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If you have ever wondered whether you were crazy when everyone else claims to see things differently than you do, this is the episode for you.

Book clubs are everywhere and we are always asked for book recommendations. But what about the great Essays, Interviews, Conversations, Aphorisms, Shaggy Dog Stories, Lyrics, Courtroom Testimonies, Poems, Movie Scenes, Jokes and the like? Sadly, there is almost never a club in which to discuss them. Yet there are Essays and offerings in other intellectual formats that are just as profound and meaningful as any book while having the advantage of being much more in keeping with modern attention spans. The Portal seeks to fill this obvious lacuna. 

We thus finish out the regular first year of the Portal Podcast with an inaugural episode of an experiment: The Portal Essay Club. In this episode Eric reads aloud an astonishing essay from 1944 by Arthur Koestler which changed his world. In the essay, Koestler wrestles with a difficult question that has plagued independent thinkers for ages: what if everyone who is supposedly ‘normal’ is actually a maniac living in a dream world? What if the only sane ones appear crazy just as the crazy appear sane? 

During the episode, Eric first reads aloud the essay “The Nightmare That Is A Reality.” and then discusses paragraph by paragraph what makes this one of the most profound yet often forgotten essays to have appeared within the twilight of living memory (1944 as it happens). We hope you will enjoy this experiment and let us know what you would like to see appear next in this series. 

Thanks for a great first year. 

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Transcript

Eric’s reading of “The Nightmare That Is a Reality” by Arthur Koestler (the subject of this episode) can be heard in the video below.

Eric Weinstein: Hello, you found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein with a new experiment for this episode. The idea for this episode grows out of a familiar question, what are your top 10 book recommendations? Now this is a question that I’m asked so frequently that I have sadly become somewhat numb to it by now. In contrast, I do not believe that I’ve ever been asked for my top recommendations for essays or speeches, lectures, conversations, short stories, lyrics or interviews. And perhaps once in a blue moon, I’m still asked for my poetry recommendations, although even that seems to have trailed off in recent years. So I’d like to close out the regular programming for this the inaugural year of The Portal by trying to entice you all into daring to think about books somewhat less in relation to all of the other marvelous forms in which rich and meaningful thinking are communicated. So let’s look at all the great book clubs, both online and in real life. Keep doing the great job that they’ve been doing of talking about books, but for The Portal, let’s pick up essays, speeches and the like, since they are trading at a deep and unexplicable discount given the modern attention span and the amount of top material available.

Thus, I thought I would start with perhaps the most meaningful essay I have ever discovered on my own, before exploring other non book formats on future episodes. The essay I’m going to read to you is from January 9 of 1944. Now, after the war, we would learn that in just three months of operation Reinhardt, that is September, October, November of 1942, over one and a quarter million Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the heart of Europe. This essay comes from more than one year later, after this most terrible and organized of all murder sprees. Only I don’t see this essay as being particularly tied to its time. Instead, it is an eternal lesson to me, for the author Arthur Koestler is trying to tell the reader something that is, in equal terms, desperate, essential, impossible, and timeless. He is desperate because he has a message to share with the world before more lives are snuffed out, and you can practically hear the sounds of the dwindling hourglass sands that goad him as he writes. And what he has to say is timeless, because, in every era, there’s a situation such as the one he describes here.

After some brief messages, I will be back with Arthur Koestler and his 1944 essay, “The nightmare that is a reality,” from the January 9 edition of The New York Times of that year, which can sometimes be found under the title “On Disbelieving Atrocities”. After that, we will hear from our sponsors one last time before discussion of the meaning of this astonishing essay.

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And now the reading of this episode’s essay by Arthur Koestler. This essay is entitled, “The nightmare that is a reality”. It was published on January 9 in 1944 in the New York times by Arthur Koestler.

“There’s a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals. It is dark, and I’m being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood. There is a busy road at no more than 10 yards distance, and I scream for help, but nobody hears me. The crowd walks past laughing and chatting.

“I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I’ve quarreled about it with analysts and I believe it to be an archetype in the Jungian sense, an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness when faced with death and cosmic violence, and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience. I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.

“For, after all, you are the crowd walk past laughing on the road. And there are a few of us, escaped victims, or eyewitnesses of the things which happened in the thicket, and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theaters and cinemas. Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute, I know that each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces, a faint, glassy stare entering your eye. And I tell myself now you have them, hold them, bold them, so that they will remain awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourself like puppies, we’ve got their feet wet. Then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound.

“We, the screamers, have been at it now for about 10 years. We started on the night when the epileptic Vann de Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said, if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing by hot steam, by mass electrocution, and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far 3 million have died. It is the greatest mass killing in recorded history, and it goes on daily, hourly as regularly as the ticking of your watch.

“I have photographs before me on the desk while I’m writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worthwhile. The facts have been published in pamphlets, white books, newspapers and magazines and whatnot. But the other day I met one of the best known American journalists over here. And he told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey, nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believe that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda and lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.

“As to this country, I’ve been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps. They don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass graves of Poland. They have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka, or Belzec. You can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self defense begins to work, and in a week, the shrug of incredulity has resumed like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.

“Clearly all this is becoming a mania with me and my like. Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal, but the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a fantasy world. So perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in sound in healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened fantasy world, because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were it not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your daydreaming eyes would still be alive.

“I said “perhaps,” because obviously the above can only be half the truth. There have been screamers at all times, prophets, preachers, teachers and cranks, cursing the obtuseness of their contemporaries and the situation patterns remain very much the same. There are always the screamers screaming from the thicket, and the people who pass by on the road. They have ears but hear not. They have eyes, but see not. So the roots of this must lie deeper than mere obtuseness.

“Is it perhaps the fault of the screamers? Sometimes no doubt, but I do not believe this to be the core matter. Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah were pretty good propagandists, and yet they failed to shake their people and to warn them. Cassandra’s voice was said to have pierced walls, and yet the Trojan War took place. And at our end of the chain, in due proportion, I believe that, on the whole, the MOA and the BBC are quite competent at their job. For almost three years, they had to keep this country going on nothing but defeats, and they succeeded.

“But at the same time, they lamentably failed to imbue the people with anything approaching a full awareness of what it was all about, of the grandeur and horror of the time into which they were born. They carried on business-as-usual style, with the only difference that the routine of this business included killing and being killed. Matter-of-fact, unimaginativeness has become a kind of Anglo-Saxon racial myth. It is usually opposed to Latin hysterics and praised for its high value in an emergency. But the myth does not say what happens between emergencies, and that same quality is responsible for the failure to prevent their reoccurrence.

“In fact, this limitation of awareness is not an Anglo-Saxon privilege, though they are probably the only race which claims as an asset what others regard as a deficiency. Nor is it a matter of temperament; Stoics have wider horizons than fanatics. It is a psychological fact inherent in our mental frame, which I believe has not been given sufficient attention in social psychology or political theory.

“We say “I believe this” or “I don’t believe that,” “I know it” or “I don’t know it,” and regard these as black-and-white alternatives. In reality, “knowing” and “believing” have varying degrees of intensity. I know that there was a man called Spartacus who led the Roman slaves into revolt, but my belief in his one-time existence is much paler than that of, say, Lenin. I believe in spiral nebulae, can see them in a telescope and express their distance in figures, but they have a lower degree of reality for me than the inkpot on my table.

“Distance and space and time degrades intensity of awareness. So does magnitude. Seventeen is a figure which I know intimately like a friend; fifty billions is just a sound. A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland causes but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts. We are unable to embrace the total process with our awareness, we can only focus on little lumps of reality.

“So far all this is a matter of degrees; of gradations, and the intensity of knowing and believing. But when we pass the realm of the finite, and are faced with words like eternity in time, infinity of space, that is, when we approach the sphere of the Absolute, our reaction ceases to be a matter of degrees and becomes different in quality. Faced with the Absolute, understanding breaks down and our “knowing” and “believing” is lip-service.

“Death, for instance, belongs to the category of the Absolute, and our belief in it is merely a lip-service belief. I “know” that, the average statistical age being about 65, I may reasonably expect to live no more than another twenty-seven years, but if I knew for certain I should die on November 30, 1970, at 5 A.M., I would be poisoned by this knowledge, count and recount the remaining days and hours and grudge myself every wasted minute, in other words, develop a neurosis. This has nothing to do with hopes to live longer than the average; if the date were fixed 10 years later, the neurosis-forming process would remain the same.

“Thus, we all live in a state of split consciousness. There is a tragic plane and a trivial plane, which contained two mutually incompatible kinds of experienced knowledge. Their climate and language are as different as church Latin from business slang.

“These limitations of awareness account for the limitations of enlightenment by propaganda. People go to cinemas they see films of Nazi tortures of mass shootings of underground conspiracy and self-sacrifice. They sigh, they shake their heads, some have a good cry, but they do not connect it with the realities of the normal plane of existence. It is romance, it is art, it is Those Higher Things, it is church Latin. It does not click with reality. We live in a society of the Jekyll and Hyde pattern magnified into gigantic proportions.

“This was, however, not always the case to the same extent. There were periods and movements in history—in Athens, in the early Renaissance, during the first years of the Russian Revolution—when at least certain representative layers of society had attained a relatively high level of mental integration; times, when people seem to rub their eyes and come awake, when their cosmic awareness seemed to expand, when they were “contemporaries” in a much broader and fuller sense; when the trivial and the cosmic planes seemed on the point of fusing.

“And there were periods of disintegration and dissociation. But never before, not even during the spectacular decay of Rome and Byzantium, was split thinking so palpably evident, such a uniform mass-disease; did human psychology reached such a height of phoneyness. Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand; the world is open to us as never before, and we walk about as prisoners, each in his private, portable cage. And, meanwhile, the watch goes on ticking. What can the screamers do, but go on screaming until they get blue in the face?

“I know one who used to tour this country addressing meetings—an average of ten a week. He is a well-known London publisher. Before each meeting he used to lock himself up in a room, close his eyes and imagine in detail, for twenty minutes, that he was one of the people in Poland who were killed. One day he tried to feel what it was like to be suffocated by chloride gas in a death-train. Another day, he had to dig his grave with two hundred others, and then face a machine gun, which of course is rather unprecise and capricious in its aiming. Then he walked out to the platform and talked. He kept going for a full year before he collapsed with a nervous breakdown. He had a great command of his audience, and perhaps he has done some good. Perhaps he brought the two planes divided by miles of distance and inch closer to each other.

“I think one should imitate his example, two minutes of this kind of exercise per day, with closed eyes after reading the morning paper, are, at present, more necessary to us than physical jerks and breathing the yogi way. It might even be a substitute for going to church, for, as long as there are people on the road, and victims in the thicket, divided by dream barriers, this will remain a phoney civilization.”

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Okay, so having read the essay aloud, what I thought we might try to do in this inaugural experimental episode is to try to explore what the essay means—why I’m choosing it. So what I thought I might offer up is just an off-the-cuff discussion of the parts of the essay that I find to be most salient and important. I’ve been sending this essay around to friends and family and colleagues for years. I view it as, perhaps, the most important essay I’ve ever read, because, in part, it affected me deeply and personally. There are three attributes that I look for in people, having to do with three famous psychology experiments: the Milgram experiment, the Asch experiment and the Zimbardo experiment. Now, the Milgram experiment is famously known for the issue of obedience, that there is supposed to be an experimenter who tells the subject that they are to administer an increasing electric shock to someone else participating in the experiment, and not to question the increase in the level of shock given that the screams will be increasing.

What is found is that in general, when people are absolved of responsibility, they’re willing to mete out incredible pain and torture to others, and this is, in fact, what Stanley Milgram was getting at when he was attempting to show that ordinary people are capable of impossible cruelty.

I highly recommend a song by Dar Williams, called Buzzer talking about the Milgram experiment. I think it’s a beautiful song. And it’s an important understanding of humanity that most of us should probably just imbibe deeply—that we are all capable of horrendous acts when someone else absolves us.

So, if I’m looking for people who are Milgram-negative, it means that they will not do the wrong thing, even when they are incented to do it, to do the wrong thing, by an absolution of responsibility. In the Asch-conformity experiment, the experimenter, Dr. Ash, tried to see whether or not people would give completely wrong answers if the confederates in the experiment, unknown to the actual subject, give the same wrong answer before the subject is in fact asked for the answer in question, which I believe in the original formulation of the Asch conformity experiment was to say whether one line was longer or shorter than others—an objective fact that most people were willing to lie about, when in fact, other people in the room would lie earlier and say that they saw the long line as being short.

The last experiment is the Zimbardo experiment, of Philip Zimbardo at Stanford, but it’s more commonly known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which, effectively, a mental headspace—that of pretending to be guards are prisoners—extended so deeply into the being of the people who were asked to act out this, in fact, drama, that they lost track of reality. And I’ve dealt with this before in an essay on Kayfabe, written in Edge.org, where Kayfabe is the system of lies that professional wrestling uses to manage the difference between fantasy, which is called “work” and reality, which is called “shooting”, in the jargon of professional wrestling.

Very often people lose track of what is real and what is fantasy, and the Koestler essay, in fact, touches on all of these questions. Who is it, among us, who is capable of passing the Stanford Prison Experiment by not getting so drawn dragged into the drama that they lose track of reality? Who’s capable of getting through the Asch experiment by not being so conformist that they’re willing to lie just because everyone else is lying? This touches on Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification, which was one of our earliest episodes in the series earlier in this year of The Portal. And who is capable of being Milgrim Negative—that is, people who refuse to carry out unspeakable cruelty just because someone else absolves them. So, let’s get to the Arthur Koestler essay. I think what I really want to do is to concentrate on the first four or so paragraphs, because I think that’s really the meat of what makes this article spectacular, and this this essay really different.

I find that in some of the rest of his discussion, he doesn’t really reach the same high heights. So, in some sense, it’s really the first portion of this essay, which I think makes it absolutely worth everyone’s while.

So let me read and then I’ll give you my impressions. So he starts off by saying, “There is a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals, it is dark and I am being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood.” And I want you to remember the concept of the thicket, because he’s going to talk about a screen and so there’s both a metaphorical version of it and they imagine physical version of it.

“There’s a busy road and no more than 10 yards distance, and I scream for help, but nobody hears me. The crowd walks past laughing and chatting.” Alright, that’s his setup. So he is being murdered. And there is a normal world, which is the street, and then there is the unspeakable world, which is what happens that is cloaked by the thicket or brushwood, in his original telling of the tale, people do not hear him screaming. And he talks about screaming, and screaming will be a conserved concept throughout the article.

Then he says, “I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I have quarreled about it with analysts, and I believe it to be an archetype in the Jungian sense, an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness, when faced with death, with cosmic violence, and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience.” So I think this is extremely important to understanding the essay. He says that I know that a great many people share this the same type of dream. So he’s talking about the idea that this dream may, in some sense, be a universal. Yet, if it is a universal, that immediately gives us our first problem. Who are these people who are walking past on the road, laughing and chatting? Are they not the same people who are going home at night to dream this dream of isolation, of being completely vulnerable, and, in fact, being at the world’s mercy? Are we not, in fact, seeing two versions of the self, which he is going to attempt, in some places, to distance himself from those who do not care, who do not stop, who do not hear. But, in fact, he cannot find resolution, because what he is confronted with, while he can be an accurate reporter, to an extent, he will also end up as the unreliable narrator because he himself doesn’t understand the drama in which he is, in fact, figuring prominently.

As we get to the second paragraph, this gets developed. “I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.” So he’s hoping that we can get the word out about atrocities and he doesn’t fear the word “propaganda”. And then he says, “For after all”, and now he points the finger at second person. “You are the crowd who walked past laughing on the road and there a few of us escaped victims of eyewitnesses of the things which happened in the thicket and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theaters, and cinemas.”

At this point, you can see that he very clearly has a different model from the universal, which is that there is a “You” and the “You” are the crowd who walk past, and then there is the “We” and the “We” are the enlightened few who are trying to grab the attention and the mindshare of the crowd.

So, then he says “now and then we” that is those who are not screened from reality, “now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute. I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces a faint, glassy stare entering your eye, and I tell myself now you’ve got them. Now hold them, bold them, so that they will remain awake.”

So, clearly, the idea is that mostly it’s hard to get people to hear, but there is a moment in which people become open to the idea that they are in fact not seeing something, and he sees this as a dream state, as a fantasy state. But then he says, “but it only lasts a minute,” and here comes a sentence that I cannot free from my consciousness, “You shake yourselves like puppies who have got their fur wet. Then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on, protected by the dream barrier, which stifles all sound.”

What he is talking about here is, in fact, the actual thing that he has previously metaphorically put forward as “the thicket”. What is this thicket? What does it mean that we are in fact reachable, but then become unreachable after we have already been reached? So he’s talking about this as a transparent screen is invisible In fact, and it descends, so that you can walk on. So this issue of walking past, not being concerned, having to get to your day-to-day duties, is only possible because of the concept of “the dream barrier”, and he says, “which stifles all sound”. This question about whether you are, in fact, hearing, or whether you, in fact, are in some sense choosing not to hear—this is something that has perplexed psychologists for quite some time. There have been studies done which show that in order to suppress certain sorts of information, in a weird sense, the individual has to have an excellent map of that which they are pretending not to know, otherwise, it is too easy to trip over something that forces us to confront the reality. So, in fact, what we’re talking about is some very elevated theory of mind that Koestler does not possess, and perhaps we don’t possess in our current time, which is to try to understand exactly what is this thicket, metaphorically, or literally, in terms of brain science, that allow people not to actually understand, listen, or hear.

He continues, and he names the group that he’s previously called “We”, and he integrates it with the concept of “the screem”, so that it is the willingness and ability to scream that, in fact, designates the in-group that Koestler belongs to, and he says “We the Screamers” and I do think that this is an excellent name for those of us who try to alert large numbers of people to dangers before people are really ready to listen. “We the screamers”—not particularly attractive as a group name—”have been at it now for about 10 years. We started on the night when the epileptic Vann de Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament. We said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world, and you thought we were maniacs.” So this idea of being able to see the future, and be trapped in one’s own time, and by sharing the vision of the future one is treated as a maniac, in his case—this is obviously sitting very poorly with him. He’s clearly writing in 1944, where it should be clear that the people who are calling this early during the 30s were in fact, the same ones. And he’s got a bigger and taller order, that not only do we have a World at War, but he has something else to tell us and this is going to be really the subject, which is “What is the biggest thing you could possibly have in plain sight that no one could see?”

“At present, we we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing by hot steam, mass electrocution and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe.”

Okay, so now he drops. He drops the big bombshell, he’s talking about the Holocaust, but it’s 1944. And instead of being able to call it “The Holocaust”, or “The Shoah”, or “The genocide against the Jews of Europe”, he’s forced to talk about it from first principles, because it’s—strange to say it—the world had not woken up to the idea that there was a mass killing, a genocide, happening inside of World War II. And so he’s forced in 1944 to speak in these terms that most of us living in the present day would imagine, would have been commonplace during the time. But consider that this is January of 1944.

“So far, 3 million have died. It is the greatest mass killing in recorded history. And it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch.” So he gets from daily to hourly. But now you know exactly what’s on his mind. He’s talking about seconds. And he’s talking about what it is like to know that people are being murdered second by second. And that every time that you fritter or take a cup of tea, or adjust your colar, or whatever it is that you’re doing, people are dying at the exact same time that you were unable to figure out how to reach other people and say, “Do you understand what is happening here?”

So clearly, in my mind, the ticking of the watch is about seconds, and he has a very clear idea about how many people are dying for every second wasted.

“I have photographs before me on the desk while I’m writing this. And that accounts for my emotion and bitterness.” Now normally when people talk about bitterness, they’re talking about someone else being bitter. And in fact, on social media, it’s usually an attempt at a kill shot in some kind of a target. “Wow, you sound bitter.” Clearly, everyone who is bitter is in some sense, one down because they’re not reconciled. The inability to say hey, it’s all good. No, I’m not invested is a modern weirdness, we have to recognize that there are reasons for evolutionarily having a trait known as bitterness, and he’s talking about the fact that he’s been at it for 10 years, and it is more pain and weight than this tiny number of people that he’s referring to as “the screamers” can bear.

So anyway, as he says this, he now says “People died to smuggle them out of Poland.” That is, the photographs, for example, “They thought it was worthwhile.”

Now, I want to bring attention to the fact that even in 2020, when this is being recorded, Witold Pilecki, who I do not know how to pronounce his name because I’ve never heard another human being actually talked to me about this person, he is a personal hero along with Dick Gregory, a few other people, of incredible courage, the courage that I don’t have, and most—nobody I know has. Witold Pilecki was a Polish non-Jew who decided that he would get himself smuggled into Auschwitz, attempt reconnaissance, take photographs, and figure out what was going on at Auschwitz and then somehow after organizing resistance, get himself out.

Possibly the bravest bravest thing I’ve ever heard. He, I believe, dressed as a Jew, got himself incarcerated and taken to Auschwitz, did the reconnaissance, organized resistance, got a report together, and smuggled it out. Okay. Most of us have never heard this man’s name. It just I don’t even understand that there should be an entire month devoted to this guy in the Jewish calendar.

He was then killed by the communists after the war. But the key point is that these reports had been smuggled out of Europe, and were widely ignored. And the question of why we would not want to know that our enemy was engaged in mass atrocity, and why it was so difficult to communicate, is something that we should all, I think, pay a great deal of attention to.

So he says, “people died to smuggle them out of Poland, they thought it was worthwhile.” Now the question of course, is, “What happens when Witold Pilecki, for example, gets to report out, and it has very little effect?”

The weak link in the chain, in fact, is not presence or absence of heroes. The weak link in the chain is, “What do the rest of us do when we have access to information that should propel us towards action?”

“The facts have been published in pamphlets, white books, newspapers, magazines, and whatnot. But the other day I met one of the best known American journalists over here and he told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey, nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believe that the Nazis committed atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.”

Now, what is one make of this somehow, we cannot get people to understand and believe that the world is far different than whatever it is that they are generically told to believe by major news organs, for example, until you have institutions willing to reify a particular reality—in this case, the actual Holocaust—it’s very difficult to get people to go along with it, because you don’t have that kind of concordance between the information and what the institutions say. And this is what really struck me about this, someone describing the Holocaust in 1944, who has to talk about himself as a crazy person in order to anticipate what the mood of the public would be in hearing this.

Now, how big does something have to be, before it becomes impossible for people to pretend that it’s not happening? If it can be the size of the Holocaust, and people can still convince themselves that this isn’t worth reacting to, it gives you an idea that there may be no limit on the size of the elephant that can fit into any room.

Then he says, “As to this country,” and I think he’s probably talking about Britain, where he had a home, “I’ve been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps. They don’t believe in the starving children of Greece in the shot hostages of France, in the mass graves of Poland. They’ve never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belzec. You can convince them for an hour, and then they shake themselves. Their mental self defense begins to work, and in a week, the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex, temporarily weakened by a shock.”

So here you see he recapitulates the earlier metaphor of the puppy shaking themselves having gotten the for the for wet. And what he’s saying is, is that you can convince them for an hour. The problem isn’t whether or not you can reach people. The problem is, how do you and using his words, “how do you hold them, and bold them”? In effect, what we’re doing is is that we’re taking the information and we’re putting it in some very unstable state. And as soon as that person has a chance to compute the consequences of what holding that information may do mean how it may obligate that person, they’ve quickly begin a second process. So what we initially imagine is the problem of teaching people of informing people is in fact a very little use whatsoever. The real issue has to do with, “What do we do to make sure that the information stays in place?” This is a massive reframing. It’s not that we need the information superhighway. Instead, the question is, where’s the courage superhighway? Where’s the superhighway of emotion and reification? We don’t have a reification superhighway. And I want to talk a little bit about the Portal as we get to the end of this last of the major early paragraphs in the essay.

“Clearly, this is becoming a mania with me and my like”, again talking about the problem that is ostensibly his small group, but then he starts to make some moves, and we start to see the real boldness of this essay.

“Clearly, we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal.” Alright, well, this is like, you know, Queens Gambit declined. He’s going to make a Gambit where he’s going to offer something of great value, which is that, clearly, his group must be the crazy people.

But then he, he makes an incredible move, and he says this, “But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a fantasy world, so perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps it is we the screamers who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who taught her about any screened fantasy world, because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your daydreaming eyes would still be alive.”

Now that is so strong and so bold that he’s going to have to pull his punches slightly in the next sentence, which I think we should ignore. He says, “I said perhaps because obviously the but the above can only be half the truth.” Well, obviously, yes, it’s only a portion of the truth. The rest of the essay, for the most part, is his attempts to explain away this crazy state of affairs. But I think that, really, what makes this essay so incredible is this move where he says it cleanly and plainly: he is saying that a tiny number of us are, in fact, sane and healthy and sound, and that the vast majority of humanity is in fact, maniacal. That the neurotics, the maniacs, are, in fact, the average Joe, the the simple Jane, whoever you want to call it, as being the median individual is, in fact, in danger of being completely crazy and nuts. And this is exactly what, in a certain sense, a naive reading of the Milgrom, Asch, and Zimbardo experiments would tell us. They would tell us that the generic person in our society is willing to lie, is willing to do the unspeakable, is willing to disappear into a story that’s been told.

In fact, why is that? Well, it has to do with what I’ve talked about as truth, meaning, fitness, and grace. These are the four directives, which I’m forced to trade off between, where I can’t simply go pure truth because for example, sometimes if, let’s imagine that you’re, you’re being held hostage, and you’re asked to answer a question, and you know that the answer to your question will be life or death. The reason we refer to these communications from hostage takers as “hostage videos” is to let people know that when people are in life and death circumstances, they frequently lie, they will go back on the truth in order to be fit, to have a hope of saving themselves. And in fact, this is one of the issues, that very often we cannot get people to listen to things, as per Upton Sinclair’s famous line that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”, something to that effect.

What we have, in the situation where fitness must compete with truth, is a recognition that understanding many things may cause us to become less fit in a Darwinian sense. And so I think that this is one of the things that we have to contend with. It’s just that when we realize that we are up against insuperable odds, as we might have felt when we were facing Nazi Germany, it becomes weirdly rational to lie if we’re trying to preserve ourselves, and we feel that we have very little agency with which to actually change the course of history. So I think that that’s one of the aspects of why you can expect madness on behalf of a large number of people, but it’s also the case that, in general, people lack courage, en masse. They also, very often, simply cannot find a way of behaving that is consistent. And in attempting to behave in a consistent fashion, both intellectually and morally, when they find out that they can’t do it, they sign on for large programs, with the idea being that we can all say, “Oh, well, I went along with what was the dominant force in my time”, and not have to actually take individual responsibility.

So I think that in those paragraphs, we have a fantastic message from the past, which is that something of arbitrary size, that should be seeable by everyone, that is well documented, and to which many people have been exposed can still be hidden. And that the way in which is hidden does not have to do with the fact that the evidence isn’t present. It has to do with the fact that there is the secondary process, this process of shaking ourselves, of getting rid of the truth, of getting rid of our obligations to each other, of, in fact, going into a dream state to protect us. And I believe that in large measure, that’s where we are right now.

One of the reasons that I started The Portal is because I believe almost none of what I’m told by our leading institutions. I don’t believe that the universities are level with us. I don’t believe that the political parties are leveling with us. I don’t believe that our news media are asking the questions or trying to get information into our hands so that we can conduct civil society. In effect, I think that almost all of our institutions are lying to us about almost everything, almost all the time. And to make such a statement is to sound insane, as Koestler did in his time. But I believe that, in part, one of the purposes of The Portal has been to alert people to the idea that we probably live in a fantastic world that doesn’t really exist, and have done so for between ’75 and 47, 48 years depending upon how you want to count.

As to what we should do about it, I’m not entirely sure. One of my thoughts was that we should start The Portal as a means of escaping from this fantasy reality. But I’m watching how the system seems to be destroying individuals using the fact that the few things that are free, that are meaningful in our world are, in general, run by individuals and not large organizations, and that individuals can always be trapped up on accusations and personal foibles. So I want to talk a little bit about what the institutions were failing to do in Koestler’s world, and then I’ll get to the end of his essay.

He says, “At our end of the chain in undue proportion, I believe that, on the whole, the MOI and BBC are quite competent at their job. For almost three years, they had to keep this country going on nothing but defeats, and they succeeded. In other words, he was talking about the fact that it’s important that one’s sensemaking organs—in this case, for example, the BBC in the UK—they have to go to war, because, in fact, you’re talking about a mixture of informing the public and making sure that the public is emboldened to fight whatever it is threat to its survival, in this case, what was happening in the continent.

He says, “But at the same time, they lamentably failed to imbue the people with anything approaching a full awareness of what it was all about, of the grantor and horror of the time into which they were born.” In other words, what was going on in retrospect was that the same part of Europe was fighting the craziest part of Europe. And I don’t mean to say that the US and the UK were blameless, certainly we know about the British Empire and the many horrible things that happened under it, but, in effect, the blueprints for a better tomorrow were found in the UK, and in the US, and we were the good guys. And I don’t want to get into the idea that “there were no good guys in World War II”, because if good guys means anything, we were the good guys. What we had to do was to defeat pure evil, even though we aligned ourselves with a pure evil in the form of Stalin, who, you know, has to be admitted, gave, on behalf of his people, an incredible sacrifice in what would be called the Great Patriotic War over there in the effort to stop Hitler. So, yes, there were a lot of complications, there were monsters everywhere. But it was necessary for people to recognize that pure evil had to be defeated in the form of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis,, and that people who were fighting that war, were not even at the time fully aware of the fact that they were fighting arguably one of the noblest wars that we will ever see.

So, I think it’s very important that we understand Koestler’s context—he then tries to talk about why was it that there were so many great Cassandra’s in the past that failed to alert people, prophets, preachers, teachers, he can’t figure out exactly why it was that we’ve historically been, perhaps, less successful than we might have been. He talks about whether the Anglo Saxon penchant for being cool under fire, which sometimes is exaggerated in wartime—I remember reading letters home from the front in World War I, where the Brits talk about, “Oh, we’ve been, you know, having having some fun with our counterparts on the other side, tossing pomegranates back and forth,” referring to grenades.

And that is possible, that it’s not helpful to be too cool about these things. Koestler himself was a Hungarian Jew who made the UK his home, but both Hungarians and Jews are known to run a little hot. So he hides behind Latin hysterics as he talks about cultural reasons for taking different attitudes. But he can’t really figure out where this disconnect is coming from.

Then he talks about the weird way in which some knowledge is distant and some knowledge is immediate. So he talks about whether or not he believes that Spartacus existed and led a revolt of slaves, or the fact that maybe the numbers are too big in the Holocaust, that individual life is a tragedy, but that millions of lives at once can’t be thought through, and then, weirdly, it has less weight than even a single, a single death, which is very immediate to us because of the way in which our brains keep track. He talks about the idea that the absolute is a particular problem, an impediment, this issue of knowing and believing when he talks about if he knows the exact date of his death, it will have a very different than if he knows the approximate time of his death. Interesting to note that he commited suicide in the 1980s from having incurable diseases and having spent his life, interestingly, as a man trying to ground his idealism in some movement, or some institution, and he finds that his idealism is always of a nature that doesn’t allow him to affiliate. So he tries communism, he tries to anti-communism, he tries Zionism, he tries any manner of different ways of living idealistically, and, like Prince Charming with a glass slipper, he’s trying it out on all of the various possible institutions and never finding the right fit for Cinderella.

Then he says, thus we all live in a state of split consciousness. And I think this is where he starts to actually reconcile himself to the fact that he’s introduced two separate ideas, that is, that there’s a universal aspect of this experience of being isolated and picked off—think about cancel-culture at the moment as a good example that, are we both part of the mob and we fear the mob will turn on us? So here he starts talking about being in a state where he recognizes that there is split consciousness, and that perhaps this resolves the puzzle—that we all have split consciousness, some of us are aware of it. Others of us make use of it and don’t admit to it.

So he says, “Thus we all live in a state of split consciousness. There’s a tragic plane and a trivial plain, which contain two mutually incompatible kinds of experienced knowledge.” I think it’s worthwhile looking at different breakdowns of knowledge. One would be technae versus epistemae. Technae is sort of the knowledge that you have embodied in you, that you feel—a woodworker who works with his hands has technae, but the person who designs a building inside of their mind, and does it according to architectural specifications, might be working within epistemae—for example, the person who understands the acoustics of a great violin, but may not have the knowledge of how to actually machine the wood in order to produce those acoustics. That would be one breakdown of knowledge between two different kinds.

Another kind is the trivial and the profound, which in writing is sometimes referred to when you juxtapose them as bathos, where you have to save the universe, but first you have to remember to floss your teeth. And I do think that there’s a weird way in which the lived experience movement is, in a strange way, an attempt to say that knowledge can’t be universal because of lived experience, and that if someone’s lived experience contradicts the universal we should privilege lived experience, as opposed to that which appears to be far more robust and can actually be shared between people.

So he says, “We have incompatible kinds of experience knowledge, their climate and language are as different as church Latin”—keep in mind that this was before Vatican II—”is different as church Latin from business slang. These limitations of awareness account for the limitations of enlightenment by propaganda. People go to cinemas, they see films of Nazi tortures, of mass shootings, of underground conspiracy and self sacrifice. They say they shake their heads, some have a good cry, but they do not connect it with the realities of their normal plane of existence.”

I think about this as how difficult it is for us to actually think about what it is that we’re saying, and feel it, and embody it. And I found this in the financial crisis where the person who probably had the best handle of the financial crisis before it hit was a friend of mine, or, at least in my circles, was a friend of mine named Adil Abdul Ali, who I wrote a paper and mortgage backed securities with in 2001, and he told me what was going to happen in the financial crisis before it happened. And he did it in a detailed fashion, what was going to happen first, what was going to fail next, which contracts were going to come up, etc. When it all happened, I called him up and I said, Adil, you must have made a fortune. He said, we made some money, but not nearly as much as you would hope or expect. And I said, “That’s impossible. You knew everything in detail before it happened.”

He said, “Yep.” I said, “Well what happened?”

And he said, “I couldn’t bring myself to believe it.”

I said, “Really?”

He says, “No, there’s a difference between being fully committed to it, and simply thinking it’s true.”

I found that to be an incredible statement, but then I was able to connect it to other people’s comments. When Dick Gregory, who, along with Wiltold Pilecki—he is a great hero of mine—found out that the FBI was considering having him killed by La Cosa Nostra, or Italian organized crime, he was shocked.

He said, I always said something like, “I always knew they were trying to kill me. But I didn’t know they were trying to kill me!” And I thought, “Well what did he mean by that?” And it’s this weird way we have of thinking something is true before we actually get confirmation that we are permitted to feel this truth with every fiber in our body. And so I think that this is something that Koestler is talking about, which is that many people who are not screaming are thinking, but they’re not having the embodied experience.

And then he says, “We live in a society of the Jekyll and Hyde pattern magnified into gigantic proportions.” And I think this gets to a very interesting, final way of closing out our analysis of this essay, because it speaks to how different is the time in which we live. If we think about an era in which we’re convinced that things were incredibly real, we could hardly do better than go back to World War II. Yet, this is somebody writing from the tail end of World War II, showing us that, in fact, people were participating in World War Two—they were losing their lives without a sense of the grandeur of what it was they were involved in. There’s always been this question, for example, did people in the Renaissance know that the Renaissance was happening? Was this some sort of environment, like water, or fish never notice it? Or air, where birds and humans, you know, depend on it, but, in fact, we don’t see the medium in which we live, and in which our lives play out.

So he says, with respect to this Jekyll and Hyde pattern, “This was however, not always the case to the same extent. There were periods and movements in history, in Athens, in the early Renaissance, during the first years of the Russian Revolution, where at least certain representative layers of society had attained a relatively high level of mental integration—times when people seem to rub their eyes and come awake.” Again, remember the issue of sleepiness and wakefulness.

He says, “When their cosmic awareness seemed to expand, when they were contemporaries in a much broader and fuller sense, when the trivial and the cosmic plane seemed on the point of fusing.” So if you think back to—what is it—the milk delivery man walking through the ruins of London during the Battle of Britain, and the idea that we have to carry on, you know, “keep calm and carry on”, that idea that a simple small act is an act of defiance. And it’s a way in which the trivial and the and the cosmic come together. I remember when my daughter cut my hair during the covid epidemic, it was a an incredibly small act, but also one that felt laden with meaning, because I had not been able to go to something as simple as a barber, for months.

He says, “But never before, not even during the spectacular decay of Rome and Byzantium, was split thinking so palpably evident, such a uniform mass disease. Never did human psychology reach such a height of phoniness. Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio”—and here it comes—”as communications expand. The world is open to us as never before. And we walk about as prisoners, each in his private, portable cage.”

I don’t know how you read this. “Private portable cage” sounds to me like the mental space that we disappear in when we’re on a street, but looking into a phone, when our headphones are in our ears and maybe our earbuds are playing music or we’re listening to a podcast, we’re not really present. We are not contemporary with anything. It’s not that we’re listening to a synchronized broadcast most of the time. We are asynchronously, out of time and out of space, and due in large measure to communications.

Now he’s talking about 1944 as being a period of increased communications, “Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand, and the world is open to us as never before.”

Well, okay, assume that that’s true. What does it say that our phones carry all of this information and can screen us away from the people who are even at our own table as we privately customize our own world to be the cage that we’ve always desired so that we can lock ourselves in, and we have a permanent thicket surrounding us, that we can’t be reached by anyone else?

And then I think about who in the present really constitutes the screamers?

And I wanted to read a little bit at the very end of this essay, just to remind ourselves, and to mention a friend. “What can the screamers do but go on screaming until they get blue in the face? I know one who used to tour this country addressing meetings at an average of 10 a week. He is a well known London publisher. Before each meeting, he used to lock himself up in a room, close his eyes, and imagine in detail for 20 minutes that he was one of the people in Poland who were killed. One day he tried to feel what it was like to be suffocated by chloride gas in a death train. The other, he had to dig his grave with 200 others and then face a machine gun, which of course is rather unprecise and capricious in its aiming. Then he walked out to the platform and talked, he kept going for a full year before he collapsed with a nervous breakdown. He had a great command of his audiences, and perhaps he has done some good. Perhaps he has brought the two planes, divided by miles of distance”—again, the thicket, if you will—”an inch closer to each other”. So, in other words, it’s very little that has been done, but even an inch is less distance if there are miles.

“I think one should imitate this example.”

Well, I do want to say that there are some of us who have been connecting to the pain of our audiences, and one in particular who made a point of lecturing as fast as he could to as many people as possible. In part, he had encountered a group of people that unfortunately go under the name of incels, that I think he understood better than any of us. We have dispensed with our need for young men—young men who cannot form families, young men for whom there is no enemy that we need to be saved from, so that even the idea of glory in war is not available to them. They’re not able to earn, they’re not able to command the respect in our society, because we, in fact, are completely unclear whether there’s anything we want from masculinity at all. And I think this individual recognized that there was an enormous demographic, just the way in previous election cycles, the exurbs and soccer moms were discovered.

Well, this incel demographic is filled with good young men who are lost. And he went around trying to talk about this problem, and the fact that it was deranging our society, until he couldn’t go anymore, and effectively collapsed in a nervous breakdown. And I think that we have to be compassionate with people who see the size of the problem.

In 2020, many of you have woken up to the idea that some of us, the modern day versions of the screamers, have been yelling at you for decades. On this program, we’ve tried to talk about a great number of things that have no echo in the outside world. You will find that, in fact, we’ve talked about three or four, or perhaps five things with very little impact. In the first place—in episode, I think it was 25—we talked about Jeffrey Epstein, and what questions needed to be asked. And in fact, despite being listened to by just under half a million people on I think YouTube alone, and over half a million people, of course, between the audio and the video, it’s had no effect. In Episode 19 of The Portal, in our inaugural year, we talked about the laboratory of mice of the Jackson Laboratory, potentially being broken, and the fact that we’ve cheated ourselves of the molecular embodiment of the antagonistic pleiotropy concept of George Williams.

We have not heard anything from the Johns Hopkins University with respect to what happened in that interaction, and we would like to extend an another invitation to that laboratory to talk about the problems of scientific interaction surrounding elongated telomeres, laboratory animals, and the perverse incentives of science itself.

In Episode 18, I believe we discussed the distributed idea suppression complex. Again, we got tremendous traction from all of our listeners, an incredible base at this point, but, strangely, within the institutional world, there was no interest whatsoever, except potentially just to sort of deride it, even though what we’re talking about is exactly the same problem that Koestler had.

Additionally, we released Geometric Unity in lecture form, and we have not really heard—despite the fact that I believe that the major ideas are set out in that lecture and the additional material that we put up—almost any substantive response.

We’ve talked about the problem that the National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation faked a labor shortage during the 1980s under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, passing to Eric Bloch, as head of the NSF, and passing to Peter House as head of the Policy Research and Analysis Division. We’ve heard nothing on this front, even though we claim that there was a study done in 1986, that clearly showed that we were going to fake a science and engineering shortage that could have been cured by the market, which is what happens in the market economy.

The key feature is that a lot of what we do here on The Portal has no echo. And to the extent that it will have an echo, it will have an echo only when we screw up. So, part of what I wanted to talk to you about was the thicket. What is the dream barrier? What is the screen that keeps us from connecting from reaching our highest and best function in this world, to collaborating amongst ourselves.

Now I would say that the communities that have formed around The Portal have been the most important and gratifying thing as we finish out this year. Try to find the Discord servers. Look for ThePortal.wiki. Look for the website, and sign up if you can, but, most importantly, recognize that we are living in a dream state. And most of what we’ve been taught to believe is completely untrue.

We’ve been trying to do our best to show you another world whether it’s through preference falsification, the idea of stagnation, when many of you have been taught that everything is accelerating at a dizzying speed. Our hope is that at the end of this, that you are not those who walk along the road while people are being hurt in the thicket. We should all be taking a much closer look at what’s really going on, for example, with China and its Uighur Muslim population. There are things to be done in our era, and there are ways in which this essay was written for people of all times. It happens that it’s a time capsule coming out of the Holocaust and World War II, to let us know that, even back then, monstrous things, enormous things, things that dwarf the Hindenburg were claimed not to be seeable by large numbers of people who were staring straight at them. So, if you believe that, in some sense, you’re isolated, that the people around you, your family, your coworkers don’t believe what you see, if you have become convinced that the world is magnificently off the rails, and so far from what it claims to be that you can’t get things to line up, feel free to imagine that, in fact, that you are the maniacs, but also consider whether Arthur Koestler isn’t speaking to you. Maybe the idea is that the people who don’t see this, those who laughed when we called this the “No Name” or “N^2 Revolution”, those that derided the idea of having anything that would stand up to cancel culture, the idea that the problem at Evergreen State College was going to become a national problem, if you only waited for those kids to graduate, given the level of indoctrination. It’s not too late to realize that we have a problem of universal institutional collapse. I think that’s probably my craziest statement, because, if you’ll think about it, saying that all the institutions are led by people who cannot be trusted, is exactly the sort of thing Koestler was talking about. How do we talk about something that is so large that it can’t be believed, simply because to believe it would cause someone not to know how to live their life the very next day?

I think we have to be courageous and realize that we’re going to be living our lives in The Truman Show for a while until this situation breaks and we at last come to grips with the fact that many of us have known nothing other than the bubble in which we grew up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this essay, “The nightmare that is a reality” by Arthur Koestler from January 9, 1944, in the New York Times. It’s been really meaningful to me that I can bring something up. I never thought I could discuss this with, in all likelihood, over a quarter of a million people or more, going forward. So thank you very much for sharing something of a great personal significance. I hope it was worthwhile. You’ve been through The Portal. We hope that you will subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, wherever you listen to podcasts, Spotify, and then you’ll go over to YouTube and find our channel and not only subscribe, but click the bell icon so that we’ll make sure that we’re in a position where we can update you whenever our next video episode drops. Until then, be well, take care of yourselves. Stay healthy.

This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 39.


Hi, it’s Eric with this episode’s audio essay. The subject today is “Optics”. I want to try to use this essay to formulate a simple law for social media, but to do so, I would like to put it within a context of other such laws to which it is akin. In the first place, we have a theory within economics stated using only five words, and known as Say’s Law after Jean-Baptiste Say, which states simply this: supply creates its own demand. That is to say, if you have a truckload of some object for which there is demand, say, chairs, for example, its sale will result in increased demand for other goods from the profits obtained. And thus, Say’s Law links the concepts of aggregate supply and demand, which may have previously been thought by some to be independent. A similar law in the theory of communications was that of Marshall McLuhan, whose famous five word adage, “the medium is the message”, can be interpreted as saying that the vehicle of communications is actually likely to be the principal constituent of the payload it delivers.

While these laws are well known, they are not often connected, despite having a similar flavor. In both cases, they link two concepts which are traditionally considered as connected complements. In this spirit, what I would like to experiment with here is the introduction of a five word law for social media. It may be stated either as “the optics are the substance” or “optics create their own substance”, depending upon whether one wishes to follow McLuhan or Say, respectively.

Now what do I mean by this? Well, consider the effect of a smartphone on human cognition. To be clear, we must acknowledge that such a remarkable device gives us the ability to dive deeply into any subject we care to investigate, but, if we are honest, we must admit that it is even more likely in practice to distract us constantly and dilute our attention than to be the tool that we hope we will utilize for noble means. Thus, we very seldom do dive deeply into any of the subjects which come across our feeds, searches, and screens. And even if we do pursue a news story or update into the weeds, it is very unlikely that large numbers of other users will do so alongside us.

Thus, the most important aspect of a story may well not be its underlying substance or truth, but it’s optics instead. That is, our intuitive sense of an update may well be expected to be the extent of our engagement with that story. Specific five word specializations of this as-yet unnamed law might be: “The headline is the article” or “The publisher is the politics”. Knowing that an unedited video was leaked to appear on James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas is presumably sufficient to make sure that it is not taken seriously by any center-left institution. The optics of the United States’ cleverly named Black Lives Matter movement are stated clearly in the title. To oppose this organization for its platforms, the self declared Marxist agenda pushed by its founders, or its bizarre foray into the politics of the Middle East, where there are very few black American lives, is not possible under this law of social media without becoming a racist in the eyes of the internet. Why? Because the optics are in the title, and thus, the implied substance of the organization is designed to make it impossible to oppose without catastrophic costs to those reacting to the nuanced found in the details.

But what, then, is the new role of what we would have previously considered the substance, before the advent of the smartphone and the social internet? Well, this remains a curious question. Let us, for the remainder of this episode, take a radical stance and call this “legacy reality”. You see, in legacy reality, all sorts of things are happening that contradict our new five word law. For example, in legacy reality, a white man named Tony Timpa was killed in Dallas under almost identical circumstances to those in which George Floyd in Minneapolis later lost his life. Timpa was held down on camera for a comparable amount of time: 11+ minutes for Timpa to the 8+ minutes in which Floyd suffered, but he was white, while Floyd was black. Yet there’s bizarrely no concept of Timpa’s death being significant, except in one regard: it shows that we have, as yet, no ability to say which of these deaths is provably racially motivated in the absence of further evidence, and thus, to raise the issue is to question the optics of fluids death.

In short, Floyd’s death was, optically, a lynching. Therefore, in the era of social media, it was, in substance, a lynching as well by our new law, and the introduction of Timpa’s death is to use legacy reality to question modern substance. Now, the reason I say “modern substance” here is that the implied racism of Floyd’s death as an example of a clear optical lynching was sufficient to propel millions into the streets. And, truth be told, the issue of structural racism and the differential application of policing, trial, sentencing, and incarceration along racial lines has a long and nauseating history from the era of slavery into the present. Thus, the nonsense that powerful Americans have traditionally used to avoid looking directly at the shame of differential treatment within our criminal justice system, particularly for nonviolent drug-related crimes, was matched by the new substance of an optical lynching. Organizers were effectively saying to us, “So what if we don’t know for a certainty that it is a lynching in legacy reality? It was at a minimum a much needed optical lynching to galvanize the real change we need, and for which we have waited far too long.”

With that said, the very real changes that are likely to come about as a result of an optical lynching may or may not be for the good, but a sudden injection of unwanted legacy reality is extremely likely to result in buzzkill and the mood spoilage of any movement that is being coordinated not through groupthink, but group-feel.

So why have optics been so successful in overtaking legacy reality of late? I believe that for a variety of reasons, we’ve changed what would be called the recursion depth were we in computer science here, rather than the politics of civil society. Well, I trust that most of my readers are well aware as adults that an irrational number such as pi cannot be computed from a simple fraction. Some of us can still remember the first time we were told that this is not true, and that twenty-two sevenths solves the problem. In fact, twenty-two sevenths seems equal to pi, but only to two decimal places of accuracy, before the two decimal expressions part ways once and for all.

Far fewer of us know that the so called “perfect fifth” in western music is in fact not perfect at all. It is ever-so-slightly flat, and below the pure Pythagorean fifth, producing a ratio of the frequencies of “so” to “do” of approximately 1.4983, rather than 3 to 2, or 1.5.

Now both these examples show us that we can be easily fooled into thinking we understand a situation by not carrying out an investigation beyond a certain limit. In fact, we cannot afford to give infinite attention and resources to investigating every problem. And so, we must cut off our investigations at some point. Sometime between 1971, when Herb Simon started thinking about attention economics in 2001, when the attention economy concept finally gained enough momentum from Devonport, Beck, and others, to propel it into greater mainstream awareness, a huge opportunity was missed. That opportunity was the study of the corresponding market for inattention. For example, in the news media business, many people think that there is always a search for the most eyeballs, yet they’re also arose a concept called “The Friday News Dump”, which sought to find the spot in the week where people would give the least attention for the dissemination of bad news. Likewise, print media writers learn to hide their true underlying stories by “burying the lead”, when the main story had to be told, but was not favorable to the papers way of thinking. This would sometimes be handled what is internally called the “To Be Sure” paragraph, where the author too often effectively confesses the mitigating truth that they had hoped to avoid, at least until the penultimate paragraph many layers deep.

Well, what happens when you can actually calculate where your audience will stop reading, listening, feeling or thinking? Studies have suggested that just over half of all people spend 15 seconds or less reading an article while digitally grazing.

Likewise, nearly three out of five link sharers have not so much as clicked on the headline that they are passing on. These dispiriting findings for professional writers would be akin within computer programming to finding out that somebody had reset the Python byte compilers recursion limit, which is usually initially set by default to something near 1000 out of the box, to a single digit number.

This, however, creates a fantastic opportunity for those whose ethics are sufficiently flexible. A particular form of our five word law, when applied to news media would be “the headline generates the story”, or “the headline is the story”. Once this has been discovered, we see that, increasingly, the purpose of the article in our era is not to inform, but to minimally support the desired headline for wide dissemination. Other forms of this principle are that, at least in the eyes of the weak and the dim, “the slogan is the platform”, “accusation generates its own conviction”, “the indignation is the reputation”, “swarms generate their own consensus”, “the messengers the message”, and “the aspiration is the implementation”. This also explains the underlying wisdom of the moronic phrase, “not a good look, bro”. It is often a warning that you were saying something in legacy reality without regard for the optical limits of the situation.

Here, the most important word may well be “bro”, as a corruption or shortening of “brother”, letting you know that you are now in an informal world where barely the first three letters will be read before the word becomes too cumbersome to complete. In an attempt to sum up, then, I will leave you with this:

There is not only a market for your attention, but one for your inattention as well. Your smartphone may well put all the world’s information at your fingertips as is so often remarked upon, but unlike the fabled Library of Alexandria, it puts all the world’s disinformation, misinformation, noise, and distraction as well. And what our CEOs and technologists have learned is that your emotions are responsive to optics and not substance when there are cat and GoPro videos to be watched.

Increasingly, there will be a war on anyone found to be attempting to traffick in higher recursion limits. I recently remarked on Twitter on the situation in Portland, where the nightly battle over the federal courthouse is generating two separate false narratives. In one narrative increasingly found on the right the City of Portland, Oregon is sloppily described as burning and constantly at war, which is not, as the ritualized battle is now confined to a single massive federal building as I write this into particular hours of the night. In the other narrative, peaceful protesters protected by moms and veterans are being attacked by federal fascists without provocation. Unfortunately for those pushing the latter narrative, any honest review of the videos circulating from citizen journalists will quickly dispel the illusion that a non-political mainstream media is dispassionately reporting all the news that is fit to print. What actually seems to be going on, which I have worked out with my brother, who has first hand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Portland, is that each side is trying to get attacked above a certain level before responding. That sounds crazy, of course, but the value going into the election is to generate video that optically moves the needle. As crazy as that sounds, the fatality count is so far thankfully absurdly low in the Pacific Northwest, given the violence because both the rioters, as opposed to the protesters, and federal agents, seem to be competing to be attacked.

After all, it bizarrely appears that there’s nothing more powerful in this media era than being a victim. Everything is reversed. And, in a presidential election year, with the country in turmoil, the rule of the land is victim takes all. So what did I say on Twitter that is worth discussing? That the behavior and absence of a cognitively declining Joe Biden from the national scene, and the extreme nature of the radicalized left seems to be creating a collection of people that I never thought that I would see, the never-Trump Trump voter. It seems that almost everyday people write to me and tell me that they voted for Hillary and or Bernie, despise Trump, see him as evil, dangerous, and mentally impaired, but now, paradoxically, view him as the last remaining alternative to the party of Mayor Wheeler of Portland, and Mayor Jenny of Seattle, currently experimenting with the abolish-law-enforcement movement, which is now both seen and denied everywhere by the Democratic Party and its allied media. I have conversed publicly with such never-Trump Trump voters on my Instagram Live q&a walks which I’ve been doing under Covid. I’ve even generated a video with Joe Rogan that has been seen by 6.5 million people on YouTube alone, where Joe said that he would vote for anyone over Biden despite having no love of Trump.

Yet I found myself besieged by thousands of accounts that I had never heard of for daring to insist that this phenomenon, that can be easily seen and validated, is in fact, seeable. “Name one person who was left of center and would vote for Trump over Biden!”, came the challenge from the swarm. This bewildered me at the time. Then I saw thousands of almost identical tweets with the same weird meme. “Cool story, bro. Did you hear this hanging out in a hipster coffee shop? That totally happened, right?” I must admit, I was relieved. This was coordinated, as it turned out, by someone with 13 million followers on Twitter, who ran what was termed a “pod” that coordinated swarming behavior. The fact that all of these tweets could be instantly invalidated was not the point. No one cared about their credibility. The point was that the optics are the substance and a swarm is sufficient to generate the optics needed. At some point I saw that the swarm included not just internet trolls, but verified accounts, including one of a Stanford professor.

“A Stanford professor?”, I just shook my head. The recursion limit was now set at one on a bright warm day in July and the clocks were all striking 13. But it was alright. Everything was alright. The struggle was finished.

This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 37.


Hello, it’s Eric with a few thoughts this week on the coming US election before we introduce this episode’s main conversation. Now, I should say upfront that this audio essay is not actually focused on the 2020 election, which is partially concluded, but in the election of 2024 instead. The reason I want to focus on that election is that, precisely because it is four years away, we should know almost nothing about it. We shouldn’t know almost anything about who is likely to be running or what the main issues will be, and we should be able to say almost nothing about the analysis of the election. Unfortunately, almost none of that is true.

Now, obviously, we can’t know all of the particulars. However, we still know a great deal more than we should. And that is because the ritual is not what many suppose it to be. A simple, nationwide open contest, to be held on a single day, after several unrestricted long form debates, with unbiased rules enforced by trusted referees. What is most important is that, prior to the 2024 election, there will have to be an appearance of a primary election.

So what actually is a primary election and what function does it serve? It’s hard to say. But if you think about it, this is really the awkward disingenuous and occasionally dangerous ritual by which a large and relatively unrestricted field of candidates needs to be narrowed to the subset that is acceptable to the insiders of the parties, their associated legacy media bosses, and the party megadonors. Now the goal of this process is to, in the famous words of Noam Chomsky, manufacture consent from us, the governed, so that we at least feel like we have selected the final candidates, who, in truth, we would likely never have chosen in an open process. I’ve elsewhere compared this ritual to the related process referred to by professional illusionists as “magician’s choice”, whereby an audience member is made to feel that they’ve selected something, like a card from a deck, out of their own free will, but that the magician has actually chosen from a position of superior knowledge and control, long before the trick has even begun.

In the modern era, of course, “consent” has become a much more interesting word, especially of late. And perhaps that fact is important in this context too, as the constellation of issues carry over surprisingly well. To bring in more terminology from the national conversation on consent, the party rank and file are groomed, if you will, by the party-affiliated media, as to who is viable, and who should be ignored and laughed at, through a process of what might be termed “political negging”. The candidates are also conditioned by being told that they can only appear in party-approved debates, which must be hosted exclusively by affiliated legacy media outlets, which emphasize sound bites and theatrical gotcha moments over substance, despite the internet’s general move towards in-depth discussion made possible in large part by the advent of independent long form podcasts like this one. Thus, both voters and candidates are prevented from giving informed and uncoerced consent by the very institutional structures most associated with democracy itself.

Now, why am I saying all of this? Well, it goes back to a video I’ve not been able to get out of my mind for four years. As some of you may remember from the 2016 election, Jake Tapper was asking democratic national committee chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, about why Bernie Sanders would be leaving New Hampshire with an equal number of convention delegates after trouncing his old rival Hillary Clinton in an historic upset.

Tapper asked, “What do you tell voters who are new to the process who say that this makes them feel like it’s all rigged?”

Now, what was odd here was the idea that only those new to the process needed to have this explained. As someone then in his early 50s, I can say that I certainly felt that this was rigged at the time, even though this was hardly my first rodeo. But I digress.

Wasserman Schultz was in fact prepared for the question, and she replied, “Well, let me just make sure that I can clarify exactly what was available during the primaries in Iowa and in New Hampshire. The unpledged delegates are a separate category. The only thing available on the ballot in a primary and a caucus is the pledged delegates, those that are tied to the candidate that they are pledged to support. They receive a proportional number of delegates going into our convention.”

Now this was confusing. Why are there any unpledged delegates at all? And why not call them Super Delegates, just like everyone else? And why was she asserting that availability was a settled question? This is like an emergency room administrator explaining to someone having a heart attack in real time that what is available is a vending machine down the hall rather than the nurse or physician chatting idly beside it. I remember thinking, “I don’t care what you say is available, you crazy, crazy lady.”

But of course, she wasn’t crazy. And this wasn’t about availability. It was about naked power, and its public rationalization. Wasserman Schultz attempted to explain further that it was all due to a need for—and I swear I’m not making this up—diversity and inclusion. She continued, saying,

“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that the party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists. We as the Democratic Party, really highlight and emphasize inclusiveness and diversity at our convention, and so we want to give every opportunity to grassroots activists and diverse committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend, and be a delegate at the convention, and so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.”

Did I hear that right? This is about diversity and inclusion for Super Delegates? Oddly, Tapper responded that while this obviously made no sense to him, either, they should both move to the next question,

“I’m not sure that that answer would satisfy an anxious young voter. But let’s move on.”

If you were confused, let me offer to translate. This isn’t supposed to be an election. “One man, one vote” is nowhere in evidence, obviously. And this isn’t the party of the rank and file. This is the party of the insiders. Perhaps it is weirdly easier to discuss this in the consent paradigm. She was saying, in effect,

“Come on, Jake. You’re a big boy, so don’t be so naive. Obviously lifelong rank-and-file, card-carrying party primary voters are just asking for it by coming to the polling place and voting provocatively in the presence of super delegates. Hey, if they weren’t into it, they wouldn’t flock to the voting booth like moths to a flame now, would they, know what I mean? Look, since we both know our place here, let’s move on to your next question so we don’t kill the buzz, shall we?”

To be clear, and most of us really never understood what the invariant phrase “diversity and inclusion” really means in such settings. I’ve always marveled at why both inclusion and the word diversity initially strike most of us and certainly me as positive concepts, but the now ubiquitous “diversity and inclusion” soundbite leaves many with a vaguely sick feeling. If I understand correctly, there’s both the meritorious part of the primary process which involves having to win at the ballot box by listening and appealing to voters, as well as the corrupt part of the voting, which is guaranteed through superdelegate quotas. And bizarrely, the diversity delegates she refers to here are the unpledged delegates. That is, in the twisted logic of the modern Democratic Party, it is actually the insiders who are the vulnerable diversity and inclusion delegates who must be protected. And, as you must have guessed, in the mind of the party operatives, only a bigot would argue with diversity and inclusion.

So is that the extent of it? Well, not even close. While the parties are not exactly shy about making sure that truly fair primaries are structurally impossible, they still have to leave at least a formal possibility that the people could choose a candidate hostile to the rent seeking insiders and donors. If an upset were not formally possible, the rank and file would be expected to balk at calling this arcane process a primary election, and they would be expected to reject the final candidate pushed by insiders, yet leaving that possibility formally open is dangerous to the mandarins, as it is exactly what led to Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee in 2016.

Thus, there are two more important steps to controlling the process to prevent a Trump like coup against the insiders in the future. Perhaps the most disturbing to observe is the constant harassment of popular candidates by party activists who live inside what is supposed to be independent news media, and who pose as journalists and news people. This is the second juggernaut to stop popular candidates, by ignoring their outperformance and positive reception, by dropping them from graphics, misspelling their names, ignoring their successes, standing in front of their likenesses on green screens and even inexplicably using someone else’s photograph just to troll them. Particularly egregious here was the all out war that MSNBC appeared to be waging on Andrew Yang in 2019 and 2020, which showcased the exact same tactics that had been used previously against Bernie Sanders in 2016, and Ron Paul in 2012, when the Pew Research Center on journalism in the media concluded, “The same could be said of the narrative in the news media of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who received the least coverage of any candidate overall. The difference with Paul is that he has received by far the most favorable coverage of any candidate in the blogosphere, 48% positive and only 15% negative”.

In Yang’s case, MSNBC was forced to comically apologize on multiple occasions for both suppose that errors and claimed emissions. When dropped from a visual the network dutifully tweeted, “Earlier on, we aired a poll graphic that inadvertently left off Andrew Yang. This was a mistake that we have since corrected on air. We apologize to Mr. Yang,” said MSNBC when they mysteriously dropped the candidate from their visuals. Yet when inexplicably screwing up Yang’s first name they said, “Earlier tonight on The Beat, we made a mistake in a segment about Andrew Yang. While we fixed his name during the segment, we’d like to apologize Andrew for the error.”

Yet this string of seemingly focused errors and omissions targeted on Yang continued unrelentingly, despite being extensively documented by the campaign. If these super delegates, staggered primaries, apparently deliberate errors, and endless targeted emissions were not enough to keep popular candidates from gaining serious support, the last major rigging of the election takes place by saying who can and cannot hold a debate. In 2020, all three of the most ferociously independent, and therefore dangerous candidates to Democratic Party insiders—that would be Sanders, Gabbard and Yang—were welcomed on Joe Rogan’s extremely popular long form podcast. Additionally, Sam Harris and I both interviewed Yang, and Dave Rubin, I believe, interview Both Yang and Gabbard, yet we were told that there were various strict rules to prevent multiple candidates from appearing at once in real discussions outside the standard format of legacy-media-run, media soundbite and gotcha spectacles termed “debates”. The main benefit of having, say, a Joe Rogan or a Sam Harris hosted discussion or debate is that the candidates could actually develop long trains of thought with nuance and subtlety to go well beyond the bumper sticker level complexity so loved by legacy media. But inside the bizarre upside-down world of official debates refereed by legacy media, the candidates that do the best in free long form discussions are systematically given the least time.

To sum up, the more you thrive with bold ideas and positions and actual policy discussions, the less time you are given and the bigger your handicapping. It’s essentially that simple. Thus, that long form format that we use on this show would almost certainly spell the death of most of the “focus-group candidates”. So why bring up 2024, when the election of 2020 has not even taken place? Because it is always going to be the same so long as we are fighting the current and last wars rather than the next one.

Personally, I don’t want to go through this idiocy ever again, just like you. And, like you, I’m tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, just for the privilege of blessing the candidate that the insiders can count upon to be hostile to my interests, because I have nowhere else to go. I would likely have voted for any candidate who would have told Debbie Wasserman Schultz that she should be fired immediately, and to stop hurting democracy. We need to recognize that in a country stuffed to the gills with both talent and ambition, there is no conceivable world in which a creepy 74 year old reality television celebrity with an enormous ego but no previous interest in government would be running against a relatively disinterested 77 year old with obvious progressing cognitive decline, for the most demanding job to be found on Earth.

There is no plausible world in which all five of the final five major candidates—that would be Biden, Trump, Bloomberg, Warren and Sanders—would all be born in the 1940s. That just isn’t something that would happen in a country where no president outside of that list was ever past the age of 70 at first inauguration in the history of the Republic, going back to its founding. With no precedent for such an aged ruler, are you really telling me that suddenly in 2020, we have five four or five septuagenarians without significant outrage or commentary?

Really?

Come on.

So what are we saying here? Really, then In short, there is no primary. And with no real primaries, there is no meaningful election, per se, and it is time to overthrow whatever structure is supporting an abomination posing as an election. If the parties donors and media maintain levers that are sufficient to control the elections, then a foreign power can also scheme to control the same levers the parties and insiders have given themselves to avoid democracy. We can’t afford to give the party and media insiders these levers even if we thought that they were trying to use them for our benefit, which they obviously are not.

It is time to clean out the innards of the parties and their media enablers. We need an independent media that isn’t trying to elect anyone in particular, but it’s instead animated by reporting whatever is actually happening. And we need to know that the party insiders aren’t choosing the candidate before we can even get a chance to enter the voting booth. Right now, many say that we are a democracy in decline, but I disagree. We are instead a republic that is not sure that it is safe to experiment with democracy at all. And there’s nothing less safe than a rigged an bittering superpower that will do everything it can to make sure that those with their snouts already in the trough are allowed to feed in uninterrupted splendor by the people they both parasitize and claim to represent.

The purpose of this essay is to say this: I may or may not vote the lesser of two evils in 2020, but we as a nation should be immediately focused on gutting these monsters parties and their affiliated media before 2024. There is no reason to cycle endlessly around the strain. It is time to overthrow and fire those who have taken over the DNC, RNC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, New York Times, etc., and repurpose them to spectacular effect against us all. Let these anti-patriots of both the left and right search for work elsewhere before we sign up to do this every four years. Before we move on to slates of octogenarians or young wild eyed utopians with little real world experience, it is time to end the national charade of pseudo democracy so that we can find out whether the real thing that is actual consent is any better than being groomed and nagged by the creeps hanging around the ballot box. I can’t promise that it will be, but don’t you think it’s time we found out?

Of course, I’m a bit worried about what we might get. But it’s unlikely to be worse than this. So, I’m game if you are.

This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 36.


Hello, it’s Eric. I wanted to talk about the death and the afterlife of the blues. Now, the difficulty in talking about the blues is that people do not have a common picture of what I mean. Some will hear in the phrase “the blues” a reference to mood. Others will associate it with the music that fits a depressed state of mind. And musicians will hear it as a reference to a class of structured music analogous to sonata form in western classical music, or the ritualized three part structure of a classical Indian concert.

Well, permit me to pretend that you were where I was as a young man coming of age, which is that I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that I loved rock and roll, and that within rock, there were certain songs more than others that I would listen to over and over again. And oddly, I would notice several names recurring on the song credits. For example, W. Dixon, who the hell was W. Dixon? And the other name that came up repeatedly clearly sounded like a patrician blueblood Senator, McKinley Morganfield. There were others, of course, as well. Ellis McDaniel sounded Scottish to me as a name, but he wrote like he was straight out of Texarkana. This was confusing. All these rock bands knew about these guys and played their songs, but these names weren’t listed on any performances.

So who were these people? And why did I love everything that they did? I asked around in my circle of family and friends, and no one had an answer or even thought the question particularly interesting. So one day, in the days before the internet, I went to the Tower Record store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, near where we lived, and determined that I would screw up my courage to ask.

Now I say that for the benefit of those of you who may not regularly visit record stores or musical instrument shops, because you may not understand who works behind the counter and on the floor. Music is a weird sector of the economy, because it behaves somewhat like a legal drug, which some people can handle, while others cannot. And as a result, many musicians of near infinite ability exist who still cannot earn much living doing what they love most, which is playing music. Thus, almost everyone working in any area that touches music is usually overqualified by orders of magnitude. And Tower Records on Sunset was effectively a university-level music and folklore department, with shaggy professors manning the cash registers on the floor. I would have my parents drop me off there just to listen to the conversations at their classical music annex across the street from their larger popular music store.

But on this one particular day, I got up the courage to go to the general information desk and ask my question.

“May I help you, young man?”, the bearded gentleman said to me, with what sounded like it might have been a faint snort of contempt.

“Yes, sir. Who is W Dixon?” I said meekly.

Never heard of him. Sorry. Next?

“Wait!” I exclaimed desperately. “I’m not done with my questions.”

“Go on, then”, the bearded man said.

Who is McKinley Morganfield?”

Suddenly the man’s face brightened. “You mean Muddy Waters?”

“No”, I protested. “It’s not a body of water or a song. It’s a person, a songwriter.”

The man called over some associates to laugh over the situation I was creating.

“This young man is trying to discover the blues and he’s never even heard of Muddy Waters!” The man said.

I was now panicking as this was fast becoming an embarrassing scene with lots of grown men laughing at me and my questions. Let’s try my last question instead.

“Who is Ellis McDaniel?”

All the men laughed and said the same word simultaneously, “Bo Diddley!”

Then the bearded man said, “Oh, and that mysterious W. Dixon you asked about is going to be a bass player out of Chicago named Willie Dixon.”

“Then you know what I’m talking about. So why are you all laughing at me?” I asked.

“Because your life is about to change today, and you don’t even know it or just how much”, said the man.

“How can you know that?” I demanded.

“Well, you’ll see,” said he.

The bearded man then got up and walked me over to what was not much more than a single bin or two in the huge store labeled “blues” off to the side of the jazz section.

As he left I started going through the records and started seeing all of the song titles that I had loved, only they were no longer being performed by the Rolling Stones or The Doors. And what was more, almost all of the musicians were black, but often in the same configurations as white rock groups—electric guitar and bass, keyboards and drums, for example. Sure enough, there was a singer called Muddy Waters, a guitarist named Bo Diddley, and a world of people I’d never heard of. I decided to take a risk and bought two of the cheapest of these mysterious records, a collection of BB King songs, and a double album of John Lee Hooker.

I got the records home and, feeling humiliated, I determined never to go back to that store again. I opened the shrink wrap and took the BB King record out of the paper sleeve first. And I remember watching the stylist drop down to the vinyl and I waited nervously listening to the scratches over a tiny eternity for whatever was to come next. The song started and my life changed in under 10 seconds. I felt like I was being born so, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Put on the song you upset me baby, and you’ll find that it begins with a tasty, upbeat guitar that introduces the mood. I felt like I wanted to dance immediately. I didn’t feel at all depressed. It made no sense.

Then I heard BB King’s voice for the first time. The lyrics, or the description, without apology, I might add, of a woman who is “36 in the bust, 28 in the waist, 44 in the hips, she got real crazy legs…”

Well, growing up in a progressive household, I was mortified and excited all at the same time as I dove for the volume knob to turn it down. What was I listening to? And wasn’t that like eight inches larger down below than what I was taught were the fabled perfect measurements? And this BB King, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. I mean, he was literally shouting her measurements to the world, like he expected she would find that flattering, rather than feeling objectified or needing to diet.

But it wasn’t the lyrics that got me. It was that I had swum upstream and discovered the distilled essence of Rock and Roll, without knowing that there was anything there to discover. If this was a scene from Kung Fu Panda, I would be stumbling upon The Pool of Sacred Tears, where it all began. I liked this music so much more than Rock and Roll that I couldn’t get enough of the sound. This was audio heroin to me. I went to the piano my family had downstairs, and tried to figure out the notes, but they didn’t fit the Do-Re-Mi scales I had once learned in six months of failed piano lessons.

Well, what I soon learned was that there was a musical art form called the blues that was more dance music than Moke fest. Oddly, it wasn’t well understood by anyone I seem to know. And it was based on two main secrets. It is perhaps easiest to say what they are while sitting at the piano. The first secret is that the left hand in the bass plays a repeating 12 bar cycle of three chords in a particular sequence known as the blues progression. The other secret is that the right hand improvises using a scale known as the blues scale that is neither major nor minor, and that cannot even fit onto the white keys alone in any key. This was literally music to my ears. Many of these blues musicians like me were unable to read music. A good number of them were even blind. Yet they had developed a mature art form like Haiku that used a largely rigid formula to produce work of infinite variety and emotion.

Why was I never told that this existed? Why was this never even offered to me as a possible alternative to classical music? The short and perfect answer is race. The Blues, even more than jazz, really is black music, which black Americans had largely outgrown by the 1960s, if we are honest, just as some white musicians, we’re learning how to master it. There’s a famous song by Muddy Waters about what he calls the story that’s, “never been told”, where the title and main line of the song is, “The Blues had a baby, and they named it Rock and Roll”.

The reason for my confusion is that there’s often no real difference between Rock and Roll and the Blues. You can look on YouTube for Keith Richards showing how the Stone song “Satisfaction” is actually a disguised country blues hidden in plain sight, or you can hear Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin tell the audience that “Whole Lot of Love” really derives from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”. And if we are honest, there is a certain financial premium to be earned by white musicians for simply taking the work of black blues musicians and repackaging it for white audiences Rock and roll. Before we even get to it, they have legitimately added as true innovation in a collaborative process.

It is also true that it represents different cultural norms. I remember my grandfather who was not a bigoted man telling me that he personally disliked this music and that I was bending guitar notes and trying to sing with melisma and wide vibrato. “Why not listen to a Schubert song cycle instead?”, he asked. To him and others, I was clearly going in an unexpected and disappointing direction away from the formal regimented western classical music that my parents and grandparents held up as the gold standard.

Yet exactly what my grandfather detested was what I loved most. The warmth, the excitement, the improvisational brilliance. By the time I snuck out of the house at 15 to see Ray Charles at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with my friend Ed Tuttle, I could see that this was really another world. The audience was part of the show, or at least that was true in black musicians played before black audiences. People would stand up in their seats and shout at the stage, or dance in the aisles, and the performers would talk back, sometimes in words and sometimes with their instruments. When I went to see BB King years later in Boston in two back to back concerts over two nights, the first one was in a black area of town, and it was joyous and raucous.

The next night’s event however, it was like looking at an autopsy of the previous evening, by comparison. The white concert hall audience waited respectfully until the end of every song to clap vigorously as if they were seated at a symphony. I didn’t want to be black necessarily, but I wanted to be in with black America. If blues was developed largely around call and response, the white audience simply did not understand how to give back to the musicians and the music always suffered as a result.

So what is the blues and why does it matter? Well, accept for a moment that, if American classical music means anything at all, and we’re really talking about the art form known as jazz, blues is in a certain sense an ancestor to jazz as well as Rock and Roll and R&B, with the so called Talking Blues, a forerunner of hip hop and rap. Thus, despite black audiences largely turning away from the blues as an art form, it can’t really ever die, because it is the foundation for so much of the American contribution to world music. Further, it is a place for musicians to meet. When two musicians who do not know each other or their respective styles want to play together for the first time, in my experience, they’re most likely to try to play a 12 bar blues the way strangers would shake hands and introduce themselves.

It is also a superpower waiting to be discovered in the life of everyone who dreams of playing music. Because it is based on just two musical rules, the initial overhead for entering the world of blues musicianship is quite a bit lower than other forms, while the limits of virtuosic elaboration within the idiom have never been found and tested even by the likes of Art Tatum or Jimi Hendrix. If you think you can’t play music at all, but you have too strong working arms, start with a guitar and a slide, like a coffee mug, and a chart of the 12 bar blues cycle. You can probably play your first blues song within 15 minutes with a little bit of instruction from a friend who is knowledgeable.

Now you may be guessing that there is a payload to this story, and there is. I fell deeply in love with black America completely by accident before I was 14. It was from afar at first, having few black friends, but love turns to progressive understanding over decades, and infatuation turns to a deeper appreciation of gifts, quirks, and flaws. At this point, I don’t even have a strong sense of distance and objectivity, as it is all through my life by now.

One of the things I found was that I had developed a very different picture of black Americans than almost anyone I knew as a result. And central to that picture was that black Americans took merit and meritocracy as seriously and definitionally as any group I ever met, with the possible exception of Soviet Russians.

As a folklore minor at the University of Pennsylvania, I advanced the thesis there that I want to share with you all. And that is this: We non blacks are missing the history and role of merit, and particularly genius, in black culture. Having been fenced out of white institutions by discrimination, and having been stripped of their heritage by slave owners who wish to erase their past, black Americans came up with an ingenious solution to rebuild their identity in the space of the hundred years since slavery. They would use open head-to-head high stakes competitions in, well, just about everything. In the school yard, they called it The Dozens and it was a game of insult played for keeps. At open mic night they called it head-cutting competitions to see who could blow the other clear off the stage. When it came to the spoken word, they would have pitted Robert Frost against TS Eliot, had they both been black and at a poetry slam. Regular chess often took too long, so they hustled at Blitz style chess in public parks against all comers. In comedy, competitive roasting and the blow torching of hecklers reigned supreme. And in hip-hop, the concept of a rap battle is well known to all.

And this is why I don’t really get the race and IQ discussion, because this is a genius-based culture, whose principal gift, after all, lies in out thinking the rival with creative generative solutions, under maximal pressure, that will never be found on a multiple choice test. This is exactly how Eminem could win at rap battling, because fairness and judging is how blacks maintained an air of superiority over whites, who needed to cheat by exclusion.

I have threatened for years to come up with an IQ substitute test that favored blacks based on my study of black history. It would involve multiple people competing directly against each other head to head in real time to solve open ended analytic problems under maximal pressure, where no answer was known to begin with to those making up the test.

But despite my reverence for black genius, I also came to see flaws and faults as one does in any deep cross cultural relationship of sufficient length and depth. For example, where I learned to see the white society to which I belonged as being systemically violent in ways that I had never understood or imagined, the initial unparalleled warmth of black society that mirrored my Jewish upbringing, eventually peeled back to reveal a comfort with the idiosyncratic horror of Louisiana red sweet blood call that made me physically sick the first time I heard both men and women clapping and joking about what seemed like misogynistic madness beyond any murder ballad I had ever heard.

Now, what am I to do with all of this? On the one hand, I cannot pretend that I would even recognize the US without the black contribution. If there were a crime of cultural appropriation, I would only be let off the hook for attempting the crime without succeeding. That is how badly I wanted to understand and learn from Art Tatum, Richard Pryor, Harry Belafonte, the Nicholas brothers, Paul Robeson and Louie Armstrong, Eric Lewis, Stanley Jordan, Dick Gregory and my other heroes.

But we outside the black community, in our modeling guilt and performative shame, are now in the process of losing the ability to meet our own amazing subculture of black America as equals. Think about it. We fear, we idolize, we covet, we desire, we condescend, and we steal from them. We feel as if we have no right to meet our own people as intimates due to the fear of offense. And there is no true love where we cannot share what it is that we see and pass through the valley of offence to deeper understanding. This alienation is, in fact, the origin of the stock character from cinema of the magic Negro possessed of otherworldly wisdom, but who is always a supporting character as drawn, propelling the Caucasian narrative ever forward. And, quite honestly, I see in our shame that we don’t have enough of the deep friendships between blacks and whites, where we might actually come to love each other from a position of intimacy and knowledge, rather than an oscillation between idolization and demonization.

So I will leave you with this thought. Those of us in white America who believe most in our black brothers and sisters are not going in for this groveling performative bullshit. We have already many times stood with our friends in shock when the cab which slowed to pick us up, then sped off when it saw who we were with, and I can assure you that we were never called something so genteel and euphemistic as N-word loving race traders as we were physically bullied in school. Just as my black colleagues can mostly understand anti-semitism, I can get most of anti-black prejudice too. Sure, maybe not the whole thing, but this pretend divide has to end. What is the purpose of the heights of black oratorical skill, if not to make us understand each other better?

And speaking directly to black listeners: we are equals and very lucky to have each other. I’m so very glad you are here and I wouldn’t be who I am without your gifts. Forgive me, but no true friend of mine has ever asked me to wear a hair shirt for my connection to racial crimes of slavery committed by people who vaguely looked like me, decades before any of my family ever came to this country. I will support you and do believe that you have triumphed over the humiliation of oppression. But don’t ask me for Reparations, to abolish the police, to repeat lines that you feed me, to kneel when you instruct, or to accept lower standards of empathy between people because of the uniqueness of your pain. I’m not going to simply take your word for it that no white person fears the police, nor am I going to ignore statistics that in turns both confirm and cast out on so called lived experience. Daniel Shaver was white and died on camera in an Arizona hotel room. Be honest, had he been black, you would know that racism was behind the deed. And yet, because he was white, we know that it played no role. The true solution to race problems isn’t competing to demonstrate just how guilty we are. It is true love and friendship and critique and offense and fumbling in the dark until we get it right. We Jews do have a problem with sexual predation. Our Muslim brothers have had problems with terror. Blacks have problems with violent crime. And if you have true friends, who are any of these, you discuss these things in an arena of trust. As a black friend of mine once said, “I cross the street when a big guy with a do rag comes towards me. I’m not sure why I feel just a bit weird that you do it too.” But above all, thank you for immeasurably enriching my life. It will be an honor to try to help your children do for science and technology what you have already done for culture, letters, music, comedy and national character.

This country of ours isn’t perfect, but it’s not 1840 anymore, and no group of us has the right to scuttle this beautiful ship we share called America. Let’s reform prisons and law enforcement like grownups. I’m saying this because I believe in us as intimates, and not because I’m trying to hold on to an insulating layer that others built into the system.

This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 35.


Hi, it’s Eric with some thoughts for this week’s audio essay on the topic of superposition. Now, to those of you in the know, superposition is an odd word, in that it is the scientific concept we reach for when trying to describe the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat in the theory and philosophy of quantum measurement. We don’t yet know how to say that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time rigorously. So we fudge whatever is going on with this unfortunate feline, and say that the cat and the quantum system on which its life depends, are a mixture of two distinct states that are somehow commingled in a way that has defied a satisfying explanation for about a century.

Now, I’m usually loath to appeal to such quantum concepts in everyday life, as there is a veritable industry of people making bad quantum analogies. For example, whenever you have a non quantum system that is altered by its observation, that really has nothing to do with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees are almost certainly altered in their behavior due to her presence. But there’s likely no competent quantum theorist who would analogize chimps to electrons and Goodall to a Hermitian observable executing a quantum observation. Heisenberg adds nothing other than physics envy to the discussion of an entirely classical situation such as this. However, I have changed my mind in the case of superposition, as I would now like to explain.

To begin with, superposition isn’t a quantum phenomena. For example, imagine that you’d come from Europe to Australia, and that you had both euros and Swiss francs in your pockets. You might then be said to be in a superposition, because you have pocket change in both euros and francs rather than a pure state of only one currency or the other. The analog of a physical observable in the situation would be something like a multiple choice question found on the landing card about the contents of your pockets.

Here it is easy to see the danger of the setup. Assuming you have three times as much value in euros as you do in francs, what happens when you get a question that doesn’t include your situation as an answer? What if the landing card asked, “Is all of your change in A, euros, or B, Swiss francs?”, with no other options available?

Well, this, as stated, is a completely classical superposition problem, having nothing to do with quantum theory. Were you to have such a classical question asked of you like this, there would have been no way for you to answer. However, if the answer were on the multiple choice menu, there would be no problem at all, and you would give a clear answer determined by the state of your pockets. So if the state in question isn’t on the multiple choice menu, the classical world is forced to go mute, as there is no answer determined by the system. Whereas, if it is found on the list of allowable choices, the answer is then completely determined by the system’s state at the time that the question was asked.

Oddly, the quantum world is, in a way, exactly as deterministic as the classical one just described, despite what you may have heard to the contrary. In order to understand this, we’ll have to introduce a bit of jargon, so long as the system, now called the Hilbert State, is on the list of answers—technically called the system of eigenvectors—corresponding to the question, now called a quantum observable, the question will return a completely deterministic answer, technically called the eigenvalue, corresponding to the state eigenvector.

These are, in a sense, good questions in quantum theory, because the answer corresponding to the state of the system actually appears as one of the multiple choice options. So, if that is completely deterministic, well, then what happened to the famous quantum probability theory, and the indeterminacy that we hear so much about? What if I told you that it were 100% confined to the situation which classical theory couldn’t handle either. That is, quantum probability theory only becomes relevant when you ask bad quantum questions, where the state of the system isn’t on the list of multiple choice answers. When the landing card asked if all your change were completely in euros, or only in francs, the classical system couldn’t answer because three times the value of your Swiss francs were held in euros, so no answer could be determined. But if your pocket change was somehow quantum, well, then you might find that 75% of the time, your pocket coins would bizarrely turn into pure euros, and would be willingly turned into pure francs 25% of the time, just by virtue of your being asked for a measurement by the landing card.

In the quantum theory, this is due to the multiple choice answers of the so called observable represented by the landing card question, not being well suited to the mix state of your pockets in a superposition between euros and francs. In other words, quantum theory gets probabilistic only where classical theory went mute. All of the indeterminacy appears to come from asking bad multiple choice questions in both the classical and quantum regimes in which the state of the system doesn’t fit any given answer.

Quite honestly, I’ve never heard a physicist rework the issue of quantum probabilities in just this way, so as to highlight that the probabilistic weirdness comes only from the quantum being overly solicitous, and accommodating really bad questions. For some reason, they don’t like the idea of calling an observable that doesn’t have the state of the system as an allowable answer a bad question, but that is precisely why I do like it. It points out that the quantum is deterministic, where the classical theory is deterministic, and only probabilistic where the classical theory is mute. And this is because it is weirdly willing to answer questions that are in a sense that can be made precise, bad questions to begin with.

It doesn’t get rid of the mystery, but it recasts it so it doesn’t sound quite so weird. The new question is, why would a quantum system overcompensate for the lousy questions being posed, when the classical system seems to know not to answer?

So why bring any of this up? Well, the first reason is that I couldn’t resist sneaking in a personal reformulation of the quantum measurement problem that most people will have never considered. But the second reason is that I’ve come to believe that we are wasting our political lives on just such superposition questions.

For example, let’s see if we can solve the abortion debate problem right now on this podcast, using superposition, as it is much easier than the abortion problem itself. The abortion debate problem is that everyone agrees that before fertilization there’s no human life to worry about, and that after a baby is born, there’s no question that it has a right to live. Yet pro-choice and pro-life activists insist on telling us that the developing embryo is either a mere bundle of cells suddenly becoming a life only when born, or, a full fledged baby the moment the sperm enters the egg. You can guess my answer here. The question of “Is it a baby’s life or a woman’s choice?” is agreed upon by everyone before fertilization or following birth, because the observable in question has the system as one of the two multiple choice answers in those two cases. However, during the process of embryonic development, something miraculous is taking place that we simply don’t understand scientifically. Somehow a non-sentient blastula becomes a baby by a process utterly opaque to science, which is yet has no mature theory of consciousness. The system in utero isn’t a changing and progressing superposition tilted heavily towards not being a baby at the beginning and tilted heavily towards being one at the end of the pregnancy.

But the problem here is that we have allowed the activists, rather than the embryologist and developmental biologists, to hand us the life-versus-choice observable, with its two terrible multiple choice options. If we had let the embryologists set the multiple choice question there would be at least 23 Carnegie stages for the embryo before you even get to fetal development. But instead of going forward from what we both know and don’t know with high confidence about the system, we are instead permanently deranged by being stuck with Schrdinger’s embryo by the activists who insist on working backwards from their political objectives.

So does this somehow solve the abortion issue? Of course not. All it does is get us to see how ridiculously transparent we are in our politics that we would allow our society to be led by those activists who would shoehorn the central scientific miracle of human development into a nutty political binary of convenience. We don’t even think to ask, “Who are these people who have left us at each other’s throats debating an inappropriate multiple choice question that can never be answered?”

Well, in the spirit of The Portal, we are always looking for a way out of our perennial problems to try to find an exit. And I think that the technique here of teaching oneself to spot superposition problems in stalemated political systems brings a great deal of relief to those of us who find the perspective of naive activism a fairly impoverished worldview. The activist mindset is always trying to remove nuanced selections that might better match our world’s needs from among the multiple choice answers until it finds a comical binary.

Do you support the war on drugs? Yes or no?

Are you for or against immigration?

Should men and women be treated equally?

Should we embrace capitalism or choose socialism?

Racism, systemic problem or convenient excuse?

Is China a trading partner or strategic rival?

Has technology stagnated, or is it in fact racing ahead at breakneck speed?

Has feminism gone too far, or not far enough?

In all of these cases, there’s an entire industry built around writing articles that involve replacing conversations that might progress towards answers and agreement, with simple multiple choice political options that foreclose all hope. And, in general, we can surmise when this has occurred, because activism generally leaves a distinct signature, where the true state of a system is best represented as a superposition of the last two remaining choices that bitterly divide us handed us by activists.

So I will leave you with the following thought: The principle of superposition is not limited to quantum weirdness, and it may be governing your life at a level you’ve never considered.

Think about where you are most divided from your loved ones politically, then ask yourself, when I listened to the debates at my dinner table, am I hearing a set of multiple choice answers that sound like they were developed by scholars interested in understanding, or by activists who are pushing for an outcome? If the latter, think about whether you couldn’t make more progress with those who love by recognizing that the truth is usually in some kind of a superposition of the last remaining answers pushed by the activist. But you don’t have to accept these middlebrow binaries, dilemmas, and trilemmas.

Instead, try asking a new question. If my loved ones and I trashed the terms of debate foisted upon us by strangers, activists in the news media, could we together fashion a list of multiple choice answers that we might agree contain an answer we all could live with, and that better describes the true state of the system?

I mean, do you really want open or closed borders? Do you really want to talk about psilocybin and heroin in the same breath? Do you really want to claim that there is no systemic oppression, or that it governs every aspect of our lives? Before long, it is my hope that you will develop an intuition that many long-running stalemated discussions are really about having our lives shoehorned by others into inappropriate binaries that can only represent the state of our world as a superposition of inappropriate and simplistic answers that you never would have chosen for yourself.