Climbing the Bell Curve to the Cathedral

Notes on reactionary sea lions

Some folks aren’t thrilled about my previous post, “Grey Lady Steel Man.” It seemed to distress Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug) in particular. He penned a defensive, typically catty ad hominem response in his inimitably hysterical prose style. (You can Google his Substack, Gray Mirror, if you like pain.) For those of you who have never heard of him (i.e., most of you), Yarvin’s big idea is that democracy is terrible and needs to be replaced with a form of feudal corporate dictatorship. He thinks China under Xi Jinping basically has the right idea, except the role played by the National People’s Congress Standing Commitee ought to be played instead by a junta of tech billionaires who jointly own the entire country and everything in it (including us) and who delegate total power over every aspect of it to their chosen dictator/CEO. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but that’s what he thinks. Alarmingly, though not altogether unpredictably, some actual tech billionaires find these ideas attractive.

Anyway, Yarvin likes to imagine himself a steely, disillusioned realist about power who, unlike the rest of us brainwashed sheep, has the fortitude to peer into the abyss and welcome the Satanic revelation that true freedom is brutal subjugation to total, unaccountable power. In this waking nightmare, the state is not the seat of ultimate power in American society. Rather, it is something he calls “the Cathedral,” a distributed cabal of pedigreed elites in universities, mainstream media, and other institutions of cultural production. They possess real power because they control what we, including the functionaries who control the state, are permitted to think.

Behind this veil of false consciousness and the distracting, irrelevant din of democratic politics, an epic Gods vs. Titans struggle rages between the Cathedral and the brave band of martinets seeking to enslave four hundred million Americans to Silicon Valley grandees. This courageous American vanguard of Chinese-style big data totalitarianism must, for now, toil in relative secrecy lest the complacent and lumbering Cathedral awaken fully to the menace gnawing away at its venerable foundations and at last deploy its awesome mind control powers, mobilize its puppets inside the state, and strangle our would-be autarchs’ facial-recognition, location-tracking, murder drone babies in their machine learning cribs.

It is therefore utterly necessary, according to this depraved worldview, to delegitimize the Cathedral by infiltrating as many unsecured platforms as possible to deprogram the people and turn them against their hypnotic masters at Harvard, the New York Times, and… NPR? CNN? The Brookings Institution? It’s not exactly clear. In any case, the Times’s eminent role in the Cathedral’s College of Cardinals is not in dispute. That’s why totalitarian sadists like Yarvin regard it as a matter of urgency to seize and maximally exploit every opportunity to damage the reputation of the Times and the Cathedral’s other leading institutions in the public’s eyes. They do it for the same reason Trump so insistently does it: so that the credulous rabble won’t believe their eyes and ears when the truth is revealed about the sociopaths who burn to become our masters.

Anyway, that’s roughly why Yarvin flipped his fascist lid over my argument that the Times really did nothing wrong in the Slate Star Codex foofaraw; that Cade Metz and the outstanding news outlet that employs him were the victims of an unjust smear campaign ultimately about keeping Scott Siskind’s patients in the dark about what he really thinks about people like them; and that, for all its many faults, the Times, nevertheless ranks among our greatest, most reliable, least biased fact-gathering institutions. This is about as far from the preferred neo-reactionary messaging as it’s possible to get. So Yarvin has dubbed me a “slave of power.” When translated out of the incomprehensible dialect of Cthulhu and fed through the moral de-inversion engine, this translates roughly as “definitely not a fascist stooge.”

I was about to say that truth is irrelevant to guys like Yarvin, because he thinks it’s about power all the way down. But that’s not right. It definitely matters to him if I’m right about the general credibility of the Times or about what’s up with nefarious weirdos like him and if others agree that I’m right. It’s harder to knock people off a conviction grounded in sound reasoning and compelling evidence. Truth has power, so it matters. Indeed, the stickiness of true beliefs held for the right reasons presents a major obstacle for projects of mass subjugation. Opposite-valence propaganda untethered from reason and reality is relatively easy to bat down. But people, as a rule, are vehemently opposed to finding themselves at the business end of the tyranny stick. Therefore, enemies of liberal democracy, whether they be glazed-over MAGA Q fanatics or pinhead neo-reactionaries (maybe you’ve noticed that they’re not that different) need to undermine trust in unwelcome sources of credible information. Otherwise, they’re cooked.

Which is, I suppose, why Yarvin keeps sending me tittering “gotcha now!” emails containing airtight and incontrovertible evidence that my thinking has evolved over the past 25 years in precisely the ways I have very recently described. For example:

This has made the rounds on Twitter among ride-or-die Scott Siskind stans, who consider it a smoking gun. When I first saw this blog comment, I didn’t remember it and had no idea where it had come from, but I was positive it was me. That’s exactly the sort of thing that I would have said when I worked at the Cato Institute in 2006.

The context of the comment, it turns out, is a post on Malcom Gladwell’s old blog where he expresses exasperation over Steve Sailer spamming his comments on an earlier post about race. Sailer is a notoriously pestering proponent of an updated version of scientific racism, which its supporters like to characterize as realism about “human biodiversity,” often shortened to “HBD.” He was an early online innovator of the dialectical technique immortalized by this David Malki strip.

Just replace “sea lion” with “caliper-wielding bigots,” and you’ve got the Steve Sailer experience.

Anyway, Gladwell calls for a vote from his readership on the question of whether to ban Sailer from his blog. The commenters more or less split down the middle. Most of those voting for Gladwell to allow Sailer to keep haranguing him express a liberal tolerance “teach the debate” view much like I did.

What, you may be wondering, is the point of noting that my views fifteen years ago were similar to Conor Friedersdorf’s or Robby Soave’s today? Wesley Yang makes it quite clear:

Siskind says that HBD is either partly correct or can’t be shown to be false, linking to a Steve Sailer blog post. The unusually tortured, elliptical formulation of this confession suggests that he’s anxious to maintain plausible deniability. But then he immediately implores his correspondent to keep his opinion secret, even from his most trusted confidants, otherwise “I will probably leave the internet altogether or seek some sort of horrible revenge.” Just pause a moment to think about that. Now relate it the drama around Siskind shuttering Slate Star Codex. That was an episode in which he noisily left the Internet (though not quite “altogether”) and, in my opinion, clearly sought revenge against Metz and the Times. Does this not illuminate the reason he might do such a thing? Of course it does. It’s like shining an arc light in a closet. That was my point in linking to these emails. They are by far the strongest evidence available that my hypothesis about the entire affair is correct.

As a matter of logic, the fact that I once incorrectly maintained that there’s value in responding to Steve Sailer’s sealioning in a tolerant, liberal spirit of constructive intellectual exchange has no bearing whatsoever on the value of Siskind’s leaked email for establishing his mens rea in nuking his website. Of course, the idea behind this bit of Steve Sailer-related whataboutism is to distract from the fact that this email obviously does have substantial evidential value in support of my interpretation of the affair. Yarvin and Yang (great name for a racism-denial law firm!) act as though I’d linked to the email to build a case for Siskind’s cancellation. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

But that’s not why I linked to the email, is it? I linked to the email to show that Siskind did have views on race that he knew many people would find repugnant, that he was terrified that he would get cancelled if they came out, and that he was prepared to flee and/or fight if they did come out. I appreciate the opportunity to drive this point home.

In any case, the logically irrelevant attempt to draw a tu quoque parallel to my 2006 comment on Malcolm Gladwell’s blog is lame. I said that Gladwell shouldn’t ban Steve Sailer from his blog comments because I’ve learned from reading him and we’re more likely to get at the truth if we engage and explore erroneous ideas than if we don’t. Having said this, I did not beg anyone never to repeat it, nor did I threaten anyone if they did. Why not? Because I hadn’t expressed sympathy with odious racist thinking! Rather, I’d suggested that it’s worth calmly grappling with odious racist thinking, and the methodologically dubious psychometric studies guys like Sailer use to give their views a patina of respectability, out in the open air so that others can see that they can’t withstand scrutiny. And I said this in the public comments of one of the most famous and successful writers in the world, who happens to be half Jamaican. It was a selfish and misguided thought, but I relished the idea of Malcolm Gladwell regularly laying humiliating waste to Steve Sailer in full view of the world.

Comparing this to Siskind’s paranoid hush-hush endorsement of Saileresque scientific racism brings to mind history’s finest tweet:

Still, in these rancorous times, it’s worth taking the intended insinuation of racist sympathies seriously. In 2006, my old blog was 24/7 open-borders, anti-nationalist, cosmopolitan libertarianism, in addition to a bunch of stuff about why status competition isn’t a single zero-sum game because chess grandmasters don’t compete with NBA players for status. I spent a fair amount of time insinuating racist motives on the part of my conservative, immigration-restrictionist friends, which they did not appreciate. Sailer and Moldbug/Yarvin fucking hated it all of it, as they’d occasionally tell me in my comments.

Here I am early in 2006, going simply gaga over Kwame Anthony Appiah’s New York Times Magazine essay on cosmopolitanism. (What a phenomenal publication the New York Times is!) After expressing complete and enthusiastic agreement with Appiah, I say this:

Appiah’s essay led me to reflect on the relationship between my libertarianism and my cosmopolitan liberalism. I became a cosmopolitan liberal because I was a libertarian first. I believe that if you lay enough weight on the natural human liberty to exchange, the moral significance of national boundaries dissipates, and cultural mixing will be seen as an inevitable consequence of people jointly satisfying their preferences through conversation and trade. But I have since met some puzzlingly anti-cosmopolitan libertarians. If I had to choose between pushing a button that would make the U.S. government 75% smaller, or pushing a button that would end the oppression of women the world over, for example, I’d choose the latter without a millisecond’s hesitation. I was astonished when I first discovered that there are strangely nationalistic “libertarians” who would push the smaller-US-government button instead. That is, I think, a regrettable sign of moral immaturity or brokenness.

If you wanted to find a paragraph that sums up the opposite of what Steve Sailer and Curtis Yarvin believe, you couldn’t do much better than this. My views on race at the time were what they are now: that “races” are social categories that function primarily to support caste systems and do not map onto the complex biological and historical realities of human lineages. That’s the polar opposite of the HBD view. Expressing it will magically summon Steve Sailer to your comments like saying “Candyman” three times in a mirror.

Likewise, my views on the contingency, fluidity and inherently synthetic nature of ethnic and national identity were the same as Appiah’s then and are still the same as Appiah’s. By the way, I cannot recommend Appiah’s 2007 Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers or his 2018 The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity more highly. Anyway, my thinking on these issues has evolved very little, except that I’ve become less idealistic and more willing to accept the legitimacy of concessions to democratic opinion. Indeed, the stability of my opinions on these questions served as a foundation for my leftward drift on questions of so-called “identity politics.”

One consequence of that drift is that I am no longer puzzled by nationalistic, anti-immigration “libertarians.” I had to think my way out of libertarianism before I could grasp how it functions to undermine healthy democratic institutions and freeze in place inequalities and power relations built on literal slavery — and that, for many libertarians, that is the appeal.

Another consequence of that drift is that I’d now vote without hesitation to kick Steve Sailer off Malcolm Gladwell’s island. It took me a long time to see it, but I eventually got it into my thick skull that the naive Millian liberal “I may strongly disagree with your opinions, but I am open to learning from a friendly debate” worldview is the opening that illiberal trolls like Yarvin exploit to normalize their repugnant opinions and recruit off less objectionable platforms.

There is no good-faith debate to be had with people like this. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by offering them a platform to lie, filibuster, obfuscate and divide. I enabled these guys, despite my best intentions, by respectfully tolerating them on my own modest platform and by encouraging others to do so as well. I really regret it.

Yarvin saw me as a naive useful idiot, just as he sees Scott Siskind. He was right! I was a useful idiot. I find it interesting, however, that he and the angrily anti-woke Wesley Yangs of the world seem to think that you can discredit someone who has stopped being a useful idiot by showing that they in fact were a useful idiot before they stopped. I’d think that showing that I once shared the tolerant, liberal attitude toward illiberal bigots common among Scott Siskind super-fans would support my claim that I understand how these folks think because I used to think a lot like them. But they clearly don’t see it this way.

I suspect that their animating assumption is that woke scolds side with “power” out of a combination of greed and fear, have no reasonable argument or justification for their opinions and will hasten to blindly display their blameless purity by indiscriminately devouring their own at the first hint of anything even superficially resembling a past mind-crime. There’s no doubt that this is a talking point reactionaries like to use to delegitimize “the Cathedral,” but it is not, in fact, how things actually work.

I think what may be going on here is that when you get in the habit of spouting off any claim, true of false, that you anticipate will weaken your notional enemies, you start to lose track of what you are and aren’t lying about. Your moorings to reality loosen, your own opportunistic propaganda starts to obscure to you the reality of how things work, and your judgments about what will weaken your enemies get worse and worse.

Speaking of which, Yarvin later emailed me a scan of the first serious book review I ever wrote twenty-five years ago. It’s on Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s infamous The Bell Curve. I’ve looked for this for years and could never find it, so… thank you?

Jesus, this takes me back.

In the Spring of 1994, about year and a half before I wrote this review, I begged my dad for the money to register for the Institute for Objectivist Studies’ summer seminar. He had no Earthly idea what it was, but I never asked for anything, so he gave me the cash and I registered. I was an art major at the University of Northern Iowa really into grunge. I lived in a big old house full of theater majors in which everybody constantly belted songs from Rent. I had a dramatic and turbulent relationship with my sometimes lesbian sometimes bisexual Stanislavski-obsessed girlfriend who lived downstairs. But I spent most of my time in the contemplative clackety silence of campus computer labs arguing with fellow champions of reason on alt.philosophy.objectivism and the Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy email list, run by Jimmy Wales.

These people had become my abstract friends. They enlivened something deep in me that my art and theater friends, as much as I loved them, didn’t. I was desperate to meet them in person. When summer finally rolled around, I stole some tags (my license had been suspended), slapped them on my 1988 Plymouth Caravelle, and drove to the IOS summer seminar at the Oberlin campus in Ohio.

I was surprised to discover that everyone was surprised that I was so young, that I was an art major, that my hair was so long. But I was even more surprised to discover that I was a respected and admired member of this community. Philosophy professors and Ivy League grad students told me that they thought I was one of the smartest and insightful people on our email lists. I was repeatedly told that I was a terrific writer.

This changed my life. Maybe I could be a philosopher! Maybe I could be a real intellectual! I found the romance of this idea absolutely intoxicating. This isn’t a glamorous origin story, but it’s mine.

In 1995, I waited tables during the late-night bar rush shift at the Cedar Falls Village Inn. There was a huge roiling controversy over the Bell Curve and I was intensely curious about it. I’d read and really liked Murray’s Losing Ground. So I kept eyeing the hulking black hardcover featured in the window of the university book store across the street from my house. I’d persuaded the editor of a shitty off-campus paper primarily devoted to advertising drink promotions to give me a column. I asked him if he’d cover the cost of this important and controversial book if I were to review it for The Northern Edition and he looked at me as if I’d just taken a dump on the paste-up table. So I took a ridiculous wad of Village Inn tip money to the bookstore and bought the Bell Curve.

It was heavy and satisfying to hold. I’d never purchased a brand-new, non-discounted hardcover that wasn’t a textbook. I remember calculating the price in terms of packets of ramen, but there was no avoiding it: I’d have to make sacrifices if I hoped to make it in the ideas game and I was determined to crack this Bell Curve controversy wide open.

So I hauled it home, flopped down on my futon and tried to drown out the ambient musical theater with Soundgarden. A few days later I trudged off to the computer lab and hammered out a very mixed review of Murray and Herrnstein, dinging them repeatedly for deviating from the tenets of the grande domme of rationality, Ayn Rand.

I can’t lie. If I could blush, I’d be blushing. It’s so bad. I was trying so hard to be serious, judicious and formal — like a real intellectual. I clearly didn’t yet know how to think on my own. I was an art major at Iowa’s third best public university! All I could really do is identify how Murray and Herrnstein were unlike Ayn Rand. And I couldn’t finish a piece without a padded “in sum” term paper conclusion. Yeah, it’s embarrassing.

But I remember this kid and I love him. I’m proud of him. His mom subscribed to Phyllis Schlafly’s newsletter, not the New York Review of Books. He didn’t get to go to Exeter. He drew Tippy the Turtle and got a mail-order course from the Art Instruction Schools. He didn’t get to go to Princeton. He got a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa and found his path in life at Ayn Rand summer camp. Nevertheless, a bit more than a decade down the road, that kid ends up seated next to Charles Murray at an AEI dinner and pisses him off by arguing that virtue is relative to economic structure, and that Aristotle would have agreed. Another decade down the road, he’s writing for the New York Times, where deranged, privileged fucks like Curtis Yarvin think the real power is. (The real power is in money, Curtis.)

I’m embarrassed of my 1995 review of the Bell Curve like I’m embarrassed of my 1991 homecoming picture. But I’m not in the least embarrassed about having been the conservative son of an Iowa cop who had to pass through Ayn Rand to find real philosophy — who couldn’t grasp why liberal freedom requires democratic equality without passing through libertarianism first. We don’t get to choose where we start out. But we have a lot to say about where we end up. If I’ve ended up with a dissimulating tech-humping fascist trying to get me canceled with deep cuts from my improbable path to minor influence on American public opinion, I think I’m okay with that.

- WW

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