Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Briar Patch Strategy

Suppose that one has reached the depressing conclusion that the United States is broken, ungovernable, and heading for some kind of protracted civil conflict as the Cold Civil War eventually turns hot.

Well, I'm just some guy with a blog, and you're just some guy reading a blog, so chances are we're both screwed.

My current plan is:

Plan A: Wait until the porridge hits the propeller, and hope that there will be enough commercial flights out of the country in the last days of Saigon that I can afford to get the hell out of here back to Oz with whatever Bitcoin I have and figure the rest out when I arrive. If this fails, then on to:

Plan B: Bend over and kiss my @** goodbye

This is obviously not a good plan, but at least it's realistic.

But suppose we had some way to actually influence the course of events. What's the best, realistic alternative that one could aim for?

War is nearly always the worst outcome. Ronald Coase's ghost is not amused by the wanton destruction of lives and property. Since this destruction is predictable ahead of time, you'd think people would just come to an agreement on whatever was in dispute. Even if this just means one side surrendering. Other than the glory of dying in a last stand, if you're going to lose anyway, you may as well avoid getting your country destroyed in the process. So war is usually the result of overconfidence - both sides thinking they're going to come out ahead.

You saw a lot of this in the 1860's with the South thinking they'd beat the soft Northerners in quick succession. And you get eerie echoes of it today, with conservatives consoling themselves that they own all the guns and hence would win any actual military conflict.

I'm not so sure. If it comes down to co-ordination, bet on the progressive leviathan (and it usually does, because you've got to get those guns to point in the same direction at once, as Nick B. Steves put it).

So anything that avoids the conflict is preferable.

Reforming the government would be preferable, so it stopped doing such insane things. Invade the world, invite the world, in hock to the world (in the immortal Sailer formulation).

But this inevitably brings you into conflict with people who benefit from the status quo.

Probably the best idea in this regard is Moldbug's Formalism. Find who has power under the current system, and convert it into equivalent cash flow rights under a new and better system. In other words, rather than try to expropriate the current owners and reform the system, just acknowledge the current owners, whoever they happen to be, and try to reform the system to their benefit. At least then you might get a less insane system with less of a deadweight loss.

The problem, however, is that at the level of the overall governing apparatus, it's very tricky to actually say who owns what in terms of shares of power and influence. What fraction of power does the New York Times have? You see the problem. Which means that in practice, changes of governing system usually end up being both changes of structure and expropriation of the existing owners.

This means that actually reforming the whole government will inevitably have a lot of opposition. It can be done, but it guarantees that the job will be hard, as the current structures either need to be subverted or destroyed.

However, there is another way to think of the formal ownership of the United States, and that is on geographical lines.

You see this in every election. The tribes of the United States are laid out pretty clearly in terms of their voting patterns, culture, ethnicity, etc. Like most cases, the borders are sometimes fuzzy, and you get small holdouts in opposing territory (Austin, New Hampshire).

But the key aspect is that pretty much everyone knows what goes in which category. Which ought to be the heart of any formalist settlement. If we think of the item to be allocated as "governing power over the continental US", it is very hard to say who owns what. But if we think that the United States has a couple of tribes (two? four?), once we're agreed on the number of tribes, it's fairly easy to answer the question "which tribe owns Kansas?", or "Which tribe owns New York City?".

And this is a good starting point for people to be reasonable about possible formal settlements of the cold civil war. The progressive state doesn’t really own Montana or Alabama, certainly not in the way they own San Francisco and New York City. And they pretty much know it. Even to the extent they’re somewhat in charge, they’re more in the position of a hostile power exercising some authority over a permanently restive province.

In other words, there is a reasonable case for the idea that secession, done right, looks quite a lot like a formalist division of America and allocation to each group based on the geography they actually own.

The idea of dividing up America in order to salvage some part of it, rather than lose the whole thing, is obviously not without its downsides. Psychologically, retreating in the face of enemy encroachment smells a lot more like delayed defeat than a stepping stone to impending victory. And there is a real question of whether Prog-istan would actually tolerate a genuinely reactionary state anywhere in the world, let alone on their border. (Ask Apartheid South Africa, that notable threat to world peace and stability).

I’ve written before about the reasons why secession might not be tolerated. And I stand by those difficulties. But there is a key assumption there which probably needs to be spelled out. Secession is probably likely to be fiercely resisted by the Cathedral if it is perceived that it is being imposed upon them against their will. And if push comes to shove, I suspect they’d win, for the reasons outlined before.

But what about the alternative possibility – could the Cathedral be convinced that letting red state America secede is actually in the Cathedral's interests?

Strangely enough, the informal division of cash flow rights makes this more likely. Sovereign land is very valuable, but it’s tempting to evaluate it under its current inefficient government. Any state that is currently a net tax drain (and there are many) might be able to be spun as a loss-making enterprise that it’s better to be rid of. In other words, the fact that we don’t have a clear shadow price for what sovereign Mississippi would be valued at if governed properly makes it much harder to calculate exactly what’s being given away. And if there isn’t going to be a competent takeover any time soon, then there’s a decent argument that the net tax position is not a bad assessment. It’s one thing to pay money to keep an area you like and value. It’s another thing to pay money to keep an area you hate, filled with people you hate, who hate you right back.

It takes no special insight to notice that red state and blue state America simply don’t like each other. They haven’t for a very long time. What’s more surprising is how little the idea of just separating is discussed. Partly I think this just comes from inertia. Partly it comes from residual attachment to the symbols that the country has in common, like the flag and the 4th of July.

Though I think the more important aspect to convincing progressives of the virtue of leaving is actually psychological.

The more progressives can be made to think that secession is a) their choice, and b) a victory that inflicts pain upon the hated red state America, the more likely it is that they’ll go along with it.

The right must follow the Briar Patch strategy.
In one tale, Br'er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br'er Rabbit comes along he addresses the Tar-Baby amiably, but receives no response. Br'er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the Tar-Baby's lack of manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. The more Br'er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar "baby" out of rage, the more he gets stuck. When Br'er Fox reveals himself, the helpless but cunning Br'er Rabbit pleads, "please, Br'er Fox, don't fling me in dat brier-patch," prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br'er Rabbit uses the thorns and briers to escape.
"Please don't abandon me, Blue State America! I'm so dumb and poor and backwards, dependent on your tax transfers that I'll never survive without being part of your country!"

In other words, the aim is not for red state America to secede. The aim is to get blue state America to secede. If we're splitting the place up into pieces, it doesn't matter in practical terms who called the whole thing off. But it matters immensely to psychology. Both being dumped and doing the dumping result in the end of a relationship, but it feels very different to be on each side.

And this may the single biggest hope of the Trump presidency. It's becoming increasingly apparent that Trump is unlikely to enact any major right-wing reforms. But he is supremely good at one thing, namely driving progressives insane with rage. If somehow he manages to survive the Republican loss of the House in 2018, the ramping up of the Mueller deep state coup attempt, and then wins the 2020 election, he may just sufficiently enrage Californians that they decide to leave themselves rather than put up with four more years of misery and impotent rage.

Indeed, before the American Civil War, there was a decent fraction of radical Northern abolitionists who also favored the breakup of the Union, forming an odd single-issue alliance with the Southern secessionists. George Lunt talks about this in the Origins of the Late War:

But there were those in the North as well as in the South who both wished and hoped for the dissolution of the Union. The latter deemed their position unsafe in view of the increasing power and uncertain disposition of the free States; the former doubted whether the slave power would renew its alliance with the Northern Democracy, and prevent the accomplishment of their own ambitious purposes. The Southern secessionists trusted to effect a peaceable separation with the concurrence of the fanatical disunionists of the North.
Mr Wade a Senator from Ohio made the following declarations in a published speech:"And after all this to talk of a Union! Sir I have said you have no Union. I say you have no Union to day worthy of the name. I am here a conservative man, knowing as I do that the only salvation to your Union [that is, according to the resolve of Mr Wade and others] is that you divest it entirely from all the taints of slavery. If we can't have that then I go for no Union at all - but I go for a fight." 
On the other hand, Mr Chase appears to have wanted a dissolution without a fight. In a published letter of Gen FP Blair he says "I know Mr Chase tolerably well. When the rebellion broke out, Mr Chase held this language: "The South it not worth fighting for." Several gentlemen of high position in the country heard him utter this sentiment substantially. He was at that time Secretary of the Treasury. Jeff Davis said "Let us alone." Chase said "Let them alone."
Of course Southern members of Congress must have had the opportunity of knowing the private opinions of Northern members of the two branches, and, probably of those members of the administration whose views of the situation more or less coincided with those of the Secretary of the Treasury. Even General Scott, at the head of the military force of the Union on the 3d of March 1861, the day after Mr Greeley's announcement of his views, in his published letter to Mr Seward proposed as his final and apparently favorite alternative, "in the highly disordered condition of our so late happy and glorious Union, 'Say to the seceded States: Wayward sisters, depart in peace!'  "
It seems hard to imagine now, that the North who fought so bitterly to maintain the Union might have almost just decided to not bother. If you think that these decisions are made based on firm geostrategic considerations, it seems inconceivable. But if you think that many decisions of state get made out of feelings of wounded pride and nationalism, then it's not nearly so surprising.

Once Fort Sumter happened, those voices got entirely marginalised. Once it became a point of pride, the North was willing to grind out 4 years of brutal war to reintegrate the states that, by this point, they hated.

Whereas the same dislike, chanelled slightly differently, could have potentially convinced them that it's just easier to be done with these damn Southerners.

This seems especially true today. Modern Americans have little appetite for actually shooting each other, but they have many more years of explicit dislike, fighting over notional control of the increasingly powerful federal government. 

The key lesson from the Civil War appears to be: never fire the first shot. The first shot wounds the most important of enemy assets - their pride. This ensures that they won't back down, and then you have to brute force the issue (which, if you were strong enough to do, you probably wouldn't have to secede in the first place). And even if you succeed, the costs of war are still horrifying.

Resisting firing the first shot may or may not be possible. But to the extent it is, delay, hassle, low level antagonism and simple intransigence are probably much better strategies.

The best strategy is to do that, while making it seem like the decision to leave is their decision. 

To the extent that progressives would ever listen to anything said by conservatives, you might think that the best message would be something sensible that appeals to the idea of mutual gain: let's end this unhappy marriage.

But I suspect the much better message would be: Let's punish the red states! They say they hate big government, well let's see how much they like it when they don't have us around to keep paying for their broke, Jesus-and-welfare slums. Let's rehabilitate our world image by refusing to be associated with these gun-loving hicks. Let's run our own progressive utopia free from Fox News and the bitter clingers!

If I were running /pol/ and were trying to set up a psyop campaign, that's what I'd be devoting all my effort to at the moment. False flag campaigns for California to secede.

I may be a pessimist. But the other options I see look much worse, for all concerned.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

On Propaganda

What, exactly, is propaganda?

To most people, it resembles Justice Potter Stewart's description of pornography - they know it when they see it

If you pushed most of these people to describe what approximately it is that causes them to see it, they would likely have the sense of someone trying to manipulate public opinion for selfish political ends, to encourage conformity in viewpoint and values, particularly with regard to biased or untrue viewpoints.

But how exactly do we distinguish propaganda from public service announcements, or statements of shared values, or celebration of historical symbols and rituals, or any other number of related concepts?

One of the good lessons I remember from reading Less Wrong back in the day is the general pointlessness of arguing over definitions. If you're tempted to argue over what is or what isn't X, you're almost certainly better off just redefining X into its component pieces, and just saying what corresponds to what. 

So to me, there is one concept that can be defined in fairly value-neutral terms - attempting to influence public opinion. This covers a wide range of the examples above.

And layered on top of that is the pejorative sense - the perceived bias or bad faith of the messenger.

This latter part, of course, is mostly where people disagree.

And so in this sense, what people perceive as being propaganda is a far more interesting question.

As is often the case, one google image search is worth a thousand essays on the subject (see, for instance, here).

So here are some:

Image result for image propaganda


Image result for image propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


Image result for propaganda


These are just some samples. Your own image search will work just as well.

As always, it is a useful corrective to let data change your mind, even just if in small ways. My guess ahead of time was that the strongest association with "propaganda" would be "Nazi", but none of the images on the first pages are German. I didn't expect nearly as many American entries, but then again this might just reflect the preference for being able to easily understand the text.

So what are the common themes?

The overwhelming principle is that people perceive propaganda as being mostly from World War 2 and the surrounding era. 

One potential explanation is Moldbug's observation that the propaganda of the 30's and 40's was particularly crude (he cites this video as an example).

There's a certain truth to that. The images definitely look dated. But I suspect a large part of this is just that they use paintings where today we would use photographs, the fonts aren't computer-rendered, and the voiceovers emphasise the neutral mid-Atlantic broadcaster pronunciation. If you had given Goebbels some rudimentary training in Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Video Editor, I doubt it would have taken him long to get equally slick, modern-looking production values.

The small number of modern examples that show up are actually the most revealing. The two that seem to register as being of the same class tend to ape the old poster designs, with Soviet-style drawings, bold clashing colours, and over-the-top symbolism. In this regard, you usually have to be quite overt to trigger the propaganda label.

But there's another aspect here that ties together the past images and the small number of present images.

To wit: people only view things as propaganda when they don't actually share the viewpoint being pushed.

To share the underlying viewpoint is to suspend one's disbelief about the nature of the messaging, and the desire to convert the unbelievers. One cannot see the strings being dangled and the puppets being manipulated, because when one believes the same thing, they simply come across as the truth. The truth needs no justification other than itself. Hence anybody pushing it is not trying to influence the rubes in the general public, they're just delivering a genuine public service.

In this regard, the images above may seem strange at first glance - why are there so many American examples? The answer, I think, is that the cultural values of America in World War 2 are almost as alien to us as those of the Soviets of the time. Which is why crude racial caricatures and related national symbolism seem so jarring today. They are aimed at an audience that is very different from modern Americans, and so it's easy to perceive the messaging. 

And crucially, the only modern examples which show up are those covering the most partisan political issues.

Donald Trump in front of an American flag is propaganda, if you are a Democrat.

A Muslim women wrapped in an American flag as a hijab is propaganda, if you are a Republican.

But no Republican would have the first spring to mind as a symmetric example of propaganda, and no Democrat would think of the second.

Which makes one wonder - what are the types of propaganda that (at least in polite society) don't have an opposing partisan to point them out? What are the things that, in David Foster Wallace's wonderful essay, are simply the water that we swim about in and don't even notice? 

Or equivalently, what are the opinions that are taken for granted today, but which might be seen as propaganda by people in 50 or 100 years? These ideas almost certainly share a lot of overlap with Paul Graham's idea of "What You Can't Say". But sometimes it's not just things you'd get massive flak for disagreeing with, as just things most people wouldn't think to disagree with.

When I tell you to imagine "Communist propaganda" or "Nazi propaganda", you can picture an image.

When I tell you to imagine "Republican Propaganda" or "Democratic [Party] Propaganda", you can probably do the same.

But when I tell you to imagine "Democracy Propaganda", especially if I limit you to modern examples, your mind draws a blank. There is no cached entry there.

Isn't that strange?

Sometimes, it's helpful to proceed by way of analogy. So let's start with an example that we can all now look back on as having an enormous propaganda aspect - the Nazi concept of Aryan

Image result for image aryan nazi poster

Aryan Propaganda

Image result for image aryan nazi poster

Aryan Propaganda

Image result for image aryan nazi poster

Aryan Propaganda

With the benefit of hindsight, aryanism is a strange concept. It conveyed a sense of the canonical blue-eyed, blonde-haired German ethnic pride. It managed to be a hybrid mix of appearance, nationality, ethnicity, and character. It was an amorphous ideal that somehow conveyed positive connotations from ideas of racial uniformity, especially as applied to Germans and Nordic-looking people. Given its many uses, providing a concrete definition is non-trivial, let alone the difficulty of trying to explain why exactly aryanism was meant to be a good thing.

You can see this water. You can understand it intellectually, as an anthropological phenomenon. But it is utterly alien. You simply cannot see it as a German in 1941 would have seen it.

So, the question is - is there a modern equivalent of aryanism?

Is there a term that most Americans understand with approximately the same sense that Germans understood aryanism in 1941? Maybe there isn't one. Maybe modern readers, so inured to the constant bombardment of marketing images, couldn't possibly fall for such a peculiar and loaded term.

One possible answer is below the fold.