not from any innate philosophical difference, but purely practical. Effective Righty infrastructure is too rare & valuable to risk. (Also, any Righty organization or conspiracy is going to be stocked to the gills with snitches. Look at Malheur. Literally 25% snitches!) So I cannot stress this enough: any righty organization designed from the ground up to be violent is doomed to fail.

What this means: hard Left violence will be coordinated. Hard Right violence will be distributed.

Terrorists are basically mass murderers, or people who want to be. If you think about it, there are three kinds of mass murderers, and the typology applies to political violence too. The first kind is loners. The second kind is conspiracies (which have to be very tight-knit, or somebody narcs). The third kind is guys from the murder factory. A murder factory is a self-perpetuating machine that brings in recruits and spits out killers. Islamic State: that’s a murder factory.

Murder factories are hard to build. Weatherman tried to build one. They failed. The hard Left is bigger with fifty years more experience now, and I still doubt they could make a murder factory without support from a foreign power. That leaves conspiracies for Lefties, and loners for the Right.

So if Lefty violence will mostly be the result of conspiracies, while Righty violence will mostly be the work of loners, there will be differences in the kinds of things that Lefties and Righties will be able to do. A lone perpetrator can pull off a bombing, for example, but not a riot.

Left and Right also have different vulnerabilities. The Left is far better at allowing its people, esp radicals, to rise and mainstream. As a result, way more new Lefties attain prominence and effective leadership status than Righties. This makes for a deeper activist bench. With a sea of effective, prominent Lefties, Lefties who are lost will be mourned but not irreplaceable. This is emphatically not the case for Righties. To be perfectly blunt: the Right would be extremely easy to disrupt with targeted assassinations. The Left would not.

Once political violence starts, the smart move is to keep your violence low-level and try to provoke the other guys into serious violence. This, as with everything else, favors the Left. The Left can absorb a hell of a lot of serious violence. Martyrs are fuel for Leftism. Look at the history of unions. So these are the tactics I see the Left using for early political violence:

  1. use as many different nonmurderous but disruptive-to-violent tactics as possible — “shut it down,” occupations, property damage, riots
  2. weaponize Institutions against Righties, when possible
  3. drag events out — long, very low-level conflict works in Lefties’ favor
  4. target individual Righties for intimidation/disemployment, to discourage others
  5. target the most effective Righties for Unpersoning, lawfare, and (only if absolutely necessary; this would be very rare) assassination

Yes, the Left is doing almost all of this stuff already. But it could be ramped up. Take disemployment: Lefties clamoring to get somebody fired. The way it works now is reactive, news-cycle driven. It doesn’t have to be. Political donations are public record. So are voter registrations. It would be trivial to set up a Disemployment Committee to scrape these. HR departments tend to have a lot of Lefties in them. They could bring back a coordinated blacklist. You’d never know it.

Expect expansion to second-order targets, too. If you can’t target someone (bc they’re self-employed, and unshameable), go for their family — that’s already happening, by the way. Remember: most Americans are a paycheck or two from financial calamity. I’m surprised disemployment hasn’t yet been repaid with murder.

Setting up fake petitions to get your enemies to sign themselves up on your Enemies List is a tactic I expect to be pretty bipartisan. Lefties’ enemies lists will have fewer prominent Righties and Righty infrastructure types on them, just because there are fewer of those.

If you notice who Lefties really tend to go after, it’s two kinds of people:

  1. Righties who might be growing in popularity and/or influence, to make them radioactive and make others afraid to associate with them
  2. regular people, who have employment and social fragility, to make them scared to admit WrongThink.

So Lefties will target more people on top and on bottom, status-wise. Righties will target more in the middle, go for the Lefty NCO corps. That’s because the biggest impact the Right can make at this stage of conflict is to destroy, damage, or neutralize Lefty Institutions. But Lefty Institutions are massive cultural power centers. Universities, Media, Bureaucracies, Organizations/Foundations, Cities.

The Right is not big enough or organized enough to really destroy Lefty Institutions. Like the Left, they’ll be looking to intimidate people out of the game and take away enemy tools. Example: Institutional and media bias means radical Leftist tactics are accepted, which means radical Leftist tactics become normalized. Ergo, the only way the Right can delegitimize Lefty tactics is to use them, at which point they’ll become The Worst Things Ever Done By Man. My guess is the Right will start using Leftist tactics against members of Leftist Institutions: “This is what you ordered. Eat it.”

Some of this could actually be constructive for campus civility. For instance, I’ve long argued that if a Righty speaker is disrupted on a college campus, then campus Righties should *disrupt every single Lefty speaker for the remainder of the school year.* Of course, Righties can’t get away with what Lefties get away with, so no swarming, no intimidating people, no pulling fire alarms. What Righties can get away with: standing up and chanting, at the top of their lungs, “THIS IS WHAT YOU DO TO US.” In multiple stages, for maximum distraction. Leaving peacefully, of course. The bad news is that’s about as cheerful as these face-offs are going to get. They can and probably will get much nastier.

Specifically, I think the hard Right is going to discover the joys of “nonviolent property damage,” which the Left has foolishly normalized. I’m always puzzled when Lefty journalists praise “nonviolent property damage” as if they don’t have offices, homes, and personal property. University administrators who let Lefties disrupt Righty speakers with impunity also have offices, homes, and personal property. Heck, when Lefty rioters get arrested, papers print their names and mugshots. And they have homes, and cars, and … you know the drill.

The advantage of “nonviolent property damage” for Righties: one person can do it without trying to put together a conspiracy. Nor does it injure people. But let’s be blunt: though no people are hurt it is, despite what Lefties say, violence and it would get very ugly, very fast. And it wouldn’t be entirely effective. The Institutions wouldn’t be destroyed. They’d still be there.

But what happens if the Trump administration is a player? No, I don’t think the Trump administration is going to be putting people in camps, or offering free helicopter rides. What the Trump admin might do is use the full force of the federal government to take a chainsaw to Leftist Institutions’ funding and power. Which threat, of course, could spur radical Lefties to violence. (Remember: provoking your enemy to violence is a goal.)

It gets really nasty if government and non-government factions combine, whether by design or merely taking advantage of each other. What could that look like? Imagine this sequence of events:

President Trump goes to hold a provocative rally in a Leftist area of a Leftist city, inviting a “shut this shit down” Lefty riot. The riot happens. Righties show up… and join the rioting Lefties, ensuring that as much damage is done to local property as is possible. Trump’s DOJ blames the Lefty rioters for the damage, prosecutes for conspiracy to riot, and tears apart their funding structure under RICO. The federal government delays for ages, and finally (on the start of a holiday weekend) denies the city recovery assistance for damages, motivating other cities to avoid that fate by proactively shutting down any Lefty radicals who show signs of organizing.

I dunno if that’d work, or what hell it’d unleash. But I can see something like that happening.

Ultimately, what nongovernmental actors can do depends on their capabilities, organization… and money. Money was the big thing that hampered radical groups in the ’70s. People died or killed people or were arrested trying to get it.

In the 70s, radicals were basically limited to 3 options:

  1. parasitizing existing institutions (like FALN and the Episcopal Church),
  2. leeching off organizations of well-off radicals (Weatherman and the National Lawyers’ Guild), or
  3. robbing banks (everyone else).

Robbing banks isn’t a great strategy long-term. That’s how people got police attention, and occasionally gunfights and murder charges. In 2016, I’d expect radicals to use electronic crime options: ransomware, identity theft, that sort of thing. Less risk of detection. On the Left, though, most violent plots would be funded in the same manner as the FALN: parasitization.

Given the sea of Lefty foundations, nonprofits, and professions, parasitizing a few organizations to fund terrorism would be very doable. Nor would it be hard for YouTube stars or Leftists with Patreons — or, hell, the National Lawyers’ Guild — to turn money toward radicals.

On the Right, funding would be more of a challenge. It always is. Bitcoin would make funding anonymously easier. Also, many righties would be acting alone, so they wouldn’t have huge budgets. Still, the Left, again, has an absolutely massive structural advantage.

There will also be efforts to target each others’ funding. Note that Lefties already do this to Righties, and Righties to Lefties. Righties want to not give their own money to their enemies. Lefties want no one to give any money to their enemies. You can see some of this going on now re: defunding Planned Parenthood. For the pro-life groups, it’s about abortion, full stop, but for Steve Bannon, I’m guessing it’s about a powerful institution that uses money & political organization to support enemy politicians. Of course he’d look to stop taxpayer dollars from going to Planned Parenthood. If you think of politics as a war, that’s a no-brainer.

This is a rare area where Lefties are more vulnerable than Righties, because Lefty organizations get more taxpayer support than Righties do. Lefties are great at mobilizing boycotts and targeting advertisers, though, as we’re seeing them currently do with Breitbart. Could issues over some of this turn violent? Yeah. People could be threatened for advertising, showing support, etc. Any violence would be attention-getting threats/demonstrations, rather than murders. Breaking windows, bombs in offices at night, and the like.

Mostly, though, Americans who turn to political violence will target gatherings of their enemies, and people on their enemies’ lists. Because people are angry at their enemies. They want to punish them. All this godawfulness gets even wackier if the factions of the government get involved. Which, uh. They sort of already are.

The Left has the Bureaucracy and the Deep State. To judge from the press, the CIA is already at war with the Trump administration. So if there are any Righties still dreaming of smiting, lemme point out again: the Left is better placed to go at it than the Right is.

Righties might go, “Yeah, but the military!” Yes, the military runs very heavily Righty. As do the cops. To which my answer is: if we get Civil War II, how many Americans do you think the U.S. military is willing to run over with tanks?

At some point, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement for either strong federalism or national divorce. But we’re not gonna do either, because Americans want to rule each other, so.

If you’re asking, no, I don’t know how we’re going to stop this. I don’t even know why you’d ask me. Maybe CalExit could take some pressure off, but I dunno. I feel that bad times are coming.

All right, I’ve yammered more than that game theory guy. Let’s recap and wind up:

The Left wants to disrupt the Right’s power, organizations, celebrations.

The Right is sick of Leftist disruption and wants to punish it with force.

The hard Left has an effective infrastructure. The hard Right is looking to build one.

The hard Left will use the tactics it’s already using.

The hard Right will use Leftist tactics, at which point the Press will become very interested in denormalizing those tactics.

I’m guessing the Trump administration will try to eviscerate Lefty Institutions with budget cuts and the hard Left infrastructure with RICO.

Look for lots of property destruction, by everyone. I would not be surprised to see innovative tactics used to destroy property.

The press is a Lefty weapon and a Righty target.

Everyone will have enemies’ lists. All of us are already on somebody’s.

Effective Righty violence will be, by necessity, by loners or by really close conspiracies (think family members).

Effective Lefty violence will be by capable, fully operating cells.

If we get political violence between civilians, it’s mostly going to be low-level until it abruptly isn’t.

Some suicidal mass murder types may copycat political violence and choose political targets.

You do not want white people to riot. You Do Not. Want. White People. To Riot.

Nobody wants Civil War II. That doesn’t mean we won’t get it anyway.

I feel a little sick writing about this stuff. And a little stupid for talking about it. It sounds crazy in daylight. But every place I’ve been that had this happen thought it sounded crazy, too. And I have a bad feeling that right now what Americans want is to chop each other down like trees.

You want to know what I’m really terrified of? Imagine a few dozen iterations of this story:

There’s a famous case where a shadowy group was after a high-value, high-status target who used his considerable resources to retreat. The group couldn’t get to him. So they targeted everybody associated with him: Friends. Family. Staff. Lawyers. Sympathetic journalists. Eventually, that utter devastation of infrastructure led to the death of the high-value, high-status target, whose name was Pablo Escobar.

That’s what I’m really scared of. Killing like that, on repeat. It’s my nightmare scenario. I know it’s unlikely. But — and this is the stupidest part of this whole thing — after 2016, I’m a little superstitious, and I’m wary of omens.

The shadowy group that unleashed carnage on Pablo Escobar’s Institutions had a name.

They were known as Los Pepes.

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So You Want to Move to the European Union

Welcome back, coastal elites! In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, many of you have expressed interest in moving to Canada or one of the 28 member states of the European Union. I can’t help you with Canada, but as it happens, I’ve lived in Belgium for the last seven years and finally became a permanent resident last week. This has meant having to learn the ins and outs of one of the more opaque bureaucracies in the world — there’s a reason it’s the rudest word in the Universe — but if someone as pathologically disorganized as I am can pull off emigration, so can you.

The EU is basically a constitutional confederation. Its member states are all sovereign nations, but they’ve also harmonized (i.e., made mutually consistent) many of the laws that govern inter-state interaction. This includes immigration law. So, while there will be small variations in procedure from country to country, the process as a whole is basically standardized EU-wide and consists of several different routes. I have personally gone through three of them: family reunification, salaried employment, and the “highly skilled worker” program, so most of my advice will focus on these paths.

Here are some of the questions Americans have asked me recently:

I’m married to/the minor child of/the parent of an EU national. Can I get citizenship through them?

This route requires the least paperwork, so we’ll tackle it first. The procedures for all the other routes require additional paperwork on top of what’s described in this section, so either read this part now or refer back to it later.

Short answer: Yes, if you’re willing to learn their country’s language. Depending on the country, you may also have to move there and wait a few years.

Longer answer: Citizenship and residency are two different things. Citizenship includes rights and privileges such as the right to vote, the right to a passport, and the ability to give up other citizenships you already hold. (Most EU countries allow dual citizenship, but a few, like Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, the Baltic republics, and Spain, require naturalized citizens to give up any previous nationality.) Being an informed voter means being able to understand the local issues, so in order to extend the franchise to you, your host country will expect you to demonstrate language proficiency (typically to level A2 or B1, which are the second and third of six levels) first.

Residency just means “you live there legally.” However, thanks to the Schengen Agreement, there are mostly no border controls within the EU. (The UK is an exception because it isn’t part of Schengen. More on this later.) So if all you want to do is live, work, and travel around in Europe, residency is all you really need. If your relative is already an EU national, there’s even a special residence category for you, “non-EU family member of an EU citizen.” It also applies to people in civil unions, provided the country you want to move to recognizes same-sex marriages or partnerships. (This is basically everywhere except Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Poland. Hungary and Croatia have civil unions but a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, so a US same-sex marriage probably translates to a civil union, but obviously I’ve never tried this so don’t bet the farm on it.)

The very first thing you and your relative need to do is make sure that your relative’s documents are in order. If your relative’s EU passport or ID card has expired, get it renewed. The “citizen services” department of the relevant country’s embassy can help you with this. E.g., if your relative is French, go to the French embassy; if they’re Austrian, go to the Austrian embassy, and so on and so forth.

While you’re at it, start getting your own paperwork together. Most countries let non-EU family members of EU citizens file for residency while they’re already present on a tourist visa. The only one that requires you to apply from outside the country is Austria; everywhere else, you can relocate along with your relative and then apply.

The Schengen Agreement effectively gives Americans an automatic “brief sojourn” (type C) visa on arrival in a member state. It’s good for up to 90 days, with the catch that you can only stay in the Schengen area for 90 days out of any 180. To be admitted for a stay longer than that, people who aren’t family members of an EU citizen (or who are, but are going to Austria) will need a “national” visa, also known as type D, which we’ll get into in more detail later.

The embassy’s website will have forms for visa applications, so if you’ll need one, download it and fill it out. If you don’t already have a US passport, get one — the book, not the card. Ditto for your kids, if you have any. When you go to apply, note that there is a difference between passport acceptance facilities and passport agencies. Normally, a passport agency will only deal with you if you already have a ticket to your foreign destination, but “I need to apply for a visa” is an exception to this rule. If you’re near a passport agency, go there — they’re faster — and bring your visa application with you. Hold on to any extra passport photos, or if you threw the extras away when you got your passport originally, get new ones; you’ll need to submit one with your visa application.

You will also need to prepare the documents that verify the composition of your family. This includes your marriage license, and if you have any kids, their birth certificates. (If you’re in a common-law marriage or partnership, go to the courthouse and have a justice-of-the-peace wedding; it’s generally easier to register a US wedding in the EU than it is to get married in the EU.) You’ll need to get these documents certified via another document called an apostille, which is like the international-law version of a notarization. In most places, you can do this by mail or in person through the relevant state’s Secretary of State. (So, if you were married in Ohio but now live in New York, your marriage license needs an apostille from the Ohio Secretary of State. If you had a daughter in New Mexico, moved to California, and then had a son there, her birth certificate needs an apostille from New Mexico and his needs one from California.) You may also need to get these documents translated into the national language of the country you want to move to; check with the embassy to be sure. For some weird reason, there is usually a time limit on how old the apostille can be — six months is typical — so keep this in mind as you collect the plot coupons for your application.

(Applications for citizenship typically also require your birth certificate, apostilled and translated. Additional paperwork requirements will vary by country, as will any required waiting period. If you’ve been married to and lived with a Dutch citizen for at least three years, are fluent in Dutch, and meet a few other qualifications, you can apply directly for Dutch citizenship. In France, it’s five years of marriage, or four if your spouse is registered as a French national living abroad. However, the spouse of a Belgian has to obtain residency first, wait five years, and then apply for citizenship; the spouse of a German has to wait three. This is why we’re focusing on residency.)

Once you have all the plot coupons together, go to the embassy, get your marriage registered with the country, and apply for your visa. Like I said before, everywhere except Austria you can also do this at the local administration of whatever municipality your spouse is registered in if you’re already in-country on a tourist visa. However, if you go that route, it’s a good idea to report your presence and file your residency application as soon as possible after you arrive. Legally, they can’t kick you out if your tourist visa (or the visa the embassy issued you) expires while you’re waiting on the authorities to issue your “family member of an EU national”-category residence card, but if you have to travel outside of Schengen, returning on an expired visa may be awkward. Best to give the gears of bureaucracy as much time as you can. Your residence card, once it arrives, will be good for five years, and you don’t need a work permit to get a job. When you go to renew it, you can apply for permanent residency.

Depending on what country you’re going to, or in some cases, what part of a country, you may also be required to take an “integration course.” These are part civics class, part country-specific basic life skills class (e.g., when and how to deal with various administrative offices, how to interview for a job, national customs), and mostly language class. France requires this for all new immigrants; in Belgium, the Flemish region does (and they’ll fine you up to €500 if you don’t enroll), but the Brussels region and Wallonia don’t.

I want to work for an EU company, or I want the multinational company I work for to transfer me to an EU office.

Short answer: There are two ways to do this. One is marginally less hassle over time if you already have at least a bachelor’s degree (or, in some countries, five years’ professional experience in the field you’ll work in), but both routes are about the same amount of effort up front. You will need both a work permit, which is issued by some relevant employment ministry in the country you’re going to, and a Schengen type D visa, which is issued by the immigration ministry and for which a work permit is a prerequisite. These are the plot coupons that unlock your residence permit. After five years of continuous legal residency (you’re allowed to travel, but you have to keep your paperwork current), you’ll be eligible for permanent residency.

Long answer: Whether you apply for a European blue card (“Europe’s answer to the US Green Card”) or as an ordinary worker, the company you work for has to sponsor you by obtaining a work permit for you. In most cases, you’ll have to start this process from your home country. (I was on a family reunification visa from 2009 to 2011; when I switched to a work visa in 2012, I had to go back to the US and apply from there.)

Depending on which country you’ll be hired in, the permit (and your residence card) will have to be renewed every one or two years. After five years, you can apply for permanent residency, which frees you up from the work permit requirement. The advantage of the blue card is that you only have to maintain a valid work permit for two years, after which your residency gets extended another three years and your blue card itself counts as your work permit. I’ve done both, and if I’d known I could have avoided three years of annual paper-chase, I would have gone the blue card route to begin with. But if a blue card isn’t an option for you, the regular-employment route isn’t terrible. It’s just more frequent interaction with bureaucracy.

The blue card is for “highly skilled workers,” which the EU defines as having academic qualifications or professional experience, being paid at least 1.5 times the average national salary in the country where you apply, and having any necessary professional qualifications. Countries can also have a list of professions in high demand, for which the required average-national-salary multiplier can be as low as 1.2. IT is probably the most common field on those lists, but health care, the natural sciences, engineering, and even teaching and law are common among those countries that exercise this option.

So, here’s how this works. First, get yourself hired. Getting hired without a work permit may sound counterintuitive, but your work contract will be a required document in any initial work permit application. (Renewing your work permit typically doesn’t require another copy of your contract, but does often require copies of all your pay stubs from the previous year, so if you don’t get those online, don’t throw them away!) Contracts in the EU aren’t like offer letters in the US; they’re formal, extremely detailed, and several pages long. When you’re hired on the basis of a work permit, the contract will (or at least should) state that it enters into force from the date the permit is issued. In other words, the sooner the permit’s issued, the sooner you can start.

Apart from your contract, the other plot coupons you’ll need to apply for a work permit vary from country to country. Most countries require a medical examination confirming that you don’t have any quarantinable diseases (think tuberculosis, not HIV). They’ll usually provide a form for this. The catch is, either the exam has to be performed by a doctor in the country you’re going to or one in your country approved by the embassy — and those can be hard to find; Belgium, for example, has a list of seven for the entire United States — or you can get an unapproved doctor to do the exam, get the form notarized, and then get it apostilled. This may mean having to call around. The second time I had to apply for a work visa (long story, I’ll explain in a minute), I wasn’t near one of the approved doctors, and none of the nearby clinics that anyone I knew was familiar with were willing to do the exam. (I think they were concerned about legal liability in case the form was rejected. Protip one: minor emergency clinics are useless on this front, so find a real doctor.) Eventually I found a gerontologist at a local hospital who was willing to do it. Protip two: Mobile notaries are really helpful in this situation. They can meet you in the waiting room and witness the signing of the form when the exam is done.

When you have all your work permit plot coupons together, take them to the embassy and file that application. Then it’s time for round two: filing for your type D visa. This is a lot like the process described above; you’ll need your visa application form, your passport, and your work permit once it arrives. However, there will generally be other paperwork requirements as well. The most common is a nationwide background check on yourself, which in EU countries is a completely ordinary thing that you can get at any police station or city hall. Since the US doesn’t have federal police, the closest equivalent is an FBI background check, and that’s what the embassy will expect. There are two ways to do this. If you can wait three to four months, you can print out this form, take your own fingerprints (your local police station may be willing to do this for you if you don’t know how), and mail them to the FBI along with this form and an $18 money order or cashier’s check (they also take credit cards online). If you’re in a hurry, you can go to what the FBI calls a “channeler,” but you’ll pay through the nose for it. Channelers are private companies in the background-check business, and handle fingerprinting for everything from concealed-carry permits to bus driver applications. They’re not cheap, but they will turn it around quickly.

Once you’ve arrived on your new visa, you still have to go get your residence card — the right to work and the right to reside are not the same thing. Do this as soon as you can, especially if your country’s immigration ministry has a reputation for taking its time. The clock on your work permit starts ticking as soon as it’s issued, and every day that your visa application is processing is another day of work permit validity gone. When I filed for my work visa in 2012, the process took so long that when I got back to Belgium, I only had about five months left on my work permit. It also took so long for them to issue my residence card that when I went to get my work permit renewed, they couldn’t do it because I didn’t have a residence card yet. I had to go back to the US and start the whole work visa process over again.

You see why I say the less paperwork, the better.

I don’t have a job offer from an EU company, but my non-EU spouse does.

Great, then family reunification is for you. Most countries will let you apply as soon as your spouse has their residence card, but about a third — in particular, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia (with some exceptions), France (also with some exceptions), Greece, Ireland, Lithuania (again, with some exceptions), Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland (exceptions here too) — will make you wait anywhere from 15 months to 3 years before you can join them. Unlike family reunification with an EU citizen, usually you cannot apply from within the country and must instead apply for a type D visa at an embassy in your home country. (There are exceptions; I got my family reunification permit in 2009 while I was already in Belgium, but it was a highly irregular situation and we had to get lawyers involved.)

In most countries, the process is very much like the process for migrating for work, just replacing the work permit with your partner’s residence card — the passport, the medical check, the FBI background check, your apostilled marriage license if you’re married, and your dependents’ apostilled birth certificates if you have any, plus whatever other paperwork the country requires. For Americans, the Netherlands are an exception to this rule — your partner already in the Netherlands can apply for a residence permit for you, or you can come to the Netherlands and apply yourself, no mucking about with the embassy required.

Whether you can work or not depends on the kind of residence permit your spouse has. If your spouse is on a residence permit that requires them to have a work permit to hold a job, you’ll need one too, from whatever company you go to work for. Once your spouse is a permanent resident and no longer needs a permit to work, you won’t need one either, but remember, this takes five years. What if your spouse is on a blue card and no longer needs a work permit from their employer, but doesn’t have permanent residency yet? This is a gray area, and will be country-dependent, but the way the regulations are phrased, your status depends on your sponsor’s status. Technically speaking, a blue card in its third to fifth year of validity is a work permit, but that permit is still required until your sponsor has permanent residency. So, a conservative interpretation would require you to get a work permit from your employer if you want to hold a job.

I don’t want to work for someone else, I want to freelance or start a company in the EU.

These routes exist, but there’s a lot more variation between countries with respect to how difficult (or possible) they are to pursue. By all accounts, it is extremely easy to get a self-employment visa for Germany, and US citizens can apply while they’re in Germany on a tourist visa. Lithuania restricts self-employment to just a few careers (journalism, sports, the performing arts, religious work). Belgium requires a “professional card” for freelancers who would otherwise require a work permit, but it’s not especially clear how this works for people in an unregulated profession (e.g., programming). In the Netherlands and Portugal, you have to prove that you have an existing freelance contract that will be in force while you’re there. Some countries will require you to submit a business plan and set up a local company in order to freelance. Slovenia and Cyprus won’t let you enter for self-employment purposes at all.

If your host country requires you to set up a local company, you will have to fund it with some minimum amount of capital, known as “share capital.” Again, this varies wildly from country to country, from €1165 in Malta to  €2500 in Estonia to €18,550 in Belgium. Be prepared to learn a lot about your host country’s social security program, because in nearly all cases, you’ll be paying into it. (If your end goal is citizenship, this is practically a given.) Better yet, get an accountant, preferably one who can handle both US taxes and your home country’s tax and social security system.

(A quick word about taxation: it’s complicated. Tax relationships between the US and other countries are determined via treaty. The US could, in theory, enter into a multilateral treaty with the EU to harmonize taxation, but they haven’t yet, so you’ll have to look up the bilateral treaty between the US and your host country to find out what your tax obligations are. One constant is that if you perform work on US soil while residing in another country — say, if you travel to the US for a meeting — the IRS will collect its pound of flesh on any income earned while you’re stateside. Beyond that, seriously, get an accountant.)

I want to get a degree at an EU university and then figure out what to do with myself.

First you’ll have to get admitted, which is between you and the university you pick. Once you’ve been accepted, the process for obtaining a student visa is roughly the same as the process for a work visa, with your acceptance letter in place of the work permit. A student visa is also a type D visa.

You’ll also have to demonstrate that you can cover your tuition and living expenses. It’s possible to be a student with a job, but it won’t be a full-time one. Your host country can’t limit you to any less than ten hours a week, but you can’t necessarily count on more, either.

If you’re pursuing a graduate degree, you have more options. As you might expect, there are more funded research positions in the sciences than in the humanities, but the latter do exist. If you’re in a funded position, your salary will cover your tuition and fees, as well as a modest but comfortable lifestyle. During my first two years in Belgium, Len supported us (and our cat) on his researcher salary, and although we had to budget and live within our means, it was manageable.

As far as I’m aware, time spent in an EU country as a student counts toward permanent residency. This is true for EU citizens studying in another EU country, and I think it’s also true for third-country nationals, but check your host country’s laws to be sure. Note that if you are not a permanent resident by the time you graduate (and you probably won’t be), you will still need a work permit to hold a job until you are one. Whether you can convert your temporary residency from “student” to “worker” without leaving the country is, as usual, country-dependent.

I am disabled and cannot work or study but want to emigrate anyway.

… Your life is going to be more complicated, and I don’t have any good news for you.

Operating a welfare state successfully isn’t cheap. Although many benefits of the social safety net are often equally available to citizens and non-citizens — for example, the up-front cost of visiting a general practitioner in Belgium is fixed, somewhere around €25 — one way that countries control the cost of the safety net is by restricting “access to public funds” to people who have paid into the social security system already. In general, you’ll have to demonstrate that you have some means of financially supporting yourself (or being financially supported by someone else — i.e., that you’re their dependent) in order to be admitted for more than three months.

Look, I told you it wasn’t good news.

On the other hand, if you’re a family member of an EU national and you’re disabled, they won’t hold that against you. Or at least they’re not supposed to; I’m not sure how well that works out EU-wide in practice, but anecdotally I hear Luxembourg is good about it. So there’s that.

One more option: if you require medical treatment that will last longer than three months, it is also possible to get a type D visa for medical reasons. You’ll have to demonstrate that you’ve made the arrangements in advance, can afford it, and will have financial support while you’re here, but if you can manage that, it’s a type D visa like any other. To stay on past the end of your treatment, you’ll have to transfer to another category (worker, student, &c), though this may be difficult to arrange while you’re busy with health care matters. You are playing on hard mode. Good luck.

Is there a way to relocate to Europe without doing all this paperwork?

Kind of, if you’re willing to be nomadic or maintain two residences and split your time between them.

The “90 days out of any 180” rule in the Schengen Agreement doesn’t apply to every country in the European Union. It doesn’t even apply to every country in the eurozone. Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Cyprus, and Ireland aren’t part of Schengen, and Ireland is also on the euro. (Since Ireland’s absence from Schengen has to do with the Common Travel Area it maintains with the UK, this could change as Brexit progresses, but nothing’s happened yet.) Strictly speaking, it is possible to bounce between Schengen and non-Schengen countries every three months pretty much indefinitely, or as long as you’re willing to put up with the hassle of relocating that often. Other non-Schengen options that aren’t part of the EU include Serbia, Albania, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro. (Belarus and Ukraine don’t do visa-free travel for Americans.)

I’ve done this, and it kind of sucked. Three months isn’t a lot of time to get used to a place, but if you’re the kind of person who thrives on change or doesn’t like to put down roots, it is doable. However, it has its limitations. You won’t be able to work legally for a local employer, some countries won’t let you get a bank account, and none of the time you spend in a country will count toward permanent residency — those five years have to be contiguous. If your end goal is to relocate permanently, this is not a great option. You will of course continue to be a US citizen and pay US taxes.

 

That’s everything people have asked me about so far, and everything I wish I’d known about EU immigration before I took the plunge. I’ll try to answer questions in the comments, if I’m competent to answer them. Best of fortune on your journey!

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