Other Miscellany

LINKS May 21


Daniel Kalder on what he’s learned upon reading several books written by dictators.

Fidel Castro was a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway. He met the hard living, Nobel Prize winning author twice, and kept a signed photo of “Papa” on his desk. Unlike Hemingway, however, Castro was not known for his brevity and could ramble on for hours. Famously, his 1960 speech at the United Nations clocked in at 4 hours and 29 minutes, and he subjected his domestic audience to even longer performances. So what was it that drew this incorrigible bore to the master of the terse sentence? In his autobiography, the Cuban dictator revealed all. He enjoyed Hemingway’s monologues, “when his characters talk to themselves.”


Uri Harris on Nietzsche’s critique of objectivity as an impediment to individualism:

Nietzsche argued that Western society since the Greek philosopher Socrates has been obsessed with objectivity, which reached its pinnacle in the image of the all-seeing, all-knowing Christian God. (The physical embodiment of objectivity—the perspective from everywhere.) And so, as Christianity fades, so must our belief in objectivity. And while it might be painful, this is ultimately a good thing, because belief in objectivity limits human creativity and individualism. To accept an objective worldview—whether religious, moral, or scientific—is to surrender one’s own perspective; it’s an act of self-abnegation. In fact, part of the reason for Christianity’s success lies in it making self-abnegation a virtue. Eventually, individuals will emerge who are unapologetically self-driven and unobjective.

While Nietzsche echoes the Marxian critique of liberalism’s attempt to separate the intellectual and social spheres, his criticism runs much deeper than that. Marx extended the tradition of trying to achieve objectivity by removing distorting interests. Eliminating economic interests would eliminate unobjective beliefs (ideology), which in turn would lead to freedom. But for Nietzsche, this is wrong. It’s not a lack of objectivity that suppresses individual freedom, it’s objectivity itself. This follows from what it means for a belief to be objective—independent of the observer. But the more people’s thoughts and behaviour are determined by things outside themselves, the less freedom they have as individuals.

But this raises a difficult question. If liberals regard objectivity as a core value that they pursue in order to improve society, wouldn’t that eventually lead to a society where there is no freedom? For example, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed a moral system, Utilitarianism, where moral behaviour can be quantified in terms of pain and pleasure. While Bentham was no advocate for totalitarianism, it does raise a tough question: if suffering can be minimised and happiness maximised through a top-down system, shouldn’t it be enforced? The same applies to a lesser degree to various contemporary social justice measures, which liberals have consistently had to wrestle with. But it’s also simply a consequence of the ongoing effects of liberalism, which have been accumulating for centuries. The European Union is a good example. Its formation was built around rational decisions to improve economic activity and minimise the potential for armed conflict. Yet, the result is a more universalised system where decisions are made centrally, and local identity and decision-making have been reduced. Not only does this minimise the decision-making influence of the individual, but it also reduces local identity. This is a far less direct consequence than, say, implementing Utilitarianism, but arguably the end result is the same: a gradual implementation of objective measures ultimately leaves no room for particularism of any kind, neither individual nor local.


Walter Kirn on QAnon:

While introducing his cast of fiends, Q also assembled a basic story line. Justice was finally coming for the Cabal, whose evil deeds were “mind blowing,” Q wrote, and could never be “fully exposed” lest they touch off riots and revolts. But just in case this promised “Great Awakening” caused panic in the streets, the National Guard and the Marine Corps were ready to step in. So were panels of military judges, in whose courts the treasonous cabalists would be tried and convicted, then sent to Guantánamo. In the manner of doomsayers since time began, Q hinted that Judgment Day was imminent and seemed unabashed when it kept on not arriving. Q knew full well that making one’s followers wait for a definitive, cathartic outcome is a cult leader’s best trick—for the same reason that it’s a novelist’s best trick. Suspense is an irritation that’s also a pleasure, so there’s a sensual payoff from these delays. And the more time a devotee invests in pursuing closure and satisfaction, the deeper her need to trust the person in charge. It’s why Trump may be in no hurry to build his wall, or to finish it if he starts. It’s why he announced a military parade that won’t take place until next fall.

As the posts piled up and Q’s plot thickened, his writing style changed. It went from discursive to interrogative, from concise and direct to gnomic and suggestive. This was the breakthrough, the hook, the innovation, and what convinced me Q was a master, not just a prankster or a kook. He’d discovered a principle of online storytelling that had eluded me all those years ago but now seemed obvious: The audience for internet narratives doesn’t want to read, it wants to write. It doesn’t want answers provided, it wants to search for them. It doesn’t want to sit and be amused, it wants to be sent on a mission. It wants to do.


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