Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

The purpose of absurdity

Ron Unz had an interesting comment at Sailer’s blog a while ago:

Actually, another suspicion I’ve often had is that much of that massively-promoted total nonsense like transexualism and Gay Marriage is meant to flush out and expose potential troublemakers potentially lurking within ranks of the elite before they can rise high enough to become a serious problem. In support of this hypothesis, the leading purge victims are usually found within the fields of popular culture, entertainment, celebrity, and the media, which constitute a crucial chokepoint in controlling our society. It’s obviously much easier and safer to detect and purge a future Mel Gibson while he’s just a rising young actor than after he’s spent a dozen years as Hollywood’s #1 star.

the reason the King walks down the street naked in his imaginary suit is to draw out and catch those people unwilling to say they see what isn’t there.

In an actual historical example, the Emperor Caligula appointed his favorite horse to the highest official government position in the Roman State. How better to break the spirit of potentially disloyal Senators and military commanders, and determine which of them might have independent thoughts.

Well put. But personally what struck me is that he had to come up with this by his own. A very intelligent man in his 50s had to personally realize this. When it should be a perfectly obvious point.

The very point of writing down history is to bring to make it easy for people to find out the patterns in human interaction, especially in politics, so that we can understand why things happen. Because the fact is that the same things happen all the time.

As I often say, all things considered,  the best historical tradition in the world is that of China. The imperial government has put lots of people and resources into writing history there for 3,000 thousand years. And one of the results of this emphasis is that they have left a lot of interesting stories about important patterns in political history, often in the form of neat 4-letter idioms.

By making them into tiny and neat idioms, you make them much more accessible to the public’s memory. Which is why any decently educated Chinese knows what 指鹿為馬 zhi lu wei ma means.

Letter by letter it is “point deer make horse”. It tells the story of Zhao Gao, one of the closest ministers of the First Emperor of Qin. The Qin Emperor died in 210 BC, and soon after the Chen Sheng rebellion (another good example of history as a mirror for government) started, which in a few years destroyed the first empire that the Qin house had spent centuries to achieve.

Qin was able to conquer all the other Chinese states and build a unified empire because it had invented royal absolutism. Back in the 300s BC, Shang Yang had reformed the Qin government, stripped the landed nobility of all its privileges, and set up a centralized bureaucracy to effectively transmit the will of the royal house. A rationalized system of punishment and rewards made the peasants into very effective farmers and soldiers, and soon the other traditional feudal states were swept away by the absolutist Qin armies.

The funny bit is what happens with the royal house. As I said this was perhaps the worlds first absolute monarch ruling over a centralized bureaucracy. Well a lot happened to the Qin house during the years, but let’s focus on the First Emperor. When he died in 210 BC, the crown prince, Fusu, was up in the army in the northern frontier. The emperor had died while touring the provinces, and with him was a younger son, Huhai.

Well the emperor died out of the capital, so nobody knew. The only ones who knew were his prime minister, Li Si, and his close minister Zhao Gao, who may or may not have been a eunuch. Well apparently Zhao Gao didn’t like the crown prince Fusu very much. He had reason to think that Fusu hated him, and would execute him as soon as he became emperor himself. So Zhao Gao gets Li Si and says “hey, dude’s dead, we’re the only ones who know. Fusu doesn’t like you either, so why don’t we get this kid Huhai and name him successor?”

Li Si took some convincing, as did Huhai himself. But eventually they got on the plan, and sent a forged imperial edict ordering Fusu to kill himself. Which strangely he did, even after opposition by his entourage. With crown prince Fusu out of the way, the three got back to the capital, and set up Huhai as Second Emperor of Qin.

Soon later Zhao Gao found some excuse and executed Li Si and all his family, and took his prime ministership. He obviously knew too much. Then he proceeded to execute all those little Schelling Points that were the emperor’s brothers and sisters, so there was no contest about who had the right title to the crown. Still after Huhai was secure in his thrown, he was starting to be a little uncooperative with Zhao Gao. The Chen Sheng rebellion had started, and the empire was having trouble suppressing it. The Emperor blamed Zhao Gao for the mess and he had a point. But Zhao Gao didn’t like that. He started to think that maybe they should have a change of emperor, but he couldn’t be sure he could pull it off.

So Zhao Gao brings a deer into the palace. Grabs it from the horns, calls the emperor to come out, and says “look your majesty, a brought you a fine horse”. The Emperor, not amused, says “Surely you are mistaken, calling a deer a horse. Right?”. Then the emperor looks around at all the ministers. Some didn’t say a word, just sweating nervously. Some others loudly proclaimed what a fine horse this was. Great horse. Look at this tail! These fine legs. Great horse, naturally prime minister Zhao Gao has the best of tastes.

A small bunch did protest that this was a deer, not a horse. Those were soon after summarily executed. And the Second Emperor himself was murdered some time later.

This story made it into the Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian, around 100 BC, through which it became part of common knowledge for Chinese intellectual life. From then on, everytime somebody tried to pull off a similar stunt, opposing ministers could say “you’re trying to say a deer is a horse, huh!”, which could get other lukewarm ministers to wake up and support you. Or get you killed with your whole family.

In the West of course we have Hans Christen Andersen’s tale about the kid and the emperor’s new clothes. The funny part is it’s fiction. And the story is just about a child, who having a pure heart, dares to say the truth against the powerful. The moral is that we should be ashamed of ourselves and aspire to be as virtuous as this child. But of course in reality this child would have been arrested and executed, alongside his parents. Which is obviously why nobody tells the king about his new clothes. They’re not stupid.

This says a lot about Western sensibilities.


29 responses to “The purpose of absurdity

  1. Pingback: The purpose of absurdity | Neoreactive

  2. Handle June 3, 2015 at 12:19

    The ideological nonsense serves two useful social test functions.

    One if the one Unz points to. “Whether one is really and truly loyal to the group, such that one can place them in a position of influence or responsibility and not regret it later.” In that case, the more absurd, potentially costly, and difficult to consistently adapt to, the set of beliefs, the better. At least, so long as those beliefs don’t hurt the bottom line (sometime Hollywood forgets this and comes out with an awful loser of a politically-overloaded film that bleeds red ink, but then it quickly writes it off, forgets about it, and regains its balance and commercial sense).

    You could say this about many religions and cults too, but what makes progressivism different from religious beliefs is the pace of change and having to constantly keep up with fashions and thus constantly forget and/or repudiate the positions everyone espoused last yet. We have always been at war with Eastasia, etc. Either someone is a truly loyal true believer, or a harmless acquiescer. Can a faker really read the winds so well that they will tow the line on every topic, every time? If they can and do, they’re probably harmless to you, or can at the very least be trusted to continue doing so if they ever reach the public spotlight, no sudden reversal or betrayal since they are likely to perceive themselves as being so isolated. Not much “secret long march through the institutions” risk there, since that requires knowing how many other people are secretly marching in the same way, which you can’t.

    The point of this social test is that you really want to resist temptation and avoid going too hard on the speech suppression stuff. (The fact that this temptation is so hard to resist probably requires a constant church of ideological fashions). But one way or another you want to lull the potential opposition into a false sense of security and make potentially disloyal people believe they can express their honest sentiments freely, encourage them to indulge their vanity and do so, and give them constant opportunities to out themselves as an enemy of The Cause, so you can easily detect and purge them.

    The second useful test function is “What kind of person is this?” It’s one thing to ‘support’ all those poor oppressed people out there, and to take their side in every complaint or controversy, no matter how facially absurd or implausible. It’s another thing to succumb to this offense-taking and excuse-making and do it yourself. It’s just like in a Special Forces or any hard, elite course, you want to give people every opportunity to quit, to make it easy for them to give up, so that you know that the people who are left are the real deal who didn’t need any carrying or extra psychological encouragement to get through.

    So, one thing the whole regime of “diversity, respect, civility, equal opportunity, microaggresions, etc.” does is give people every reason and incentive to blow up the tiniest incident or social friction or misunderstanding into a full-blown federal case and say “I’m offended by that!” or make a discrimination or harassment claim. And another thing that all the “triggers, discrimination, unconscious bias, …” exculpatory regime does is tempt every individual into leveraging their particular identity or history (or fabricated victimization) into an acceptable, blame-shifting excuse for a lack of satisfactory performance or some otherwise unacceptable behavioral issue.

    Here’s the thing. When people are considering whether or not to add someone to their team, it is a well-known phenomenon about which Richard Epstein has written at length that anti-discrimination rules actually make the situation worse, since everyone is terrified of a discrimination suit. For a straight-white-male with an otherwise clear track record (not enough to be really confident), you may actually want to apply test-one above and look for a spotless history of mouthing PC nostrums to feel comfortable that they won’t get you into PC trouble later and create some embarrassment or potential liability.

    But for a woman or a minority or any of the constantly-expanding list of protected characteristics, you don’t care about what they say, since they are all going to reliably support the progressive ideological orthodoxy, but you do care a great deal about what they’ve actually done. Have they ever made a complaint against anybody? Have they even made a point of being offended by anything? Have they even made some kind of “I’m personally weak in this way society says you are supposed to be sympathetic and accommodative towards, so let me slide on this one,” excuse? That stuff won’t always get written down, but it will make it down the reputational grapevine, especially if they stay in the same organization or career field You want to make having some kind of victimization Pokemon points just as glamorous and social-status worthy as wearing some kind of badge of honor.

    if a woman or minority or whatever has made it a whole career full of hundreds of tempting opportunities to do any of these things and regardless of what they believe or say, has never actually taken the bait, then you know you can really trust them, their performance record is real and not pencil-whipped, you can act normally around them and even poke jokes about them and not worry that they’ll treat you any differently than any other colleague.

    That kind of reputation and level of assurance is gold. But of course you can’t announce it publicly because (1) You’d immediately trigger the progressive hornets’ nest, and (2) Even if it wasn’t dangerous, Goodhart’s Law would operate since overtly and explicitly announcing a standard is a guarantee that it will cease to work as people immediately lie and game the system to try and appear to meet it without genuinely having the underlying qualities the test was designed to detect.

    In my line of work, it is course necessary to have a certain quota of identity group members in particular divisions and at particular ranks. However, a disproportionate number of these people at the elite levels and which I see being groomed and selected for promotion to those levels are precisely the ones that are passing this second test. And the crazier and more comprehensively expansive progressivism gets, the harder the test is to pass, and the better the test-passers will be.

    • spandrell June 3, 2015 at 13:15

      Heh. Did I mention Zhao Gao himself was killed soon after he murdered the emperor?

      I guess this explains what causes “right movement”. Just need to wait some time until the cream floats to the surface, then you can coordinate and push back.

  3. E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) June 3, 2015 at 16:41

    RE: Hans Anderson story

    He makes it clear in the story that the emperor is a weak idiot; for the means by which he is convinced to wear nothing establish that (and therefore that it is safe for the child to point out his folly without fearing death.)

    And ultimately, this is what you want people doing, not agreeing that the deer is a horse. There is a corollary here to the Donatists: in the last days of the major persecutions before Constantine came along, it was very common to simply require Christians to burn incense to the emperor. This was done just for the same reason that the above activity (calling the deer a horse) was done; to establish loyalty. But the activity was on the face of it, absurd; even by the Roman standard of deity, the emperors were nothing of the sort.

    And this is not because Romans didn’t actually believe in deity, it was pure instrumentalism (religion as a tool, more or less) like a lot of Progressivism is in its own way, though perhaps less intentionally and more reactively. Those who failed to burn incense were not necessarily killed; some were just maimed or exiled. (There is an interesting story about how many maimed bishops there were at the Council of Nicaea.)

    Fortunately, most went into the situation of 指鹿為馬 knowing that saying the emperor was no god would get them killed. In fact, some were banking on it for the sake of making a spectacle against that false religion. But not everyone had the courage to resist 指鹿為馬 when faced with torments.

    The Donatists are the group of people who, after the persecutions ended, decided that anyone who had not successfully resisted were Not Worthy Of Being Considered Christians Anymore. There is a couple of problems with this, of course, even with the most devout conception of Christian practice.

    But as regards social technologies, the 指鹿為馬 situation would likely 1. cull or ruin most people who successfully resist, which might make them marytrs but doesn’t let them be bishops or priests anymore, bad for the overall mission of the Church, 2. leave the most strident personalities in place, perhaps those lucky enough to somehow survive death and now convinced of their perfect holiness.

    Anyway, you do want a range of personalities, and those who fail but rise up again are probably more useful in the long run than those who are untested in failure recovery.

    For positive use of the 指鹿為馬 phenomena, I think it is better to use hard-to-believe but truthful things, rather than intentional absurdities. Those loyal will follow along even if they do not understand. Those who are merely fractious will resist for the sake of needing to always control their understanding, even if some understanding is above them.

    Most great religions have these; though at times and in times of particularly bad degeneration they turn into patent absurdities. Mostly I think the best kind are the unprovables; Axioms cannot be proved, though they can be tested. There is no way to prove empirically that Jesus was Divine and a Man at the same time, but yet John establishes this as a test, saying, “And test the spirits to see which admits that the Son of God came in the flesh.”

    Loyalty is highly valuable, but not at the expense of actual usefulness. One wants sure possession of a good hammer, not a bad hammer. Mysteries (provided they are not of the ‘and there was a brute beast rolling around on a carpet’ kind) have precisely this function (though it is not their only function.)

    • spandrell June 3, 2015 at 16:54

      Well yes, this links with my recent posts on religion. The whole fracas of Christian factions in late Rome was a great example of people coming up with anything just to coordinate opposing factions. Constantine chose Christianity because he wanted a unified religion behind him; a couple of years later he has 10 different factions each arguing for a different interpretation of Christ.
      He just couldn’t get it. Who cares? Just stop arguing. But of course the argument is the ends, theology the means. He had it wrong. He wanted loyalty, but loyalty doesn’t come from religion; that’s just some technology used to measure it. Loyalty must be slowly built, or paid for.

      In politics, loyalty is the ultimate good. Most often you can’t choose the hammer. From the point of view of the power-holder, a very intelligent and skilful administrator is worse than useless if he’s not loyal to you. He is dangerous and must be destroyed. Zhao Gao wanted to kill the emperor, so he needed to check the loyalty of his retainers fast.

      Now crass methods such as these are indeed counterproductive. People get scared. Fear doesn’t work long-term, it doesn’t motivate proactive behavior. Zhao Gao was killed very soon after this episode, and nobody rose to help him.

  4. Lesser Bull June 3, 2015 at 19:39

    Excellent. You’ve identified a useful new insight into the reasons for the ratchet.

    When you combine your insight with Daniels insight into the purposes of PC, I think you get that part of the purpose of the PC ratchet is to keep competition down by exhausting them. It’s hard to keep up with fashions you yourself didn’t create. It’s mentally exhausting. Whereas the people at the top often don’t even have to abide by their own creations.

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  6. Vladimir June 4, 2015 at 04:32

    Your theory is somewhat similar to that quote by Anthony Daniels about communist propaganda that Sailer and various others have been bringing up lately in response to the bizarre Jenner story. While I agree that such stories provide useful opportunities for playing the “deer as horse” tactic to all kinds of ideological commissars and strivers for power, I don’t think it’s the right explanation for how such stories come into being and acquire great prominence in the first place.

    What I see as the main driving force there is the inherent baseness and degeneracy of mass media reaching its consummation. Most people greatly enjoy lowbrow entertainment where they can lose themselves in some kind of imaginary fellowship with celebrities or fictional characters, getting a kick out of a delusional feeling that they’re somehow empathizing with them and participating in their personal dramas.

    Until relatively recently, certain social norms were in place that were putting some limits on how far the media would go in exploiting this tendency: their output, however lowbrow and degenerate, still had to be plausibly framed as some kind of traditional performance art, and people were expected to maintain some minimal level of dignity in public appearances. Nowadays, however, the phenomenon of “reality TV” has broken with these restraints of genre, and celebrities are expected to give interviews in which they pour out their feelings and personal dramas in the most undignified and degraded way. This leads to a competition for the most extreme drama one can come up with, without any restraints of propriety and dignity — both for the media competing for public attention and by the celebrities competing for media prominence. Clearly, Jenner and his media handlers have accomplished a tremendous success in this regard.

    It seems to me that this phenomenon has been brought about by sheer market and career pressures in the media industry, rather than ideological pressures. It’s always in one’s interest to try to push the envelope still further in the direction of exploiting these base urges of the masses. Of course, ideological pressures have had a decisive influence on the specific content of the prominent media stories we’re seeing nowadays. But as for the sheer level of stupidity, nonsense, and degeneracy, regardless of the specific content in which it’s manifested, I believe it would be reached sooner or later under any system that allowed free media competition for capturing the attention and devotion of the mass audience.

    • spandrell June 4, 2015 at 04:48

      I should have been more explicit about this, but I don’t actually think that WWT is “meant” to be a deer as horse tactic. Once is out there, an absurd idea can be useful to assess loyalty, but it isn’t necessarily the case that the absurd idea was concocted precisely with that objective in mind.

      I agree things just happen, when you have large social networks with little agency built in. I agree that mass media degeneracy to a large degree is working in autopilot, just making up degenerate stuff to make money, only constrained by what is politically acceptable.

      I also don’t think that the myriad Christian splinter sects that appeared in 3rd century Rome were deftly constructed loyalty tests. They just occured out of theological speculation and status-jockeying; but once a genie got out of the bottle, the reason that different interpretations gain importance is because their function as faction-building Schelling points.

      This applies to Dalrymple: Soviet leaders didn’t make up shit explicitly to humiliate the people. The ideology was already out there, after it was, I’m sure they noticed it was fairly useful as a means of social control by checking who shouted louder to uphold socialist values. That explains why ideological madness didn’t subside after time, even when it started to affect actual performance. But it doesn’t explain why the madness got spread in the first place.

      The point of this post was that absurdity-as-loyalty-check is an ancient trick, which surely must have happened dozens of times in all governments and large organizations all over the world. But while the Chinese noticed, here in the West we are condemned to discover it again every generation. It hasn’t entered our cultural vocabulary. It seems we don’t find it interesting. We don’t want to notice.

  7. T. Greer June 4, 2015 at 05:41

    ” At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). … For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

    However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

    The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…

    Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

    The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

    “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, 60-69.

    • Handle June 4, 2015 at 12:03

      Or, “Don’t ever be the least enthusiastic in your conspicuous displays of support for The Cause”

      See, e.g., this updated criterion for military officer (and NCO!) evaluation (only now becoming a big deal, since one is no longer able to slide with “supports the program” type of bullet points). This is the Army version, but the same policy is now implemented across all the armed services.

      ” … raters will assess how well the rated officer or NCO fostered a climate of dignity and respect and adhered to the Sexual harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program. This assessment should identify, as appropriate, any significant actions or contributions the rated officer or NCO made toward:

      -promoting the personal and professional development of his or her subordinates [even more collective training sessions than the already heavy requirements!]
      -ensuring the fair, respectful treatment of assigned personnel; and
      -establishing a workplace and overall command climate that fosters dignity and respect for all members of the group

      This assessment should also identify, as appropriate, any failures by the officer or NCO to foster a climate of dignity, respect and adherence to the SHARP Program. Additionally, if the rated officer or NCO had a substantiated [legal and law enforcement term of art, a lower bar than it sounds] incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault in his or her unit, the assessment must note the incident and explain how the officer or NCO addressed it.”

      Keep in mind that evaluations are competitive and it doesn’t take too long to figure out the rat-race incentives created by this new requirement. Your megaphone has to be louder and more impressive than the other guy’s megaphone. If his knob is at 10, then you turn yours up to 11. And by requirement that means putting all your subordinates through whatever that 11 entails, and making sure your subordinate leaders do exactly the same thing, at least!

      And people have to believe you mean it. They are going to do those anonymous command climate surveys, and if your troops don’t think you’re as reliable on this topic as the next leader, that’ll get reported to your boss. Except, the kind of troops that answer those surveys as if they aren’t getting all the dignity and respect and love they feel entitled too are exactly the ones likely to biased against a certain demographic profile, and for a different demographic profiles (see if you can guess).

      This is all also obviously unfair for officers in the more co-ed units and/or more isolated bases where single servicemembers look at each other instead of the broader population for sexual opportunity, but that’s not the Secretary’s problem.

      Anyway, in the future the military will be led by three broad groups (1) officers from all-male units who always kept it in their pants, (2) officers who were more conspicuous in their enthusiastic support for the program, and (3) and those other officers who were simply lucky enough not to get a complaint during their time in command, unlike those unlucky bastards who didn’t do anything different but clearly deserve to have their career path ended or get kicked out because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  8. Candide III June 4, 2015 at 21:15

    Just to throw in an idea, too sleepy to work it out — I have a feeling that, once upon a time, the Andersen story could use to actually work that way in Europe for the reason that people were so thoroughly Christian/religious and took the idea that “God is a God of Truth” seriously. Remember Descartes almost starting with the premise that God would not deceive him? That wasn’t an unusual proposition, he didn’t have to bother justifying it. (This circumstance also improves function of monarchies, as even the King is responsible before the King of Kings. I recognize, of course, the leftist potential inherent in this arrangement, as God Himself doesn’t write “mene, tekel, peres” on walls anymore.) Essentially all hierarchies terminated in Him rather than in any earthly authority, and while this arrangement lasted all sorts of good things flowed from it. For instance science.

    • Steve Johnson June 4, 2015 at 21:51

      A totally mundane example that I read about in a paper linked in a comment section.

      Trial by ordeal is actually very very good at producing justice as long as the administrator understands why trial by ordeal exists and the participants believe that it works.

      If you believe that trial by ordeal will accurately uncover the truth then you will submit to it only if you know yourself to be innocent. Since the administrator of the ordeal was a local priest who knew all the members of his parish personally, he had the ability to choose which ordeal was to be endured and how difficult to make that ordeal (more holy water on the hot iron that was to be carried or heating it to a lower temperature, choosing the immersion ordeal for men who have lower body fat percentages and are more likely to sink, etc.). The record bears this out – 80% of trials by ordeal resulted in acquittal. Presumably the 20% conviction was necessary to keep faith in the practice alive as well as to punish the cynical who will accept trial by ordeal because they see through the charade.

      Now, does God intervene to allow holy water to only float guilty people? Of course not. Is a society that believes that he does better off than one without that belief? Well, it depends – but if there isn’t a good justice system then it becomes way more likely that the society with a belief in trial by ordeal is better off.

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