You Are Not Real
You Are Not Real
Shakespeare’s famously gory “Titus Andronicus” is replete with violence, including fourteen deaths. Yet it continues to be performed, and audiences continue to sign up for a frisson of fear and pity, because this is not real.
After the play, the actors get up, wash off the fake blood, and join the playwrights and directors for drinks or dinner.
If, like me, you’ve been wondering about why things are the way they are in today’s world, and how this relates, this is my explanation: For the actors, writers and directors who create real world narratives, the play is you. And you are not real.
Actors and Reality
Much has been made of the jarring dissonance between the heroic stand of the president and the people of Ukraine and the facile signaling of the Social Justice crowd. Feel free to pick your favorite exemplar, from the merely stupid banning of Russian cats and renaming of White Russian cocktails to the more sinister cancelling of Russian performers, or the horrific threats and vandalism to places serving Russian food. There’s no shortage of content here. And, as we’ll get to shortly, that’s the point.
Ukraine’s policy goals do not map fully to those of the United States (think Azov Battalion, for starters), and we can and should carefully consider our response with that awareness. But this does not change Ukrainian heroism. Zelensky wants planes, a no-fly zone, and he would no doubt love NATO boots on the ground. Prudence may dictate we provide him none of these, but it is worth noting that any of us in his circumstances would likely be asking for the same things. Any of us who stayed during the onslaught, that is.
Clearly, Putin’s bet from the beginning included Zelensky on the first plane out to serve as the leader of the Ukrainian government in (comfortable) exile, after which the dismemberment of that nation would rapidly become a fait accompli. Zelensky was having none of it. He stayed, and continues to stay, at great personal risk to himself and his family. He is, unquestionably, a hero.
It is the contrast between these two extremes (the banning of Russian-themed menus et al vs. Zelensky’s stand) that provides ample opportunity to reflect on the idea that many Americans are just not serious people. Unsurprisingly, their response to events in Ukraine has been to simply cut and paste from the outrage-of-the-week playbook: change profile picture, use a hashtag, find some people to cancel, and congratulate oneself on how virtuous one is. In the real world, rational people are tempted to say, “None of this ‘support’ matters”. It’s just empty signaling. So why is it happening, why has it become so pervasive, and how should we contend with it? Examination of a few high-salience topics can shed some light.
Consider this first in the context of Covid and the by now well-known case of the Lab Leak Theory. Peter Daszak of the Eco-Health Alliance was the prime mover behind the infamous Lancet Letter branding any lab leak speculation uninformed conspiracy. This makes perfect sense when considering his incentives. Daszak (and Fauci, and others) had something to lose here. Perhaps a lot to lose. U.S. funding of Gain of Function research in Chinese labs resulting in a global pandemic is, to put it mildly, not a very good look and could be costly both financially and criminally.
Explaining is not excusing. But while we can wish for better, observing actors respond to their incentives is nothing if not proof that the world works in an orderly way. Indeed, the conservative position that we are and should be a nation of laws, norms, and standards implicitly concedes the point that our better angels are not always ascendant. If some people had enormously large reasons to attempt a coverup of something, it’s hardly controversial that some would choose to do so.
And that’s where those laws, norms, and standards come in. In an environment with many disinterested actors, those entities without skin in the game would easily out-produce the relatively small number of individuals invested in a particular narrative. In that environment, the idea that zoonotic transmission and escape from a biolab in the same city where researchers were known to be working on bat viruses were both very real possibilities would be obvious.
But that is not at all how it went down.
Instead, the idea that it might be prudent to investigate what role the lab in Wuhan may have played in the pandemic became roughly equivalent to arguing Flat Earth Theory. What the hell was going on here? Did everyone in the American media landscape owe Daszak a favor? Did Fauci have a secret cache of compromising emails and photos to dangle J. Edgar Hoover style over the heads of troublesome journalists? Why on earth would hundreds or thousands in the media run cover for these guys and for the Chinese government to the extent of making claims that mere investigation of the possibility of a lab leak was racist?
More puzzling still is the idea that there is nothing about either potential source of the pandemic that presupposes an explicitly liberal or conservative position. Indeed, one could easily flip the script and imagine a campaign urging people to “follow the science” rather than resorting to xenophobic tropes about savages in wet markets. Until, that is, Donald Trump and other conservatives brought it up, which was like Christmas came early for Daszak and his co-conspirators. For the progressive left, the endorsement of anything by President Trump was more than sufficient cause to oppose it, and thus the wheels began to turn.
None of this should be surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. At its heart, this is an expression of the luxury of operating without consequences. The luxury of not having to think operationally. To be clear, what I am saying is that Daszak and his cronies were able to leverage a system in which those with the loudest megaphones literally did not and do not care where and how Covid originated. For them, it just doesn’t matter. The pandemic is just background noise. That may seem like a strong statement. So, why and in what sense did they not care?
Gain Not Trust
In a recent episode of Bari Weiss’ podcast Honestly, journalist and academic Yuval Levin articulated a theory of the change from institutions-as-formational to institutions-as-platforms. In his view, institutions of all types formerly served to develop the individuals inside them. If for example, you worked at the New York Times as a young journalist, you would be shaped by the ethos of that institution, informed by the repository of values developed over time within that structure. According to Levin, this has been replaced by the notion of institution-as-platform, the idea is that these structures exist as a launching pad for one’s personal brand.
Understood from this perspective, the great Lab Leak crackdown suddenly makes a great deal of sense. One of the baseline branding positions operating was “not-Trump.” I am completely persuaded that if Trump had spoken out in favor of the wet market theory, we’d all have been loudly advised to “follow the science” in precisely the opposite direction.
It is also worth noting that these personal brands are rivalrous goods. Having a “take,” even the right one, is necessary, but not sufficient. Your take must outcompete the other signals in the marketplace in order to claim disproportionate attention. And this explains why the Lab Leak Theory had to be, “conspiracist,” “anti-science,” and eventually, of course, “racist.”
The more extreme the position is, the more effective it is in gaining audience-capture. And this is not part of the story; it’s the entire story. There is effectively nothing behind the curtain. Because of these powerful incentives, what has happened without us realizing it is the creation of a public dialogue between a small, privileged elite that is fixed on in-group signaling and status-capture. The policy concerns or post-pandemic reforms that should differentially apply depending upon the origin of the disease diminish in importance to the extent that they functionally do not matter at all. And people impacted by those decisions by extension do not matter either. They are extras and scenery.
The Damaging Script
This goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of the otherwise bewildering advocacy that has permeated American life. Democratic New York Mayor Eric Adams noted that the Defund the Police crowd “are a lot of young white affluent people.” Of course they are. Poll after poll reveals that those who live in high-crime neighborhoods want more police, not less.
Like any other sane person, those citizens also want their police officers to be professional and not corrupt, but “I want my police officers to fight crime and be professional” is just not an exciting take. From this perspective, insanity like Defund the Police isn’t surprising, but rather inevitable. It is the position pushed to its logical extreme. And that is why arguing with this group is useless.
If you wonder why the obvious fact that increased crime disproportionally affects black and brown people remains unpersuasive to them, the reason is maybe scarier than you think. It is not that they are stupid; it is that they just don’t care, and they never will. They are completely unconcerned about the consequences of implementing this policy in the real world. And to take it a step further, they don’t even care about the policy itself. The proclamation and the signaling is the whole story. In a fundamental sense, any person killed or otherwise victimized by increased crime is just not real. Extras and scenery. Nothing to see here.
Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this trend than the increasingly unhinged claims emerging from the trans-activist community, as LGB became LGBT and now for some is properly expressed as LGBTQQIP2SAA, in order to be “inclusive” to intersex, pansexual, asexual, and two-spirit people.
For an outsider, it can all seem like satire. How could anyone engage in these abbreviation acrobatics unironically?
It is no surprise that all of this has continued to expand since the 2015 Obergefell ruling which legalized gay marriage. Effectively, the war was over, and the gay community won. Resoundingly. Despite that, it is instructive to note here that there’s no incentive to just take the W, as the kids say, and move on. Satisfaction, and even victory, simply does not move the needle. Outrage is the play when competing for eyeballs and clicks, and thus we have incomprehensible acronyms, death threats to J.K. Rowling, of all people, for having the temerity to state flatly that men and women are different, and an epidemic of medical intervention involving children is something for which future societies will likely judge us very harshly, with good reason.
For outsiders, the criticism seems insane. That is because, once again, we are not the audience. What we are seeing is a process of in-group jousting for status, where increasingly bizarre formulations become predictable and indeed necessary to gain attention. “I disagree with J.K. Rowling” is hardly a winning message, especially compared with “J.K. Rowling threatens my right to exist!” Thus, once again, appeals to reason, biology, or even compassion for a generation of children we are harming irrevocably do not and will not work. No one affected by these positions exists in any meaningful way because, again, they are not real.
By far the best example of this phenomenon is Black Lives Matter, a marketing triumph that proved beyond all doubt that these tactics can work, work well, and most importantly, be monetized. The familiar script is here, but no one has ever executed it better, as activists turned their rallying cry into a movement indistinguishable from religion. No nuance or difference of opinion was tolerated. Even to remain silent was proof of apostacy.
The net result? More than $60 million, most of which remains unaccounted for, and a series of high-end real estate purchases by the activists behind the whole thing. No policy achievements of any kind, because of course those were never the point from the beginning, as was obvious to anyone paying attention.
An attempt at real policy change involves engaging stakeholders, broadening your base, creating consensus, and finding ways to deliver wins for various groups in your coalition. Which to be fair, is a lot of work. It’s much easier to simply use any police shooting of a black citizen, regardless of the circumstances, as a fundraiser. Does anyone seriously believe BLM grifters wanted fewer police shootings? On the contrary, I promise you they wanted more, because each shooting represented an economic event. As in the examples above, BLM created an extremely effective in-group dialogue that served to funnel money into their pockets without any requirement to pursue or achieve any tangible outcomes. And the downstream impacts have been significant, as reduced public trust in law enforcement and plummeting morale among officers have contributed to a dramatic increase in crime which, again, disproportionately affects minority communities.
The response to this from BLM? Condemn the black reporter who exposed their murky finances and questionable real estate transactions as racist, smear the black Harvard economist as a sexual predator, and suggest that even the financial reporting required of non-profits is, you guessed it, racist. It’s not that hard to parse this: BLM activists are not friends or allies of black communities whatsoever. Instead, we come back to the same point: everyone outside of the in-group are just extras and scenery. Including those for whom they purport to advocate. None of them are real.
Rob Henderson calls all of this a symptom of “Luxury Beliefs.” According to Henderson, these are “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost while taking a toll on the lower class.” What we have is a catechism, a portfolio of dogma that operates as a signaling mechanism among the elite. And so, in addition to “Follow the Science” on Covid, “Trans Women are Real Women”, and “Black Lives Matter”, we have a host of other statements expressed as moral imperatives, including things like “Healthy at Any Size”, “All Family Structures are Equal”, “Open Borders”, etc.
All of this can be considered an unexpected and unwelcome consequence of our own success. The complex, exquisitely-tuned supply chains that funnel us goods and services have become so remarkably effective they are essentially invisible. Elites don’t have to worry about how things get done, how X leads to Y, or how thing A gets to place B. It just happens. Magically. Invisibly. How the sausage is made is a question for smaller minds.
In my view, Henderson gets one thing wrong about his theory. Luxury Beliefs are not in fact, the provenance of the rich, but rather of the educational elite, some of whom are also rich in the bargain. Journalists, other media members, academics, and activists typically have little to no experience in actual business and even less incentive to ever gain any. The effortless flow of goods and services they experience allows them the freedom from having to think operationally or consequentially.
Over the past two years, COVID revealed and supercharged the insular status of these elites. If you talk to business owners, no matter how wealthy they may be, who vitally need to think operationally and consequentially every day, you find considerably less support for these elitist notions.
All of this is bad enough when locked in some academic ivory tower, but as we’ve seen, this has escaped into the American Wild with terrifying effect. Crime, inflation, record border crossings, education, and more. Pick your topic, as the list goes on and on.
The Final Act
Which brings us back to Ukraine as the setting for the ridiculous virtue signaling and posturing by these same luxury elites. It is jarring when juxtaposed against actual tanks and soldiers, but it is just more of the same.
I stated earlier that these are not serious people, but that is not entirely accurate. They are extremely serious, just not about anything other than their own internal conversations.
Which then brings us back to “Titus Andronicus” and the reason behind the reason.
These people will not change, and they will not be persuaded by your arguments, your statistics, and your facts.
Because the people who make any of the things elites consume and the people elites purport to stand up for are all equally irrelevant. Performance is the point. The performance is the whole thing, and the actors, playwrights and directors aren’t taking suggestions from you, the extras and the scenery.
Which leads us to the final act: maybe it’s time to think about shutting down the whole play.
– Peak Prosperity –
About the Author
Mr. Smith (his real name) believes context is critical, the silent majority does itself a disservice by remaining quiet (regardless of the issue), and is maddened by the intellectual dishonesty and moral bankruptcy of our corporate and political class.