What Will You Do When They Come for You?

In a connected world, supporting a cynical worldview will boomerang back at you.

Two articles caught my attention in the past days, from two very different sources. Read together, they spell out a clear picture of how times are changing, and how this may be a time for many to do a bit of necessary soul-searching, in the interest of nothing less than self-preservation.
One was an article in the (liberal) Washington Post, about an American suburb, where thanks to the police vacuum in the aftermath of the George Floyd riots, a tent town of over 300 homeless people, often with mental and drug issues, has settled and residents are fearful due to a rise in crime. Nevertheless, these residents are unwilling (due to a percieved risk of police brutality) to call the police, a police that may anyway be increasingly powerless against the recent organic, societal rise in lawlessness (after all, much like way markets work because people believe in the market, the lion’s share of the police’s control over lawlessness is dependent on people believing in the police’s power, which is now eroding rapidly).
The other article was from a website on the right side of the spectrum; the gist of it was a suburban gun owner warning looters not to come to his neighborhood, because he will react differently than what the “rioters” are used to in the cities, i.e. he will shoot any intruder that enters his house.
There is a sort of tragedy in witnessing (for now, from the distance) doomed ideologies and convictions fighting tenatiously against “the dying of the light”, but here I am led to think that the writer of the second article is in for a painful awakening, with the residents in the first article along for the (painful) ride.
You see, the wild west illusion, the insistence on a romantic frontier individualism, where the “me against the world” attitude is still viable, and the fight is winnable, is gradually but surely evaporating. Let me first get into the concrete specifics of why the second author’s viewpoint is illusory, and the predeliction of those in the first article tragic.
If you contrast today with 200 years ago (as has been pointed out by many commentators), there have no doubt been tectonic shifts, brought about by technology, that make a sort of rugged individualism increasingly meaningless: today, as Juval Hariri points out, the “virtual world” of data that governs life exists mostly in a network of imaginations and perhaps computers; whereas 200 years ago, we lived by the seasons, we are now organized and subject to what Hariri calls “fictions” that exist mainly as ideas (and perhaps bits of data): companies, ideologies, mass movements and their unpredictabilities. Let me bring this point home by making an example based on the second article. Perhaps 200 years ago, the brave man would indeed have had the chance to repulse a group of unorganized, roving bandits. Porbably the Sherriff would even have supported him. But now, if you apprehend, or even shoot, an intruder, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, the “mob” will almost certainly get wind of your resistance, your address will be “doxed”, spread on Twitter, and soon, it will not be two people breaking and entering, but 200. I am reminded of the last scene of Scarface… does the author have enough bullets? Does anyone? And even if he would, how would he sleep at night? Is a society where he needs to threaten violence to deter home invasion worth living in?
In this world where everyone is connected, and the great wave of both progress and destruction brought about virtually, you as an individual are, on the individual level, powerless. You must rely on the collective for protection. Even staunch conservatives realize this, who, beside touting their gun rights, are also great advocates of police, and law and order. But here we come full circle back to the first article: what if that law and order ceases to exist? Who do you call then, and who do you blame?
Not knowing the author of the second article personally, I can only make a general inferences, based on his voiced convictions. He is a conservative, Republican, who probably voted for Trump, and will probably blame Antifa, BLM, etc. for the current problem. But before he does, it may be time for some painful self-reflection.
It is very easy these days to start moralizing, so I will try to keep that to a minimum. But I believe many would agree with me that though personal ethics may be subjective, there is a sort of power to truth that makes it analogous to gravity, i.e. foolish to fight against. For instance, if you claim that a virus is no problem, and dissappearing, but it is indeed surging, the virus will not care about your lie, and will kill many, unless you contain it. Besides gravity, truth is the ultimate grounding force. Keep fighting against it, and you will perish. And this is the point the author of the second article should reflect upon, to understand how he got to his present perdliction, i.e. where he needs to publicly threaten force against would-be home invaders.
It is at first a surprising fact that beyond all the “fake news” debates, very few serious people, even on the right, doubt that Trump lies, and lies a lot. And this is the original sin of those who elected him: because they wanted the conservative agenda and judges, they looked away from the crudeness and the lies; in many instances, they even looked away from human suffering being inflicted in their name. But here is another truth: crudeness, lies, and cruelty and the corresponding selfishness do not somehow stop at the Mexican border, or stop somewhere between your country and atrocities committed on your behalf in foreign lands. As immortalized in the poem “First they came for…”: the author, if he is smart, knows that lies usually have victims. Did the author really believe that voting for a serial liar would mean the lies stay neatly contained in its use against his enemies?
The blowback is already happening. Before the author of the second article lays blame on others, he should consider what role the lies he tolerated helped create the current situation he faces. The lies, in not just my opinion, were indicative of a narcissist who is willing to throw his entire country overboard to satiate the insatiable. It is no secret that Trump has been instrumental in dividing the nation, for his own benefit; this division, more than anything, is what is leading to a breakdown of law and order: because to divide means: every man for himself. And, returning to my point, if you yourself are lonely and divided, but the tools to commit violence against you are better than ever (be it using an AR-15, and/ or Twitter), then you face terrible odds, indeed.

Douthat’s Decadence

A book review.

A sign of our society’s decadence — one that, ironically, the author fails to mention — are non-fiction books that should be a third as long as they end up, but are inflated to hundreds of pages, so they can be published in the first place. Though Russ Douthat’s new book is an easy and engaging read, it nevertheless suffers from this malaise. But of that later. First the good.

The author starts out well, with a compelling definition, and a strong argument for why we should not be indifferent. Indeed, he is good at capturing the usual and unusual suspects for western society’s malaise, and giving background and context. 

For the reader more acquainted with the subject matter, however, red flags will soon crop up. The first point of foreboding is that Doudath cites very little, going mostly with his own intuitions. This would be forgivable were the concept of decadence not with us since the Roman empire. For this subject matter, however, not exploring the thoughts of previous luminaries can and should be interpreted as either a sign of the author’s lack of modesty, or the lack of really deep, scholarly exploration of the subject matter. But OK, this is just a symptom, after all, Nietzsche also didn’t quote much. So what about the thoughts themselves?

My main criticism of the work is that as Douthat explores causes of our decadence, he mixes two very different types of drivers: those that would indeed be avoidable, and those that he himself see as unavoidable consequences of a peaceful and affluent society. In my opinion, these two aspects should be strictly separated. Most would argue that being peaceful, affluent, and advanced to a degree where technological progress is no longer exponential is not a bad thing; there seems little practical use in agonizing, or even moralizing about things that, like gravity, are essentially unavoidable (things would be a bit different if Douthat would claim that decadence caused the technological slowdown, but he never does). 

This delving and picking apart, however, never happens in the book, which makes it more a descriptive pile-on than a surgical exploration; one gets a potpourri of various symptoms, but no taxonomy or ranking of causes.

A second problem is that though the author is a religious man, like many of his contemporaries, he is surprisingly materialistic.  Telling is how he sees the moon landing as the last achievement of a non-decandent society. This point of view can definitely be challenged. Was landing on a dusty, infertile celestial body not instead the pinnacle of decadence, because it was ultimately nihilistic? Indeed, the topic of space exploration is touched on a second time, in the final, rambling chapters (which add those 100+ unnecessary pages, replete with unconvincing forecasts and — in my opinion — a terrible final sentence), where intergalactic space travel is held up as a possible exit from decadence. But to put it succinctly, if we are decadent on Earth, why on earth would we not be decadent on Mars? (To be fair to the author, he notes this quandary, but leaves it unexplored).

Finally, the book leaves unexplored the most exciting question: any leader who is to lead us out of decadence will have to espouse non-decadent values. But what are these, especially on the personal level? The author provides no clear, workable answers. Even on societal level, he neither explores some obvious leads (i.e. the role of capitalism in shaping his symptoms of decadence), nor does he provide any convincing idea of how a post-modern, non-decadent, non-totalitarian society would look like.

Overall, then, your assessment of this book will depend on what you are looking for: if you want a well written summary of the various ills plaguing our society — not necessarily the causes of decadence, but the symptoms — then this book gets 5 stars (and do not underestimate the value of such a summary). If you want a deep, creative exploration of the root causes, and an exploration of convincing avenues of escape, be it personal or societal — then you will not be satiated.

Dead Flies is now Independent

Dear Dead flies readers:

At the beginning of 2020, instead of giving you a new list of resolutions that I will not adhere to, I want to announce that I have now taken Dead Flies off of the Google world into an independent server, using open source publishing courtesy of WordPress.

I have also decided to merge Dead Flies and Yeah Write, in a hostile takeover by Dead Flies that will result in the merged blog being called, Dead Flies.