“Live with Eric Weinstein AMA about physics and math!”
Hello, You’ve found The Portal. I’m your host Eric Weinstein, and I’m still trying to lie low until this election cycle is concluded given that, in particular, the threat of being booted off the platforms like Twitter for intellectual non-compliance looms over us all. If you have any questions about whether self-censorship is real, I, as a grown Harvard PhD with just under a half a million followers and a direct connection to the CEO of Twitter, live in fear that more than a decade spent building an audience can be undone without possible appeal by the push of a button, sending a single message from some person named Vijaya, who I have never met, after having done nothing at all wrong. Oh yeah. It’s real. These sudden Kafkaesque suspensions, which are then retracted and apologized for, and which emanate from the ironically named Trust and Safety group really do work. Congratulations Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Mission accomplished.
So I am going to make this an all audio-essay episode, with three distinct segments. These will begin my goodbye to the wildest administration within the memories of my middle-aged life, which I may add, also includes the administrations of Ronald Reagan and even Richard Nixon fairly vividly. I think we will begin with a segment on Trump and what I have avoided saying about him for some time. We will then hear from two of our loyal sponsors, I’ll come back to give my thoughts on the bizarre state of the 2020 US election before paying some bills, and we will then hear from two other sponsors before moving to our final segment on the effect of the 2020 election on my colleagues in long form podcasting. So, without further ado, let us discuss what I have waited to say about Donald Trump until the bitter end.
Beginning To Cash Out My Trump Position
If your regular commentators have sounded a bit odd recently to your ears, they have to mine as well. I spent some time recently rather puzzled, and tried to figure out why that might be, before I settled on a relatively simple explanation. In some sense, what I believe we are seeing is that members of the commentariat had settled in for a kind of alternate political reality when Donald Trump first took the oath of office, and that each analyst had built a bespoke theory of Donald Trump and the meaning of the sojourn into the bizarre splitting of the country into incompatible camps of political interpretation. As it now appears to most of this group, Trump will shortly leave office, and so people are cashing out any remaining value in their private Trump positions. We are finding that some people who supported him actually secretly despise him. Others who thought they hated his idiosyncratic antics are surprised by how upsetting they find Biden’s staffing choices, signaling a return to our usual metastatic swamp politics.
There is a semi-official position of our institutional class on Donald Trump that has to be stated up front. Put simply, Donald Trump is to them an unethical and lucky idiot under the control of foreign powers, who stumbled into the White House because an enormous percentage of the United States electorate is composed of either unethical bigots or confused fools who cannot think for themselves, and are thus taken in by a simple conman.
Now, in my opinion that is simply false. In my estimation there is a single aspect of Donald Trump that is more remarkable than any other. And that is that Donald Trump is the only true outsider ever to run the presidential gauntlet successfully and win. Perhaps his singular importance within our system is that he is utterly unique as an outsider. I hope I have this right, but when our government is understood to include our military as well as political appointees, so far as I can work out Donald Trump is the first and only president in our nation’s history to have never been in government. This one fact is the key to understanding many dichotomies that Trump vs Biden represented:
- Outsiders vs Insiders
- The Crude vs The Civil
- Idiosyncratic vs Systemic corruption
- Bullshittng vs Spinning
- Unpredictable negotiation vs Reliable leadership
- Offensive vs Overly Pandering behaviors
- Narcissistic vs Collectivist impulses
- Free vs Constrained thinking and action
Now the difficult part to talk about is this. As I have said before, I consider the Trump phenomenon to be an epiphenomena of the escalating kleptocracy of our centrist, Silent, and Boomer political classes. When you can’t point to a moderate, political, and adult center because they are too busy stealing things that aren’t nailed down, you are more likely to end up in the far wings of the political spectrum. And both parties have been busy stuffing their pockets and faces while playing footsie with their own extremes. This is done by alternating between keeping a proper distance one minute and casting come-hither looks towards the fringes in the next.
And, in this set up, the one thing we cannot ever discuss is the narrative—the GIN, to regular listeners—that allows the looting of our nation and its future by a seemingly near-permanent gerontocracy of magical individuals conceived between the Hoover and Truman administrations. They are the Golden Ones, if you will. These are people who, in any sensible era, would resign for the good of their own children, but who seem to be utterly unconcerned that they have held back needed change for more than 30-50 years, rather like a hypothetical aging monarch waiting for an untrustworthy heir to expire so that she herself can at last move on towards a well-deserved rest and reward. It is not so much that these people are old, mind you, but rather that they are failed leaders who have held power without success, challenge, or much turnover for far longer than is normal in any healthy society.
Many of you know that I occasionally refer to Donald Trump as an existential risk to the fabric of our democracy, and by extension the world, as we are the lone stabilizing nuclear and economic superpower as I see it. But what I have tried not to say until now is why I have called Donald Trump an existential risk since before his election, while I obviously see him as the enemy of my enemy. Is it not the fact that the enemy of my enemy is supposed to be my friend? It is here that we run into difficulty. Most of the political observers seem to be cheerleaders of one form or another, and I suppose that is even true of me. But you can imagine without too much difficulty that during the doping scandal in the Tour de France bicycle race, for example, that there would be someone cheering for the race itself, given that it seems everyone who was viable was juicing.
That is roughly my position now. I am a cheerleader for the American experiment and don’t want any of these people to win. Now, I know that that doesn’t make sense at some level, but it is what I believe, and at this point I am just trying to wait this out.
One of the things that makes me consider Donald Trump an existential risk is that he is the most skilled politician I have ever seen in getting air time to talk about what the mainstream wants never to openly discuss: Immigration, Islam, the Chinese Communist Party, Critical Race Theory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Costs of Bad Globalization, the American Embassy in Jerusalem, comparative viral morbidity and mortality rates. But discussing these things isn’t the problem. In fact, I am in awe of how he gets the kleptocrats to talk about the things that they are actively trying to paper over and are thus loath to discuss.
Let me get something out of the way: Donald Trump has a very particular and methodical way of pointing out what is wrong with the mainstream, as I understand it. At some point early on, I studied the recurring motifs and structures in his Twitter feed and found a tremendous amount of method between his supposedly spontaneous ejaculations into the Twittersphere. And this is likely why he was hired, and is not likely to be renewed. He was considered, in some sense, by his supporters a foreign threat, intended to kill the tumor of systemic corruption in Washington D.C.; Manhattan, New York; and Silicon Valley slightly faster than he damages the accumulated national culture of civil society.
Without fail, he simultaneously takes the legitimate anger we all feel as well as the critiques that have been building for generations, but which have been silenced and stonewalled for decades by our mainstream institutions, and he remakes them in his own image so that they are more powerful, more politically effective, and much more divisive than the underlying correct versions of any legitimate and decent point he might raise. This has a tendency to polarize us about Donald Trump rather than about the issues at hand.
In some ways, Donald Trump is similar to Black Lives Matter during Covid, where an enormous number of issues had been building up under quarantine-like conditions. Then suddenly, a single tragic death with the optics of a police lynching caught on video allowed all energy to be focused on the single issue of unarmed black Americans dying in police custody. This is a category which, while absolutely tragic, is simply too small to fully explain the enormous reaction, given that nearly identical deaths had recently occurred on video with white suspects and without much impact. In short, both Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter learned how to channel diverse frustrations over legitimate grievances that had for years been pushed by institutions to lie outside the Overton window so that they could not be discussed by the population in general. And both Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter made everything they could into a narrative about themselves as their reward for breaking the silences.
For example, as a Xenophilic Restrictionist, I have sought for years to point out that absolutely nothing anti-immigrant can be automatically inferred from an American’s desire for lower immigration, without further information. That point went nowhere politically, as both political parties pay the donor class with visas as a tool to keep working Americans from being able to bargain effectively with their employers at the negotiating table. What is more, no news organization, at least with which I am familiar, has ever broken ranks on the idea that there is an entirely legitimate xenophilic case to be made for restricting high levels of immigration. And that was where things were, at least before 2016.
Enter Donald Trump. In one fell swoop, Donald Trump made the pro-American case for labor, but he also gave Americans a new-found freedom to blame foreign workers trying to get in if they so chose. In the Trump era, if you wanted to take a shortcut around blaming the donor class, which was trying to put pressure on wages to juice corporate profits, you could just blame the desperate immigrants themselves, risking their lives by trying to cross the border illegally. The choice was yours.
This left people like me in a conundrum: essential progressive issues that had been directly stifled for 40 to 50 years were suddenly alive again, but reborn as right-of-center nationalism. Is Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory in particular simply divisive McCarthyist bullshit with a PhD? Is constructive engagement through ever tighter economic ties with the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party a suicidal strategy for the US? Is there something both Orwellian and wrong with not reporting intolerant religiously motivated massacres as being specifically religiously motivated? Why, after all, can’t we discuss that ever freer trade is an esoteric, anti-labor wealth concentration scheme defended by economists with exoteric excuses well known inside the economics profession to be horseshit?
Well, Donald Trump was here to help and, at least in public, he always seemed to relish deliberately cutting at least a few corners to help out anyone with a simple and direct frame of mind who wanted to call bullshit on what appears, at least to me, to be a creepy and mysterious media consensus not to honestly report the news. But there was always a cost. The Trump version of every one of the above reasonable ideas was simpler and thus far more politically powerful… and it was always also far more dangerous than it had been previously been. And this polarized many contrarians, myself included.
Yes, I am a Restrictionist, but I wasn’t going to stand for relaxed norms in conversation so that xenophobia could flourish. My national pride may despise the Davos agenda to degrade democratic sovereignty, but I wasn’t going to opt for newly liberated jingoism, because my patriotism doesn’t have anything to do with nationalist bigotry. In fact it repudiates it. Yes, I favor talking about the religious madness that totalitarian jihadis have invoked to explain their massacres of ordinary people, but no, I don’t favor painting my many Muslim friends with a broad brush dipped in excrement by Donald Trump, just to get at the ridiculous ways news desks refuse to comment honestly on mass murderers who are cheered on by what is still a *miniscule* minority of American Muslims who support jihadi barbarism.
And so, Donald Trump has offered this same service to all contrarians who have been ignored for many years. He would finally get a mutant version of your legitimate issues heard on a world stage for the price of changing the prohibitions around what could be said, and also do so in a way that made your issue partially intellectually illegitimate. And while some of those relaxations were warranted, some of them were terrifying. Particularly in the time during the 2016 election, up to the period shortly after Charlottesville, my various inboxes and direct messages showcased to me the glee that anti-semites and other bigots were experiencing. The number 1488 was suddenly everywhere, and Pepe the frog greeted me standing next to an oven one minute and grinning underneath the welcome message Arbeit Macht Frei the next. Lots of tweets and direct messages were suddenly throwing around Hebrew and Yiddish words to indicate that the anti-semites were coming for us now, having cracked the supposedly secure code of our shibboleths? The message: We would not replace them. Trust me, it was an eye opener.
Thus, when the prophesied friendly stranger in the black sedan pulls up to tell you that he’s a lovable man who will be your vehicle to take you anywhere you want to go, the answer for me was then and is still a clear “Nuh uh”. I mean, the band The Ides of March pretty much warned us about this exact phenomenon directly in 1970, no? And with one hell of a hook. I digress.
Sure, I could see the appeal of at last getting past the gatekeeping at CNN or NPR if I only closed my eyes to the emboldening of bigots and ignored the body count of Trump allies who were injured by their associations with him. But, as none other than Peggy Noonan had prophetically warned us about the phenomenon of Trump cooties before the election, nobody was going to be getting out of that Cadillac as the same person who stepped inside that car. So some of my contrarian friends got in, while others stayed out.
But it divided many of us contrarians and first principle thinkers to see legitimate issues that could not previously be discussed turned into supercharged illegitimate issues that should not be discussed in the terms that he offered. In short, I ended up praying for Trump not to find more of these issues, because every time he located some issue over which Americans felt they were being gaslighted, he took away its legitimacy for someone who might come later and actually want to fix it in the right way. Trump was like a self-taught back alley surgeon, who could take you right away at a price you could afford because he refused to scrub in, while all the other properly trained physicians who followed procedures were booked with indefinite waiting lists at extortionary prices. Some of us wanted nothing to do with him, while others signed up to take the risk.
Now, if I am honest, Trump did do something to clamp down on the right wing fringe and their tiki torches. After Charlottesville, the worst of it may have been over, but the pattern was established. Trump was going to change what was permissible in political life for both better and worse. The Overton window was going to be stretched under Trump to include things that should never have been included as well as other things that should never have been excluded by our moderate institutions from conversation in civil society.
So, for example, where in years past I had foolishly written an academic, peer reviewed explanation and Coasian labor model for economists, explaining why the villains in immigration theory were US employers screaming about labor shortages, Trump was much closer to saying “The immigrants are taking your jobs.” Well, to a labor market analyst, that’s not remotely the same thing at all as saying “US employers and political donors are colluding to confiscate your most valuable rights without market-based compensation, while denigrating you as lazy and stupid, and hiding behind a veneer of excellence and xenophilia as they economically undermine your families.” But it’s much easier, isn’t it?
So I began to better understand his strategy. He was simply going to take all the correct points about the Chinese Communist Party, Trade, Universities, Totalitarian Islam, Migration, and Critical Theory that our corrupt political centrists in both parties had made impossible for us to discuss, and he would break through the media blockade to replace the whole lot with a truly shitty and intellectually damaged version of each and every one of them.
And that is where I found myself. Trump was effectively taking all the issues that we needed to fix and making them all over in his own image. He was going to divide us by rebranding legitimate forms of contrarianism in a way that would potentially paralyze us for a generation, as China would continue to accumulate power. (A period of time I don’t think we have.) Thus, between Trump’s unpredictability, an asset in negotiations, while a nightmare in alliances, and his ability to divide us by rebranding undiscussable issues that should unite all but our elite, as if they were naturally MAGA issues specifically branded in ways to divide us all, Trump set us up for a collection of daily splitting events in the political multiverse.
So why haven’t I talked about what the threat is? Well because first of all, I don’t want to highlight more issues for him to find and rebrand. I also frankly don’t want to talk about him. I find it boring. I’d frankly rather talk about jazz, physics, love, and getting our millennial generation the option for homes and families they need to renew our society.
I also don’t want to talk about the nuclear football constantly when we can mostly forget about it. And I also don’t want to give legitimacy to Donald Trump. Yes, like everyone else, he can see what we are not supposed to talk about. But unlike anyone else, Donald Trump can always get the issue heard, albeit at the cost of changing the issue into something unrecognizable and occasionally disgusting. And that makes it possible for the kleptocrats to justify reimposing an even narrower and more draconian Overton window than before. As they are now attempting to do.
Right now, you can look at the changes in the Terms of Services of the tech platforms, and the nature of the algorithms which tell us what we can and cannot simply observe. If you thought Trump was shattering the Overton window for good, take a second look. Watch now as they Build it. Back. And even Better that it ever was before.
We will return after these messages with our next audio essay on the US Elections of 2020.
What Is Going On With This Election?
Perhaps what concerns me most about the fallout of Trump’s decision to contest the 2020 election is that an enormous number of us are in one of two seemingly irreconcilable camps. Either we can’t imagine how anyone is seriously claiming that there is a basis to challenge the victory of Joe Biden and the Democrats, or we believe that it is just as obvious that Trump clearly won the election.
Perhaps my top concern is that this infinite splitting of the political multiverse must come to an end, or we will become an ungovernable country, divided by two main master partisan narratives. We cannot continue indefinitely to pretend that somehow we are the sane, and that the millions who disagree with us are simply crazy.
As I believe that—barring some kind of a revelation—it has become clear that for some time Joe Biden has won the general election, I will be concentrating on why my friends and followers who disagree with my conclusion need not be any crazier than those who agree with me.
The main point I want to consider is this: “What does it mean if someone raises the issue of fraud or a stolen election?” Does it mean that they are necessarily a delusional Trump supporter? A QAnon lunatic? A dupe?
Hardly, in my opinion. In fact, the best argument for keeping the issue of fraud on the table comes not from Donald Trump, who has so far, in my opinion, embarrassed himself by failing to make any credible case, but instead from the Democratic Party.
So, while that may initially sound somewhat far-fetched, let us remember that it was from the Democratic Party and its allied media that we first heard that the 2016 election had been compromised by Russia, and that Russia likely held control over Donald Trump, and by extension the United States.
Now before I get into the meat of this essay, I need to locate some serious malware that is likely installed between both your ears and mine, so as to uninstall and hopefully disable it. Ready?
Okay, when I say the phrases “Russian Asset”, Kompromat, “Putin’s Bitch”, “golden showers”, and “Moscow hotel”, what is the first name that comes to your mind? Okay, great. So hopefully we’ve just established that both you and I have had the same malware installed in our minds through mainstream media.
Now, this cognitive malware I’m aiming to remove is not what was alleged and insinuated, however, about Donald Trump’s sexual proclivities, indebtedness, or fondness for authoritarian despots. It was instead that this was a matter for casual accusation, lighthearted banter, humor, and bonding. We were all led, regardless of party, into talking rather casually about two nuclear nations and the infiltration and direct control of the stronger one by the weaker of the two old Cold War rivals.
Now, call me old fashioned, but I am passably acquainted with the history of our intelligence services, special forces, and their most audacious exploits. No one refers to Operation Ajax in 1950s Iran as “Kermit’s Shits and Giggles”. I’ve never heard of the “Cuban Missile Prank” or “Cuban Missile Tomfoolery”. When a serious person like a sitting senator becomes serious about alleging something of this magnitude, we are usually talking about things that involve Charges of Treason, Secret Closed Door Sessions, Covert Operations, Regime Change, Troop and Fleet Deployments, and potentially War. There is no such thing, of which I am aware, as “kind of a Russian Asset”, “Russian Asset-ish”, “Russian Asset Lite”, or “Russian Asset without obligation to extreme action beyond formal reprimand”. If you don’t believe me, try asking Julius Rosenberg. You get my point.
So what I want you to notice is that the malware that is in your brain has a particular purpose. It appears to be installed to allow you to treat an assertion of the executive branch of the United States government as being under Russian control as some kind of semi-serious concern that oddly doesn’t rise to the level of exotic emergency action. This is somewhat akin to the claims of a few Hollywood personalities every four years that if a Republican becomes president, they will leave the country. I am sure that this means something, it is just that I am not sure what it means when they fail to depart. Whatever it does mean, the malware allows us to explore what are quite clearly literal claims without triggering an expectation of literal consequences.
So with that understood, I want to point a few things out that I believe are socially extremely controversial, while somehow simultaneously being intellectually non-controversial:
- This was obviously not a free and fair election.
- It can be completely legitimate to worry about whether this election was fair with respect to material levels of voter fraud.
- Neither A nor B need have anything to do with Donald Trump and his legal team’s bizarre and largely unsupported, unprofessional post-election claims or seemingly unhinged post-election strategy.
Let’s begin with A. A free and fair general election would have to include a true national primary election, and we clearly don’t have a national Democratic primary. What we have instead is a political industry run by insiders for insiders, where MSNBC and its allied media’s blatant and legendary mistreatment of Andrew Yang’s campaign cleanly and openly illustrated that our primaries are at least partially fixed by insiders for insiders. The amount of credibility spent dropping Andrew Yang from graphics or posting a picture of an unrelated Yang was just incredible. The network at times seemed to spend more time apologizing for one obvious diss after another than it did fairly covering the candidate.
Some of us in long-form podcasting, who interviewed and talked with more than one candidate for the Democratic nomination, became aware of just how tightly integrated the political parties, media news desks, think tanks, and donor classes truly are. We at times talked about hosting debate replacements where the candidates with something to say could dig deep into issues, while those searching for those canned ready-made-for-TV gotcha moments could take a hike and kiss our asses. Would you believe that there are actually Democratic party rules in restraint of trade in place to make that impossible in the marketplace of ideas? I suppose we should all have seen that coming. But we didn’t truly understand just how many ways this process has been bulletproofed by its insiders to remain a duopoly that stays in power by doling out access to media in exchange for promises not to hold an actual primary with actual coverage and actual debates outside of legacy platforms.
So the fact that this wasn’t remotely a free and fair election, given the open interference from media, tech platforms, and the party mandarins was in evidence at all turns, and doesn’t really hinge on proving fraud in the later general election. You don’t get to the general election without building on a primary as foundation. And our rolling pseudo-primary system is manifestly neither free, nor fair, nor an election. Thus any general election that rests on the primary would not be free and fair, even if there were zero irregularities for mail-in voting and in-person voting.
As for point B, this claim works in roughly the same way. Imagine that absolutely everything Donald Trump, his legal team, and his supporters have said about fraud is at best false, and at worst an attempt to subvert democracy. Imagine they are wrong about everything. Well, even so, it still makes sense to worry about fraud, as I will try to explain.
Over the last four years, the hatred of Donald Trump by the establishment produced a kind of a kitchen sink strategy. His opponents hated him so much that they threw everything they could think of at him, without noticing that their conflicting and simplistic claims tended to weaken each other. The same people would accuse him of being both a low IQ idiot and an evil supergenius in adjacent accusations, without stopping to breathe or notice any contradictions. He was, simultaneously, a Xenophobe of the highest order, but with a foreign wife, and who loved only Russia. A billionaire who was broke, but whose oceans of non-existent money somehow insulated him. In short, his opponents never settled on a simple consistent narrative, and preferred a largely self-contradictory strategy in hopes that something would eventually stick.
And so it went with the election.
In particular, there were three claims insisted on by his detractors which, at least in their stronger forms, could not all simultaneously be true. They are as follows:
- It is essentially insane to suggest that the 2020 election could be stolen, as only conspiracy nuts would say such a thing.
- Donald Trump was a foreign asset under the control of Vladimir Putin, who was installed in 2016 amidst foreign election tampering.
- Donald Trump began his presidency by disrespecting the US intelligence community, whose skill is the envy of the world, and whose loyalty and patriotism should be beyond question.
Ahem. You may pick no more than two of these strong claims before you run into a contradiction. If you claim that Donald Trump was under foreign control and that the 2016 election was materially tainted by fake news and foreign interference, then it would become the patriotic duty of our intelligence community to stop a foreign stealth take over of the United States by a Russian asset by almost any means available. And since you believe that our intelligence community is highly skilled, it can’t be unthinkable for them to hack an election if the sovereignty of the United States has been compromised, given our history of exploits since the Dulles Brothers (Allen Welsh and John Foster) and J. Edgar Hoover. Thus if you want to claim that it is madness to even question the hacking of the election without evidence, you would either have to claim that our intelligence community isn’t imaginative or patriotic enough to consider removing a compromised leader controlled from abroad, or that the extravagant attempt to taint Trump’s presidency by claiming that he was Putin’s man in DC was a political stunt. A monumental work of Kayfabe, held together by horseshit and presented as if it were the product of straight shooting patriots. I personally would like to think that treating the claim of Trump as being under Putin’s direct control as overblown political theater is the best way out of this messy puzzle. But just consider how expensive back-propagating the implications of that line of reasoning truly are, and how despicable his opposition would have to be if everyone inside has always believed that the Russian asset theory was overblown BS.
So while I have never seen any clear evidence of widespread fraud, I would certainly trust our intelligence community to do their sworn patriotic duty to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, in attempting to remove a foreign asset in control of our nuclear football inside our own oval office. Thus the idea of asserting that any questioning of electoral integrity in 2020 as automatically being crazy talk must itself be crazy talk. The major conspiracy theorists of this era will always be those who asserted that Trump has been compromised early and belonged completely to Vladimir Putin. You don’t get to claim all the strongest assertions you find politically expedient without noticing that they will always tend to directly contradict each other.
In my personal estimation it was either up to the Democratic Party and its affiliated media to back off of the strongest and least substantiated claims against Donald Trump, or to follow the consequences of those claims into severe action well beyond impeachment. The fact that they did neither is what confused me completely, and what leads me to say that a questioning of the legitimacy of the 2020 election follows not from Benford’s law, nor from Trump’s legal strategy, but is instead a direct consequence of routinely asserting something tantamount to treason, while avoiding any necessity to explore the dire, and likely obligate, consequences of such assertions, which, I trust, are known to us all and need not be detailed here. It may be a low probability event, but it is not consistent to claim that one must be a devotee of QAnon to imagine that our intelligence community would be forced to act, in the presence of material and substantiated claims tantamount to treason.
We will return shortly with our final audio essay on the state of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web.
Loyalty and the Intellectual Dark Web
This essay is written from what some today would consider a gendered perspective. As a guy who grew up going to an all male high school, and who has since held positions in academic mathematics, physics, and economics departments, who has worked in finance and hedge funds, risk management, and technology, I have found myself repeatedly in a world far more gender-segregated than most, and one which I wish appealed to more women. I have had very few collaborators, but they have been oddly evenly split between men and women. My high school and my experience with the Sell-side culture of Wall Street investment banks allow me to say that “Toxic Masculinity” actually describes a real thing and it should never have been ruined by overuse for just that reason. In one evening in finance or 11th grade, I probably heard more open misogyny than I did in all my years studying mathematics, physics, and economics combined. But what all male group culture can sound like behind closed doors in high trust environments varies more than almost any woman likely imagines. Some of it was and is absolutely wonderful, and some of it bordered on psychotic. Sell-side finance culture was by far the worst I experienced. In my experience, many people there were trying to earn your business by assuming that you are automatically car, sports, stripper, and cigar obsessed. And those Sell-side professionals were not entirely male, either. It was pretty much exactly as you would expect from what you see in the movies minus the dwarf tossing. I guess I never got invited for dwarf tossing after I turned down free tickets to the US open. [sic trans]
MIT and Harvard’s Symplectic Geometers and Topologists were, by contrast, likely the best. An all male culture at MIT when I first arrived to be sure, but one which easily and instantly put out a welcome mat as soon as talented women started showing an interest. No one there even seemed to notice, or wanted to discuss much, any change in the culture, as the subject matter was universally thought to be far more interesting. There were also very subtle gradations: Labor Market Economics, Algebraic Geometry, and Particle Theory at Harvard were at times somewhat exaggeratedly and, frankly, comically male, but they had a core of women regularly attending and giving the seminars, and I don’t think I ever heard any comments there that couldn’t be said in a mixed group.
The reason I am going into all this as background is that I want to establish two separate claims:
- That, due to my subject matter interests alone, I have inadvertently spent a fair chunk of my life in a large and diverse array of nearly all male environments.
- That my experience within these environments is that they range along a spectrum, from outright misogyny to environments which are welcoming to women but which are self-segregated by the differing interests of men and women, and with every gradation in between.
Unfortunately this diversity is not accurately perceived. In an effort to drain all the true swamps of their misogyny, we drained pretty much every male culture we could find of its vitality. Try to imagine a world in which women could not congregate by themselves for fear that they would get up to witchcraft. That’s pretty close to where we are now.
You may fairly ask the question, “What, if anything, is lost when we target straight male culture by treating any meeting behind closed doors as suspect? Isn’t that where the bad behavior actually happens?” Well, yes. That’s right. But there are so many good things, and even magic that happens too, that are being lost when we don’t understand that the majority of such rooms are normal, healthy places on which men actually depend as much as nursing mothers who form support groups for postpartum depression, say.
And, while few mention it, men have tended to help each other course correct, in private. When you see a man come to his friend’s aid in public, and when that friend being threatened has done something wrong, you actually have zero idea of what is going on in private. Maybe they are high-fiving like idiots. That certainly happens among jerks. But it is far more likely that there are going to be words that go in a different direction. Men have historically helped each other get back on track in private, while holding mobs at bay in public, in a way that puts an enormous premium on loyalty, but which has not always been understood from outside, because it is, by definition, invisible.
So this is all preamble, because the last section of this episode has to do with a funny topic. For a guy that values male culture around course-correction in private, it is somewhat odd to admit that my least favorite four-word sentence to hear spoken in the English language by another man has recently become “I’ve got your back.” Now, why is that? Shouldn’t that sentence be among one’s favorite sentences?
Well, that’s undoubtedly how it should be… but truth be told, most of us have never been part of a fighting unit, and the closest thing we’ve been to a platoon in a firefight is a movie theater. We know that there is supposed to be a fog of war, just as we are familiar with the phrase “brothers in arms”, but, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us must realize that we mostly don’t fully know what those words actually mean. Dealing with an implacable mob on the internet that is taking aim at your reputation, and thus your ability to earn a living to feed your family, is surely a hell of a lot closer to being in a bar fight than paintball is. Full disclosure: I have never played paintball.
So when a man says “I’ve got your back”, what is he really saying?
Well I used to think I knew what it meant, but I don’t fully know anymore. And at the moment, it feels like it means nothing.
I have placed my life in the hands of only one male friend on multiple occasions, and none of those involved combat. That friend’s name is Adil Abdulali, and I suppose he also placed his life in my hands now that I think about it. We do have a few decent enough stories about physical risk from years back that remain, so far anyway, personal and private. Our mothers might be listening to this podcast after all and I wouldn’t want to alarm them. Please don’t worry, Alia, if you are listening, everything worked out fine, and it was a long time ago.
I must therefore, by necessity, lean rather more heavily on this one life-long friendship’s experience than I would like. But he has had my back certainly for a long time and, knowing him, probably has since shortly after I first met him at age 16.
Now, do we disagree about many things? Of course. Have we always done the right thing by each other? Mostly, but not always. Yet, we have always righted our ship when it has listed, and we don’t keep track of the small things. There have been stretches of years where one or the other of us were in a drought of good luck and it just doesn’t make sense to pay attention to these matters over decades.
So, why am I bringing this up? Because ever since The Portal took off, I have been regularly and repeatedly invited to “throw other people under the bus” as the kids today say. And most of those calls have been to throw men, rather than women, in the path of an oncoming mob.
The public calls don’t sound familiar to my middle-aged ears. And while they are often phrased in bro-speak, they seem foreign to Protestant, Masculine, British, Professional, and other norms of not regularly losing your shit in public, nor sorting out personal business with friends in front of the world. I may be only one of those four things, but I appreciate that norm in whatever cultures exhibit it.
So, what does this new culture sound like? Well, something like this:
“Hey Eric, did you hear what your bros just said about you?”
“Dude, time to collect your friend. He’s so cringe, and it’s not a good look for you.”
“Yo, you gonna call out your homie on his BS or nah? Thought not. Bye.”
“Hey, did you read that article about your ‘Ride or Die’ and what he did? You gotta cut him loose, dude.”
Now, what is this style of speech? “Bruh”, “Nah”, “Call out”, “Ride or Die”, “Not a good look”, “Collect your homie”, “Spill the tea”, I don’t know about the rest of you who grew up before the Internet, but at least in my experience, we didn’t use to talk or think like this all the time.
The point of bringing up this stylized speech is that the calls are so frequent that it makes me wonder what we are doing as a society. Assuming men and women are truly equal, it stands to reason that I would be invited to disavow women making controversial or boneheaded statements about half the time. Why are there so few calls to disavow not only women but tech companies, government officials, newspapers, hereditary monarchies, theocracies, etc.?
In particular, among nations, I find it fascinating that I am regularly invited to disavow Israel, but not Turkey, both of which I deeply love. I get regularly invited to disavow men and not women. I must disavow Brett Kavanaugh on the Right, but not Joe Biden on the Left in a similar situation. This appears to be because of a persistent asymmetry: I am invited to disavow things from the political Right by the political Left, while the political Right doesn’t expect devotion or this kind of disavowal of the Left. In short, the disavowal game doesn’t seem to play by any symmetrical rules.
And why is this? Well, it appears to be because disavowal has become a major collectivist political tactic to pick off all who refuse to sing from one party’s hymnal when instructed. For better or worse, only one of our two political parties seems to be imbued with the power to grant an indulgence, so that someone may keep his respectability separate from his behavior. Call it the Chappaquiddick privilege, if you’re confused about which party has the power.
So, how does this work? Well, no one sensible wants to publicly support bad behavior, so the rhyme “Silence equals Violence” is particularly effective against caring progressives who want to “Do the right thing”. The problem with this is that Public Silence or even Public Support for another person is not remotely the same thing as condoning an action of that person in private. I regularly support someone in public whose behavior I may criticize in private. In fact, I’ll go further. I believe that we are obligated to both protect and not abandon friends to mobs that are braying for their blood, just as we are obligated to balance public protection with private accountability within an intimate context.
Yet, what we seem to be seeing now is a bull market in disavowal: “Do you disavow Israel?” “Do you disavow your employer?” “Do you disavow your sibling?” “Do you disavow the IDW?” “Do you disavow your candidate?” … etc. etc. etc.
That’s a lot of requests for disavowal, so let me make this easier. When it comes to people I have spent serious time with, the simple answer is a polite but firm ‘No’. The slightly longer answer is “Go bugger yourself. I appreciate that you are offering me a bus under which you believe my friends belong. I well understand that there is always a mob, which hungers not only for justice but sanctimony, attention, entertainment, and excitement, and that my friends may look like a delicious snack to it. But in a gendered context, men haven’t usually course-corrected in this way. We take each other aside, we talk it through, attempting to minimize harm as well as embarrassment, offer support, and in serious circumstances, attempt to find a way back if someone has done something seriously wrong. Occasionally, when we are really not getting through, we have even been known to physically fight each other in private without letting on in public that such a thing has ever occurred. So if you don’t see men taking each other aside, you may easily get confused that nothing is happening. But, that’s not usually my experience. Very often, the difficult conversations are happening, even when what you are seeing are outward signs of support. And perhaps, calling each other out is the new way forward, but, I’m old and set in my ways, and I don’t know how to do that with my friends. So, you kids have fun and I’ll stick with having different public and private reactions from time to time. We can always compare notes at the very end to see whose system actually worked better.”
So, why do I believe the older system, with all its flaws, is better? Isn’t it hypocritical? To me, this is like saying “If you feel that the human body isn’t shameful, you should just go to work naked, as it would be far more honest.” Let’s admit that always saying the same thing in public as you do in private has got a certain, powerful, simple appeal to it. However, it is a disaster to succumb to that appeal.
Permit me to put forward a theory. Society is actually safer with fewer isolated people, and it is safest when we all have a stake in the world. And cancellation? It’s about creating people with no stake in life and no way back. It is an absolute abomination. There is simply no social justice without redemption, statutes of limitations, forgiveness, due process, and grace, full stop. But aside from social justice through cancellation being just about the most heartless, braindead, boneheaded, evil, malignant, repugnant, and self-contradictory idea I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, it is also dangerous. How often do we read about a tragedy involving a loner on a losing streak who mostly kept to himself and had nothing left to lose? That may be extreme, but it gets to the problem of disavowal, cancelation, shame, and repudiation. In short, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Let me put it in simple terms: the men you depend on to be capable of stopping a bar fight are, somewhat embarrassingly, generally the men who have been in bar fights themselves. The man who stops a drunk buddy from making an ass out of himself, by finding a diplomatic way to exit an incident, is not infrequently a guy who has been drunk and stopped by his buddies from the same kind of idiocies in some earlier phase of his life, like ten years ago, or ten minutes ago. If we were to disavow our buddies for their most boneheaded moments, we’d all generally be forced to disavow ourselves first. We would then keep ourselves and each other from earning a living and would all shun ourselves into social isolation, poverty, and self-harm.
One can hear the response forming immediately in the minds of the Woke, “Dude, how is this not condoning bad behavior?” Well, it would be if every time you saw a man stick up for his friends, that was all that happened. And it is time to tell the world, “That’s not generally what happens. And by inducing everyone to publicly call out their friends for their lapses, we the Internet are ridding ourselves of the most powerful single tool we have to make better men.”
This new social media theory of “no platforming”, “cancelation”, “calling out”, and “shaming” is not a recipe for a happy world, or an ethical one. It’s a recipe for creating a desperate human out of every normal schmuck with a beating heart. In fact, if you have a friend accused of tearing off mattress tags under penalty of law, or murder, or treason, or even stealing adorable helpless puppies to sell their tiny internal organs on eBay, I want you to consider what happens when you disavow that friend or diss that person in public in order to signal to everyone that you know right from wrong in that particular case.
First of all, the people in front of whom you are disavowing your friend on social media contain many people worse than your friend. So you are selling out your friendship to please acquaintances and strangers, some of whom are doing the same damn things or even worse. Secondly, you are creating a more isolated human being at the exact same moment that someone is in maximal need of love, warmth, guidance, and help. You are generally not successfully signaling virtue to me, but are instead signaling that you are abdicating responsibility for standing by someone who may have done a wrong thing, and who likely needs your loyalty now more than ever.
Now I bring all of this up to briefly discuss the state of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. First of all, it doesn’t really fully exist. But if it did, it would not recognize disavowal as a major modality. There are tensions within it, as there have always been, but there are also unwritten rules that have not previously required my commentary. In particular, my friend Sam Harris attempted to very publicly exit the so-called IDW. That’s a bit tricky, since it doesn’t fully exist, and almost no one in it talks about it that much in 2020. So you may be thinking that I am angry at Sam for violating this rule. Oddly, it is closer to being the opposite of that. Sam was quite right, in my opinion, in one sense, and the more important one, and wrong in another of lesser significance. Before this, I heard public remarks about Sam’s inability to understand reality from more than a few people that dismayed me. But in true IDW fashion, I am not going to talk directly about who made those remarks, because the ideas were the problem, and the idea that Sam is not capable of seeing reality is frankly silly. If you aren’t happy about that and feel disappointed, please feel free to get your Internet drama somewhere else. It’s available 24/7. Now to be blunt, I have disagreed with Sam for the four years of this administration on two basic points:
- Whether Donald Trump as Evil Chauncy Gardner (Sam’s concept), or Freakish Strategic Savant (My choice) is a better description.
- Whether the Mainstream media is less or more terrifying because it still fact checks, uses compound complex sentences, cares about an appearance of journalistic integrity, and carries gravitas earned in a previous era as it explores new territory, dividing us as a society to serve business and activist models and interests.
Now I’d love to tell you that I am correct and that Sam is in the wrong, but honestly I don’t know that. I don’t know Sam to be wrong on either point. I simply disagree with him, as we have done openly and cordially over the last four years. What’s more, I would say that Donald Trump’s bizarre challenge to the 2020 election has, so far anyway, been a rare and pretty spectacular late win for Sam’s model over my own of Trump’s strategic intuition. If Sam has Trump Derangement Syndrome, a non-existent pseudo-malady which I don’t really believe in and thus don’t discuss much, then TDS is so far doing a better job at explaining the very end of this term than I feel it was doing at explaining the middle of it. Two cheers for that non-existent TDS that Sam doesn’t have.
What’s more, Sam did not name or shame anyone who named or shamed him by accusing him of getting this wrong. He stuck to the ideas in true IDW fashion.
And as Sam’s friend Christopher Hitchens once said in a seminar that I attended at the Kennedy School, and the only time I ever met him, “A gentleman is defined to be a man who is never rude by accident.” And Sam is very much a gentleman.
Which brings me to what Sam *is* doing wrong. You don’t leave the IDW by being civil, focusing on ideas, forgoing the ability to stick it to others, holding to your true convictions, or getting things right. I’m sorry, but that’s just not how this works at all. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but you do it instead by being publicly dismissive of members of your group rather than their ideas, trolling, not paying attention to shifting situations like the election, getting captured by your audience, or getting it wrong and not noticing. If the IDW is a protocol as much as it is a group of humans, Sam continued to behave as a gentleman, while others were far closer to trying to leave the group, by at least testing the above boundaries.
This is why, when Sam published a clip about resigning from the IDW, I chuckled to myself and chose to quote from Hotel California on Twitter. In the words of the Eagles, “Sam: Relax. We are programmed to receive.” Feel free to collect your things, to find the passage back to the place we all were before, as you can, in fact, check out anytime you like. I’ll send for the nightman at once. If you really want to leave, however, you now know what it takes.
The IDW, like the Hotel California, doesn’t really exist. Maybe it never did, and this was all just a dream in a tongue-in-cheek bad joke of mine that took on a life of its own for a while. But it’s possible there is some reason we still go back to the IDW now and again, just as we do to that tired old song over 40 years later. Or hadn’t you noticed that every time you cue it up to play it again, it proves that we are never really able to leave it fully behind. Which, if you give it a moment’s thought, is exactly what the song’s lyrics foretold. Funny that.
*Insert guitar solo here.*
Be well everyone.
You’ve been through The Portal.