Sunday, July 29, 2018

Psychedelic Christianity: a Review of “His Life is Mine”

I don’t want to reduce this book to only my musings on the similarity between Christian mystical experience and psychedelic experience. However, that is the piece that is most fascinating to me, and that I most want to get out before I go wandering in the wilderness for 7 days. Perhaps I will write a more thorough review later.

Archimandrite Sophrony is a Christian mystic. Through contemplative practice in the Orthodox Christian tradition, he seeks direct experience and knowledge of God. This book is partly the Orthodox mystic doctrine, and part diary. It’s a very personal account, detailing vast emotional swings of agony and ecstasy as Sophrony draws ever closer to the spirit of the living God.

I was hesitant to read the book, worrying that the account of a man of faith would not speak to such a heterodox person as myself and that I would be overwhelmed with boredom or skepticism. When people ask me about my religion, I admit to being strongly influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, and psychedelics. And of course I spent some years as an atheist scientific materialist which is a viewpoint I sometimes still find useful. But Sophrony himself was a worldly, cosmopolitan person before becoming a man of faith. As a young man in Russia, he became fascinated with Eastern religions and meditation. He fled his native Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and took up residence in Paris, where he became a painter. It was only after a time that he returned to the religious tradition of his youth and became a Christian monk of the monastery on the holy Mount Athos.

Perhaps there is something about Sophrony’s own cosmopolitan spirit that speaks to me, a kind of spiritual kinship between those who must wander. The book was gifted me by an abbot in the high desert of New Mexico on my own wanderings. He himself had lived a colorful life, living as a Hari Krisna and a hippie in San Francisco before adopting the black robes of the Orthodox monk. I think he sensed an echo of similarity between our thpree souls. And indeed, knowing the curious spirit of both Sophrony and that abbot allowed me to trust them more and to more deeply enter dialog with them. I don’t trust a man who hasn’t done a certain amount of exploration.

Sophrony’s account of Christianity is the most attractive that I have seen. There are religions that are more about questions and religions that are more about answers. The questioning, questing religions are the better ones. Sophrony is on a quest to know God through imitation of Christ. He is led by his bold, open heart and a humbleness of spirit

There are many surprising and touching passages that I would like to share with you. But I don’t have time to do so before I am shipped out on my adventure. So I will try to share a particular insight that is more unique to myself.

There is a resonance between Sophrony’s description of Trinitarian doctrine and the psychedelic experience. I am interested in the bridges between two of my three favorite religions: Christianity and psychedelics. Although I am interested in both, there is mutual enmity between the two traditions.

A common psychedelic theme is the oneness of existence. This can be impersonal oneness with a Hindu flavor, or it can be pantheistic in which the participant stays aware of some personal identity while experiencing divine nature. Psychedelics tear down the boundaries between objects in our subjective world. But there can be a tension. There can be a part of the mind that holds onto distinction, to the duality between self and other. Sometimes this can cause distress, as the person fears losing track of his identity in the propulsion towards oneness. The dualist and monist view of reality go to war.

Sophrony’s description of the Trinity perhaps offer a way to reconcile the unreconcialable. Referring to the biblical assertion that “God is love”, Sophrony writes:

“If God, the First and the Last, were [one person], then He would not be love”.

Yet he also writes

“To love is to live for and in the beloved whose life becomes our life. Love leads to singleness of being”

Thus, in the mystery and paradox of the triune Godhead, we see the true nature of love demonstrated, requiring both duality and oneness. It is as if both perspectives must be seen and held simultaneously in order to see reality’s true nature. And this true nature, the proper understanding of one’s relationship to existence, is love. Love unites self and other, subjective and objective, without annihilating either.

It is this mysterious, paradoxical nature that we are invited to participate in through the communion of the faithful. Sophrony says that according to ancient Orthodox tradition, man is one-in-many, just as the trinity is one-in-three. This brings to mind the words of Jesus in John chapter 17:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

I hope that some brave Christian psychonaut explores this connection further.

Besides these things, there are many surprising, touching, and heart-rending passages in Sophrony’s book. It is not a popular book, but it is a powerful one. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity but jaded by the shallow conversation they hear in the mainstream churches. Sophrony’s Christianity is Christianity with some meat on it. It is challenging and deep, engaging the whole heart and mind, an infinite experience in pursuit of knowledge of fundamental reality.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Getting over relationship FOMO

When I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted in relationship. To be honest, I was driven by FOMO. There was this fantasy world in my mind full of perfect sex, perfect relationships, and perfect women. It was impossible to commit to the merely good when the perfect might pop up at any moment. My fear of missing out became manifest in dabbling with open relationships.

But I discovered that FOMO was the cause of missing out on some of the very best features of relationship: intimacy, closeness, and stability. You only get to have those qualities if you can go all-in on loving someone, without keeping one eye on the lookout for better opportunities

At 35 years of age, I know what I want in relationship. I know that I want emotional intimacy and a partner in life. I want to play long-term games with long-term people. And I know I want to be a father. My father is one of the people I love most in the world, despite his flaws. I want to live up to his example and surpass it where I can.

I practice by being a cat-father and an uncle. I like to think I’m pretty good at it. It feels good to live into my loving and nurturing side.

I’m ready to say “enough!” to that infinite adolescence that is the signature lifestyle of urban post-modern capitalism, to exit from the FOMO-contest, and to build something that lasts. I'm ready to let other people travel more than me, have more sex than me, go to better parties than me, make more money than me, be more successful than me, and have better Instagram photos than me. Because those sacrifices leave space for the life that I *really* want.

When my relationship ended last year, it was terribly painful. But its dissolution was the mirror by which I was able to see myself, to learn what was most valuable, and to see the mistakes I was making that got in the way. There is no pain quite like the pain of becoming aware of your own flaws, and the certain knowledge that you are what held you back from getting what you most want. It is an absolute horror, a consuming flame. The self-knowledge feels like a treasure whose great value is in proportion to that terrible pain.

That hardest of experiences changed me for the better. I like myself more. I find myself more emotionally awake, both to the joy and the pain of existence. I cry easily. Having suffered, I care about the suffering of others. Suffering can function as a call to empathy. It was a kick in the pants to finally get involved in the volunteer work I had always wanted to do, providing emotional support to people in their darkest hours.

I am hoping to continue to grow, and I'm hoping to find ways to grow that aren't quite so traumatic. I am not the person I was a year ago. The world looks different to me. I'm seeing it through a lens made of different concepts and experiences. I'm grateful for it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Death of Interchange: A conservative critique of Radical Gurus

Author's note

I wrote previously about the unaccredited year-long peer counseling program that I took part in called Interchange Counseling. The program was a major piece of the journey that I’m on to increase my social comfort, boldness, and emotional literacy. I greatly benefited from learning the basics of counseling and getting 40 hours of practice as a counselor.

But as so often happens with personal growth organizations, the outer shell of happy testimonials concealed rot in the core. At the time, I criticized the radical politics of Interchange. Influenced by those politics, Interchange developed an unsustainable ideology and community of sexual liberation. Only a few months before the end I told friends interested in the program “It’s great, but you should do it now before it blows up in a sex scandal”. That’s exactly what happened.

The following analysis I wrote and published to the Interchange Grads Facebook group after the founder Steve Bearman publicly admitted to sexual impropriety, but before the damning article detailing specific allegations had come out. The tone is calibrated to the information I had at the time.

I was worried that I would be attacked for publishing this conservative critique in a community that was radically progressive. In my letter, I criticize not only Interchange but the foundational belief of anti-oppression ideology itself. To my surprise, the response was largely positive except for a little PC griping about my choice of phrases, which speaks well of the moral and intellectual sophistication of the community.

This analysis serves as a demonstration of why progressive organizations should care about ideological diversity. Nobody else in my 150 person cohort was likely capable of writing or thinking from the conservative or “pro-civilization” perspective that I present.

What follows is my original letter to the Interchange community, very lightly edited.


0. Introduction

If you haven’t heard, the Interchange Counseling Institute has imploded in a slow motion version of the classic guru-sex scandal. Operations have ceased and the incoming class of 2017/2018 has been cancelled. This a common way that guru-dominated organizations come to an end. I suggest anyone involved in building an organization for personal development familiarize themselves with some of the historical examples.

For most students at Interchange, including myself, the Interchange experience was an intensely positive one. But flaws in the edifice were obvious. Many of us saw the end coming, though I was surprised by how quickly it came.

While there is plenty of individual blame to be placed, particularly on Steve the guru/founder, I claim that Interchange was *institutionally* flawed by design. It was not built to last. There are specific flaws in its moral outlook, its curriculum, and its organizational structure that made it particularly likely to end in a mess of sexual impropriety and emotional pain. I present three criticisms:

  1. By overthrowing social rules, revolutionary/progressive movements can devolve into monkey status competitions that benefit the powerful and harm the vulnerable
  2. Deconstruction is a dangerous technique prone to abuse, and wisdom must be used when teaching it
  3. The male guru-led organization is dangerous for reasons of evolutionary psychology

As a brief aside, the criticisms I present come from an evolutionary/conservative point of view, nearly the opposite viewpoint of Interchange and its founder. I believe a diversity of viewpoints in a group is vital for purposes of self-criticism, course correction, and group longevity. This point is widely under-appreciated and seldom acted upon.

1. By overthrowing social rules, revolutionary/progressive movements can devolve into monkey status competitions that benefit the powerful and harm the vulnerable

The Interchange organization wasn’t just offering a counseling training program. It also sought to build a community of radical praxis, liberated from the rules of society. This included social rules about sex.

A person with a revolutionary mind judges existing social rules to be oppressive. You might expect me to disagree with them, as I sometimes claim the “conservative” label for myself. But I actually think their criticisms are correct.

Social rules *are* oppressive. All social structures are an evolved, negotiated compromise developed over time between sets of conflicting interests. They prevent some people from getting what they want or getting what is best for them. In exchange, these limits on individual behavior hopefully enable a society to achieve some larger social good.

Wisdom lies in finding good trade-offs between individual oppression and social good. Existing social structures should be challenged. We are free, each generation, to renegotiate them to better serve us.

Though it is tempting for revolutionaries to move as close as possible to total sexual freedom, throwing out all the sexual rules is a foolish move to make. Without rules, human society devolves into monkey-status games where social power reigns.

This total freedom benefits the powerful, who still pursue their self-interest, but now without the the rules that might serve as a check on their behavior. The powerless often suffer under existing social rules, but they suffer more without the rules’ protection. In the new order, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Modern revolutionists are aware of abstract power differences between groups in society, but they are seldom hip to the concrete reality of individual power differences within their community.

Rules prevent abuse by the powerful. They are necessary for the long-term thriving of the community, especially rules governing sexual conduct. I’m not saying that a group needs to follow society's rules, though I encourage you to consider that they may contain more wisdom than you expect. Rather each group should develop their own. The rules can and should be renegotiated, but slowly and conservatively, and never on a case-by-case basis or in the heat of the moment.

The few rules that Interchange had about sex were wise, such as a ban on first-year students having sex with other students. But the rules weren’t taken very seriously. And ultimately it was the behavior of the leadership, not the students, which needed to be more carefully regulated.

2. Deconstruction is a dangerous technique prone to abuse, and wisdom must be used when teaching it

Interchange teaches deconstruction as a therapeutic technique. Some teaching is dangerous because it is wrong, but deconstruction is dangerous because it is true. Our social rules and concepts *are* arbitrary. And they could be different. But while deconstruction frees us from our limiting beliefs, it also frees us from our limiting morality, and that can be a problem.

Deconstruction is prone to abuse and manipulation. It brings our focus onto the present moment, where future consequences of our actions are discounted. After all, the future is an abstract idea that doesn’t really exist. This is a great formula for talking people into sex that they will later regret.

It’s also dangerous for people in existing relationships. The guru teaches you how to “end jealousy permanently”, then convinces you that relationships don’t really exist, and then he sleeps with your wife. Maybe in the midst of the spell of deconstruction everybody is on board and nobody feels guilty. But in the aftermath, hurt feelings and resentments grow, and resentment is the poison that will destroy a community.

Deconstruction is not just a potent tool for manipulating others. It can be a dangerous tool for manipulating ourselves. Once internalized, deconstruction can be used to excuse any bad behavior and keep a clear conscience. What’s “bad behavior” mean, anyway? If there existed a guidebook for training oneself into becoming a sociopath, deconstruction would be a prominent technique within it.

Deconstruction requires wisdom to wield properly, a wisdom that Steve lacked and so could not teach.

I’m currently reading a lot by David Chapman, Robert Kegan, and Jordan Peterson, all of whom talk about the danger and promise inherent in deconstruction, either from a Buddhist or postmodern perspective. Chapman, summarizing Kegan, is a particularly important read.

Kegan sees deconstruction as acid dissolving and undermining the social rules of modernity. If used poorly, we sink back into monkey status games. If used wisely, we use our newfound freedom to mold the rules to better suit us. Building good societies in the presence of the knowledge of deconstruction is an unsolved problem [1]. According to Kegan, it’s the most important challenge of our times.

My best guess at a rule for using deconstruction wisely is "keep an eye on the long game". You can live perfectly well with either the belief that relationships do or don't "really" exist. But where do those beliefs lead you in 5, 10, or 20 years?

In some Buddhist monasteries they also teach dangerous-but-useful mental techniques, some of which are very similar to deconstruction. But these techniques are taught to students who follow a strict moral code in order to minimize the danger of teaching them. The students also have a close relationship with a mentor, who might decide that they are not ready for a particular set of practices.

3. The male guru-led organization is dangerous for reasons of evolutionary psychology

I leave this part for last because I am least confident in it. I haven’t read much on evolutionary psychology, and I’m working on concepts I’ve picked up second-hand from bloggers and friends.

Guru-led organizations are especially dangerous when they’re headed by men. As men get turned on by youth, clear skin and feminine body proportions, women are more attracted to men at the top of a status hierarchy. A man at the center of attention will find that he has far more sex appeal than he is used to. This is similar to what happens to successful rock stars.

But a guru is not a rock star, in that the guru has a responsibility to the spiritual growth of his students and his community. A guru that uses his position to maximize his sexual conquests is demonstrating short-sighted, adolescent behavior and he will likely fail to fulfill the trust placed in him by his students. Within a small amount of time, sleeping with students and sleeping with women in committed relationships causes the growth of resentment that blows up the community.

There is a second, darker power that the guru gains on top of the status hierarchy. Women he comes on to may feel pressured to say yes to his advances for fear of causing conflict or risking their status within the community. The power differential between guru and student has a coercive flavor, and it increases the odds that the student will acquiesce to sex that she will later regret.

Sexual dynamics between leaders and followers are especially dangerous in spiritual/personal growth organizations where the guru will have access to students in an emotionally vulnerable state, sometimes literally out of their minds. The founders of the Christian church recognized this risk 2,000 years ago, which is why they instituted conservative sexual norms for leaders. In the Bible we find the Apostle Paul exhorting early Christian church leaders to be sober, monogamous married men. This safeguard hasn't always worked, but it shows that organizations have struggled with this problem for a long time.

Sexual liberation + male leadership is a dangerous mix everywhere, and not just in spirituality. It’s the formula at the root of the tech VC sexual harassment scandals that hit the news lately. Being a successful leader requires sacrifice of some sexual freedom for the good of the group.

Despite the widely publicized scandals, male gurus can and do run successful organizations. Tony Robbins [2], for example, leads a community orders of magnitude bigger than Interchange. He also happens to be in a monogamous marriage. He’s had an affair and a divorce or two, but he never used his organization as a vehicle for his sexual fulfillment, and so he never generated the size of scandal that could threaten what he built.

In addition to the dangers of male gurus and sex, the guru-led model is fragile because the health and reputation of the group depends on the personal morality of one imperfect individual. For any institution to outlive its founder, new leaders must be trained up and power must be shared with them. Sharing the limelight requires some humility and far-sightedness on the guru's part. Interchange did some of this, but it was still probably too guru-dominated to survive Steve's departure.

4. Conclusion 

I’ve said a lot of good things about Interchange over the years. I still mean them. Interchange permanently increased my EQ and lowered my anxiety around other people. And it made me a better counselor. These are powerful, life-altering results. I owe personal gratitude to everyone who built Interchange, especially Steve.

But I’ve also encouraged lots of people to join. I regret that I didn’t more loudly voice my discomfort with the program along with my praise of it. While I was confident in my own abilities to weather the shitty parts of Interchange, I should have recognized that as a man I was in much less danger than a woman would be.

I want to live in a world where people more deeply encounter each other, where we live with an awareness of our shared humanity, and where we let go of unnecessary fear. I want there to exist training programs where people can boost their social skills through practice. I want there to be safe spaces to learn how to navigate edgy, intense, and potentially dangerous emotions. Interchange was a unique example of this.

I hope the good parts of Interchange can be separated from the short-sightedness and immaturity that Steve brought to the program. The fact that rest of the leadership team was empowered and confident enough to speak up and put a stop to the program speaks well of them and of the training they received. I believe that Steve genuinely cared about empowering people and he was successful in doing so. In some other organizations suffering from sexual impropriety, the violations continued for decades.

As Steve was the student of earlier programs of study, I hope the students of Interchange bring the next evolution of human emotional development into the world.

[1] Kegan has a numbered system of 5 stages of identity formation where each is an improvement on the last. These can be applied to individuals or societies. In part, they go:

(3) unstructured -> (4) structured -> (5) flexibly structured

Deconstruction helps us get from (4) to (5). But if we haven't fully mastered stage 4, deconstruction can cause us to fall back to stage 3. It can be really hard to tell the difference between (3) and (5).

[2] Tony Robbins was apparently a bad example to use, as I am informed there are rumors that he has gotten into polyamory. My read is that the sexual abundance facing a successful guru is a powerful temptation. I'm still against polyamory or open relationships for men in positions of power, as it leaves open the possibility of sex with every women he interacts with. For a man who is openly monogamous, it is clear from the outset of an interaction with a new woman that sex is by default forbidden, so it probably does something to limit the temptation of unwise sexual interactions.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Pro-Civilization and the New Right

I. Introduction

Political blogging is a dead genre. Its corpse is kept animated by ancient thirty-somethings left behind by a snapchat world. It’s fine whisky in an age of vodka and gatorade. 

Yet I have the stubborn impulse to keep alive this tradition of my people. I can’t help myself. Left idle, my hands start typing up new political ideologies. it’s a gen X thing.

The purpose of this post is to identify and define a new ideology: Pro-Civilization.  “Pro-Civilization” is an adjective I’ve been hearing lately in right-wing tech circles, and I find it evocative. Let’s uncork a bottle of #ProCiv, swirl it around the tongue, and see what impression it leaves. For me, it is one of the most intriguing vintages to come out of the modern Right. So I want to define it, examine it, and signal-boost it. 

By no means do I want to be on the hook for defending the whole of the political Right. Lord knows it has its share of bathtub swill. The question “why bother with the Right at all?” is a fair one. If you’re reading this, then you probably live in a place where the Right is not exactly the winning team. You aren’t going to win yourself any friends or social status by sticking around. Your local dominance hierarchy is best climbed by clicking the “x” button at the top of this browser tab. 

But if you’re the type of curious individual that just can’t help but poke around in dusty, overlooked corners seeking nuggets of insight, then stick around. 

Image result for whisky glass

II. What is it

Let’s start with a thousand foot overview. 

If the #ProCiv faction had a mission statement, it would be something like “create a great civilization that endures for a very long time”. It’s not defined by a set of policies or cultural practices, but rather it’s defined by a way of judging them. Each new innovation is asked the question: “does this increase the chances of our long-term thriving and survival?”. 

Pro-Civilization is characterized by a low time preference. It supports systematic and long-term thinking. It is downright bloodless compared to activist strands of Left and Right. It is also pragmatic; policy discussions are outcome-focused rather than morality-focused. 

I find political debate within ProCiv groups to be refreshing. Is immigration good or bad? Gun control? Abortion? Within a ProCiv group, one side of these questions may be more popular than another, but there is no moral stigma associated with arguing the less popular side. Debate proceeds by arguing that one policy is better suited than another for building and maintaining a good society over a long time horizon. Historical analogies are commonly employed as supporting evidence, and someone who is well-versed in a large range of historical periods and data sets gains social status. To be ProCiv leads to having interesting and brainy conversations ranging over the Byzantine Empire, Malthusian population models, superorganisms, science fiction, and evolutionary psychology.

This style of debate is in sharp contrast to that mainstream left and right-wing groups that have “Politically Correct” answers to every question - if you’re on the Left, then immigration is good, guns are bad, and abortion is good. If you’re on the Right, then your opinions are flipped. From what I have seen, there isn’t much debate. Moral feelings are the primary way that policy positions are solidified. To have the correct opinion is morally good, to argue for the unpopular opinion is to be morally suspect. Homogeneity is maintained through threat of punishment or ostracism. The rare appeals to evidence are one-sided - partisans seem unaware of evidence that would be offered to support the opposing point of view. 

The Pro-Civilization view fits in comfortably within Arnold Kling’s “Three Languages of Politics” model (there’s now a book). He argues that libertarians, the liberal/left, and the conservative/right often cannot understand each other in debates because they are using three different moral languages. For libertarians, the primary moral concern is about freedom vs. coercion. For the Left, it’s oppressors vs. the oppressed. And for the Right, it’s Civilization vs. Barbarism. ProCiv is an unapologetic and enthusiastic embrace of civilization as the primary moral concern of political systems. 

III. Details

Now that we have introduced this rare whisky, it’s time to get closer to examine its flavor and scent. Does it taste sweet on the tip of the tongue? Does it leave a hint of charcoal in the back? Is there an aroma of honey, gasoline, or some mix of both? 

(For the Jacob superfans out there, yes, this is the second time that I’ve used the whisky metaphor to describe a freshly minted political ideology. But it’s been nine years since the last time, so I’m giving myself permission to double-dip.) 

I should note that much of what follows comes from my own head. Some of it comes from conversations I have been part of or overheard. But what I’m describing is a tiny cultural trend. There is no ProCiv Institute with an official 20 point platform. I’ve had to use my own powers of extrapolation to fill in the gaps. 

The sets of policies and cultural attitudes favored by #ProCiv don’t fit neatly on the Left/Right American political spectrum. For example, it favors both large amounts of economic libertarianism (an American right-wing position) and environmentalism (an American left-wing position). Libertarian economics are needed because the wealth and power of a society largely come from productive market activities. In the long run a nation is either pro-market or prey for those who are. Environmentalism is needed both because destruction of the natural world threatens human civilization, and also because the natural world is part of humanity’s artistic and spiritual heritage. ProCiv is not interested in merely preserving human life for the long run, but also some amount of cultural continuity. 

Pro-Civilization has a complex attitude towards risk. It supports taking more finite short-term risks and putting more resources towards reducing long-term, unbounded risks. It’s a big proponent of projects that reduce existential risks to humanity, such as Elon Musk’s attempts to plant human civilization on Mars. A multiplanetary society is much more likely to survive than a single planet one. You can’t build a long-lasting civilization if you get sent back to the stone age or worse by getting unlucky on some existential risk. 

As for short-term risks, ProCiv takes a bolder approach than mainstream political movements. In democracies, lawmakers are incentivized to favor policies with short-run payouts and long-run costs, especially if they represent competitive districts. Voters are impatient for benefits and long-run costs seem fictional. Pro-Civilization has exactly the opposite bias. It prefers to pay costs in the present in order to reap future benefits. 

For example, ProCiv probably favors a daring approach to institutional reform. Institutions like governments, universities, and the health care system represent society’s collective intelligence. When they are operating well, society is effective, productive, and nimble in addressing crises. When they are operating poorly, they can suck up infinite money while producing less and less benefit, a process sometimes referred to as “institutional sclerosis”. There is good evidence that American institutions are quite sclerotic. Infrastructure is slow to build and expensive compared to the past. Education and medicine are skyrocketing in price while most of that extra money goes to hiring administrators and regulatory compliance. A ProCiv point of view advocates for paying the cost to make bold reforms now in exchange for upgrading our collective intelligence to manage the challenges of the coming decades. 

Culturally, Pro-Civilization favors getting married and having children, for two reasons. First, having children lowers an adult’s time preference and ties his plans to the world that continues after his death. Second, the well-raised children of the present, and especially the children of the current elite, are going to be the people responsible for navigating the ship of humanity along a precipice of destruction as our technology gets more and more powerful in the coming decades. The crises of the future will be decided by the well-prepared, competent humans we create now. 

Pro-Civilization is skeptical of romantic innovations that are justified by appeals to the pleasure and utility of the current generation of adults at the cost of family stability and child-rearing. It’s critical of the hedonistic infinite-adolescence of adult culture in many modern urban environments. It seconds Jordan Peterson in believing that the meaning in life comes not from the pleasures one enjoys, but from the responsibilities one carries. A 40-year-old should be doing something to contribute to the next generation, not bouncing from music festival to music festival. Doing both may be a fine option, as long as the responsibilities are prioritized first. 

To avoid writing more than my audience will be willing to read on pro-civilization tendencies, beliefs, and positions, I finish this section with a list of things that get the #ProCiv seal of approval:

  • The Hoover Dam
  • Chesterton’s Fence
  • Tokyo
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Meritocracy
  • Switzerland
  • Space elevators
  • Cathedrals
  • Ancient Hindu temples
  • Capitalism
  • Marriage and babies
  • Classical art and music
  • Oxford libraries
  • Dense urban cores
  • City skylines
  • The evolutionary mindset
  • The Long Now Foundation
  • Religion (especially old religions)
  • Philosophy (especially old philosophy)
  • Preparing for Black Swan events
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Transhumanism

Pro-Civilization aesthetics tend to be a mix of the new and the old. Its ideal is high civilization in harmony with nature, as if Chinese economic dynamism were mixed with Western environmental ideals. Perhaps Singapore does it best. The ProCiv vision is that 10,000 years from now, cyborg teenagers will be playing a Bach chamber music recital on a green school lawn on a terraformed planet in a nearby solar system. Or in a simulated uploaded colony ship. Or in whatever form human civilization will take. 

IV. Where it goes wrong

As a creature of the Right, pro-civilization suffers from the problems that right-wing ideologies have. I wrote about the generic Left-Right axis and the pros and cons of each side in this previous post

In short, the great problem of the Left is changing too fast and throwing out lots of traditions and institutions that work in pursuit of some imagined utopia. 

The great problem of the Right is changing too slowly, stagnating and failing to address changing conditions. Chesterton's fences crowd the landscape and you can't really drive anywhere. The Right procrastinates on overthrowing unnecessary oppression and is slow to adopt neutral or positive social changes. Whereas on the Left change is assumed to be good with little thought of the consequences, on the Right change can be rejected even when the expected value is positive. 

On the order-chaos spectrum, the failure of the Left is too much chaos and the failure of the Right is too much order. The Left might institute a terrible dystopia, but its philosophy of permanent revolution includes the seeds of its own undermining. The Right might make a terrible dystopia that really lasts. 

Personally, some of the people I know on the pro-civilization Right seem like real squares. I think they’d be more creative and productive if they allowed a little chaos into their lives. 

V. Relation to other things

I’m calling ProCiv an ideology of the political Right because that’s where it’s coming from currently. But as with all ideas that one favors, I hope it grows in popularity enough to transcend the eternal Left/Right hellmatch and thrive on both sides of the spectrum. It has enough deviance from the rest of the Right that it does not seem impossible for a Left faction to adopt it. In the past, when the foundations of the modern world were being laid, the Pro-Civilization mindset would have been on the progressive/left side of the spectrum.

But I can imagine that if this labeling gets popular enough, it will be attacked. And the most low-effort yet effective attack on anything on the Right is to lump it in with a more despised element of the Right, such as the alt-right. So let me preemptively explain why Pro-Civilization is not alt-right. 

The early usage of the term “alt-right” was used to describe the legions of right-wing internet activists fighting the great memewar of the 2016 American political campaign. In their use of moral panics and hashtag mobs, they were born a distorted mirror image of the activist Left. They had one great advantage over the Left in that they had the ability to meme, because subversive nihilists are a lot more funny and flexible than an established orthodoxy. Later, the term alt-right came to be used in the media to identify exclusively with Richard Spencer’s brand of white nationalism, a semantic shift that fit the interest of both Richard Spencer and left-wing media outlets, effectively killing the alt-right's prospects of gaining traction and membership. Spencer claims to have invented the term, so maybe it was boomeranging back to its inventor. 

For either alt-right incarnation, the Pro-Civilization faction judges them to be unserious, unintelligent, overly ideological, and incapable of building, maintaining, or improving a civilization. The alt-right is capable of fighting meme wars against the Left, but that it is all it is good for. To the extent the the ProCiv faction supported the Trump campaign, it was because it hoped his promises would be filled of pro-market policies, space exploration, infrastructure spending, an anti-Wilsonian foreign policy, and reform of the federal bureaucracy. To the extent that the ProCivs are disappointed with the reality of Trump, it is to the extent that he is turning out to be more of an alt-right President: capable of fighting meme wars against the Left, but not good for much of anything else. 

The interests, temperaments, and intellectual influences of the ProCiv right and the alt-right are largely disjoint. The membership is largely disjoint. The interior conversation in each group is very different. Social status in ProCiv is granted by being well-versed in a variety of subjects and bringing new information and analysis to the group. Social status in the alt-right is granted by pissing off people on the Left. They are simply not the same thing. 

Is Pro-Civilization just a rebranding of Neoreaction? I don’t think so. I use the term “neoreaction” to refer to the intellectual descendents of Mencius Moldbug. Pro-Civilization is a simpler and more abstract idea. Neoreaction has some clear ProCiv tendencies: Moldbug wanted to create a programming language and operating system simple and perfect enough to last for 49 million years. Moldbug, citing Hoppe, argues for monarchy over democracy by claiming that permanent monarchs have incentive to make decisions on longer time horizons than temporary democratic lawmakers. The truth of that position is debatable, but its form is clearly Pro-Civilization. 

I’d say the relationship between neoreaction and ProCiv is that between a subclass and a superclass. For example, a superclass might be something like “things that are blue” and a subclass would be something specific like “blueberries”. So neoreaction is an example of ProCiv, but it is not the only one. There are ways to be #ProCiv without inheriting from Moldbug.

Another common attack aimed at right-wing ideas is “fascist”. Is pro-civilization fascist? Empirically, most of the fascist civilizations that actually existed burned themselves out in a couple of years through mindless militarism and aggression. That’s not very forward thinking. They also persecuted some of their most productive members because of fallacious beliefs in racial superiority. The fascist government of Germany gifted America some of the best scientists in the world because they were Jewish, pushing ahead Western nuclear physics and rocketry. From a pro-civilization standpoint, fascism looks angry, short-sighted, and dumb. Both movements respect the art and achievements of the past. But fascism keeps a narrow-minded, nationalist view, elevating the achievements of their own past above others. Pro-Civilization is more broad-minded, appreciating and learning from the achievements of all past civilizations.

So is pro-civilization fascist? My verdict is “no”. There’s a few surface similarities between the two ideologies. But it doesn’t seem to have more than any other ideology chosen at random. You could probably find more similarities between, say, fascism and democratic socialism, or even fascism and an explicitly opposed ideology like communism.

It's annoying that I feel the need to write this section. It ought to be possible to calmly discuss political ideas without anticipating lazy, mean-spirited attacks. But we are living in lazy, mean-spirited times of extreme political polarization. I blame twitter. 

VI. Conclusion

I’m a political Taoist. I don’t hold any particular political position, but rather a meta-position that goes something like this: conflicting ideologies support different often-conflicting human values. Picking one over the other is a losing move. Rather, the right thing to do is to try to find the happy balance between them, allowing that balance to change in an ineffable dance with the circumstances of existence. 

So I’m not suggesting anybody adopt #ProCiv wholesale. But its variety of bloodless, long-term thinking is definitely of value. For me, it represents the best flavor of the Right. It’s the reason for not completely ignoring the Right half of the spectrum altogether. Let it be in balance with your other political values, and I think it will lead you to a better place. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Wrestling with God

Status: experimental

Jacob became Israel, which means “he who struggles with God”. His descendants became the nation of Israel, who struggle with God down to this very day. According to the stories, Jacob actually, physically, wrestled with God, or an angelic representative thereof. Apparently Jacob had some pretty good technique, as he held his own until sunrise, when the angel declared the match a tie but then touched Jacob’s hip, laming him. It’s as if to say that God allows you to wrestle him, in fact it might be the Right Thing To Do, but he’s still going to exact a price. You can’t just swing on the supreme monarch of the universe without penalty, he’s a cocky sonuvavirgin.

The outcome of Jacob’s wrestling match with God was a lame hip, a new name, Israel, a promise that his descendants would become a great nation, and a badass story to tell at the watering hole. 

I hadn’t thought about the story of that Jacob for a long time, when Jordan Peterson started covering it on his podcast. That’s when an uncanny parallel came to me. I’m a Jiu Jitsu fighter, which is wrestling, but pursued with the meticulous mind of the Japanese, and perfected through the gauntlet of Brazilian male competitiveness. If Jacob were alive today, he might go to my gym.

Jiu Jitsu is how I struggle with God, if you take the mystical/psychedelic leap of identifying God with his creation, and especially his conscious, human creation. In Jiu Jitsu, I come to face the reality of my limitations and my response to them. The emotional high of imposing my will on a sometimes stronger, larger opponent is mirrored exactly by the existential horror of having my face pinned to the floor by a sweaty, hairy chest, while the air is crushed out of my lungs by my opponent’s weight. In this moment my whole body shouts  “no!”, unified from nerve to sinew in the belief that there is something wrong with the universe. But what am I to do about it? Pray? The lord helps those who help themselves. 

The process of improvement in Jiu Jitsu is the same as in any difficult endeavor. It involves trial and failure, and more trial with the knowledge that you will certainly fail. It involves suffering, including a lot of physical suffering, which is somehow not the worst kind. At least physical suffering leaves you with a cool story to tell at the watering hole. It involves self-doubt and criticism, listening for and seeking feedback. It involves periods of obsession, when your conscious mind, anticipating the next roll, gorges on every bit of knowledge it can. It involves periods of rest while your subconscious mind consolidates knowledge into movement patterns and instincts. It involves injuries, as you learn your limits. It involves shame, as you learn the unwritten rules by breaking them, but only once. It involves feeling like an outsider as the higher belts ignore the beginners who mostly wash out in a few months, anyway. 

The process of improvement at Jiu Jitsu hinges on one of the most important virtues: the ability to tolerate suffering. It is great practice for other endeavors that require the ability to tolerate suffering, which happens to be everything worthwhile. The suffering of Jiu Jitsu is more mild than some other kinds, like an inoculation with a weaker virus. From experience, I can say that running a startup or losing a close relationship are far worse. 

Jiu Jitsu is culturally dissonant in the circles I run in, which are more interested in peace and love than the battle of two wills through the medium of limited violence. That’s one of the things I like about it. When I go to Jiu Jitsu class, I say to myself “I’m doing this for me”. It grants me no social status, it wins me no points with the ladies. It is this weird thing I do on my own, off to the side, in isolation. It is where I train my will to struggle with God. If I gave up, nobody would care, except for me and perhaps God. That’s one of the keys to struggling with God, the motivation to do so has to come from within. 

I wonder if I would have more peace had my parents named me differently. As a Jacob, my destiny is to struggle, so I might as well get good at it.

There is another way in which I have long been the one who struggles with God. I struggle with God through struggling to understand reality. I refuse to close my mind to any possibilities, and the result is an internal battle between conflicting ideas. Sometimes I’ll hold a belief for a while, and I’ll battle other people with it. Inevitably, my mind becomes aware of flaws in the beliefs I hold, and I am too honest to unsee them. The flaws worm their way through the edifice of belief, and the whole thing comes crashing down. 

I guess I’m looking for something to believe in. 

When I was a teenager, my belief in God crumbled. Several nights, I got down on my knees and prayed with all my might that he would help me believe in him. God grant me faith, or a miracle, or something unexpected. Sometimes I cried in anguish, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. My parents and friends were disappointed in me when I left their faith. I wonder if they realize how hard I tried. I wonder if they understand how God failed me. 

Lately, the battle of ideas feels less like a struggle. Maybe it’s a Buddhist/Taoist influence, but I feel a lot of openness around these eternal battles. I’m okay with finding truth in several conflicting worldviews. It seems to be the natural state of the world. I find myself perpetually confused and curious, having lost faith that any things can really be “figured out” the way I used to want to. I was a mathematician in college. It took me a lot of experience before I could let go of trying to figure out the optimum social order or morality like a logic puzzle. 

Now I find it easy to believe in God or not believe in God. Perhaps through the use of visionary medicines, perhaps with age, my brain has become excellent at pattern recognition. It can weave meaning out of facts if I let it. That’s what made the loss of a long term relationship so hard. I could see how it fulfilled the narrative pattern of my life in a beautiful way, and its loss was dissonant, jarring, pointless. It’s a change in genre, as if Sin City turned into a family comedy halfway through. 

With an overactive meaning-making capacity, I find the icy spirit of nihilism banished at last. It is not a danger for me. However, the drastic reorganization of meaning is still very painful. My danger is now clinging too tightly to meaning, rather than not having enough. We are all dancers in the water of life, and we should not pretend that its meanings are more or less solid than they are. 

The Taoist symbol of the yin and yang means a lot to me. I find it easy to believe in God or not believe in God, but impossible to do either fully. I’ve become accustomed to this pattern of opposites that cannot escape each other. Do I believe in determinism or free will? Utilitarianism or virtue ethics? Scientific materialism or Christianity or Buddhism? The answer is yes. Fluidity is my natural state. 

Jacob was not just a wrestler. He was also a mystic that went off into the desert by himself and had visions. When he came back from his vision of the ladder to heaven, he found his fixed point, and laid a stone pillar at Bethel. That was what he believed in. I am also a mystic. When I went into the desert and had a vision, I found a fixed point in Chamomile tea. “In the beginning was the taste…”. But that's a Burning Man story that I'll save for another time. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

One Weird Trick to increasing self-worth

A strange thing happened to me. I went through a time of horrible personal crisis that left the life I knew in shambles. Yet at the same time, I came out of it liking myself more than I ever have. 

This strange result came from realizing that I was not in control of the outcome of my crisis. So I focused on what I could control: myself. Was I actively deciding, moment to moment, to be the kind of person that I wanted to be? Was I speaking 100% the truth? Was I boldly leaving no important words unsaid? Was I avoiding the temptations of self-sabotage? Was I taking some time to think of others, and to leave those around me a little better off? 

As I focused on myself, I saw a lot to be proud of. I noticed all the ways I was already the kind of person I wanted to be, and the ways in which I was growing into it. I used to judge myself based on the outcomes of my actions. In the past, if someone responded negatively to my efforts I took that as evidence that I was a less worthy person. Now, how much I like myself is more outcome-independent. This habit of mind which I adopted as a crisis survival mechanism has become a permanent tool for navigating life.

Often, my adult life has not turned out the way that I wanted it to be. That can get me down, but it doesn’t have to lead to self-loathing. I like how I am showing up. I keep on getting better. In many ways my life is not at its peak, but my self-worth is at an all-time high. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Building a Better Anti-Capitalism

In my first political awakening, I became an ardent pro-capitalist libertarian. There were some anti-capitalists to debate around my university and on the internet, but the average quality of their arguments were so poor that engaging with these folks deepened my convictions instead of challenging them.

But over the years I have seen first hand some of the failures of capitalism. Burning Man and its ethos of public contribution was a major turning point in my attitude towards capitalism, illustrating the great good that can be created outside of formal exchange relationships. Now I see that there are plenty of circumstances where free markets fail to create an optimal outcome, either by failing to properly incentivize things that we value, or by failing to disincentivize bad behavior. Market capitalism alone is not a complete recipe for growing a good society.

Today the world still suffers from low quality anti-capitalists. To protest capitalism, they break shop windows, burn cars, block streets, and fight with the police. This makes little sense. Plentiful shops and safe, convenient vehicles are some of the good parts of capitalism. And the streets and police are non-capitalist institutions that may be imperfect, but also provide vital services for society. I bet that neutral observers are turned off.

It's because I take the failings of capitalism seriously that I'd like to offer a better playbook for protesting capitalism. Each of the following opportunities for direct action addresses a failing of capitalism while making the world a better place

  1. Love thy neighbors. Invite them over for dinner and don't charge
  2. Volunteer to pick up trash in your neighborhood for half an hour
  3. Volunteer at a Boys and Girls club or old folks home
  4. Learn how to make something that you would normally buy. Knit a sweater, grow some vegetables
  5. Produce a piece of public art that will delight people, amaze them, or make them think. Put it in your front yard or window
  6. Host an adult sleep-over. Talk, play games, and read stories 
  7. Perform a piece of music in a public space. Go caroling at Christmas time, or if you're not Christian, offer songs for the holy days of your tradition
  8. If it's your thing, become part of a church
  9. Sit at a table in a public place with a sign inviting people to play chess with you or converse with you
  10. Share knowledge. Offer a free class in yoga, art, juggling, or something else you know how to do at your home for your friends and neighbors. For bonus points, make it a regular event

In a market-driven society, life can be cold. It seems like every option to enjoy oneself costs money. Every smile is a customer service. These practices take back a portion of life's activities and relationships from the marketplace. 

In many American cities, there is little public space where a person can simply be without paying money. For a certain sum, you can buy a temporary right to exist in a theatre, restaurant or yoga class, but when your time is up you gotta get going, buddy. For every hour you spend away from home there is an invisible meter following you, running up a tab. In some small towns, I hear people repurpose Walmart as their public square, sitting and chatting with friends in the furniture aisle, or strolling through the store on a late-night date. Walmart is the closest approximation to the missing commons. 

I suggest we protest capitalism by providing what the market doesn't. Create social connections that are based on mutual enjoyment instead of formalized exchange. And create space and time for people to simply exist without a running meter.

Do you have any ideas for how to better protest capitalism? Leave a comment.