The Inertia of Continuity

October 11, 2020

      “Button Moulder:
You were ordained as a button that shone
on the coat of the world—but your shank has gone;
and so for you it’s the reject dump,
there to be rendered (we say) in the lump.

You’ll never intend I’ll be poured in a brew
with Tom, Dick, and Harry, to make something new?

      Button Moulder:
Yes, ‘pon my soul that’s just what I plan!
That’s what we’ve done with many a man.
The Mint melts down coins, it’s the same operation,
if the stamp’s worn smooth by prolonged circulation . . . .

     . . . Use your brain. Heaven material?
You’re not the right stuff, you lack the ethereal—

I’m modest. I wasn’t aiming so high; —
but I’ll not let a scrap of myself be put by . . . .

      Button Moulder:
Peer, my dear chap, no reason at all
to make such a fuss about something so small.
You’ve never been really yourself, as such; —
so if you should die, will it matter much?”

— Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt


Stocks these days remain at record highs while the western states burn, Americans die of pestilence, and small business threatens to be a thing of the past, soon to be gone the way of the Native American and other conquered cultures. These days, anything above a certain threshold of power is apparently Too Big To Fail, policies put in place by the cohort of septuagenarians in Washington, the town where the phrase “leave them wanting more” has been horribly misinterpreted. Though not that much “leaving” seems to happen in the first place: our leaders themselves are Too Big To Fail. Graceful exits aren’t in vogue anymore—the best we get are of the disgraceful kind where some career-ending law is shoved down eveyone’s throats or some scandal that is interesting enough to top the last headline grabber breaks, and a slinking back into the shadows occurs.

Too Big To Fail: a solution created by boomer leadership to fix the problems created by, well, boomer leadership, a motto that—purely coincidentally—is also the narcissist’s credo. Kinda makes you wonder what would really happen if someone cracked that immortality problem and what the true motives are for those that seek the recipe.

But don’t worry your pretty little heads about this kind of thing: Despacito can be heard just over the horizon, heralding in the Feel-Good Kids who are marching their way back to Washington, well heeled but wearing Timberlands, certainly a better fashion statement than the jackboots with velcro straps of their competitors. Here they come to save the day! How, exactly? Well, you gotta vote! And then . . . uh . . . . We’ll all get to ride the trains more often? We’ll have the mail working again? Yeah . . . that sounds right: probably we’ll re-establish some semblance of normalcy that won’t actually be as good as it was a couple of years ago, but will take the edge off for enough people.

Perhaps that whole “change” slogan wasn’t entirely a PR campaign. Maybe it was more about rate of change rather than, you know, monotonically-increasing improvements. Sure feels good when things get less bad, they say, but it’s way too much work to be doing that all the time—ever hear of diminishing returns? Let things fall away again, and then we step in not to make things right—that would give away the game—but to make life better than the worst of the downturn. It barely takes any work at all to get things back to where they roughly were—we’re managers, after all: labor’s not our thing. Beauty of it is that we get to be called saviors at the end even though we were not affected, even though we voted for a lot of the bad things too, just maybe not the worst ones. We are well intermediated: a necessary component to the market’s need for the appearance of leadership.

And what does the integration over time of this change actually yield? Well, when you zoom out, it looks a little something like a decades’-long dance: a three-step shuffle, to be precise. Follow along; it’s easy. First, you take the one step forward. Then, you take two backwards. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The genius of it is that, since you keep looking ahead spurred on by all that hope, you won’t see it coming when you fall ass first into the abyss of the retrograde, a forever-suspended pratfall where the punchline never lands because you can’t ever actually touch the bottom of a void.

The probably soon-to-be remainders in power don’t really talk about policy. The country has gotten used to PR Presidents, a reduction of the voting mechanism to a number’s game in a national beauty pageant. Minority wealth was decimated under his leadership, but damn, dude can dunk. Check out how sexy this guy looks in his sunglasses—maybe that will be the key policy to deal with those sweltersunny days that await us in future summers: a pair of aviators for every man, woman, and child. How else could so many people have gotten behind the former owner of the Miss Universe Organization?

They begin to feel more like stewards rather leaders, masters of the stopgap, efforts placed in the crafting of fantasist or placating rhetoric rather than the hard, unglamorous plans that take all of reality into account.

Nevertheless, we did manage to achieve monotonic increases where it counts. We are barreling past points of no return on the climate front, and I don’t see anyone reaching to turn down the jams in any effective way. Quite the opposite, in fact: hundreds of thousands of coffins later and we still can’t even all get on the same page about whether or not the coronavirus is even real, much less concern ourselves with problems of actual complexity.

None of these are new behaviors. The anti-mask crowd, for example, existed a hundred years ago during the Spanish Flu, a much deadlier virus by comparison. And who hasn’t heard of a politician becoming engorged from their deliberate inadequacies while telling the public sweet, lyrical lies? People are assholes in all times and at all places. We just have better tools at being effective assholes nowadays—efficiencies of scale and all that.

Part of it has to do with the tracing of cause and effect and the fat margins of uncertainty that may too easily be filled with fantasist thinking when causality is not immediately obvious. The anti-maskers in total probably caused more than a few deaths from their choices, but for a single offender how clearly can they see this consequence? If the specter of death comes to their own door, some hard reckoning and regret will probably—but not necessarily—visit them as well. The demise of a loved one could make it harder still to accept the truth: it’s all too easy to continue denialism or blame others with whom the deceased had made contact rather than oneself. And the passersby whose existence remained unrecognized by the infector? Ignorance is bliss, so they say, so what meaning is the suffering and death of a person that doesn’t matter to them?

As for the politician’s concern for the ramifications of what they enact—well, I’ll just give you a moment to clean up from your spit take here.

In these cases, the mortar to the fantasies we tell ourselves is distributed culpability: the avoidance of personal responsibility for one’s singular actions by being able to share the blame across a group. Despite not wearing masks, each “rebel” is mostly faceless and derives meaning only when adjoined with other anti-maskers and perhaps performs their “daring” acts precisely because they risk little blame. Similarly, the politicians rove the streets of Washington like blocs of wolves—no vote is ever cast, no statement ever made without conference. This bill is fated to pass, that’s not why we’re meeting; our objective today is to draw straws to figure out who will vote with the minority, who has enough float with their constituents to sell them out a little more.

Underlying all this is choice, and choice is hard. Diogenes is reported to have said that “for the conduct of life we need right reason or a halter”. Maybe he meant that anyone less than a correct thinker should be heavily controlled—a sentiment that probably a lot of people would agree with. Trouble is, how does one measure correct thinking? Those that think they can almost certainly shouldn’t. Good thing our culture doesn’t worship those who achieve empty or faulty metrics like who has the biggest influence, the mightiest power, the furthest reach, the fattest piggybank: why, all that concentration in power sure sounds like it would enable—and de facto encourage—expansive, even automated haltering. And what would be the true motive for such a muzzler? What ends up being the quality of the order being imposed? As Schweitzer wrote: “their power is, unfortunately, as great as their fear.”

Another interpretation of this phrase is more along an existentialist slant. At all moments of one’s existence, radical freedom is always availed to us, a freedom not only to shape or curtail our understanding of reality but to act in any manner within our capacity, actions which may be independent of the stimuli of our observations. However, this is not how it normally plays out: we have a tendency to bridge our past with our future in the moment by relying on prior assumptions usually—but not always—informed by prior experiences, committing to some course that will play out in the seconds, days, years ahead. Future moments may afford some degree of freedom to modify the cascade, but nevertheless the enormous weight of consequence lies just under the surface of everything we ever do. William James would categorize options for a choice as trivial or momentous, but what about our willingness to engage in the choice itself: is each choice not sometimes, but always, avoidable? Do we not have the capacity always to refuse, to look away, or at least to warp and reduce what is before us into something small, something manageable? The optionspace for any moment is monstrously large, yet all too commonly we first select to filter the observations as well as enforce interpretations and expectations within ourselves that eliminate whole segments of possibility as a matter of convention.

It starts as a tradeoff: not every decision requires careful consideration. But it is far too easy for this to get out of hand. Perhaps the continuity presumed of our consciousness is itself illusory, a halter we place on ourselves as a compromise between pure experience and getting things done. This narrative fusion—the patterned expression of characteristics resultant from at least semi-consistently applied, self-imposed constraints on one’s available options, that is, a persona—is harmless enough in the same way that restraints do not visit pain upon the resting prisoner, but an over-reliance on it precludes, among other things, the fundamental wellspring within the living that has historically been labelled “resurrection”. The visor of compaction occludes the radiance, in this case transmuting the agent into a program of habituations, conditioning the mind to avoid direct contact with the moment, instead causing the person to rely on routines whose perpetuated execution may additionally serve to armor the future self against existential awareness, a feedback loop whose termination point is usually at the end of a life perhaps not quite lived.

Of course, many tasks of our lives require such persistence and concentration of the persona—in fact, it is postulated that a key differentiator in early humans from other animals was our persistence hunting strategy wherein we would chase our prey over days until they were too exhausted to defend themselves. Unrelatedly, if you were thinking that you could go into the forest to disconnect from it all and find yourself, it turns out even the hermitage way can be intermediated, since it’s becoming illegal to grow your own food, and it’s hard to think when the forest is burning all around you. So we have to improvise, which, I suppose, is another—and perhaps more redeeming—quality of the human. We must accept that we are each a bundle of habituations, but we should look to see just how many of them were consciously crafted. More than most would like to admit were actually stumbled into, a natural consequence of a roaming mind having to fit some set of constraints.

The crucial question that must be asked here: how free is the thinker to disengage from an already-invoked chain of thoughts? How capable is the person at resisting the inertia of continuity?

The consensus seeker leverages distributed culpability to reduce the stress of uncertainty and risk found in single-minded thought or action. Consensus has its place in the arsenal of a person’s thinking: it helps normalize a given optionspace, gather varying opinions, build a coalition. Yet, to entertain the inferences of consensus thinking is to entrust your wellbeing to the wisdom of the crowd. But, while a person or a group inhabits and is therefore a constituent of reality, they are not reality itself, and neither is the web of expectations and interrelations found in the human social sphere the maxim of all things. Just as the perception of one cannot at all times be perfect, so too must any established consensus be at risk of imperfection. Reality does not lie at the averaging of perspectives—this is overly human-centric thinking, and an over-reliance on it may be the same as ignoring reality itself, conditioning the mind to arbitrary metrics that neither nature nor a conscious mind established. And if something goes horribly wrong as a consequence? Well, if you’re lucky, the apparatus of consensus will hold, and everyone will just blame “groupthink” like we did to explain why we ended up invading a couple of countries and destabilizing an entire part of the world. And you have to hope that there are enough in the general public who can buy into the new consensus of a failure of consensus. And if you’re not, it’s every man for himself: a game of Hot Potato, Scapegoat Edition.

Savviness is closely related to consensus in that the former tends to exploit the latter. The savvy thinker utilizes implicative instruction for personal gain, that is, savviness is the ability to infer expectations in the often-deliberate absence of some explicated ruleset, expectations which may even contradict some established, public norms. (People often conflate savviness with subtlety, and I would say that this is true inasmuch as the detection of any human-originated, non-physical constraintset requires some sophistication beyond the gross mechanisms of understanding basic materializations.)

Just as with consensus seeking, the savvy feature of the human mind doubtless has utility—its presence helps the person train to what is acceptable in a community, to what the boundaries are of expected behavior without the rigidity of formal explication. But, as with anything, too much of it can have negative effects. Savvy thinking deals exclusively in the human social realm: it is not possible to be savvy if you are marooned by yourself on a desert island. Savviness is not wisdom: it may ignite bravado and reveal opportunity, but it does not impart skill in risk assessment or projections of negative consequences beyond the finite human-centric threshold. The rigidly savvy are therefore themselves inherent riskbringers, a dangerous proposition for an organization if let loose without minders of sufficient skill. And in an organization built of rigid consensus seekers, what hope would any of them have when faced with a mind oriented toward subverting that which has become a crutch to them?

They are two sides of the same coin: both have defined who they are based on the supplication to or exploitation of conformity. Conformity itself is often equated with stability, but unfortunately one is not the other. And herein lies a terrible tragedy of our current situation: authority is often taken by the savviest or entrusted to the best builders of consensus. That is, many of humanity’s leaders are simply specialists of conformity, a frightening contradiction of terms given the stakes. That’s not to say that any particular one of them is unqualified—after all, an effective leader should have the capacity to be savvy and should be able to utilize consensus—but if these are really the only criteria by which we measure the fit of leadership upon a figure, well, it’s probably one of those things that people in the future will look back on and laugh at how backwards humanity used to be.

The conforming strategy helps us make sense of the density of reality so that we may survive in it. But no form of thinking can understand things by itself: no strategy is able to rely purely on the extrinsic, as many may assume, as no part of any mode may make direct contact with the phenomenal world or the intrinsic world of another being. The conduit of our sense media is the means by which any knowledge of exterior experience may be had, and I would argue that mechanisms like rationality and conformity are merely byproducts of the mind trying to understand what the senses tell it, that, in fact, even the concept of phenomena is not a given to the mind but is a result of its attempt at understanding the laws of the universe to which it is exposed. If there were another universe where the fundaments of existence were different—for example, an allowance of two or more objects to occupy the same space at the same time—then the mind in its exposure to it would adapt to and internalize these laws and have no practical reason to question them.

More importantly, any of these mental formations of rulesets is itself not imbued with agency. It’s easy to have missed this since the rudiments of them are accepted so unquestioningly: it is unclear how consciously one elects to build them in the first place. Regardless, a mentation strategy is not an agent: it only informs an agent of the constituency of a situation and, at most, heavily suggests courses to take. Choice, both in selecting the path to navigate through the information given by the strategy as well as selecting and adhering to the strategy itself, is in a way the only real thing we ever do; all the rest are just interactions with approximations of things built over time and with degrees of accuracy varying according to one’s prior choices to pay attention and suspend hasty judgment. A rigid strategist is not the same as the strategy: they have simply made prior decisions to be loyal to the selected program, i.e. whenever a choice is presented, they will usually just enact the recommendation of the strategy without second thought.

Notably, given any mentation strategy, the metric of correctness of the information it provides can never be truly objective: the strategy must always be biased by the person. The composition of one’s existence is a stack not of turtles but of choices. There must always be inherent uncertainty in our lives and imperfection in our thinking (as measured against the understanding of the noumena of things and others), and I believe that the assuaging of this existential feature is the core allure of materially-oriented philosophies (some of which exist under the guise of other philosophical trappings): personal uncertainty is suppressed if the only thing you have to do is align yourself with the simple constancy of physics and phenomena. This is sometimes seen as the apotheosis of savvy, but are its adherents men of mettle or mere metal men, tragedies where the throne of the person has been abdicated by the pursuit of pieces of silver and golden crowns, a soul made tinny from the agent trying to fashion it too much after worldly rules?

In many ways, a true democratic political system is one that maximally embraces humanity’s flaws: there is no living or dead supreme father; no individual or group or philosophy has all the answers. And, importantly: no claim is made otherwise. We just have to try to come together to figure it out, issue by issue, multiple imperfect beings trying to navigate our way through a universe that cannot really be tamed by us. After all, can a living document truly exist without the predicate acknowledgment of existential uncertainty?

There’s been talk of the need for resiliency, but what does a resilient system look like? Since our leadership has a paucity of policy, we’ll have to answer this question by asking its inverse: what makes a system of organization weak? Let’s put aside the obvious ones that we as a society are ticking off one by one (but let’s list them out lest they be brushed aside: food security, job security, home security, freedom of press, militias, militarized police, ethnic supremacy movements, science denialism, obscene and dangerous concentrations of wealth and power.) Let’s instead look at where all this mess trickles down from: a country is weak if its leadership is weak.

Disruption rarely happens in a vacuum: problems usually accrue until some criticality is reached and concealment is no longer possible. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was its decline a hasty affair. Climate change was probably induced by humans, and now we are apparently having to face the threat of fascism not abroad but embedded here. It’s easy to say that it’s simply a contingent of deplorables in the populace that have enabled this movement, or that it is an ever-present threat that requires constant vigilance. I’d argue that the latter part is true, but the threat is only a real possibility for a country with a weak government. If you look at the Taisho Democracy, the Weimar Republic, and the Italian Liberal Democracy—the immediate predecessors to the political organizations that comprised the core of the Axis autocracies—they were all weak democracies who failed to meet the needs of their people. To be fair to them, they had just emerged from the Great War not unscathed (and Japan, in particular, was hit by an earthquake—a natural disaster—that helped lead to it being illegal to look directly at the emperor a decade or so later), so it’s not like they had the comparative luxury of stability and excess that the US’ current leadership has been afforded. When you really think about it, it’s a stunning move for a democratically-elected leader to be so quick to blame their constituents—the body of people who legitimize their position of power—rather than themselves or who they actually count among their peers. It goes beyond distributed culpability: it’s something worse since no blame whatsoever is taken on by the offender.

Recovery is not instantaneous or guaranteed—the postwar occupations took years. The Marshall Plan has been mentioned more than a few times, but it’s worth remembering how long it took before West Germany and Japan formed autonomous governments, which was the real goal for the economic stimuli: the rehabilitations of functioning democracies.

Maybe, if the Cicilline Report is taken seriously, politicians will begin to get more comfortable referring to their constituents as citizens rather than as consumers or workers. Coinbase’s leadership is moving their organization toward being apolitical, which is something that I think makes sense: maybe employees seek activism from their employers because they are not feeling sufficiently represented in government. Government should be strengthened so that business can focus on business. Specialists each in their own domain.

Perhaps a norm shift is indeed happening; we will have to see (and be mindful and wary of an anchorless existence in the shifting seas of conventional wisdom). The question still remains: how did we end up pursuing a litany of strategies that still continue to so thoroughly bring about such a degree of suffering and inequality? Must we question and experiment with things whose degradation may endanger the fabric of society? Can we no longer standardize and streamline and make boring the difficulties of our ancestors? Must we be perpetual victims of groupthink, always dangling above the pit of our undoing?

If we must repair a house divided against itself, will the quick solution of further encumbering the less fortunate be the same answer to the question of resilient measures? Can a person in power who must be compelled to good acts or must continually rely on consensus truly meet the criteria to be called a leader in any meaningful sense beyond the formality of title? There’s a word for the worship of power for power’s sake: titanolatry. If those who have power also worship it, what are they willing to do to hold onto it, who or what are they willing to sacrifice? Things are getting warmer; it’s discomfiting to muse on Milton’s line about the primary motive of the first “rebel”: reigning over a land of fire rather than serving in a higher order.

David Frum had presciently written: “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” It’s easy to point to scientific papers saying that conservatives are mentally ill, that this is just the purest form of rightist thinking, but perhaps this is just another case of thinking dichotomously instead of by degrees. In what ways have those whose current PR campaign is focused on being saviors of democracy themselves subverted it? And to what end? Actions taken in increments, eternalist thinkers still trying to achieve the goals of a long-past era, goals that now read as antiquated and self serving.

But maybe I’m painting yellow atop of blue with too broad a stroke in how they strike; surely not all must chase green, seek always to be in the black. At least the consensus will find and the savvy will intuit that one must distance from orange and at least some shades of red. And should this hit the mark for some, well, change is not a dollar, but it is an alternative investment that takes all bidders.

So I remain hopeful; hopeful, but critical. (One does not preclude the other.) We need critical thinking and critique now more than ever. The melting pot doesn’t mean a legion-like existence in the lump of Ibsen’s Button Moulder. A monopoly on power is as unresilient as an industrial monopoly: both run the risk of stifling innovation—even within their own ranks—in order to maximize not the utility of the system but the extraction of utility for personal gain. This can’t be the model for governance: if you tried to perform extraction at the governmental level, you’d be siphoning the lifeblood from the citizenry. Remember them?

We need new voices. Maybe we can start with those near the retirement age, for a change, and work backwards from there. In the meantime: you gotta vote. But, remember to keep voting and keep engaging in what the PR campaign says we should all be fighting for: democracy. After all, that’s what they say they want too, so what’s the harm?