Wisdom in Plenty vs Wisdom in Crisis

When times are good, there are a lot of people to learn from.

When times are dire, there’s almost no wisdom to be found.

It seems when the world is humming along and freedom and prosperity are abundant, there are many experienced hands in many fields with a lot of interesting and useful advice and input.

When the shit hits the fan, prosperity ceases, and freedom is strangled, nearly everyone ceases to bring wisdom or insight to the table. People who seemed smart and creative in prosperity become dull and reactive in a pinch. People who seemed free and courageous become groveling quick.

And some of the people that seemed the least insightful and the most crazy in the good times appear among the remnant of insightful and courageous in crisis.

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What’s the Worst Thing?

I don’t think it’s death.

Death sucks, and the drive for life is good. But inability to make peace with the utter inevitability of death can lead a person to things worse than death.

I’ve written on this theme before (here most recently) as it’s cropped up in my life with increased frequency. Panic and denial over death can lead humans to do ugly, shameful things. The goal of a human life ought not to be death denial (though pursuits of life extension are awesome) but dignity from start to finish, including a dignified death.

Dignified death has more to do with the frame of mind of the dying than physical circumstances. There’s a reason the peaceful martyr moves us (and sometimes causes a massive social movement). Seeing someone approach death without fear, but with courage, resolve, peace, and dignity reflects the highest human spirit and inspires those of us still living.

The fight for life is noble. Until it’s not. We’ve seen enough epochs of history and fictional portrayals to know the depths of depravity humans can reach when they fall into a zero-sum trap and maniacally compete with their fellow humans for any last gasp of life. We’ve seen what a fever of fear can do to a mob beyond reason.

Each of us has an individual duty to live well. And living well includes dying well. We can’t control the external circumstances of our deaths, but we can control our mentality and example as we face it.

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The Overton Window is Broken

The Overton Window is a simple framework for understanding what is politically possible at any given moment and how the range of options can shift through time.

I used to work at the think tank where the concept originated, from the late Joseph Overton who was the VP there just before I started. I found it useful and valuable, and built much of my understanding of social change and the direction of my life and career around it. (Here’s a talk I gave explaining this process.) It had amazing explanatory power.

Now, it’s broken.

I don’t mean the window has shifted. I mean the entire framework of a continuum of political possibility from total freedom to total tyranny that shifts, shrinks, or expands is broken. It doesn’t explain the current world or where it might go.

I had no idea this was even possible, but it seems to me to be the case. Anything and nothing are politically possible at the same time. There is no boundary, no framework, no popular principles to shift. There is case by case chaos, openness to everything and nothing.

It happened fast. Within a few weeks, legible political paradigms disappeared.

It is possible the window has just shifted in the extreme, allowing for total tyranny. Or expanded to include a broad range that ends in total tyranny. But it feels less legible than that. It feels like there is no window at all. I suspect that in this chaos, anything is within the realm of possibility.

A good way to judge what’s in the window is to ask, “Could a political figure talk about this idea without losing election”. It doesn’t have to be a passable policy, just one that you’re allowed to talk about. For example, for most of my life, any politician who even talked about the idea of slavery as something worth considering would lose election. Or someone who talked about ending all public schools would lose election. The window didn’t extend that far towards tyranny in the first instance, or freedom in the second.

But right now, it feels like almost anyone could mention almost any idea and I’m not sure it would be too far from whatever is now normal to eliminate them from political discourse. I wouldn’t be surprised to see calls to make the income tax 100%. Or calls to eliminate it altogether. There are already states that have moved to totalitarianism, with 24/7 house arrest and tanks in the streets. Maybe some will cease government operations altogether.

I have no idea. No framework. No clear picture of a window or its shifting or direction.

The Overton Window of a few weeks ago seems to have exploded. There’s no legible direction. I have no idea what comes next.

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Rebellion is Harder than it Looks

When you watch The Hunger Games, or Braveheart, or think about the American Revolutionaries, it’s easy to see yourself as one of them. Rebellion against a tyrannical power looks inspiring and enticing.

These portrayals are all about the people – of which you are one – against the big nasty government tyrant. You see the price paid by the rebels – physical threat, torture, death – and you see the inspiration they create and the crowd of people behind them. It looks doable.

The problem with these portrayals is they aren’t very realistic. They make it look too easy. A common scene is a crowd of frightened, oppressed people, all of whom hate the tyrants equally but stand still only for fear of physical retribution, until a brave soul defies them. Even if no one says it, the rebel knows they all stand with her in spirit.

In the real world tyranny looks different and rebels rarely get praised.

The thing most often preventing resistance to tyranny isn’t the guns of the tyrants, it’s the people’s love of tyranny. Rebels rarely inspire in real-time. Instead, their oppressed fellows hate them. They call them names. They accuse them of being selfish, ignorant, crazy, dangerous. They heap more shame and derision on the person who stands against the tyranny that oppresses them all than they do on the tyrants.

To defy tyranny does not make one popular among the oppressed, because the oppressed are part of the tyranny.

Our idea of sacrifice for a good cause doesn’t go deep enough. It’s not that you must have the courage to die for what you believe in. It’s that you must have the courage to have your reputation murdered. You have to be willing to not only face physical threats from the state, but to be seen as evil by the majority of people. You will not only suffer for a cause, you will be utterly misunderstood and vilified by the very people you represent. They will view your cause as stupid and your suffering as just.

Why don’t people stand up to tyranny more often? There’s so many more oppressed than tyrants, and the oppressed have so much more power. Except that most of them view resistance to evil as evil.

If you stand for freedom don’t expect to be saluted and thanked by your fellow man. Don’t expect to start a movement. It rarely happens. You’re more likely to lose your reputation at the hands of the masses than your life at the hands of the tyrants.

As I’ve written elsewhere, death is not the ultimate sacrifice.

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Villages to Cities to Villages?

Humans used to mostly live in villages. Clusters of families where the adults did work and the kids roamed and observed and played and learned work by being around it.

With specialization, mass scale production, and technological advances the arrangement changed. People lived in neighborhoods or cities that were often much larger, adults commuted to cities during the day vastly larger still, and kids were shipped off to huge age-segregated clusters, before smaller immediate families came back together for dinner in the evening.

The benefits of technological progress are astounding and I wouldn’t trade them. The benefits greatly outweighed the costs, which is why just about everyone who had the chance chose it. But shifting living arrangements were (often) one item on the cost side of the ledger. It was sometimes necessary, not necessarily optimal.

With increasing automation, software, robotics, and information access, the equation is changing again. Humans don’t need to cluster together en masse for economic production. That means one of the costs we had to pay to get the benefits of economic progress has been removed. Now there is choice. You can do the commute to cities and office buildings while kids commute to age segregated schools thing if you want. But you don’t have to.

This is a pretty new choice. And so far, only a handful of early adopters see an seize it. People can now live where they want with who they want with kids and adults alike doing their work and play near the home. Most people still do not realize this is an option. They are wedded to the status quo by inertia, not necessity.

Recent voluntary and forced quarantines are waking some people up to this possibility. More people than realized can work from anywhere. People also realize how they might want to change their living arrangements if they were to continue this more flexible, work and learn from home arrangement. For example, you might want to choose your neighbors more deliberately if you’re spending more time in a village-like setting. If you and your kids social life and work life and learning will be more local, spontaneous, and collaborative, you might change the kind of natural environment you’re in. Climate, house type, access to outdoors, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow steady uptick in deliberate village-like communities. Clusters of families with some shared interest, ideology, religion, or profession who have adults who can work from anywhere on flexible hours and kids roaming around learning through mixed-age play and imitation.

It’s possible the reason few people do this now is that few prefer it. It’s also possible the reason few do it now is because they’ve been conditioned for several generations into the assumption that it’s not on the table. More short-term experiments in this type of arrangement could inspire more to do it.

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Twitter and the Real World

I’ve never noticed as great a disconnect between Twitter and the real world as I do now.

I’m not sure if the divergence has grown over time, or if I’m just more plugged in to Twitter than I used to be so I notice it more. But the real world and the Twitter world are now two entirely different places. So different that they hold mutually exclusive descriptions and assumptions about the state of the world at any given time.

I joked yesterday that my neighbors are much more sane right now than Twitter people, and wondered if any of them are also Twitter people when I’m not looking.

So great is the disconnect between every social surface in real life and Twitter that I can’t help but wonder who the Twitter people are when they’re not on Twitter. Do they morph back into the normal people I experience out in the world? Or am I just experiencing two completely different sets of people, and they’d be the same online or off? Am I a different person on Twitter than in real life? I hope not.

My Twitter feed is fairly broad and generous. I follow quite a few people (over 1,500), I’ve never muted or blocked anyone, and I’ve only ever unfollowed maybe half a dozen or so. I like having a snapshot of a pretty broad set of people. The bulk of the feed are people either interested in startups, education, careers, personal freedom, entrepreneurship, cryptocurrency, the NBA, human liberty, or parodies of the same. There are other random accounts, but most would be strongly identified with one of those buckets.

Until about the last 6-12 months, I’d say on average my Twitter feed was pretty consistently more reasonable, logical, commonsensical, and intelligent than the real world people I interact with. On average, it’s a more technical, autodidact, curious, and dynamic group than most of the flesh and blood people in my neighborhood, at the grocery store, etc. So the Twitter people tended to have what I thought was a more reasonable take on most things.

That has completely flipped.

My normie neighbors are now quite reasonable compared to the more intellectual Twitter people in my feed. By a long shot. Something weird has happened on Twitter. It used to be that there were very unreasonable corners of Twitter, but the bulk of my feed was people poking fun at them for this. Now I’m hard pressed to find any reasonable quarters of Twitter at all. And anyone poking fun is in danger of some serious social censure. It’s disconcerting.

Twitter people seem like the most frightened, panicky, unreasonable brewd imaginable, capable of tolerating or advocating almost anything, no matter how inhumane and dark, if it allays their pet fears. And it seems to be re-enforced by the very intelligence that once made them more reasonable than the common folk.

Maybe when times are good, intelligent people are better. Maybe when times are bad, intelligent people are worse.

I don’t know, but for the first time in my life, I am somewhat troubled about most of the people I enjoy reading and following. They seem to me to be becoming the monsters they decry, while my neighbors, who mostly remain blissfully unaware of monster potential at all, aren’t becoming any worse.

Maybe it’s a return from two weeks unplugged that makes it more stark. Either way, my relationship to Twitter has changed. It’s not nearly as fun and full of open curiosity and play as it was. I still like it. I’m still using it (at least for now), but I have a more hardened, distanced experience than I did.

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