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Some weeks when I sit down to start writing, I feel like I’ve exhausted all of the possible topics on which I have anything interesting to say. And this will be the week when I run out. While at other times it feels like I have a huge backlog of topics, and the only question is which one I should write about first. As I sit down to start this week’s post it’s the latter situation. But I feel like if I’m going to prioritize things I should really prioritize writing about what’s going on currently, and make good on the promise, from a couple of weeks ago, when I was discussing the plethora of hate, of returning to that subject and discussing how it’s playing out currently. My timing is not ideal, since if anything right now we appear to be enjoying a temporary lull in hate and hostilities (perhaps because of Harvey?, also that was not meant to be alliterative) but I’m sure that, unfortunately, it won’t last and even if this post is not topical right this second, it will quickly become topical again, perhaps even before it’s finished.
If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m talking about the current war between left and right, between those who hate Trump and those who don’t, between the allies of social justice and its enemies, and, in the area with the most excitement, between the antifa and the white nationalists. Of course, given the emotions and the conflicting narratives, and the underlying and often hidden incentives, what’s really going on may be different from what you’ve been lead to believe.
Broadly there are actually four possibilities:
- There is no war. Neither side is oppressing the other. It’s all a plot being stoked by the media (the hidden incentives I just mentioned) to increase viewership. Things are generally better than they’ve ever been and if we could just get past the “Us vs. Them” mentality things would be fine.
- There is a war, but it’s a war where one side is clearly on the side of justice, specifically social justice. In this war the left is the good side and the right is the bad side and the sooner the left triumphs and the last of the racists and bigots and conservatives are gone the sooner we can finally reach the long promised utopia.
- There is a war, but it’s a war where one side is clearly right, I mean it’s in their name. It’s not called “The Right” for nothing. And the sooner we return to the values that made this country great: God, Family and Self-reliance, the sooner we can return to normalcy and get on with being the greatest country in the world.
- There is a war but like most wars neither side has a monopoly on justice or truth, and there are good people on both sides of it. Nevertheless it’s only getting worse and the fate of the country is tied up in the outcome.
I understand that all of these possibilities assume there are only two sides, when there are many, but, at the level of the whole country, distilling it down in this fashion is still very useful. Particularly since that’s the dominate narrative, and how the conflict is portrayed by the media.
Let’s go through the options in order, and speaking of the media, option one assumes that it’s all their fault. There is no war, it’s all an overblown product of our imagination, being stoked by sensationalized reporting. I know it’s hard to imagine, given everything you hear, that this might be the case, but there is some evidence for this position. As I already mentioned in a previous post, by any measurement it was worse during the late 60s/Early 70s. Also as Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex pointed out recently:
you can probably piece together where I’m coming from some of the following: this estimate of about 500 people at the Charlottesville rally; this estimate of about 1100 people at a recent Satanic rally, this poll showing more blacks and Latinos agree with the white supremacist movement than whites do (probably a polling error based on random noise; my point is that the real level of support is literally unmeasurably low),
His big takeaway, is the enormous amount of press being given to anything that shows even a hint of KKK style white nationalism compared to other similarly controversial, larger gatherings, i.e. the Satanists. Now you can argue that even if a recent Satanic Rally was twice as big as the rally in Charlottesville, the reason it didn’t get any press is that nobody died. But if you’ll recall the Charlottesville rally was very much in the news before that happened, with one of the big news stories being that AirBNB had revoked the reservations of anyone suspected of being a white nationalist.
Also speaking of the Klu Klux Klan, even the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are at most 8,000 members who mostly don’t get along. So if you got all of them together in the same spot you’d have as many as attended last year’s Hannibal Missouri Steampunk Festival. Which is to say that 8,000 is honestly nothing in a nation of 323 million. (Okay not literally nothing, literally 2 thousandths of a percent.) To give you a sense of their menacing power, I direct your attention to a KKK rally in Charlottesville before the one that attracted all the attention: 50 people showed up, they were matched by 1000 counter protesters. A nearby church set up a safe space which 600 people took advantage of. I don’t know if those two numbers should be added together for 1600, a ratio of 32 counter protestors for every protestor, instead of a ratio of 20. But the fact that 50 people caused 600 people to need a safe space tells you a lot about the current state of the world and is one more piece of evidence that people may be over-reacting to the threat of the far right.
Considering things from the other side, most people need no further proof then that fact that Trump was elected, to conclude that the left can’t be very threatening either. All of this is to say that a reasonable person could come to the conclusion that it is indeed option 1, there is no war. I am almost persuaded myself. Certainly, I would like to believe this. I hope that it’s true, but there are at least two good reasons to act as if it’s not.
First, whatever is going on now, by all accounts it’s getting worse, so maybe there currently is no war, but with the media stoking it, it will turn into a war eventually. Following from this, as I pointed out in my last post the medium is the message, and if today’s media can only survive by pretending one side of the country is at war with the other side of the county how long before it’s no longer pretend?
Second, and the point I come to again and again, if we assume there’s a war brewing and there isn’t than that’s a lot better than if we assume there’s no war brewing and there IS. You may object that this sort of assumption is exactly what’s inflaming things. But in reality, and this is essentially the point of this post, what I’m suggesting is the exact opposite. I’m suggesting that we have to recognize how potentially damaging this conflict is, and work to cool things down, operating from the fear that if we can’t figure out how to cool things down it could get really ugly. And, in the same way the terribleness of a nuclear war kept the cold war cool, I’m hoping the terrible prospect of an actual civil war, if we honestly engage with it, will have the same effect on the cold civil war we’re currently experiencing.
Moving further down the list, the next two options both assume that we are in fact in a war, but it’s a just war. And of course the side of justice is exactly the opposite in both of these options. And here, I am assuming, that below a certain level of support, one would move from option 2 or 3 to being more in the option 4 camp. Accordingly when I’m talking about options 2 and 3 I’m mostly talking about those people who are irrevocably in one camp or the other. The people, who on the one side, are sure we’re mere days away from a perfect re-enactment of Nazi Germany or the Handmaid’s Tale, and the people, on the other side, who are equally certain that we’re mere days away from a re-enactment of the French Revolution or of Brave New World.
I’m not sure what I can say to people in these two camps. People who firmly believe that we are in a war and that the other side is irrevocably evil, and that doom awaits us all unless they’re utterly destroyed. But if you are in one of those camps, and by some miracle you end up reading this blog, I would urge you, as I have so often in the past, to consider the possibility that you might be wrong. And, in case it’s not clear, this goes for both sides. You are not the rational, impartial, dispassionate observer you imagine. And even if you were, that neither puts you in possession of all the facts nor allows you to see the future. Consider that it’s far more likely that you are just parroting the views of whichever side’s echochamber you happen to be in. And, further, that the entire point of the echochamber is to convince you, via articles, or videos, or TV Shows that the left is about to destroy the country or the right is about to burn it down, so that you’ll read more of their articles and watch more of their videos. Finally, even though it’s a cliche, it does take two people to argue. For these reasons, I think you have to question any narrative which boils down to it being ALL THE FAULT of one side or the other.
At this point you’ve probably already figured out that I lean strongly towards option 4: we are in a war, and neither side has a monopoly on truth or good people. This is not to say that both sides have reached some sort marvelous and perfect equilibrium where they’re both equally right as well as being both equally wrong. One of them is more wrong, but neither of them is all wrong.
If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time I’m sure you’re already thinking about the two posts I made back in June where I talked about how the left is winning by nearly any measure you care to name (the election of Trump being the major exception) and how their victory is so pervasive that it’s continually shifting the entirety of acceptable public discourse in a leftward direction (the Overton Window.) This is a problem because I’m not sure that the left should win, or even what a leftist victory would look like. (At this point, if I was snarky, I could say that I actually do know, that it looks like Stalin and Mao, but that’s untrue, though not as untrue as the left would wish.) In any event, for one thing the goalposts keep moving. As I said in a previous post:
“What does winning a civil war even look like?” Does everyone have to be comfortable with the most liberal current position that exists today, because in 10 years that will be mainstream? What about 20 years from now? By that time would we all have to be comfortable with positions that even the most liberal person finds abhorrent now? [Which is, essentially, the story of the last 20 years.] What if there are people who will never be comfortable with those ideas? Do we kill them? Re-educate them? Banish them? And this all assumes something approaching a best case scenario for the left where they win and there’s no violence. Neither of which, especially the latter, is guaranteed.
But, if it’s inevitable that they’re going to win, some ways of winning are better than others. And if we’re going to have a war some ways of waging war are better than others. And I know that if you’re winning, that it’s very tempting to not want to worry about how you win, or what the eventual repercussions are if you wage war in one way versus another. When you’re in a war it’s very easy to demonize the other side. To come to the conclusion that they deserve whatever punishment they get. To draw on a football metaphor, it’s very hard not to dance in the endzone. But all of this matters, a lot. And I know that some of you will dismiss this as prejudiced, but I’m going to go on record as saying that the modern left has a hard time not dancing in the endzone.
This takes us to the recent unrest in Charlottesville and more broadly the conflict over the Confederate monuments. And I’d like to use it as an example of the what I’m talking about. First off, as I mentioned this is one of those situations where the left has clearly won. All over the country Confederate monuments and plaques are being removed, and I guarantee, they’re not coming back. This is not a temporary victory, the only question now, is not if, but when a monument will be removed. And, as usual, what’s amazing to me, is how fast it’s happening. There are essentially no examples of it happening before 2015, and then there was a flurry of monument removal in New Orleans in May, but the vast majority of the removals all happened in the course of a little more than a week between the 15th and the 24th of August.
There are a variety of possible explanations for the speed with which things have changed. Perhaps every individual community, all suddenly and simultaneously realized at around the same time in mid-August (perhaps it had something to do with the eclipse) that though they had sat there unmolested for decades that Confederate monuments were bad and they had to come down immediately. This is regardless of who the monument was for or what it represented, or the community the monument was in. Or perhaps, and this seems more likely. The left saw that they had some momentum with the fatality in Charlottesville and they decided to use it to strike as fast as the could. To put it another way, the left saw that they had the right down, and decided to get in as many kicks as they could.
There are certainly people who would strenuously deny that this is what the left is doing, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it feels like that to those on the losing side. If it does, then unless you plan some sort of massive Orwellian re-education, or worse some sort of bloody purge, you’re still going to have to live with these people, regardless of what happens with the monuments.
(I should interject here that everything I’m recommending applies to the right as well, but currently the left is more in need of the message both because of current events and the long term trends.)
Perhaps, it’s easier to understand my point if I frame it in terms of trade-offs. These statues and plaques have been up for decades, what harm would it cause to leave them up for another year or two? Whatever your answer (and I assume the answer has to be “small to nonexistent”) that’s what you’re balancing against the benefits of going more slowly. The benefit of having an actual public discussion, of giving people time to educate themselves, and may be tossing up a ballot initiative this November, or even next and allowing people to actually vote? Especially given the fact that the majority of Americans want the monuments to stay?
This may seem like a small thing and perhaps it is, but recently same sex marriage and transgender bathroom access, played out the same way, moving quickly from no one even considering the idea, to all “right thinking” people agreeing with it, with no space for any discussion in between. And heaven help you if you decide to try and discuss it now.
I understand, who cares what those racist rednecks think. Who cares if they’re upset by this. There’s no room for their hate speech or their hate groups or their hateful thoughts. (And as I pointed out, hate is now the ultimate sin and the root cause of all our problems.) And you are entitled to your opinion, I suppose, but before you get too deep into your hate of the haters I’d urge you to consider the fact that these people have a lot of guns. I know no one wants to think about a situation where suddenly the number of guns is a factor, but this is where we get back into trade-offs. Is the harm of the monuments so great that it’s better to tear them down immediately than spend a few months trying to peel off some of the more moderate individuals?
Speaking of moderates, as I already pointed out, most people want to leave the monuments alone, and I assume from that, that most people don’t even have a dog in this fight. They’re not a white nationalist nor a mask wearing member of the Black Bloc. They’ve never been to a protest and they don’t see any reason for that to change. Instead, their goals include saving up for a trip to Hawaii, or getting into a good college, or losing 30 lbs. Even if they knew who Nathan Bedford Forrest was they would have no interest in trying to tear down his statue. All of this means that they’re not in the business of picking a side, to say nothing of joining a side, but they should be in the business of trying to prevent whatever is going on from ruining that trip to Hawaii, or their college admissions, or even their diet.
How can you do that? You do that by playing referee. By making sure things are fair. I know that everyone has their own definition of fairness, but I think most people would be happy if you just applied the same standard to both sides. And if you’re unclear on what standards to apply, as it turns out the First Amendment is a great source. The Founders tackled this same problem and enshrined their standards for fairness. It even talks about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In light of what happened in Charlottesville, I think the key word is “peaceably”.
If you want a more modern spin, there’s the standard I mentioned a couple of posts ago which I borrowed from the rationalist community:
Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.
This means making sure both sides have their say. (For a great example of this read Charles Murray’s article about his speech at Harvard.)
And, it means you need to point out violence on both sides.
And if eventually the succession of California makes your trip to Hawaii impossible and you decide that you have to pick a side. If you’ve made sure to support the ability of both sides to peaceably make their case then at least you’ll have access to as much information as possible when it does come time to make that decision.
And beyond all this, I think occasionally you have to call an excessive celebration penalty, when someone dances in the endzone.
I rarely dance, in the endzone or otherwise. If that kind of thing is important to you, consider donating.