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The time to withdraw

Being, as the most unique and most rare, in opposition to nothingness, will have withdrawn itself from the massiveness of beings, and all history—where it reaches down to its proper essence—will serve only this withdrawal of being into its full truth. Yet the successes and failures of everything public will swarm and follow closely one upon the other, whereby, typical of that which is public, nothing will be surmised of what is actually happening.

Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy

I've built a decent audience across several social media platforms, but I can't shake the feeling that something fundamental is going rotten.

For people doing longer-term and more sophisticated work, such as writing serious non-fiction, participating in the "creator economy" is something like settling an unmapped foreign jungle: the irresistible allure of adventure, the enchantment of pioneering unchartered territory, and hundreds of things that could kill you.

Constant public posting produces a set of negative psychological side-effects we continue to underestimate.

I do believe it's necessary for indie thinkers to build a public audience, and this requires a certain amount of systematic public sharing of work. The error in my thinking has been my presumption that the independent intellectual life would maintain audience growth as a constant goal and metric. In retrospect, this makes no sense because the comparative advantage of genuine thinkers—disciplined, erudite seekers of disinterested truths—is the capacity to conceive and deliver truly original, researched, and socially de-conditioned insights. Obviously this is impossible if one is frenetically glued to the same screens, and the same Discourse, as every other pedestrian of the information superhighway. For the indie thinker, maximizing audience growth in the long run must require periods of extreme detachment, distance, and solitude.

So how is one to know whether one should be building an audience via public posting, or withdrawing to work patiently in detached focus?

In the early days, when your audience is nil, some kind of systematic public posting is essential to achieve one's basic existence in the public sphere. This period requires great discipline, intrinsic motivation, and self-confidence (or else some support from a private community such as IndieThinkers.org).

But if you have something real to say, you'll inevitably earn your way onto the radar of at least a few discerning people.

The first important milestone is when your audience grows large enough that you feel extrinsic motivation to post. The number of expected recipients is large enough that it feels worthwhile to post, even if you're not naturally overflowing with the internal drive to post.

This milestone represents an exciting turning point, as it becomes easier to regularly post. But this is also where one's mind enters into a bargain with the devil: Insofar as external recognition feels like a tailwind, it is to the same degree a straight-jacket. As soon as thinking aloud becomes dopaminergic, thinking aloud starts optimizing for dopamine. The mind can hardly do otherwise; it is an unconscious dynamic that is, to a certain degree, irreducible. Once thinking starts optimizing for dopamine, it starts optimizing for positive social feedback, which means it enters the gravity well of popular opinion, which guarantees a long-term endpoint other than objective truth. For the indie thinker, falling too far into this gravity well is nothing short of doom, for it takes away the only edge that honest and patient thinkers have ever enjoyed: that Truth is always unpopular and difficult, but therefore scarce and hard to fake.

I am now of the view that, once this milestone of extrinsic motivation is reached, one should enjoy the victory but immediately step away from it. One should begin a specific, longer-term project that involves deep focus and prolonged distance from the public web altogether! Not forever, one will return; but only after reaching the next level dopamine-free. As one makes progress on the project, one will periodically post chunks to the public web, but without caring or engaging or watching the results. For this detachment is necessary to produce the work that rises to the top on the public web. And the truth is, patient work in psychological detachment is increasingly hard to perform, even for the educated and literate classes. As scholarly patience becomes increasingly difficult and rare, the simple achievement of frequently reading real books and writing real ideas will increase the price commanded by indie thinkers, given the increasing quantity of undifferentiated opinion.

One hour of truly focused attention is significantly more valuable than 25 hours of scatter-brained Twitter posting.

One hour of focused attention is sometimes sufficient to conceive one original idea, write it down clearly, and do something purposeful with it, such as post it to your blog. The quality of the idea, the quality of the decision about what to do with the idea, and the basic follow-through—all of these are more valuable, and harder than we appreciate.

When I'm scattered, I can have many good ideas and not write most of them down. Of the couple I manage to write down, one is posted on some public abyss like Twitter, and one is posted in some writing app and forgotten. The one posted to Twitter was substantively and lyrically poisoned by some degree of inescapable algorithmic competition psychology. The one posted to the notes was only half-baked anyway; when I wrote it, I was thinking partially about the last tab I saw and partially about the next tab I want to "check."

In a state of attention, I can write one decent idea and also overcome the bit of anticipatory anxiety surrounding the "submit" button on my blog. At the time of this writing, my blog posts go out to about 6k people. I could very feasibly publish good ideas on my blog a few times per week, if I wanted to and decided to. Many smart people read them, opportunities consistently drift my way from these posts. And yet I haven't been publishing blog posts half as much as I could, if I simply decided to. Why not? The calendar and the email and all the tabs are just so absorbing, one partially forgets that higher-value activities even exist, and are viable candidates for what one should be doing. Blogging somehow feels irresponsible; the tabs and apps feel like moral obligations and blogging a kind of self-indulgence. And yet, the reverse is true—but it takes a quiet mind to see this, and a focused mind to act on it.

When you're in the rhythm of bouncing around between podcasts, Youtube videos, Twitter, and all the rest, the decision to stop in favor of reading and writing is more devilishly difficult than any educated person wants to admit. It is perhaps the most underestimated social harm afflicting the literate classes today, in part because it's embarrassing to admit it.

I'm a pretty disciplined and productive person, on average, but I've been extremely embarrassed to confront just how stubbornly mushy my mind and media habits have become over the past year. Several half-baked attempts to correct course have been attempted, and they've failed.

The problem is much more insidious and significant than I previously appreciated. It's a form of mental capture so severe that it's self-effacing, a kind of usurpation where you're really not steering your own ship anymore and the quiet moment where you realize you're not steering your own ship never arrives, unless by some exogenous accident.

I will continue writing and publishing to this email list, here—indeed, this is where I should be writing and publishing most consistently—but I will tell you: I am planning a period of withdrawal from the public web. I'm going to write my second book and I'm going to institute a systematic re-ordering of my time and attention, away from all the tabs and metrics and replies.

I'll send you more details soon.

In the meantime, if you're interested in René Girard, we've produced a nice PDF study guide that will guide you through all of his key ideas in 8 weeks. You can download it for free at GirardCourse.com.

Educated Errors? On Perceptions of Trump's Ideology

More educated individuals generally know more than less educated individuals. If you test what they know about any random political issue, for instance, uneducated individuals are more likely to give an incorrect answer, or say "I don't know," relative to more educated individuals. At first this sounds obvious, but what if the correct answer to a question is that we don't know?

If you think that the purpose and main effect of education is to increase a person's store of true information, then an educated person should be more likely to say "I don't know" when asked what they think about an objectively unknown or uncertain matter.

But what if education does not increase one's store of objectively true information so much as it increases one's familiarity with respectable or high-status opinions? That is, education may primarily educate one about what educated people feel and believe. In this model, education is mostly about gaining familiarity with the ideas and gestures that are valued by the already educated classes, and having some dedicated time to practice mimicking them. Getting educated is not really about developing a fuller or more accurate model of the world, it's about learning to pass as a member of the education club, to get hired by employers who obtained their employment power through their own educated credentials.

If this is the case, then it's possible that more educated people would be less likely to admit "I don't know" in the face of really-existing uncertainty, and would be more likely to say whatever they think other educated people would be most likely to say.

It recently occurred to me that perceptions about Trump provide a nice opportunity for exploring this question empirically. For someone who is so ideologically polarizing, Trump is ideologically ambiguous. Yet, educated opinion seems to be that he is a major reactionary — even fascist perhaps. Either I'm incorrect in my sense of what educated opinion is, or this is perhaps a case where the educated tend to be in agreement — incorrectly.

What is Trump's Ideology?

First, we should establish what is objectively known about Trump's ideology (especially what was objectively known around November 2016, because the survey data we'll explore were gathered at that time). For the bulk of his adult life as a public figure, he was a moderate Democrat. As discussed in Bob Woodward's recent book Fear, this was taken very seriously in the early days of his campaign strategy discussions.

“You’ve got some problems on issues,” Bossie said.
“I don’t have any problems on issues,” Trump said. “What are you talking about?”
“First off, there’s never been a guy win a Republican primary that’s not pro-life,” Bossie said.
“And unfortunately, you’re very pro-choice.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have a record of giving to the abortion guys, the pro-choice candidates. You’ve made
statements. You’ve got to be pro-life, against abortion.”
“I’m against abortion,” Trump said. “I’m pro-life.”
“Well, you’ve got a track record.”
“That can be fixed,” Trump said. “You just tell me how to fix that. I’m—what do you call it? Pro-life. I’m pro-life, I’m telling you.”

It was also mentioned in this conversation that Trump only ever voted in one primary, suggesting that his ideological preferences are probably just not strongly formed. Here's another choice selection from the Woodward book, revealing Trump's profound ideological ambiguity going into his campaign:

An hour into the meeting, Bossie said, “We have another big issue.”
“What’s that?” Trump asked, seeming a little more wary.
“Well,” he said, “80 percent of the donations that you’ve given have been to Democrats.” To Bossie that was Trump’s biggest political liability, though he didn’t say so.
“That’s bullshit!”
“There’s public records,” Bossie said.

Even when you look at the positions that define his Presidential agenda, he's ideologically ambiguous. As Nate Silver has put it, “extremely conservative stances on issues such as immigration with surprisingly moderate (or even leftist) ones on other issues such as trade — with a lot of improvisation (and inconsistency) along the way.”

In a November 2016 article entitled, "We’ve Never Known Less About An Incoming President’s Ideology," Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight presents the table below. Donald Trump is the second-least conservative Republican President in the last 40 years (only GHW Bush was more moderate than Trump).

FiveThirtyEight

I went and wrangled the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study dataset, which has been one of the most common sources of data for many of the buzzy analyses you might have read about in the past year or so. As the figure below shows, the most common perception of Trump's ideology is "I dunno." That's pretty interesting. The second most common is "Very conservative."

So given that "we’ve never known less about an incoming president’s ideology," and that one could make a decent data-driven case that he is a moderate Democrat or a moderate conservative, it seems to me that "Not sure," was arguably the most objectively correct answer. "Somewhat conservative" and "Middle of the Road" also seem like arguably correct answers. But the fashionable perception of Trump as "very conservative" is, as far as I can see, basically incorrect. If this was a quiz and I had to grade it, I would be inclined to mark the answer "conservative" as wrong, too, given Trump's significantly left-leaning policy positions and his history as a pro-choice Democratic Party supporter.

When you look at perceptions of Trump's ideology by education level, as shown in the figure below, you can see that education is negatively correlated with uncertainty ("Not sure," the pink bar all the way to the left). This would be unremarkable for most survey questions, but given Trump's unique ideological ambiguity in November 2016, this pattern may reflect how education has more to do with demonstrating knowledge of respectable beliefs than with analytical or empirical sophistication. 

In the above graph, it's difficult to eyeball the other proportions. So let's zoom-in on the arguably most correct, uncertain answer and what I take to be the respectable/fashionable but incorrect answer (that Trump is either plainly "conservative" or "very conservative.") In the figure below, it's easier to see that education is not only associated with a clear decrease in reasonable uncertainty but a modest increase in the fashionable view that Trump is clearly conservative. Post-grads are not much different than those who have minimal contact with college life, but finishing high school and having some college experience are both associated with clear bumps toward the view that Trump is clearly conservative.

Educated overconfidence Trump's ideology

Overall, these data are not very strong evidence of anything, but they do give a little indication that I may be onto something with my hypothesis — that education may, in some cases, be associated with less correct beliefs. A larger hypothesis might be that, in any context of increasing uncertainty, there will be more and more margins at which the less educated are accidentally more sophisticated than the educated.

The interaction of education and race on Trump approval

The correlation between education and support for Trump is very different across the black-white divide. The graphs below I have taken from Civiqs.

For white people with no college degree, a small majority approves of Trump:

white Trump support education

For white postgraduates, a small majority disapproves of Trump. Interestingly, this is more Trump support from white postgrads than I would have thought:

white postgraduates Trump approval

For black people with no college degree, a huge majority disapprove of Trump:

Approval of Trump for black people with no college degree

And for black postgraduates, the distribution of Trump approval is… about the same as it is for black people with no college degree.

Approval of Trump for postgraduate black people

This surprised me. At first I thought there was a glitch in the browser, I had to refresh it for the different subsets to make sure this wasn’t a mistake.

So what’s going on here? It’s genuinely unclear to me, but there are only a few plausible possibilities. One possibility is that this variation is just an artifact of other variables. But if education does have some effect on attitudes toward Trump, is there a reason why would it would be different for white and black folks? Who knows, but it’s interesting enough to hypothesize about. Scholarly literatures on the relationship between education and political attitudes sometimes debate whether education has an income effect (grads think differently because their market position is different), a learning effect (grads think differently because they have more information or knowledge), or a socialization effect (grads think differently because they enter into cosmopolitan social circles). Which one of these mechanisms could account for an educational effect on Trump support, conditional on race, where education shifts white people toward disapproval while shifting black people nowhere?

An income effect is conceivable, in which the better jobs and salaries won by white postgrads makes some of them change their mind toward disapproval of Trump. But other research suggests that income, apart from education, was not really an independent driver of Trump support.

A learning effect seems to me unlikely, in part because university education is probably not about learning, but also because I see no reason why black students would be less likely than white students to learn new reasons for disliking Trump. It’s possible that black people are so opposed to Trump that education doesn’t really have much room to exert a unique, additional effect; or that whatever university teaches, black people already know it from childhood, e.g. that White Supremacy is real. So education perhaps only affirms what black people already know; whereas many white children do not know that White Supremacy is real, but university teaches them the error of their youthful ways. But if this were the case, it would be unclear why black people bother to attend university; also, you’d have to believe that university teaching is, at least for white students, a hard change of course from 5th grade civics class, to have such an effect; but it seems to me that 5th grade and 15th grade teachers have a pretty unified message that racism is bad and that one should not grab women by their pussies, and that anyone who does or says such things should not be President. I don’t see what exactly university would teach white people that departs from what the education system already taught them. So I don’t see how an education effect could be a learning effect.

Personally, my priors are more in favor of the socialization mechanism. What university lecturers teach is not radically different from what 5th grade civics teachers teach, but the club is very different. If you got a 5th grade civics class, everyone you knew got a 5th grade civics class. There is no club. If you go to university, you leave behind the townies who do not go to university. It’s basic sociological knowledge that all clubs use symbols and rituals to distinguish members from outsiders, and members receive a premium of resources, care, and attention from other members. The culture of the university club is best defined by cosmopolitanism. Why cosmopolitanism is the culture of the university, and how the features of cosmopolitanism serve its members, are topics for a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that cosmopolitanism is the opposite of chauvinism, nationalism, aggression, etc. Cosmopolitanism is the sublimation of these drives into polite speech, which conquers inferiors through competitive subtlety rather than competitive… competition, which is brutish and too obvious. Anyway, it seems plausible that entry into the cosmopolitan social club would have a significant effect, in the direction consistent with the data: away from Trump. But why would the socialization effect be conditional on race, when above I argued there’s no reason a learning effect would be conditional on race? Well, I think there’s a good reason that university would socialize white students into Trump disapproval, while having no such socialization effect on black students. Cosmopolitanism includes compassion for the weaker ‘other.’ As black people in the United States suffer disproportionately from poverty and other ills, white students who enter the university club must become more compassionate toward America’s oppressed black population — as a ritual requirement of membership, mind you, not for any reason that has to do with information, knowledge, or learning. Black students who traverse the university system might become more compassionate for female garment workers in the Global South, but membership in the university club does not require them to increase their expressed compassion to black people in the United States. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism gives them an increased sense of their deserved seat at the table. In short, the cosmopolitan or extra-civilized gain symbolic power over the less civilized, by forfeiting their right to brute force, investing in the social club of advanced symbolic manipulators, and cultivating their symbolic facilities in lieu of their brute force facilities. The more ridiculous social justice fashions today — sometimes led by students of color and supported secondarily by white 'allies’ — are no better or worse than than social justice fashions popular among the educated white elite of any previous generation: cosmopolitanism always means telling refined fibs to secure resources away from the grabbing hands of those who are unable to tell refined fibs.

In summary, I hypothesize that education exerts a socialization effect on students, and that such an effect should alter Trump support only in the case of white students.

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