“You Are Not Alone” by Bill Whittle
Bill Whittle wrote one of the most important essays on liberty. Unfortunately, it's offline. His entire site is offline.
But this essay is so important, I linked to the original version in my sidebar. So here it is, without permission because I think it is so important.
You Are Not Alone
by Bill Whittle
You Are Not Alone (Part 1)Folks, you are about to be hit with a BIG IDEA.
It’s not entirely my big idea, but I’m willing to hang some tinsel on it and take credit for it.
First, a brief set-up, and then (and I will make an announcement in BOLD CAPS) comes the Big Idea.
Okay, the set-up:
I’ve written a dozen or so major essays since I hung my shingle over this little corner of cyberspace, and received wonderful e-mails about all of them. But two – the last two – have generated a very specific response: more passionate; desperate, even.
The first was Tribes, which basically posited that there were people who relied on themselves and people who relied on the State. The second was Seeing the Unseen, which took a look at conspiracy theories and the mental illness required to believe in ‘chemtrails’ and the 9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB pathology.
Those both generated reams and reams of heartfelt sentiment, and that sentiment was much the same time and time again.
I thought I was all alone, people said. And I see this sense of despair and resignation spreading all across the web; from individuals in comment sections, or in lonely posts on obscure blogs.
Now here’s what’s interesting: this response is the same, again and again, although the stimulus is different. It might be increasing public irrationality and paranoia, or falling educational standards, or unchecked illegal immigration, or activist judges. Maybe it’s tolerance of crime, or endless lawsuits, or general mean-spiritedness. Perhaps it’s rampant defeatism, cynicism, a lack of common decency, and the sense that courage and honor are dying qualities that time is passing by.
And maybe it’s the dawning realization that our elites in politics, academia and entertainment (which controls our mythology) are leading the charge not to salvation but to the cliffs that seem so obvious to so many common people.
Something seems to be failing, something essential, as if all the nails and glue that hold a house together were dissolving all at once. And many people – perhaps you are one of them – watch all this happening and feel powerless to stop it.
Well, you are not alone.
So many stimuli, and always the same response: has the world gone mad?
What do those stimuli have in common?
HERE COMES THE BIG IDEA.
THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA
Not too long ago, just in passing, my friend Richard Riley pointed me to a famous case in game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Now we need to really understand this, because if we do I think many of our present troubles will become clear.
Here’s how Wikipedia presents the case:Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a two-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act? The dilemma can be summarized thus:
Prisoner B Stays Silent Prisoner B Betrays
Prisoner A Stays Silent Each serves six months Prisoner A serves ten years
Prisoner B goes free
Prisoner A Betrays Prisoner A goes free
Prisoner B serves ten years Each serves two years
In deciding what to do in strategic situations, it is normally important to predict what others will do. This is not the case here. If you knew the other prisoner would stay silent, your best move is to betray as you then walk free instead of receiving the minor sentence. If you knew the other prisoner would betray, your best move is still to betray, as you receive a lesser sentence than by silence. Betraying is a dominant strategy. The other prisoner reasons similarly, and therefore also chooses to betray. Yet by both betraying they get a lower payoff than they would get by staying silent. So rational, self-interested play results in each prisoner being worse off than if they had stayed silent.
Okay, we can simplify this:
- If I screw you, but you don’t screw me, I win very big and you lose very big.
- If you screw me and I don’t screw you, I lose very big and you win very big.
- If neither screws each other, we both suffer mild punishment.
- If we both screw each other, we both suffer medium punishment.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, therefore, is an analogy we use to test the results of how people treat each other.
Now, if this game is played one time, the winning strategy invariably is to Screw the Other Guy. If he doesn’t screw you, you get off free. If he does, you serve two years. But if you didn’t, and he decided to screw you – ten years. No one wants to risk that. Screw the Other Guy is the only smart position, and when the game is run thousands of times on computers it comes out the very clear winner.
But! What happens if the game is played again and again, against the same person? Does Screw the Other Guy continue to be the best strategy?
It does not!
The best strategy for a repeating game (called the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma) is not Screw The Other Guy, and -- surprisingly at first glance -- it’s not Always Cooperate With The Other Guy, either.
The winning strategy is Tit-for-Tat. That is, you do to the guy what he did to you last turn. If he cooperated, you cooperate. If he screwed you, you screw him back. Over thousands and millions of computer runs, using every strategy from complete aggression to complete forgiveness, Tit-for-Tat “wins” every time – that is, it results in the least jail time for you.
Robert Axelrod examined this outcome in a book called The Evolution of Co-operation. (That word ‘evolution’ having great power in this context, as we will see in a second.)
Wikipedia again:By analysing the top-scoring strategies, Axelrod stated several conditions necessary for a strategy to be successful.
The most important condition is that the strategy must be "nice", that is, it will not betray [Screw the Other Guy] before its opponent does. Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice. Therefore a purely selfish strategy for purely selfish reasons will never hit its opponent first.
However, Axelrod contended, the successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must always retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as "nasty" strategies will ruthlessly exploit such softies.
Another quality of successful strategies is that they must be forgiving. Though they will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to play betrayals. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximizing points.
The last quality is being non-envious, that is not striving to score more than the opponent (impossible for a ‘nice’ strategy, i.e., a 'nice' strategy can never score more than the opponent). Therefore, Axelrod reached the Utopian-sounding conclusion that selfish individuals for their own selfish good will tend to be nice and forgiving and non-envious. [And, they will hit back when they are hit first, and keep hitting back until the opponent stops Screwing the other Guy; upon which they will revert to cooperation.]
One of the most important conclusions of Axelrod's study of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is that nice guys can finish first.
(Emphasis and brackets mine – BW)
Now things get really interesting. In The Prisoner’s Dilemma, these behaviors are expressed as choices made by individuals. But now substitute entire cultures, where the cultural norm is made up of these choices, and what do you see?
You find the easy, knee-jerk reaction is to form a society where everyone tries to screw everyone else. It’s the short-term approach, and it makes sense in the short term. Presumably all robbers and cheats want to maintain short-term relationships with their victims. If they had to meet them again (if the game was iterated) this strategy would be, shall we say, somewhat less successful and the victims would begin to Hit Back.
When I look out into the Third World, this is what I see: short-term strategies for immediate gain at the cost of long-term success. A swarm of trinket vendors on a beach in Mexico all need to make an immediate sale in order to eat that day, even if the cost is being so annoying and frustrating to the tourists that it prevents them from ever returning. Short term gain, long term loss.
I make no value judgment on that behavior, because it works on some level or it would not be so prevalent. In societies where short term values trump long-term ones, it is easy, safe and stable to Screw the Other Guy. But in the long-term, nothing of consequence grows, because nice, forgiving and non-envious are advanced strategies that require a topsoil of general goodwill, trust, and respect for the rule of law.
Societies that embrace these qualities will always out-compete those that don’t.
You want to know what that short-term gain mentality looks like in the real world? Here you go:
(A picture of a power transformer in Mexico having electricity hacked and illegally stolen by thousands of households)
Do you see any long-term disadvantages to an arrangement like the one above? I mean, aside form the obvious fire risk, who is actually paying for all that stolen electricity? And in a Screw the Other Guy society, why should he pay? He spends money, for what gain? Why not just steal it like everyone else? And when no one pays, guess what happens to the electricity. It goes away.
But as we see from The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is an unnatural island of stability that is far more successful, and it is not simply trusting everyone and being all-cooperating all the time. That strategy is the worst, because it rewards being screwed by competing strategies that eat it for breakfast everytime. It is de-selected. It vanishes from the gene pool, so to speak. You see no society like that in the real world, and now you know why. Are you listening, Marxists? It doesn’t work.
But Tit-for-Tat combines generosity and toughness. And look at the terms used to describe the most successful strategic version of Tit-for-Tat: Nice. Retaliating. Forgiving. Non-envious.
Now, this is where my own analysis kicks in, because frankly, nice, retaliating, forgiving and non-envious pretty much sums up how I feel about the West in general and the United States in particular. The web of trust and commerce in Western societies is unthinkable in the Third World because the prosperity they produce are fat juicy targets for people raised on Screw the Other Guy. Crime and corruption are stealing, and stealing is Screwing the Other Guy. It’s short-term win, long-term loss.
Alright, now here come the brass tacks:
If you think about it, all of our laws – and indeed, the very idea of respect for and equality under the law – are written to protect Tit-for-Tat, because Tit-for-Tat produces the best results. You may sell your product at a profit, but if you lie about what it does we will call that fraud and you will go to jail because successful societies start nice but retaliate against those that decide to Screw the Other Guy. The punishment of fraud is what gives us confidence in the claims made by other products. Retaliating against Screw the Other Guy is not mean-spiritedness or a lust for revenge. It is essential to protect the confidence needed to stay focused on long-term wins. And that’s how, in theory, you build a cooperative society.
You retaliate against those that take advantage of the common trust. In other words, you punish the cheaters.
If you do not punish the cheaters, you have an “always cooperate” society that produces, consistently and rapidly, the worst possible outcome because it encourages – it selects – competing nasty strategies, by providing them with what I can only describe as a food source. Without retaliation against cheaters, cheaters thrive because that becomes the smartest strategy. There’s nothing “kind” about non-retaliation, nothing noble or good. Non-retaliation is suicide. Plain and simple.
Remember all those stimuli I mentioned before? What do they have in common?
Cheating in class (or getting a diploma without passing the required tests), cheating by crossing the border illegally, cheating by committing crimes and not paying for it, cheating by bribery and corruption, cheating in general rewards Screw the Other Guy as a social strategy and makes chumps of the people who need a level of societal trust – they need retaliation against Screw the Other Guy – in order to continue to cooperate. Society needs to retaliate against cheaters because not to do so flips the coin from cooperation to betrayal. And that’s the end of everything we have worked for and cherish.
And – and – you don’t need to be a master of game theory to know this in your bones. Because if you are offended by cheaters, it is because you are being betrayed into – you are in fact being forced into – becoming a cheater and betrayer yourself. Always-cooperating dies quickly: if you never betray and the other guy always does, he goes free and you get 20 years every time. (In other words, he’s out getting high while you work to support him.) Sooner or later, even the most dense moralist gets the message.
When a tipping point is reached – when enough people are allowed to cheat – the system swings to a different stability mode (the default mode) and Screw the Other Guy becomes the only rational choice.
The rational choice. Think about that for a moment.
Does that make you angry? It damn well better. And if it does, then you are not alone.
The more I thought about this, the more amazed I became. I could waste the rest of your day coming up with examples, but let’s just pick five quick ones to show how several real-world cases can be found to demonstrate the enlightening quality of this idea. In order of increasing societal relevance:
1. You are in a line of cars on the freeway heading for a high-traffic exit ramp. The line slows. The line is the most efficient and fair way to get the cars off the highway – first come, first served. But people are using the faster surrounding lanes to get to the head of the line and merge at the last instant. When more cars end up bypassing the line than are waiting in it, being in the line no longer makes sense. Cooperation flips to Screw the Other Guy as the best strategy, since so many people are merging at the exit the line now barely moves at all. These haphazard merges slow not only the exit lane, but also the surrounding ones as people decelerate to find a last-minute merge opportunity. It becomes a safety hazard. Everybody loses. And your willingness to commit homicide increases perceptibly.
2. You are in a relationship. You are nice, forgiving and non-envious. You may think it is loving and kind not to retaliate when you are treated unfairly, but you’d be wrong. Anybody with any self esteem knows that if you are being wronged, you cannot just continue to take it. You must punish behavior that tries to take advantage of your good nature, in order to maintain the self-respect and reputation you need in order to be treated well. Failure to retaliate will lead to more and more abuse. Failure to retaliate makes Screw the other Guy the optimal position for the other person: they can behave as selfishly and recklessly as they like with no consequences – what’s not to love?
Every one of us sees this every day, either in our own lives or those of our friends. Rachel Lucas raised this example when I was floating this theory. She said, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” Exactly so. One way or another.
3. Criminals need a lawless environment in order to prosper. When simple laws enforcing common decency – excessive noise, public urination – are not enforced, the signal goes out that this is a retaliation-free zone and the invisible skull-and-crossbones flag of Screw the Other Guy flies from every building. This is why where you find broken windows you will find every manner of vice under the sun and moon. Because if people can break windows without retaliation, then they know the rules and they know what strategy to play.
New York City now has a lower crime rate than London. Why? Because Rudy Giuliani and Bill Braxton made it a policy to enforce the small laws. My father managed the Taft Hotel briefly towards the end of his career in 1979. On a visit to Times Square in those days you kept one hand on your wallet and the other was used to shoo away the pamphleteers hawking live sex shows. Now Times Square is like Disney World. I have walked out of the Viacom building after edit sessions ending at 2:00 am and walked through Times Square with complete confidence.
London, on the other hand, not only confiscated citizens’ handguns, they actively prosecute the few souls still willing to defend their own property. The London Police – once the envy of the world – now openly admit that they will not prosecute entire classes of crime. They have, in short, done precisely the inverse of what Giuliani and Braxton did: they have refused to retaliate, refused to punish the criminals and in doing so destroyed the trust needed for people to live in their own homes without fear. They have paid a large price for that already and I hope they have their checkbooks opened because they are a long, long way from being finished.
4. Large numbers of non-citizens want to live in the United States. Large numbers. A society can only assimilate so many people in a given year. If millions and millions of people come here illegally, they are loading the system to capacity at the expense of the honest, decent people who are doing the right thing by applying to immigrate legally. If we reward illegal immigration with amnesty, we have allowed the illegals not only to screw our own people and laws, but even more so they harm their own countrymen who are trying to get here by cooperating.
The biggest losers in our inability to control illegal immigration are the legal immigrants. What benefit do these honest people gain from playing by the rules? This is as clear a real-world example as you are likely to see of the lack of retaliation flipping a system from cooperation to betrayal.
And, by allowing this to happen, you also set a precedent, which I think is even more destructive: you are saying not only to the illegals but to the entire society that laws are for chumps. Cheaters win. How much of this do we need to be immersed in before everyone realizes the smart move is to flip from cooperation to betrayal? How much damage does it do when the very people sworn to uphold the law – uphold the rules that allow this amazing cooperation game to continue -- are the ones who seem most enthusiastic to reward cheating? Finding out the cops are in on the crime is enough to drive even the most stout-hearted person to despair.
A steady diet of this message is not going to end well.
5. Everything the West has achieved – all the science, prosperity, security and freedom – is based upon the free exchange of ideas. We tolerate offensive ideas so that this free exchange of information may continue. Disagreement is the crucible of wisdom. The price we pay for this cooperation is the daily offense we suffer at the exposure to ideas we find distasteful.
However, when radical Muslims living in the West demand that their religion not undergo these same stresses and trials and turns violent – burning buildings or killing those who disagree with them – well, we as a society have a choice. We can be “always cooperating,” which rewards that behavior, or we can retaliate, which punishes it.
Which do you think – reward, or punishment – is likely to produce more of this savagery, and which less?
And frankly, which behavior is more worthy of contempt: slapping someone repeatedly in the face, or watching someone thank his assailant for doing it to them? That is not moral superiority. That is the neurosis of the masochist.
If you are not built that way, then you are not alone.
Okay, everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. When so much of this lack of rigor and disregard for right and wrong is in our faces every day, what is a decent, law-abiding citizen to do?
Protest in the streets? Yeah, that’s effective. I think it was Heroditus who said, “We old-skool niggaz don’ roll like that, yo.”
So what’s left? Well, the further off the beaten track the better the adventure. You may find this next briar-ridden path leads to an interesting garden...
Chances are you have no idea what the term The Remnant refers to. Four years ago I certainly did not have the slightest clue. But just when I started this weblog adventure, some very good friends gave me an essay by a fellow named Albert Jay Nock. It was called Isaiah’s Job. (Try this revised link —NW)
In it, Nock talks about a very peculiar conversation God has with his messenger. Nock writes:[T]he Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. "Tell them what a worthless lot they are." He said, "Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don't mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you," He added, "that it won't do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life."
Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it? "Ah," the Lord said, "you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it."
Albert was a very highly educated fellow. He observes that, strangely enough, Plato himself used precisely the same word – Remnant -- when referring to the same group, the people whose force of character was the mortar that held ancient Athens together. Curious…
He clarifies that he is not talking about an educational or aristocratic elite:As the word masses is commonly used, it suggests agglomerations of poor and underprivileged people, labouring people, proletarians, and it means nothing like that; it means simply the majority. The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great and overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses. The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.
I have been, and remain, a staunchly anti-elitist individual. I find the idea of belonging to a special group the most dangerous philosophical ground you can stand on. But what is remarkable about this Remnant is that the people that compose it seem to be drawn completely at random. It is not a philosophy. It is a frequency. You are on it or you are not. And this is not a million-dollar lottery win, either: it is a call to face unpleasant facts and impending hardship. It is a quiet summons to duty. It often makes one uncomfortable, and, most often, this unfocused, vague desire – this need – to do something useful most often makes one feel very much alone.
What’s remarkable about the Remnant -- to me, anyway – is the sheer unpredictability of its composition. Perhaps that homeless drug addict, panhandling under the overpass… perhaps he will be the one to run into a burning building while other decent and good people stand idle, waiting for something to happen.
Waiting for someone to happen.
During the 1992 L.A. riots, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled from his vehicle and nearly beaten to death by a mob of enraged blacks. Cinderblocks and fire extinguishers where hurled at his head. The police had been told not to enter the area. He was rescued by other black neighbors, who at great risk to themselves waded into that fury and took him into one of their own homes. He eventually recovered.
That was Remnant. Not the actions of Delta Force operators or other First Responders – the obvious assumption -- but rather of decent, ordinary people who showed extraordinary decency and courage when the moment called them.
And what did the passengers of United Flight 93 have in common? Men and women, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor… who knows, and more importantly, who cares? They were motivated to do extraordinary things – not all of them, for most of the people remained in their seats. But some of them (enough, as it turned out) heard that ancient and distant call, heard that tone, that frequency – and likely saved the Capitol building, symbol of our government; not to mention all the people in and around it.
That is Remnant. That is the strength, the foundation, the core, the essence of civilization and decency in the face of barbarism and murder.
If this sounds like a fun thing to be then I have not been making myself clear. Nock elaborates:[I]n any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them… You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who is properly gifted with the imagination, insight and intellectual curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade…
…If, for example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth an idea which lodges in the [subconscious] of a casual member of the Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man's conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.
I was myself “corrupted” by this idea of the Remnant four years ago. The more I think about it, the more it haunts me.
Because if you understand and believe that some people carry within them an inextinguishable spark, not of intellect or courage even, but rather of character, then you eventually come to the point where you realize -- as did Nock and Isaiah and Plato – that mere numbers of people mean nothing. For if these men are correct, being outnumbered a thousand to one is irrelevant. And about a thousand to one is the number that Isaiah is given by God when he asks how many of the Remnant there may be.
Now you may be thinking that I am positioning this for you to consider yourself the Remnant and Your Humble Author the latest incarnation of their Prophet. I can assure you I mean no such thing. Because the maddening and magnificent thing about this quality of character is that it cannot be hustled, preached to, manipulated or organized:He may be quite sure that the Remnant will make their own way to him without any adventitious aids; and not only so, but if they find him employing any such aids, as I said, it is ten to one that they will smell a rat in them and will sheer off…
… they take his message much as drivers take the directions on a roadside signboard – that is, with very little thought about the signboard, beyond being gratefully glad that it happened to be there, but with every thought about the directions.
This seems to me to be exactly right. If I take Nock at his word – and more and more I am inclined to do exactly that – then Nock was simply transmitting a message “in the blind,” with no hope or thought to who might read it, or when. And that idea (as he predicted) has burrowed deep into my mind – so much so that I too now feel compelled to re-transmit it in a way that Plato or Isaiah or Albert Jay Nock could never have imagined: at the speed of light to magic lanterns scattered across the entire planet.
One in a thousand of the world’s population is 6 million people. If luck breaks a certain way, this message might reach one percent of that one in a thousand. But the beautiful thing is… that will be enough. Because we are not powerless. There is, indeed, something we can do.
You Are Not Alone (Part 2)
A VIRTUAL CITY-STATE
After I got my first taste of this idea, I was immediately fired up by my total misunderstanding of the entire concept.
I had thought that what was needed was to form this Remnant into a group, organize it, get some influence. Like the Netroots.
See, a little knowledge… dangerous… etc.
You cannot organize this quality. It exists subconsciously in people so varied and diffused that it is pointless to even try. Besides, so far all the Netroots have accomplished, through years of hard work advancing the Democratic agenda, is to remove one (D) beside the Senator from Connecticut and replace it with an (I). I am sure this is due to the fact that this is still the early stage of their campaign. No doubt, at this rate, they will show solid results by the turn of the century.
We don’t have that kind of time. Nor do I have the inclination or the means to try something like that, even if I thought such online politics were effective, because trying to organize people like the ones I am speaking to is like trying to herd cats.
No, the truth to improving – healing – a society where cooperation is on the verge of reverting to betrayal, is by a terribly unexciting and mundane path. The answer, I’m afraid, is to control the one thing you truly do have control over: yourself.
The way to improve society is to improve yourself. A city is made up of its citizens. The higher the quality of citizen, the more secure and prosperous and wise the city becomes.
We watch the divisiveness and mean-spiritedness accelerate as we scream and yell at each other, trying to bring our opponent around to our point of view. But the fact is, you have no control over anyone. You only control your own heart. That’s it. That’s the hand we are all dealt.
But consider that example of the one person who, by taking action first, inspires scores of others to follow on his or her heels. What value can you place on a person like that? How many people is someone like that capable of influencing?
Honor is a concept widely derided and discarded today. But honor is really nothing more than your personal credit rating. It is a statement of your character, and like credit, honor has leverage. It can move large numbers of people: elevate them, raise their spirits and their expectations of themselves. Honor and Courage and Character are beacons in the darkness; they draw all manner of people toward their light. Most people want to be good, to be brave, to be useful. They just need to be shown the way sometimes. And the only way to create such beacons to light our path is to commit to becoming one yourself.
In his exceptional novel Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield wrote of the Spartan society and ethics that led to the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae. That was an act of courage – a vision of the power of Remnant – that lights our way thousands of years later, for that stand saved Greece, and science, and reason, and with it the West and all that we have accomplished.
Regarding the source of that courage, Pressfield writes of an aged slave, who is trying to convince the narrator -- a young orphaned boy in his care -- not to run off and attempt to live alone in the wild:This was the only time I saw Bruxieus truly, physically angry. He seized me by both shoulders and shook me violently, commanding me to face him. "Listen to me boy. Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, in the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home."
This idea has great power. Courage, character, honor – all the virtues – are derived and strengthened from interactions with the virtuous. Where though, today, can one go to find a community that values such things, whose cohesiveness is formed not from the same political party, skin color, sexual orientation or any of the rest, but rather solely by a determination to improve one’s own self and in doing so improving the common welfare?
If there was a city-state comprised of such people, would you wish to live there? I would! I think that would kick ass! But no such city exists, and to try to build one would in all likelihood devolve into a squabble over money in the best case, or develop into a bad case of Compound Isolation Disorder in the worst. Hey, look at me! I just invented a term.
However, we live in interesting times.
Throughout history, civilizations rise and fall. They fall for the same reason, by my reading of history: the lack of will to defend her, a cancer which starts not from the bottom but invariably from the top. A fish rots from the head, say the Russians, who ought to know. From Nero to Chamberlain, the elites evolve away from an understanding that retaliation against the lawless and the barbaric is not a vice but a virtue. They take the manifest blessings of civilization as a given and foist their own personal guilt and moral cowardice upon the entire city. They open the gates to the savage peoples who have always stood outside of progress and gentleness and culture.
It has always been this way. If you feel you see it happening now, before your very eyes, well… you are not alone. A society unwilling to enforce the laws that civilize it, that is unable or unwilling to see the advantages of civilization, a society led by the pampered, the narcissistic and the corrupt, is not long for this Earth. Our enemies look at us and see precisely these symptoms, and the symptons are worsening. Our unwillingness to retaliate when retaliation is called for – indeed, the uneasiness with the very idea of retaliation against betrayal – has them licking their lips in anticipation. They see all this decay and they are right to see it, for it is there.
One thing they do not see, however – also there. They do not see the Remnant. They do not see the power and resilience of what the irreplaceable Victor Davis Hanson has referred to as “the Old Breed.”
Nock and Isaiah believed that the purpose of the Remnant was to rebuild a new civilization from the ashes of those destroyed by their own masters. And certainly to date this has always been their main function.
But there is something different -- just perhaps, something fundamentally different this time around. Because today, for the first time in human history, common people can communicate directly with one another. We are no longer dependent on spineless politicians and the jaded masters of the press to color our opinions of the world. For the first time in human history, the Remnant can reach out to each other on these gossamer threads of a world-wide web.
I believe – utterly – that this ability for the common person to communicate with other common people, this internet, will allow us to end-run the cycle of civilization. I believe it in my bones.
My friends, Western Civilization is not on its last legs.
Western Civilization is going to the stars. Count on it.
Almost home now. One last path to follow.
In The Bridge Over the River Kwai, author Pierre Bouelle describes the difference in philosophy behind the Western idea of a bridge and the Eastern one. And though I am paraphrasing liberally, he writes:There is nothing in common between a bridge, as conceived by civilized society in the West, and the utilitarian scaffoldings which the Japanese forces were in the habit of erecting in the continent of Asia… The [Japanese] scaffolding would last a few days, a few weeks, sometimes even a few months, after which a flood would sweep it away, or else a series of more than usually violent jolts would make it capsize. Then the Japanese would patiently start rebuilding it. The materials they used were provided by the inexhaustible jungle…
…But when it comes to bridge building, Western mechanical procedure entails a lot of grueling preliminaries, which swell and multiply the number of operations leading up to the actual construction. They entail, for instance, a detailed plan; and for this plan to be made it is essential to determine in advance the section and shape of every beam, the depth to which the piles are to be driven, and a mass of other details… and this mental creation, which precedes the material creation, is not the least important of the many achievements of Western genius.
In my mind Bouelle understates the case. I maintain that all of the achievements of Western civilization are due entirely to the fact that we finish the bridge in our mind – to the smallest detail – before we build the bridge in the world.
(Interesting, too, that most British thought this superiority was racial. It was, as I have long maintained on these pages, nothing of the kind: it was exclusively cultural. After their defeat by this power of the West and their re-structuring of their society in its image, the Japanese are now arguably the finest engineers in the world.)
This seed of Western genius is the ability to imagine the ideal solution in one’s own imagination prior to the hammering of the first nail. This takes additional time and energy. It is a triumph of cooperation and long-term thinking over the short-term, fast and easy ad hoc solution. This is a way of thinking that has defined our culture. It is our golden heart. It is world-changing. It is refined genius, applied millions of times each day in ways large and small.
This City-State of Virtue we desire does not exist.
Let’s build one.
I have in my head a blueprint of sorts, based on other contructions I have seen but incorporating a few twists worth mentioning.
Since you are reading this, you already know that the internet can be a powerful and revolutionary source of news and opinions. That is happening at millions of nodes at this very instant, and it is changing the world.
However, one thing we might all agree on is that the internet is not primarily known as a font of virtues. But the beauty of the internet is the endless variety of its forms. If there are hundreds of websites devoted to gay furry amputee latex fetishes, perhaps one devoted to the idea of applying the virtues to political and personal behavior might not find the market already saturated.
I have – on my mental blueprint – the idea of a Virtual City-State. Like other online communities – World of Warcraft, Second Life, the comment sections at various blogs – it would be a place for like-minded people to meet and discuss things. But that does not help us in the real world.
What can? What can we do to make ourselves into the best people we can be? If that envelope marked “Remnant” is sealed inside every heart, yet opened only one in a thousand times, how can we increase the delivery of that all-important message?
Well, we can start by taking a look at what the founders of this Western society had to say, several thousand years ago, for they thought long and hard about the ideal society, and it was their thinking which so profoundly influenced our own Founding Fathers.
Today, when we think of virtues, we tend to think of things like prudence, chastity, modesty… pretty cold porridge. But to the Greek, the Virtues were dynamic and bold. More, Aristotle and others believed they were harmonized – that is related, interconnected, so that to not know one was to imperfectly know the rest.
They were dionethic, he said, built by rationality – the virtues of understanding of substance, science, wisdom, the practical crafts and the practical mind.
And there were ethnic virtues, built by custom – courage and temperance; the property-based virtues of generosity and goodwill; honor-based virtues like pride, assertivity and control of anger; the social virtues of wittiness, honesty and friendliness; and the political virtue of justice.
Start your video recorders, and then ask the average high school kid today to name some of the harmonized virtues. And I’m picking on high school kids unfairly, because the same hilarity would result if you’d asked me the identical question a few months ago.
But look at the list of virtues in bold above, and ask yourself how you would feel about your child if they were fluent in all these? What if the political issues of the day were discussed not by how they would advance one party or the other, but rather as they held up against the list of virtues mentioned above?
What kind of society would a citizenry so educated and versed produce?
I did a little beta-testing of this concept prior to posting this essay. I asked my regular readers two questions:
The response was extraordinary. Some people were computer database experts. Some were architects. Some were scientists, and a lot of people – most of them – were just regular people like Your Author, who has some small skill with flying machines and who would trade that skill for free legal advice, help in selecting the best resort hotel on Maui or setting up a java-based application we might need. This Virtual City-State is, even at this very second, building itself. I pointed to a patch of earth, went out for a sandwich, and when I returned foundations had been poured and columns were going up.
- What are you good at?
- Can you teach it?
It is extraordinary!
When I then asked my regulars what they wanted out of such a place, the responses were as varied as the people making them.
Some simply want a place to go and chat with like-minded people at the end of a hard day. Others want a forum where they can debate and thrash the issues of the day against any and all comers, to whet and hone their arguments and to learn wisdom from the confrontation of ideas with other ideas. Some had mentioned the idea of a Hall of Heroes, to highlight examples both past and present of the kind of behaviors that build up society, rather than the ones that tear it down (of which there is no shortage in the celebrity-obsessed main stream media.)
And me? I personally want a place where I can go to become prepared. I have had two engine failures in my first 300 hours of flight time, and they were non-events because I had rehearsed in my head, again and again, exactly what to do before the fact. Right now, if I heard on the news that a dirty bomb exploded five miles from my house, I don’t know what I would do. But I would like to know. And there are people reading this right now who know exactly what to do, because it is their business to know.
I want to hear from those people. That’s what I personally want. But this is not limited to me. This is for everyone.
Everybody is good at something. Only you know what you are best at, what you love, what you are passionate about. Can you teach it? Can you take what you know how to do better than anyone else you know and share it with the rest of us so that we might all become better people?
Not every skill may be possible to teach on the internet, but with a large enough community that mutually chips in their best skill set for the good of all, what you cannot do on the web you can arrange to do in person across much of the world.
Imagine a community that is dedicated to the idea of each man and woman improving themselves, by sharing with one another the skills and expertise they themselves have accumulated. This would be not only a forum, but a free, online, wiki-university, where members can contribute their wisdom and passion in fields ranging from Civil Defense and Unarmed Combat to Single-Malt Scotch Appreciation and Quilting. I see areas where one could get free legal, mechanical, computer or any other kind of advice; job boards where decent employers can find decent employees, and postings not only from myself but from you – yes, you there – that make sense out of the issues of the day and give us all the tools we need to go back into the world and make it a better place, through argument and persuasion, yes, but mostly through example. The amount of skill and information available to 50,000 readers of your caliber – yes you -- is mind-boggling, and not using it is a mind-boggling waste.
I would like to create a virtual city where we can pool our knowledge and skills, refresh our courage, re-affirm our morality and then take those virtues back out into the world and re-light the fire of liberty, courage and reason.
We, together, can build a virtual community where people can go to be refreshed, encouraged, educated, entertained and improved. Such a place will invariably produce better citizens and better citizens make a better society.
I want to call this place Ejectia! It’s a silly name. It’s good not to take this stuff too seriously.
And I have a charming idea that the first thing you see at the Ejectia! main page is a photo-realistic, computer-rendered, empty valley. Then, when the Discussion Hall module is ready, say, a forum building appears in the valley. You click the forum to get to the discussion hall. As each new module is added, the city grows before your eyes. The seasons change with the real world, too. Over time, an endlessly expanding movie is posted, showing the slow growth and increasing complexity of the virtual city.
And this is only what one person can visualize. Eject! Eject! Eject! belongs to Bill Whittle. But Ejectia! belongs to everyone, equally. What wonders can five thousand imagine? What glorious mental bridges can 50,000 people build?
I don’t know. But I want to find out. I think that would be just damn cool. And it would all be free.
I want a place to make myself a better person. I want to be around people who want to do the right thing, no matter how short of that goal we all fall. Anyone who feels the same way is welcome. All the rest is simple engineering.
That's the plan. You in?
I will keep this essay on this site until Mr. Whittle asks me to remove it or until he puts it online again.