The Will To Be Persuaded & The Rationality of Violent Conflict
Populism vs Rationalism
The year was 1999 and I was in Phoenix. I had just gone out on a double sales call, one to the American Express data center and the other to a military contractor that had something to do with helicopters. Both were good calls and I think we closed some business eventually with AMEX but not with the contractor whose sales cycles were interminable in those days before COTS was actual policy. I had money in my pocket and time to burn before my return flight. Something like 5 hours. So I took my rental to some mall somewhere in the middle of nowhere watched a movie and bought a yellow Nike sweatshirt for just ten bucks. I was in a really good mood as I walked past Kay Jewelers.
I decided to try something crazy and open myself up to vulnerability. I told the guy behind the counter that I’m part of a sales team and I appreciate a well delivered pitch. “So sell me something”. After about 45 minutes I was in possession of a diamond ring with five stones, one for each year of my marriage. For my wife, of course. I was truly sold and although I had miserable credit at the time, having convinced me, the man was doggedly determined to close the deal. It didn’t take me long to pick out the jewelry but back in those days, the elaborate shenanigans of “let me talk to my manager” and obtaining store credit was a two act drama that often as not ended up in tragedy. Not for me. I had added a great deal of value to my luggage that day. Following up with a massive steak dinner at the now defunct Monty’s in Pasadena, it was one of the most memorable dates I ever had with the Spousal Unit.
Today I read this wonderful paragraph in support of ‘factual realism’.
Of course, one serious sticking point in public debate is likely to be the normative part: leftists, conservatives and libertarians have very different ideas about what constitutes justice (at least on economic matters). But even when people are agreed on normative questions—as they sometimes are—the empirical analysis cannot be avoided. Which energy policies will minimize the rise in global temperatures over the next decades? Which public-health policies will minimize the number of deaths from Covid-19? These questions cannot even be sensibly posed, much less satisfactorily answered, without a belief in the objective reality of the natural and social worlds, and of their properties. Such a belief is quite simply a prerequisite for rational decision-making. And in a democracy, rational decision-making requires that there be a wide consensus, not only on the existence of an objective reality, but also on its details. As the old-fashioned (but still true) saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.
Being a Stoic also leaves one open to cynical opinions, so as much as I enjoyed reading that essay and as much as I enjoyed that steak dinner, there are a couple downsides to consider. The first is that in my case, within two years I had to hock the ring. I did get it back, but damn. The second is what I call the rationality of war.
You see, like many others who have a middling affection for military history, I know that the business of warfare is a continual process before, during and after conflict. I think the many of us were insistent on raising that point with Steven Pinker’s Better Angels book. My final paragraph suggests I’d rather listen to people who are looking for demons.
So basically what you are left with is a chunky soup of a book that masquerades as a meal. Everything that is wrong with the book is everything wrong with aggregating micro and uneven distributions of statistics into a grand narrative that self-admittedly can make no predictions. It's almost a theory but more often than not sounds like wishful thinking in the gaps between very strong and pointed debunking arguments. If Pinker is the best in the world, he shows exactly how far we have to go to understand ourselves. If not, then he puts statistics to good use, and overuse showing why we need more historians like Esdaile and Ferguson.
But this was an easy step since back in 2009 when I had a dark epiphany. In a moment of profound disappointment I admitted the worst. I understood how war is good for civilization.
I understand now. Finally, once and for all, what the purpose of war is. The purpose of war is to destroy myths. The purpose of war is to restore human faith in cause and effect. The purpose of war is remind humankind of its limits. And now I understand how that can be a good thing.
I've never believed in the term 'senseless violence'. The only truly senseless violence is that generated by things without senses like volcanoes & tornadoes. People get violent because they sense a reason, even if that reason is only a belief, as in "I believe you need an ass-whooping today". That is purposeful action, Hurricane Katrina was not. People may decide not to grant any sensible purpose to an ass-whooping but they'd be wrong. Just as surely as they are wrong to suggest that any weather event constitutes a moral test for a political leader, unless somebody with a strange sense of humor has decided it should.
I look upon the electorate and the masses as a force of nature more than I do as a force of reason. I certainly desire for a better public, but I am satisfied that a strategically positioned leadership will be sufficient over a limited aegis. Perhaps Popper was the last of a generation whose epistemic discipline could skillfully execute any sort of responsible empire. With this being the case, one shouldn’t doubt the sense of disappointment in those going as far as to reject the very concept of objective reality. They are indeed living without a regime of truth, the inevitable result of a bad recursion of democratic action at Tytler’s depth.
We know we are living in a two tier economy, one in which the people convince themselves they want what money can provide having lost their own sense of humanity. They want to go from slavery to mastery, skipping over the necessity for self-mastery.
We need to downsize, not amplify with artifice. Social media and the internet have amply demonstrated that we can reach the masses, but we cannot reason with the whole of them through that medium. There are too many trolls and too much dissonance in human nature. So we need desperately to decentralize and reduce the impact of our inevitable errors in leadership. We can do this within Western Civilization because we seek out the reason of liberalism and the open society. But when we have a failure of the Humanities to underscore and replicate the culture of faith in reason, then we fail and fall to the culture of faith in narrative. Authority won’t scale responsibly. We should not want it to.
So let me speak plainly. We are not witnessing the decline of the West, we are witnessing the decentralization of an empire out of scale. So I’m saying that in the long run Brexit was a good decision (but I may amend that). I’m saying in America right now are the seeds of rejuvenation, not of a nation of 400 million but of cantons and states and temporary autonomous zones. A new self-segregation is afoot. And in the end, there will actually be self-government and responsive representation among those who accept reasonable persuasion. Those who do not will always search for the magics of sword and sorcery. They will fall to chaos. Perhaps I’m echoing Hari Seldon too much. Leave me off any pedestal of prediction please, but it doesn’t take much genius to predict the failure of those who refuse to seek out and accept objective reality, even in matters as seemingly trivial as dentistry.
In matters of martial capability people need to appreciate a punch in the nose, and such punches have to happen, like skateboard fails. A resilient society requires real wrestling so that people have a real idea of the risk of violence. Without it, narratives which captivate the force of nature of the masses will push us to war. It happens everywhere. It can happen here.
I interject this quote from Orwell.
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. -- George Orwell, 1940
If you don’t believe Americans are primed to want struggle, danger and death, you haven’t been paying attention. These are affluent young people in Berkeley and in Washington DC. That swag doesn’t come cheap.
This is bourgeois violence.
It is only when you begin to recognize the real possibility of war that you can calm yourself and steel yourself. Stoicism has rescued me from the sentimental fog of our malformed & politicized infosphere. So I am calm. Military history has steeled me to the point at which I try to mostly concern myself with philosophical level questions of life and death. So I am pursuing an openness to persuasion that will literally keep me alive, not just satisfy my lifestyle and moral posturing. That is how I came to my Martial Education which changed a great deal about my opinion about, and more importantly my skills with firearms. So please understand that I’m not seeking red carpets here. I’m trying to share a reality-based discipline that keeps us on our toes. The alternative to that ends up in a nihilism that ultimately demands to be handled by tyranny.