It’s difficult tracking American news from Denmark these days. There’s so much going on at such speed, and all of it with so much intensity and surrounded by so much commentary, with such high stakes, that making sense of things on any given day requires an unsustainable volume of reading and viewing. And on those rare occasions on which you’re fortunate enough to feel caught up at the end of the day, by the time you wake up the next morning, the time difference has seen to it that it’s already a whole new world in America.
And there’s so much mis-coverage and non-coverage of these American events in Danish media I don’t even know where to get a foothold.
Right now, for example, we have a presidential election (and all the stories stemming from or feeding into it), the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation, Joe Biden’s dancing around the question of whether he’d pack the Supreme Court, the ongoing pandemic (which is a super-category in its own right), continuing civil unrest, the Hunter Biden laptop story, the social media handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story, the Congressional reaction to the social media handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story, the dueling Town Halls of Donald Trump and Joe Biden… and the Coca-Cola company discontinuing Tab. I could go on, obviously (and that’s kind of the point), but you get the idea.
Each of those stories (by which I mean “all but one of those stories”) is burning through the establishment media at furious speed, setting off blazes on social media, shooting out sparks in every direction, and any of those sparks can quickly become a conflagration in its own right.
Trump’s taxes? California wildfires? Biden’s racial gaffes? Riots and cop assassinations? Hurricanes in the Gulf? Statues being toppled? Covid-19 at the White House? The death, god help us, of Eddie Van Halen? That’s so last week. Ancient history. No one’s got time for that stuff any more, try to keep up!
It’s only going to get worse as we get closer to the election. It may get still worse afterwards.
I can’t hope to keep up with every individual development of every individual story, and cover all the many sins of omission and commission being committed by Danish media with respect to these stories, so I decided to step back a moment to try and take in the whole. To do a little cogitatin’ of my own.
I feel very strongly that something in our civilization is broken and needs mending. I think most of what’s going on in America right now is, directly or indirectly, a result of that thing being broken. And I don’t think it’s going to be mended by an election, a vaccine, or resumed production of Tab.
Montesquieu’s Persian Letters was published in 1721. It’s a work of literary fiction that takes the form of a series of letters written by a fellow named Usbek, a Muslim Persian, to correspondents back home as he travels around Europe.
At one point Usbek is asked a question by a correspondent that prompts him to respond with the “historical” tale of the Troglodytes, a primitive people of prehistory.
They were simple brutes, these Troglodytes, living in a broad valley whose surrounding mountains set them off geographically from neighboring societies.
The Troglodytes are fiercely independent and have no religion, no government, no real social structure to speak of. They are the ultimate anarchists, brutes, in the sense that none of them believes in any value higher than the satisfaction of his or her own needs. Usbek gives some examples: how the one male Troglodyte takes a female to be his wife (there is no question of her resisting, she is too weak), and he is happy enough with her that he withdraws with her into a homestead to enjoy the pleasures she provides. One day while she is out gathering nuts and berries she catches the eye of another Troglodyte who takes a fancy to her and then simply takes her. He drags her off for his own enjoyment. The original “owner” of the woman tracks them down and kills the abductor. There are several anecdotes like this from Usbek about the selfishness and brutality of the Troglodytes. Children betray their parents, parents betray their children, there is no loyalty anywhere, it is all-against-all. But he widens the lens sometimes too: he tells of how one year there were floods and all the crops in the valley were wasted; starving, the Troglodytes of the valley rushed up the mountainsides where the crops were intact, and seized (with much bloodshed) as much as they could from the Troglodytes of the mountainsides. The next year there was a drought at the higher elevations and the mountain crops failed while the valley flourished; remembering the injustice of the previous the year, the mountainside Troglodytes descended on the valley and returned the favor. There are more anecdotes about the tragedies of the Troglodytes demonstrating how even in groups they were selfish and terrible.
No surprise, of course, that their numbers gradually dwindled: there was no way for them to grow as a society, or even a tribe, because in a world of “every man for himself,” the environment becomes too unstable for increasing the size of a population: there is too much murder, children are often snuffed out before reaching maturity, the lack of cooperation makes agriculture impossible, and so on.
Meanwhile, however, two Troglodytes way out on the Troglodyte frontier have, by some accident of fate, become good friends. Each one cares for the other as he cares for himself. They cooperate. They unite. They are loyal and honor each other’s friendship above all: it is the one thing in all the world neither of them would ever even think of violating. They have wives who are similarly disposed. They raise families, and their children marry. While the Troglodyte tribe from which they’re all descended continues to flounder in bloody chaos, lurching from disaster to war to catastrophe, this tiny offshoot fairly prospers. When there are challenges, they face them together. They respect one another. They honor one another. Each one gladly carries the burdens of the others, and in this way no one of them ever carries more of a burden than they can bear. Usbek gives us very touching anecdotes about the harmony of this little community, which eventually comes to expand over the ashes of the ruined Troglodytes, who have finally died out. They become a kind of model society; each citizen working hard to provide first for himself and his family, but always willing to help others who have experienced misfortune.
A nasty tribe of Troglodytes over the mountain range, who have ruined their own valley and must therefore brave their way over the mountains, comes together enough to agree that they should invade this happy tribe. “They do not fight: they are so soft, they have lost the martial spirit! And we outnumber them so hugely! We will wipe them out and take their lovely homes and crops and women and livestock and live so well!”
And so they invade.
Our happy tribe is not as unprepared as had been expected: it is not that they are good or practiced at warfare, but that in doing what is natural they have great strength: they arrange themselves defensively, with the weakest (children, elderly, sick) in the middle, surrounded by rings of increasing strength. Unlike the wild horde of invaders, the happy Troglodytes have something to defend: they are therefore unwilling to yield an inch that might put their families or friends at risk, whereas the invaders are merely seeking the satisfaction of their own appetites and are unwilling to run any undue risk to themselves. So they are easily fought off, despite their overwhelming numerical advantage.
Word of this defeat spreads, and the happy Troglodytes are left to themselves for many years; generations in fact.
Usbek tells us almost lovingly about the passing of one generation to the next; how children loved by parents who teach them to love and respect others most naturally raise their own children the same way.
But the tribe has grown so large, they decide they should choose themselves the wisest among them to be their king. Their choice falls, naturally, on a man so old and physically frail that he was unable to attend the meeting. They send messengers to him with the news, and quite unexpectedly the poor old man begins to weep.
He tells them that they have fallen and he cannot save them. He says they are tired of the difficult work of self-enforced virtue and would rather be governed by laws: they want to live the easier life of avoiding crime in preference to the harder life of being virtuous. They are abandoning their virtue and their freedom at one and the same time, since freedom consists in acting independently, without taking orders, and there can therefore be no natural virtue without freedom.
That’s what he says, the old Troglodyte in the historical parable being told by the Muslim Persian character in a French Baron’s work of fiction published 65 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
I think I haven’t read a truer, sadder history of the United States in my life.
# # #
Outsourcing virtue has brought us to a place where instead of reminding ourselves that noble ends do not justify ignoble means, we reassure ourselves that this or that magnificent goal must be achieved “by any means necessary.”
Entire neighborhoods in several American cities have this year been reduced to smoking rubble by agitated activists who believe the means of arson, vandalism, and even assault are justified by the ends they believe themselves to be pursuing. (And even if the perpetrators themselves don’t believe this, there is a hallelujah chorus in public life assigning them that belief.)
People who ought to know better, on both sides of the political divide, are on the record saying that if their preferred public policy outcomes or election results aren’t achieved, we should “burn this motherfucker down.”
Of course, that’s not even shocking anymore. Remember this classic 2012 Michael Moore / MoveOn campaign ad for Obama’s re-election?
There’s no social cost for saying such things because our civilization has lost its way.
And as I said, this has been going on for decades. As Cole Porter noted in 1934:
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking. But now, God knows, Anything goes. Good authors too who once knew better words Now only use four-letter words Writing prose. Anything goes.
Things certainly got a little more serious in the years after Porter penned his catchy little tune, and yet even in the middle of a world at war we get a heavier take on the same basic theme from C.S. Lewis, writing in the Abolition of Man (1943):
It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms (logical arguments) that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism … about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of The Green Book [a book promoting moral relativism] and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. … A persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment… It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
It’s a good citation I fall back on frequently these days, but if you’ve got half an hour on your hands, here’s the entire first chapter of The Abolition of Man presented as a Doodle:
Lamenting the lack of virtue in public life isn’t a moral or religious position. Expecting a deference to virtue–not even virtue itself, mind you, but deference to the idea that one ought to be virtuous–from our public officials is a civic position that, in a healthy republic, would have unanimous support. Sure, politicians and officials are always going to be be guilty of any number of improprieties (they’re only human), but it in a healthy republic they would be ashamed and remorseful and we would shower disgrace upon them. We would expect them to be ashamed and remorseful; they would expect our contempt.
The particular peccadillos of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffry Epstein, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey were known long before they came to public attention: a healthy republic doesn’t need a #metoo movement because a healthy republic doesn’t put up with that kind of thing to begin with. For every actress that has come out with a story about the very real trauma Harvey Weinstein put her through, how many are there who willingly played their part on Weinstein’s casting couch and wrote it off as a sort of moral “cost of doing business?”
So here we are, crises piled high and wide, wondering where are the men and women of virtue and enterprise to help us out of them.
We sent them packing years ago.
The Information Age
In the same way that liberty requires virtue, which requires liberty, we have another very serious problem that’s self-perpetuating: namely, the fact that we built ourselves an Information Age at the same civilizational point at which we decided that facts were relative.
Google achieved success as a search engine because it was very good at interpreting queries well enough to provide relevant answers.
Had they stuck with that, they would remain a highly valuable service.
The problem with such a service is monetization. How do you make money off a service that simply responds to questions with the most relevant possible answers?
Well, you could charge people money for every question they ask.
If consumers were charged a nominal fee every time they performed a search on Google, or if Google charged a monthly subscription fee for use of its services, then the business model would incentivize constant improvements to ensure that users were getting the best and most appropriate answers possible. Google would have every incentive to do that in order to satisfy (and therefore retain) their customers. If search results began to decline in quality, users might be lost to better search engines.
But that’s not the business model Google choose.
Like so many other internet business ventures, Google calculated that a fee-for-use business model would limit use of their product. So how could they make money?
There weren’t many options: if you’re not going to charge on the question side, you’re going to have to charge on the answer side.
So that’s what they did: they allowed businesses and organizations to inject themselves into the results being served back to the users. In other words, they no longer provided only the most relevant and appropriate answers to every inquiry: instead, they began mixing in the answers that their actual customers were paying to have promoted.
In fairness to Google, they’ve attempted to be fairly transparent about this, identifying paid content as such when returning results. Nevertheless, the model was now corrupted, mixing “organic” results (those calculated to be the most relevant) with “paid” results (those of customers charged for the privilege of having their products or services promoted in response to particular search words or phrases).
The next level of corruption, which is much more serious, was a product of Google’s success. Someone who wants people to visit their website, be it a daily newspaper, a botany blog, an online shop, or a virtual museum of Byzantine footwear, obviously wants to be listed very high on search engine results. By reverse-engineering the way Google and other search engines determined relevance, it was possible to game the system. That kind of gaming now has a name, and has become a lucrative industry of its own: search engine optimization, or SEO.
SEO has corrupted Google completely. In its most brazen form, it can become “Googlebombing,” where a group of individuals coordinate to game the search engine’s relevance calculators in such as a way as to ensure a given word or phrase will return their desired page at the top of the returned results. Back in 1999, for example, the first documented Googlebomb ensured that users entering “more evil than Satan himself” into the search engine would be presented with Microsoft’s home page.
Naturally Google took defensive action to guard against Googlebombing, but for every defensive advance, there’ve been new offensives for Google to wrestle with. And SEO is now an $80 billion industry. The “organic” search results you see are subject to eighty billion dollars’ worth of genetic modification.
This isn’t just about commerce: it’s become political, as well. You may recall that a few weeks back Joe Biden attempted to make a point by reassigning the invention of the light bulb from Thomas Edison to a black man (it’s assumed Biden meant Lewis Latimer, who improved Edison’s design but did not invent the light bulb).
Behold the results of my Google image search right now for “white inventors”:
Are those the most relevant and appropriate results for my query?
To what extent are they “organic,” and to what extent have they been gamed by outside sources or by activists within Google itself?
What if I do an image search for “black inventors?”
Interesting. Search for white inventors, get black inventors. Search for black inventors, get black inventors.
I don’t mean to pick on Google here: the same principles I’m describing are in play all over the internet. Words and phrases are being gamed to get our attention, in the interests of commerce, in the interests of politics, in the interests of activism, in the interests of religion, and in every other interest there is.
During last week’s Judiciary Committee hearings, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) dressed down Amy Coney Barrett for using the phrase “sexual preference” as a synonym for “sexual orientation.” The Senator said it was an offensive and outdated term. (Unsurprisingly, at his town hall meeting after the Judiciary Committee had wrapped things up, Joe Biden spoke of a young boy’s “choice” to be transgender, and nary an eyebrow was raised.) So it’s just the usual leftist language policing, assuming offense where none was intended–but Merriam-Webster abruptly updated their online dictionary’s definition of preference to note that this particular usage was offensive.
Take those two examples together, and we see that the information ecosystem of the internet is such that organizations compete for our attention by distorting the information being served to us, and are perfectly willing to alter reality itself to ensure it conforms to the desired political objectives.
We’ve incentivized the internet to be a tool of totalitarian information control beyond anything Orwell ever imagined. (We can’t really blame him for a lack of imagination on this count: his future relied more on pneumatic tubes than fiber optic cable.)
The big tech companies that control most internet traffic and activity (Google/Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter, etc) are ideologically in thrall to the far left, and the far left worldview is such that contrary ideas aren’t simply “other ways of looking at things,” but hateful and dangerous and wrong. They therefore feel comfortable policing their properties for such wrongthink. As a result, conservative voices are demonetized, demoted, even banned.
The titans of tech will tell you it isn’t because they’re censoring non-leftist ideas, but because they’re censoring hate. You don’t support hate, do you?
Don’t take my word for it: here’s Jen Gennai, the “Head of Responsible Innovation” at Google:
Elizabeth Warren is saying we should break up Google. And like, I love her but she’s very misguided, like that will not make it better it will make it worse, because all these smaller companies who don’t have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation, it’s like a small company cannot do that.
We all got screwed over in 2016, again it wasn’t just us, it was, the people got screwed over, the news media got screwed over, like, everybody got screwed over so we’re rapidly been like, what happened there and how do we prevent it from happening again.
We’re also training our algorithms, like, if 2016 happened again, would we have, would the outcome be different?
“Everybody got screwed over” is Gennai’s interpretation of “the wrong candidate won.” And she’s determined to help Google ensure it doesn’t happen again. And they’re “training their algorithms” to produce a different outcome.
Not to improve the relevance of their search results, mind you. To produce a different outcome.
That’s what a healthy democratic republic’s all about, isn’t it? Having its political agenda determined by the activist employees of a single company?
Citizen Kane was supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a how-to guide.
You’d think the American media might take an interest in the revelation that the world’s largest custodian of information was actively trying to swing a presidential election, but you’d be wrong. The establishment American media chose instead to go after the organization that caught Gennai’s unguarded honesty on video, Project Veritas. Because establishment journalism is no longer about truth, because truth is secondary to social progress, and social progress in our hollowed-out world requires advancement by any means necessary.
Another case in point: the New York Times, who trashed their own journalistic integrity in 2016 when they announced that the candidacy of Donald Trump was so uniquely dangerous that they were officially and explicitly abandoning “objectivity” in their coverage of his campaign, has now come out with the inevitable editorial against his re-election. Its very first line is “Donald Trump’s re-election campaign poses the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II.”
Remember the Cold War? McCarthyism? The Korean War, the Vietnam War? The Cuban missile crisis? 9/11? Pfft. Child’s play. The really scary thing is Donald Trump.
Keep that in mind every time you read a Danish article with the tell-tale phrase, “ifølge New York Times…”
You need to read that as, “according to a wildly partisan organization that considers the duly elected president of the United States a greater danger to American democracy than anything since 1945.”
They go on:
He has abused the power of his office and denied the legitimacy of his political opponents, shattering the norms that have bound the nation together for generations. He has subsumed the public interest to the profitability of his business and political interests. He has shown a breathtaking disregard for the lives and liberties of Americans. He is a man unworthy of the office he holds.
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! These are the people and organizations who’ve spent the last four years saying loudly and clearly and very, very frequently that Donald Trump is not legitimate, that he’s not to be normalized, that he’s “not their president,” that his supporters are subhuman brutes animated by racism, misogyny, homophobia, and whatever else you want to toss in there.
It’s what they truly believe, and it’s what Google believes, and what Twitter and Facebook believe. A tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Donald Trump has indeed shattered some norms. So did Barack Obama. So have the New York Times and the Washington Post. So have Twitter and Google and Facebook. So has Nancy Pelosi. So has Adam Schiff. Brennan, Clapper, Rice. The FBI. The CIA. The American political landscape of 2020 is one vast field of shattered norms.
I’m not aware of any evidence of Trump having put his business interests above the public interest while serving as president, but as for his political interests… that’s a strange accusation to hurl at a sitting president, isn’t it? Would it be in his political interests to work against the public interest? Wouldn’t it be more honest to say his political interests are working against the Times’s political interests?
And speaking of business interests, maybe the Times could put a few reporters on that story published Thursday by the paper around the corner… the story about the son of a presidential candidate peddling his father’s influence to foreigners for millions of dollars?
Just kidding. That story doesn’t exist: Facebook and Twitter and Google are seeing to that. And you don’t have to be a conservative to say so.
But of course none of this matters. Not really. The American left decided long ago that Donald Trump is a fascist dictator. They’ve thrown all norms and standards out the window in the interests of sending the bad orange man back to whatever hell spawned him. (Ironic, in a way, since the hell that spawned him was the intersection of Hollywood, Manhattan, and Money.)
I won’t go deeper into that acid bath of an editorial; there’s no need.
…Something Wicked This Way Comes
Having shrugged off virtue and incentivized the internet to curate our reality with a political bias, we’re about to embark on a presidential election in the middle of a global pandemic, amid widespread riots, and with threats of violence if the election doesn’t favor the left. And we’re doing so with an unprecedented share of the electorate voting by unsolicited mail-in ballots, which we’re told won’t be a problem despite mail-in ballots having been a problem during the primaries this spring.
Events could become very fluid very fast.
Had we been good Troglodytes, protective of our liberty and stalwart in our virtue, this would be a simple exercise in civic duty. Had Google and Facebook and Twitter and the rest monetized their products by charging their users instead of making their users their product, we might have an informational infrastructure we could trust to see us through a potentially rough patch of road. Had our media stood fast on journalistic principle and reported honestly and accurately instead of going wholly partisan, we would be able to trust their reporting on what are sure to be the tumultuous events to come. Had Big Tech not been so monolithically leftist, even a wholly partisan establishment media might have been navigable.
Instead we’re standing in a truly Orwellian world, where dictionaries change the meaning of a word overnight, where critical news and information are suppressed if they hurt the wrong people and fabricated stories are promoted if they help the right people. Where norms and standards are steamrolled in supposed defense of norms and standards. Where racism is promoted as anti-racism, and color-blindness is billed as racism. Where free speech is punished for its “violence,” and violence is defended as “free speech.” Where you can be ostracized for saying there are two biological sexes. Where you’re not really black if you don’t vote for the right candidate, who by the way thinks “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” Where questioning models with a half-century history of being wrong is “anti-science.” Where following constitutional procedures to the letter is illegitimate and unconstitutional. Where a sixteen year old student is threatened and mocked and smeared by the press for showing restraint in the face of aggressive provocation, while a sixteen year old dropout with a history of mental illness is applauded for snarling at an assembly of world leaders. Where the leading candidate for president refuses to reveal his position on a vitally important issue until after he’s elected because that would be a distraction, and because the voters don’t deserve to know. Where armed and hooded crowds who smash up businesses and harass, intimidate, and even assault bystanders, who demand their slogans and gestures be repeated, call themselves anti-fascists.
I don’t know where we are and I don’t know where we’re headed.
I believe that anyone who claims to know either of those things is trying to sell me something–and almost certainly something I have no interest in buying.
Maybe things will take care of themselves: an election settled without undue conflict, a vaccine this fall or winter, peace and calm settling over America with the gentle quiet of a morning snowfall.
Or maybe we’re about to go plunging into the abyss.
We are where we are and we’ll get where we’re going.
But in a moment in which things that aren’t true are being asserted as facts and facts are being prosecuted as untruths, Chesterton is a helpful guide:
We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith.
The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.Heretics, G.K Chesterton