Friday, August 19, 2016

Time Orientation of Politics

The two major political orientations in American politics are conservative and progressive. But this pattern is not distinctly American - it is widespread throughout history. Late Republican Rome had their own conservative and progressive factions: the Optimates and the Populares. These orientations are persistent because they derive from basic psychological attitudes towards time.

Conservatives love what is. They delight in the present and the particular. They tend to be older than progressives. People become more conservative as they age and fall in love with the world. Conservatives in different places have little in common with each other because they want to preserve different things. Conservatism is local.

Progressives are in love with the future. Progressive thought tends to be abstract and speculative. It measures the present against its ideals and finds it wanting. At its best, progressivism is the conscience of society. At its worst, it is an overactive, guilty conscience that turns into puritanism. Young people, filled with a desire to leave a dent in the universe, tend to be progressive.

Reading these descriptions you might be tempted to pick which side is right. But this is the wrong way to go about it. These are two basic poles of the human psyche and they need each other to be whole. Every human institution is polarized in this way. Even a group of progressive activists will have its more conservative and progressive members*. Split a magnet in half and what you have is two half-sized magnets, fractally, down to the polarization of individual atoms.

It is the task of wisdom to balance these two impulses within individuals and within human institutions. Both orientations have failure modes when they are allowed to dominate.

The failure mode of conservatism is latching on too tightly to the existing arrangement of things. When conservatism is well balanced, it is the skeleton of society, defender of things worth defending. When it becomes too entrenched it calcifies the body politic. The society fails to address a building problem until it is too late and bursts forth into catastrophe.

The failure mode of progressivism is impatience. When progressives change things too quickly, they destroy pieces of the old order without regards to their value. The fragile, irreplaceable beauty of the world is sacrificed in service of some promised future utopia. Often, there is great bloodshed, such as in the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Iconoclasm in its old sense - the destruction of icons - is solely an actively of progressives.

In the abstract, both suffer from impossibility. The conservative must make peace that the present cannot stay the same and the progressive that the task of eliminating evil eventually generates negative returns.

The continuum of time is split into past, present, and future and so far we have discovered political attitudes that correspond to two of the three: present -> conservative and future -> progressive. There is one other basic political orientation but it is less common: the reactionary. Reaction is in love with things past.

To explain reaction and how it influences modern politics would be a large tangent that would distract from the elegant model so far developed in this post. So I will leave that for later. But a healthy psyche or good society will also balance reactionary feeling with conservative and progressive.

* Progressive movements, driven by the fuel of righteous anger, are especially tempted to purify the whole by purging more conservative members. See the infighting of the modern social justice movement, or more spectacular bloody purges of the past:

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Stuck in the Muck

I have a hard time organizing my life in the adult world. How do I choose what to spend my time on? This is a difficult question.

If I have a pressing physical need, then the answer is obvious. I will try to address that physical need in a graceful way. For example, if I need money to pay for rent, I will find a job doing some good in the world, in a way that uses my existing talents and helps me develop new ones. That is how I chose my last job.

Over the last year I did not work at a job. I was able to take a year off thanks to money I saved, support from loved ones, and a little bit of luck. Without the constraint of work I come into direct confrontation with the burning question of how to spend my time.

I thought being jobless would be a paradise. Sometimes it is a blessing. I am grateful for the freedom to pursue experiences, retreats, and courses of study that are hard or impossible for the employed to enjoy.

But other times the jobless life is hell. I wallow in agony with how to spend my time. I hit the back of my head against the wall behind my bed and groan.

The problem is not lack of options. I can think of so many worthwhile ways to spend my time. On a typical day I rapidly fluctuate back and forth between 5 of them. I practice guitar for 5 minutes. I start on an essay. I start writing a list of friends I want to spend time with. I open up a code editor.

In the swamp of infinite choices, I get stuck. I make no forward progress on any one thing and I start to feel frustrated. This is where the groaning and banging my head against the wall comes in. So much is started but nothing is finished. Another day went by with nothing to show.

My energy starts to flag and along with it my will. I might start to read articles on the internet - never just one piece, but about eight articles at a time. My attention will flow back and forth between the tabs, split into tiny pieces. Maybe in despair I will go for a walk or find a friend. Then I feel better for awhile.

I think to myself that I should multitask less and single-task more. So over the weeks I make progress in fighting one media addiction or another. But it is not enough. I crave some ordering principle, something to work towards, something that will limit the infinite possibilities that each day presents to me.

Over the months, I make a little forward motion. But it is condensed into 4 or 5 days a month that feel worthwhile. In those, I have some new experience in which I feel that I make forward progress, such as teaching a workshop or attending one. Most of my time is spent on little of importance.

I am operating well below peak capacity. For a man, this is a slow death. We are creatures meant to be used. I feel of little use to anybody.

I am disconnected from the web of meaning. The most meaningful things I do are trainings that I hope will give me skills that one day may be useful to people. But I am not much use now.

The times of my life I felt the least lost were college and grad school. The several classes I took at any one time gave my life structure and variety. My daily efforts pointed to a long-term goal of earning a degree. I had flexibility - between each rigorous semester there was a long break to recharge and travel. And I had the social support of friends who were working with me.

I think to myself that with the infinite freedom of the real world I could craft a program of learning that was more gratifying than any college could offer. But I need help. I can’t craft it on my own. There is too much flexibility, too many good options.

I need a guidance counselor for life.

My money will run out eventually and I will need to get a job. Probably. That will solve my problem. But I would much rather solve it by learning how to live gracefully as a free soul.

Friday, July 29, 2016

"Too Far"

A common obstacle in personal growth work is the fear of going too far.

For example, I recently attended a retreat to learn how to be more open to connection with other human beings. I had an impulse to hold back. I thought, what if I’m 100% open to everybody? I live in a crowded city full of human suffering. My life would become unlivable if I stopped to take in the humanity of each person that I passed. I would have to become like Jesus or something.

I see the same type of worry about “going all the way” among the participants in a workshop I teach based on the book Radical Honesty. Wouldn’t it be hard to live 100% honest all the time?

As we stretch into new ways of being, the fear of going too far is mostly unfounded. Naturally, I’m about 5% open. Most people are probably ~10% honest (I’m just a little bit more, and I practice it). The chances are tiny that any person will achieve 100% openness or honesty even for a second.

The purpose of personal growth activities is to give ourselves more options for how we relate to the world - more tools in the tool kit. It takes purposeful effort to hold ourselves in the new practice for the hours or days that a workshop lasts. At the end, we naturally return to our old ways of being. Our default patterns of behavior have momentum.

If all goes well, your growth process will look something like this:
So don’t sabotage your learning by holding back. Commit to the practice for a set period of time and play hard. Commitment is an important meta-skill in personal growth.

At the retreat I attended, commitment worked well for me. I went into it knowing that I had some philosophical differences with the leader. But rather than spend the week in philosophical debate I made a commitment to fully engage with the teachings. I’d try it on and see what was good about it.

I caught myself in a cynical mindset holding back from the practice about once every two days. But my commitment to fully engage helped me become mindful of my internal state and dive back into the practice.

The result was that I achieved a new state of openness and empathy that feels good to inhabit. I'm a low-empathy, "tough", independent male who has been shaped that way by circumstances. Practicing empathy is good for me - it corrects my natural imbalances. Having the memory of this new empathic state, I have the option of choosing more empathy in other parts of my life. And I’m still comfortably far from Jesus levels of empathy.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Fog of Confusion

I live in a fog of confusion. I don’t know, I can’t know, everything about a topic before I speak. And yet I speak anyway. I find that expressing my viewpoint brings me into contact with the viewpoints most important for me to hear.

In order to speak, I must at some point accept my imperfection, accept ignorance, accept certain shame that I was not more diligent before speaking. This is the fastest way for me to learn what I do not know.

In the programming world, there is a saying “RTFM”: “Read the Fucking Manual”. It means that you should do your own research and attempt to answer your own questions before asking others.

But in life wisdom, in politics, in society, what is the manual? It is impossible to RTFM. Let us be ignorant together and have compassion for each others’ ignorance.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Liberty in the Reputation Economy

Libertarianism is a perfectly fine ideology, one crafted with loving care. It’s joints are bound together with impressive internal consistency, it boasts a number of high-status followers, and its long heritage lends it gravitas like an Elizabethan clock.

But it’s old. The world has changed. Our needs have changed. Who needs a hand-wound clock the size of a cabinet when we’ve got digital watches that read tweets to us?

Sadly, the piece that’s most showing its age is the very core of the system - the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). For the benefit of the uninitiated, the NAP is the central feature of libertarian moral and legal reasoning. It states that it’s wrong to harm another person’s body or property through force or fraud. A prohibition against “force or fraud” is pretty much the whole of the libertarian law. Otherwise do what thou will.

Not all libertarianisms are NAP fundamentalists, but all of them are influenced by the NAP. I believe the NAP is a great start for a good society. Safety from violence makes possible the exploration of many different kinds of social arrangements - commercial and noncommercial. The NAP or some approximation to it is essential for human flourishing.

Once upon a time, when the economy was made up almost exclusively of physical goods, the NAP was almost a sufficient legal code for a good society. But now it feels incomplete. There’s a hole in the ideal legal code where something more is needed. If the word “libertarianism” needs to remain as a static pointer to NAP-based philosophies for reasons of historical legibility, then I recommend upgrading your label to something else - “post-libertarian” perhaps.

Where does this hole come from? We live in the age of the reputation economy. Much of what we value is not physical and we are vulnerable to harm from non-physical means. Our reputations are among the most valuable capital we possess, and they are online, global, permanent, and auditable by anyone we encounter.

And these reputations are vulnerable. An assault on our reputation can be devastating without doing anything that qualifies as “force or fraud” under the NAP. The target of a social media mob can lose their job, reputation, funding, and social connections. Attempted assaults succeed and fail without much regard for whether they are justified or not. They are semi-random acts of destruction.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be mugged than suffer a reputation assassination. A twitter mob can do much more psychological and financial damage to me than a street tough that takes my wallet and iphone. Even the physical toll can be higher, as some victims of online mobs are bullied into suicidal ideation.

The job of the State is to maintain a monopoly on violence. An ideal libertarian state will use this monopoly to enforce the NAP (how to create such an ideal state is an exercise left to the reader). When the State loses its monopoly on violence things of value are lost. People come together in groups of armed bandits. Social trust disappears and commerce dries up. A society ruled by a violence monopolist is much nicer than a society ruled by a thousand petty tyrants.

“A thousand petty tyrants” exactly describes the state of the reputation economy. Social media is an anarchy, a wild-west.

Gawker media was one such petty tyrant. It has made a business out of shaming, outing, and attacking people. Founder Nick Denton’s plan to make millions of ad dollars is right there in the business name: people are drawn to gawking at the pain of others, so report on that. If there isn’t enough pain in the world, create more of it.

The Non-Aggression Principle offers no basis from which to criticize Gawker. I’ve seen a few self-styled libertarians defending its actions. Sure, sometimes it publishes outright lies, e.g. by accusing celebrities of rape. But a lot of what it prints is true. A video of a person being raped is fact. Outing a gay person is reporting fact. Sharing a non-consensual sex tape is fact. But it’s still incredibly damaging.

There is a way out of this dilemma. First we note that not all anarchies are the same. Social norms against violence can make them relatively safe and productive environments. In the American old west, the nearest law enforcement official was often far away and most people were armed. But violence was relatively rare. In the absence of formal law, a network of informal agreements and cultural norms made it unprofitable to be a violent thug.

In the analogy of the Wild West, Gawker media is like a drunk gunman opening fire indiscriminately in a saloon. They’ve hurt a lot of people - some powerful, some not, and seldom for a good reason. For the good of everyone, and to set an example, they needed to suffer some consequences.

Fortunately, the formal law recognized a right to privacy which allowed Hulk Hogan to successfully sue Gawker media. The reputation economy isn’t quite the Wild West. This isn’t enforced much of the time, but high profile verdicts like the Gawker case might encourage some to play nice.

In the absence of formal law, group norms that limit aggression would make society a better place. Reputation assassination is a kind of power and power competitions without rules are a recipe for scorched-earth conflict.

Not all reputational attack is bad. Sometimes it is justified. But it shouldn’t be without cost - that's a recipe for an internet overrun by sadistic trolls who get their lulz out of attacking people. If there were some risk of a cultural backlash against people who are too enthusiastic about attacking others, we would all be more safe.

The principle I suggest for determining whether or not an attack is justified is probably something like a right to privacy. Privacy is a fundamental plank of liberty, as enshrined in the fourth amendment to the US Constitution.

The legal philosophy demonstrated embedded in the Fourth Amendment is incredibly pro-liberty. It protects a sphere of private action from government surveillance. This renders overly intrusive laws as unenforceable. The state can ban, mandate, and regulate whatever activity they like. But if that activity doesn’t impact the public sphere in some way, there is no way for the state to know it is happening.

Privacy allows the evolution of civil society outside the watchful eye of the state. Every activity which was ever decriminalized happened because a culture of its practice grew in private. Without privacy, the state could reach 100% enforcement and bans against alcohol, marijuana, or sodomy likely wouldn't have been overturned.

Most libertarians support the Fourth Amendment. But the Fourth Amendment only protects us from the government. A good society also demands privacy protection from the multitudinous warlords of social media.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A declaration concerning my relationship to human society

I claim the right to be here. I claim the right to participate fully.

I claim these rights by my common humanity. I claim them by the blood of my ancestors, which flowed to America through Europe, and before that through Africa, the birthplace of humanity, and which ultimately originated in the oceans, the womb of the Earth.

It is my duty to be fully me for the good of all beings. It is my duty to dare, to hold nothing back, and to accept the pain of my personal evolution.

From time to time, other people will object to my activity on the basis that it hurts them. I am sorry for their suffering. I am sorry for a world where growth is neither isolated nor painless, and where only collective evolution is possible. I pledge that I will spread more growth and less hurt as my consciousness rises and I become aware of more opportunities to do so.

But despite the costs, I cannot pull back or pretend to be less than I am. For it is my mission to be the blessing to the world that I was born to be. In my fullness and yours, I promise you, we will all rejoice.


Friday, March 4, 2016

A Waldening Retrospective

In January I went waldening for two months - my girlfriend and I packed up our bags and moved out of San Francisco and into a small house in the woods of Gasquet, CA. You can read my original post here and read about my theory behind waldening here.

Our primary goal was to gain some outside perspective on our San Francisco lives. We accomplished this, but it wasn’t easy. At first I looked forward to our time away as an opportunity to be more productive while I was free of social obligations. We read Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” and began to put into practice its suggestions for getting more serious productivity out of ourselves.

But this didn’t work. Cal Newport’s advice is great for someone that knows what they want to accomplish and needs to focus all their effort on it. I am struggling with a very different problem - figuring out what it is that I should be spending my life on. Trying to focus deeply on my writing or anything else didn’t work because I’m not convinced that that is the thing for me to do.

After about a month I shook the mindset of the cult of productivity. I changed my focus to getting to know myself and to pursuing the unique opportunities that Gasquet offered instead. Both my girlfriend and I were surprised by how much there is to do in a small town in the woods. Gasquet wasn’t just not San Francisco - it has its own personality.

It was these local activities that I found the most fulfilling. We started making woodcraft and my girlfriend opened up an etsy store to sell them. We collected thousands of wild mushrooms - yellowfoot Chanterelles and hedgehogs popped up like weeds in the woods behind our house. I invented a new workout routine on the nearby beach that I call “Beachfit” which involves lifting a lot of driftwood logs and stones. And we took advantage of having some space to ourselves to throw art parties for the two of us.

When we got outside the house we encountered a different culture from what we are used to in the city. Everybody knew everybody else, and everybody takes the time to chat. We met a few guys at the local woodcarving shop and would stop in for a conversation each time we walked by. They filled us in with valuable information about the area and helped us out when we needed someone to watch our cat. We even learned a bit of woodworking from one of them. The friendliness reminded me a little bit of Burning Man.

Some of the people we met seemed cheerful with very simple careers, such as our grocery store cashier who had worked the same job for 20 years. Perhaps she was cheerful in part because a person could earn a decent living in that area on a cashier’s wage. And for us, used to rating our self-worth by the ambition of our careers, it was nice to meet people we liked living by another set of values. I think it will help us relax a bit.

I chose to undertake a big personal odyssey at the start of our time in Gasquet by breaking my addiction to caffeine. It’s an incredibly common drug addiction in my SF social circle, but there were two reasons that I wanted to drop it. First, I wasn’t sure if I could - I had been a daily coffee drinker for more than half my life. I picked up the habit 16 years ago in high school.

Second, I didn’t like how I used coffee to manage social perceptions of myself. It made me bright, energetic, interesting and interested but I thought I was none of those things without it. I constantly worried over my caffeine level - if it was too low and the time was too late in the day to drink more coffee, I might skip a social event altogether. My reasoning is that I would rather make no impression than a bad impression.

I want to confront my need to manage others’ perception of me and ultimately live a less strategic life. To do this I need to clear out all the padding and barriers I put between the world and my true self. Caffeine was one of these. It had to go.

I decided to kick the habit cold turkey. My imagination didn’t comprehend how miserable the withdrawal symptoms could be. For 25 days I sat in a stew of lethargy and headache. Little interested me. I reread Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series but my eyes had a hard time focusing on the words. Often I glazed over paragraphs without understanding them and would have to go back to read them again.

The silliness and energy that I'm known for was gone. After several weeks of caffeine withdrawals, I was scared that they might not come back. The internet will tell you that caffeine withdrawals are supposed to last for only a handful of days, maybe a week at most. My brain had grown around this foreign chemical for 16 years, maybe I would never be normal without it? Many times I doubted myself and seriously considered cheating by having a caffeinated tea.

The first sign that the withdrawals would end and that I would be normal again happened after about 25 days when there was music playing and I felt like dancing. Some peppy energy was moving through my body, and I felt happy. It was the first time that I felt any joy in a month. After that I was able to be interested, excited, and happy without the need of caffeine.

Whatever else happened in Gasquet, I can count on kicking the caffeine habit as a success. The house in the woods was my own little rehab center. I would have never been able to let myself suffer that deeply and that long in San Francisco where I have a life to maintain.

So in addition to a new mindset, I return to San Francisco with a new brain on a biochemical level.

Coming back to the city I felt a mild dread. I miss having space - even unpacking my bathroom items into ample cabinet space in Gasquet felt like luxury. In San Francisco folding my life into a tiny space is a daily source of mild stress.

But I’m also excited about the possibilities that are available now that I’m back. Many of my master plans for how I will eventually make money doing the kinds of things I like can only be supported by a liberal city culture. The woods was a place to get to know myself, the city is a place to connect with other people. If I learned one thing while waldening, it's to enjoy the place where I find myself instead of wishing for the possibilities I would have if I were somewhere else.