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all paths lead to extinction
well, so yesterday there was a coup. or maybe there wasn't.
whatever you want to call it, trump loyalists stormed the capitol in an effort to disrupt congressional proceedings to certify joe biden as the next president. they took selfies and livestreamed themselves rifling through senators' desks. they were escorted out by the police. many people were injured, and four died. it was, at once, terrifying and absurd.
many people were shocked that we got to this place. the part that surprises me most is how long it took. i expected it the day after election day; instead, it took two months. but could anything have been more predictable? if a large number of people, including the sitting president, repeatedly asserted that the election was stolen, why wouldn't they do anything about it?
back in high school, i did policy debate. the high school debate circuit is a fascinating place, and it's probably not what you'd expect if you don't have any experience with it. the idea is that there's a national topic every year, and teams debate it, gathering mountains of research over the course of the year to support their arguments. one team offers a policy proposal, and the other team rebuts it. that all sounds pretty standard. but as it evolved over time, the strategy for winning became clear. there is a path from every single policy (whether it's about creating a national railway or increasing funding for space exploration) to some variation on nuclear war, apocalypse, and the extinction of the human race.
yes! i know how stupid that sounds! and yes, after entering the debate scene as a bright-eyed kid who thought that debate meant using rhetoric to make solid, reasoned arguments about the relative merits about an idea, then got a crash course on how high school debate really works, i ran these kinds of arguments, too.
why? because they're effective. there are two steps to making this kind of argument. first, you overwhelm the other team with information, making as many points as you possibly can in the time you're allotted. high school debaters do that by spreading (speed-reading), speaking at hundreds of words per minute to pack in arguments the opposing team has to rebut. this onslaught is the logical equivalent of a ddos attack. if an argument isn't rebutted, it's considered conceded to the team that made it.
second, you raise the stakes. every debate is about impact, and every question of impact ultimately becomes a question about scale. what is the absolute worst-case scenario for the policy proposal? if you can compellingly make the case that that the other team's argument leads to the end of the world, of course you win. even if you can only convince a judge that there's a slim chance, the weight of that possibility (for instance, a one-percent chance of extinction) is difficult to counter with, say, the benefits of high-speed rail.
i didn't stay in policy debate for long. as much as it satisfied the part of my brain that gets a high from scoring points, i realized that it fostered a kind of informational nihilism. for all the arguments we constructed, all the research we did, we were no closer to making any real point. as richard seymour writes in the twittering machine, we generate more information than we have at any point in history, and yet we move further and further from producing meaning.
A coin toss could be said to contain two ‘bits’ of information, whereas a random card selection has fifty-two ‘bits’. The more uncertainty, the more information. The same principle, applied to sentences, means that statements with less sense actually have more informational capacity. An increase in information could be proportionate to a reduction in meaning.
it's hard not to be reminded now of high school debate when i observe the problems facing us on a societal level today. the stakes of every issue keep getting higher. the climate crisis, the pandemic (and future pandemics), steeply increasing inequality—as someone on the left, all of these issues feel like existential threats. and i'm not saying they aren't; i think they are. maybe not on the level of extinction, at least in many cases, but certainly on the level of millions of people's lives.
but on the right, we have that as well. people who believe—with the same degree of conviction that i believe that corporations will render our planet uninhabitable in the unending pursuit of profit, unless we stop them—that a powerful and growing contingent of people is systematically working to destroy the country, either out of malice or naïveté. they want to plunge them into a totalitarian state that will kill millions of people, or they want to weaken the country's military until it's vulnerable to the many dangerous threats across the globe, or they want to run the nation into financial ruin by increasing the federal deficit until rampant hyperinflation makes the u.s. dollar as worthless as the bolivar. and these fears are some of the more grounded arguments on the right; i'm not even touching 5g or vaccine microchips or qanon.
the problem is, what happens when everything is always at stake, for everyone, in every argument, in every issue? what does that mean for consensus, or even coexistence? and, in turn, what does that mean for democracy?
one obvious case study is twitter. we are one week (that's right, seven days) into 2021, and it's already impossible to keep track of the sheer number of offhanded comments made by random people that have exploded across the platform and morphed into heated debates, virtually always rising to the point of, "people will die because of this tweet." it's not always so explicit (although sometimes it is), but it's a short trip from "this dad wouldn't let his daughter eat until she figured out how to open a can of beans" to "bean dad is harming his child by withholding food" to "bean dad normalizes behaviors that kill thousands of children every year through abuse and neglect." (if none of what i just wrote means anything to you, good, and i would encourage you to promptly forget it.)
and i want to be clear that this escalation isn't unreasonable. on one level, systemic issues are, by definition, all around us, and pointing out instances of them is what allows us to see them in our daily lives. often that's good and necessary. increasingly, though, i think we lose our sense of perspective, distorting how we perceive events until a carelessly worded thought from some one direction fan account run by a fourteen-year-old with a hundred followers becomes the exemplification of most of the ills in our world.
on another level, this process of escalation is how discourse on twitter is designed to function. each person talks about what just happened, hoping to make a new point, contribute some fresh angle that hadn't been considered yet. this constant churn of information—of thought-provoking perspectives you hadn't considered, of infuriatingly bad takes from the worst people of all time, of hilarious self-referential memes that you have to share with your group chat—that's what keeps us all on the app. getting us to lurch from one extreme to another is how twitter maintains its momentum; it's how it can always have an answer to the question of "what's happening?"
and so, after all that's said and done, you're left with takes that are nearly unrecognizable when you look back to the tweet that inspired them. all paths lead to extinction. and it becomes increasingly hard to understand how we all got there, or why we did it. in the aftermath of bean dad, a lot of people grappled with what had happened. ryan broderick wrote:
The whole affair makes me deeply sad and depressed in ways I’m having issues fully articulating. Perhaps my main question is why did we do this? He wasn’t famous or particularly important. He’s just some guy from Seattle.... It is good that racists and extremists and hypocrites are exposed, but I also think we need to be careful about how much control we relinquish over the scale and size of the audience we communicate with. I think it is worth considering what mechanisms are guiding us and what financial incentives they adhere to. Essentially, why is any of this happening? And, to perhaps ask a larger question, what does it say about the architecture of Twitter that this was so fun and entertaining for so many of us? These are questions without easy answers that go far beyond Bean Dad.
i think there are a lot of answers to the question of why any of it happens. the platforms have capitalist incentives, and controversy, real or manufactured, keeps us posting and consuming posts. our lives aren't going that well right now, so we're deriving some comfort in the ways that we can. as my friend morgane wrote, "if you can't be happy, at least you can be 'correct.'" the problems that have been laid bare in our society, especially this past year, feel pervasive and insurmountable, so we're addressing them where it's easiest, where it feels visible and relevant but also doesn't require much of us—by identifying them on social media and hoping that social pressure or awareness effects some kind of change.
all of these factors have an outsize impact on how politics in the u.s. functions today. combine the vast scale and profit motives of social media platforms with a mode of discourse that relies on the proliferation of competing information and a race to heighten the stakes, elevated to the level of national politics, and you get what we saw yesterday at the capitol.
leaving aside the fact that participating in policy debate as a teenager often correlates with working in politics later, it's not a coincidence that our politics have come to resemble high school debate. this outcome feels like an inevitability of the gamified two-party system revolving around capital that we have. the effect is a split into what jean baudrillard (screened out, 2002) calls the real and the virtual:
Traditional theorists of war must be equally at a loss before the explosion of their object of study. For, paradoxically, it isn’t the bomb which has exploded, but the war-object, which has exploded into two separate parts – a total, virtual war in orbit and multiple real wars on the ground. The two have neither the same dimensions nor the same rules, just as the virtual economy and the real economy do not have the same dimensions or the same rules.... We find the same situation in the economy. On the one hand, the battered remnants of production and the real economy; on the other, the circulation of gigantic amounts of virtual capital. But the two are so disconnected that the misfortunes which beset that capital – stock market crashes and other financial debacles – do not bring about the collapse of real economies any more. It is the same in the political sphere: scandals, corruption and the general decline in standards have no decisive effects in a split society, where responsibility (the possibility that the two parties may respond to each other) is no longer part of the game.
i don't think baudrillard is correct in saying that the virtual no longer affects the real in any meaningful way, but he captures a kind of dislocation that i think many of us have felt these past few years, between the world we know firsthand and the world we experience through screens, as it's told through "current events." occasionally, the two universes intersect, but inevitably they diverge again, leaving us feeling alienated and wondering which we should understand to be the truth.
we can look at the coup through this lens. it's easy to dismiss it as irrational, and of course in many ways it is. but if you believed that democracy in your country faced an existential threat, why wouldn't you go to those lengths to stop it? many of us wouldn't—in large part because it feels pointless to try, but also partly because on some deeper level we don't fully believe it. we don't let ourselves.
and maybe that was their error, to mistake the virtual for the real. because even as so much changes, so much stays the same. democracy dies in darkness, except when it keeps limping on its way in broad daylight. at what point does that change? does it ever? these days, this disconnect becomes more and more apparent.
a new book, how to blow up a pipeline by andreas malm (which i haven't read, so don't consider what i'm about to say any kind of evaluation of it), poses this same question. if we really believe that the planet is dying, and we know who's killing it, why aren't we doing more? verso books shared this excerpt of the book:
After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; they can do nothing but burn their way to the end. And so we are still here. We erect our camps of sustainable solutions. We march, we block, we stage theatres, we hand over lists of demands to ministers, we chain ourselves, we march the next day too. And still business continues very much as usual. At what point do we escalate? When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different?
i think these questions are all fair ones to be asking, though this premise makes me uncomfortable. why? morally, i don't really care if anyone blows up a pipeline. intellectually, i understand that violence is a reality of this world and the state the primary enactor of it. if i tease out the feeling of discomfort, it comes down to the same problem of high school debate: all paths lead to extinction. it isn't that i don't believe in objective reality, or that i don't think that this argument represents objective reality. it's that we all think that about what we believe, and we can all raise the stakes enough to justify nearly any behavior. and i don't have any answers about what we're supposed to do with that. in theory, we just have to decide for ourselves what's right and then act on it. but with all this information, all of these data points, often conflicting representations of the current state of the world, it becomes an impossible calculus.
are we supposed to be behaving as if we are living through a series of existential threats? or are we supposed to be behaving as if everything is mostly normal? we're caught between disjointed and incompatible realities—the panicked reality of what's happening in the media and the often mundane reality of our everyday lives.
an object in motion stays in motion. the wheels of capitalism keep spinning, even as we watch the events around us grow increasingly extreme. there's a surreal, dreamlike quality to going through the motions of daily life as we're bombarded with information, always starker and more urgent than the last.
it's no wonder, then, that people begin to lose their grasp of what is real. there's a distorted kind of rationality to it, a need to resolve the cognitive dissonance. because, really, if there were a deadly virus killing millions of people around the world, why wouldn't the people in charge be taking more drastic action? if climate change were really set to render our cities unlivable in the next fifty years, our governing bodies would be doing more, right? but instead of mobilizing all of our resources toward addressing these problems, our leaders gesture at them, telling people that they are extremely serious (in the same vein as "we've received your concerns and they have been duly noted"), reminding people to wear a mask and recycle, and then... continuing as we were. there's a senselessness to it that's nearly impossible to comprehend without understanding that that's how capitalism functions.
sometimes it feels like sitting in a car, full of people, driving straight toward a wall, with no one else acting as if anything is out of the ordinary. i felt that a lot last year. surely, i thought, the pandemic will force some fundamental shift in our way of life, how our society is organized. then, surely, millions of people taking to the streets for weeks must change some part of this system that devalues black life, that places policing rather than care at its heart. we seemingly reached the cusp of real change, meaningful change—and then what? what happened?
today there's a lot of debate. was it a coup, or wasn't it? and i think the reality of our current state is that the answer now, and always, is: both. everything is always simultaneously urgent and unprecedented—so extreme that it has to be a turning point this time, just imagine how we would view it if it happened in another country, it must shake people out of their complacency—and also not a big deal, just another wednesday, as it recedes, growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
i hope this essay captured what i intended.
responses are my single favorite part about sharing to this newsletter, so if anything sparks a thought for you, i would love to hear it.