Subclassing the grand abstractions

Plato and object-oriented programming as guides to the political zeitgeist

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.

-Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

A mental exercise I’ve been doing as I doomscroll Twitter in my official job of Very Online Person is identifying the actual underlying issue to the heated debate du jour. Like an old school Platonist, what you’ll find is that what seems like some grubby and complex issue full of fleeting context is in fact one more instance of an abstract foundational issue, which is what people are really getting mad about.

To use an object-oriented programming analogy, there’s a set of abstract classes of which every real-world issue is but an instantiated sub-class (inheriting all the gnarly methods and issues from the super class). Or to (again) use the Platonic analogy, Twitter is but the dancing shadows of the real underlying forms cast by the fire of the trending topics algo that we, chained to our phones, prefer to staring at the sun-drenched reality.

Take the Apple child-porn-filtering system that Pull Request has covered both here and here: the debate is superficially focused on the details of a complex content-policing system, but the real issue is that Apple, an unaccountable and non-democratic organization, is assuming for itself policing powers typically reserved to the government.

Or take how corporations are stepping in and crafting a vaccine policy when governments will not. Or how Facebook(!) is creating electoral commissions to adjudicate disputes around political media. Or how Facebook and Twitter have for years now effectively been the decisive First Amendment consensus, creating their own (unironically named) ‘supreme courts’ to adjudicate free speech. For as scary as governments can be, what with all the army and jails and other instruments of state power, we feel even more unsettled when a mere tech company assumes those powers in their stead. To define this formally via Java, a language with a verbosity to match our age:

public abstract class IncompetentGovtReplacedByCorps{}

Not that this is a Machiavellian bid for power by the corporations. By all appearances given their slowness to assume the role, companies like Facebook don’t particularly want to be the court of last instance for free speech (or electoral integrity). But as the Afghanistan debacle makes clear at the national level, and the patchwork quilt of policies (and outcomes) around COVID suggests at the state level, government has become enfeebled and borderline incompetent. Who else is going to do it?

When the COVID shit hit the fan, the government did little more than impose lockdowns and print money in an inflationary stimulus, as well as delay the eventual vaccines despite a purportedly streamlined approval process. For everyone in the white-collar world at least, productivity and everyday life were saved by Zoom, Slack, and Amazon. Like it or not, corporations are the last functional organizations that most Americans experience, either directly as employees or indirectly as users. To them has the government forfeited responsibility for many of the functions—some involving our most deeply-held values—that typically would have been legitimized by democratic governance. There’s no indication this will change anytime soon.


The internet is a machine for wrecking consensus and trust, without generating much of a replacement. We balk at mandating vaccines, despite just about every living adult having endured vaccine mandates during their childhood. What was a routine collective concession to public health a generation ago is now the subject of major national debate. A cynical people with no faith in any organization or overarching narrative can’t really band together to do much of anything. That’s where we all are right now: atomized and alone, trying to cobble from an overwhelming information stream some semblance of order and truth, in the face of a pandemic threat and economic volatility.


public abstract class LossOfFaithInInstitutions{}

The other abstract class we’re collectively inheriting from these days is LossOfFaithInInstitutions. As a polity, at whatever fractal level you consider, we have lost faith in our stewarding institutions like law enforcement and public-health officialdom.

Is it a wonder? A good-faith citizen following the media roller coaster over the past two years could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all a grand lie and that he or she stands alone against malignant forces of murky origin and purpose. Follow this epic Twitter thread as a reminder of just what a head-whipping saga we’ve all been through in terms of consensus narrative (or read the compiled Tablet version).

The internet is a machine for wrecking consensus and trust, without generating much in the way of a replacement. We balk at mandating vaccines for school or work, despite just about every living adult having endured vaccine mandates during their childhood. What was an absolutely routine collective concession to public health a generation ago is now the subject of major national debate that ends in only bitter paralysis and dueling pissing matches on Twitter. A cynical people with no faith in any organization or overarching narrative can’t really band together to do much of anything. That’s where we all are right now: atomized and alone, trying to cobble from an overwhelming information stream some semblance of order and truth, in the face of a pandemic threat and economic volatility.

Such a society can’t even come up with a workable plan for catching its worst sexual predators via data that’s just sitting there (i.e., the Apple CSAM plan), preferring instead to repeat paranoid nostrums about a state that can’t take on a medieval religious insurgency like the Taliban, much less subdue a country of 300 million via their smartphones. Or can’t come up with a consistent COVID plan either (note how Israel, where faith in institutions survives, has done so). So long as we’re extending LossOfFaithInInstitutions into every domain of life, we’ll collectively be able to do very little at all.

public abstract class RewindTime{}

Your political loyalties are now defined, not by some timeworn axis like left versus right, but by which year you think society should be somehow magically returned. If you’re a centrist neoliberal globalist, you pine for the placid Obama days, where ‘scandal’ meant unseasonable formal wear. If you’re one of these trad types with a Catholic saint or a Greek statue as an avatar, you want to return to the halcyon days of 1950 (or perhaps 1450). If you’re a neocon who treasures the thought of dropping bombs for human rights, then you’ll hanker for the patriotic fervor of 2003 when countries could be electively invaded with the promise of terraforming them into Jeffersonian democracies. If you’ve made a career out of railing against Trump 24/7, you’ll wish (even if only subconsciously) that it was 2017 again, and you’ll re-animate villainous Trump to Twitter-murder him again. (Personally, I think Western civilization hit its apex at some point between the release of Red Dawn and Back to the Future, so around 1984).

Everyone, not just conservatives in the Buckley mold, now stand athwart History desperately yelling ‘Stop!’ Science fiction, as a literary or cinematic genre, is just one dystopia after another. For as much as we might wish for one however, society has no brake pedal, much less a rewind button.

Nobody has any generative vision for the future, except those wild-eyed technologists and their perennial optimism (which is part of why everyone hates them now). Beyond the short-term boosterism around this or that new technology though, their only over-arching vision is some hodgepodge of crypto-enabled decentralization and Transhumanism, a doctrine whose natural constituency is even smaller than that of the Libertarian Party.

Technologists think the only way through is through, and they alone want to mash the gas pedal. While I tend to agree with them, the resulting speed only seeds more panic and more desire to stomp on the brakes. Everyone, from The New York Times writer to the local yokels in the Flyover, are terrified and confused about what’s to come and nurse their respective apocalyptic prophecies. To quote the last line in The Great Gatsby, itself a crepuscular tale of good times gone sour: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Except that in reality, the current runs in the forward direction and we’re futilely back-paddling.

public abstract class VictimAsDivinity{}

To this class the unfortunate Pull Request reader has been much exposed: The ad majorem Dei gloriam1 has been covered ad nauseam. My intellectual crush Tom Holland and I discussed this little messianic offshoot of Judaism here, and I also riffed separately about polymorphic Jesus here.

This abstraction has been pretty popular some 2,000 years or so, and it shows no signs of declining adoption. Notice to developers: In the current secular fork of the Christianity SDK, classes such as ChristianUniversalism and SacramentalForgiveness are absolutely deprecated, and not to be extended or inherited from ever again in public life.

interface OptionalReality

Our last great abstraction, properly analogized, isn’t a high-level class that other issues are sub-variants of, but a more general kind of thing that lots of classes implement in various ways: in Java-speak, an ‘interface.’

It turns out that Bruno Maçaes in History Has Begun (which I reviewed here, and interviewed him about here) was correct: American society has opted out of reality and into a kaleidoscope spectacle of irreality instead. To Maçaes, COVID was the proof point. In a memorable turn of phrase added in an eleventh-hour chapter on the pandemic, he describes the differing reactions from the American and European mediaverses: “Things in American felt like a disaster movie. In Europe, they just felt like a disaster.”

To me, the Afghanistan debacle is another unplanned colonoscopy on the state of American elites. In a leaked conversation between Biden and soon-to-flee Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Biden stresses to Ghani that:

The perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban. There is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.

This was 23 days before the utter collapse of the Afghan government the United States had spent 20 years, 2400 soldiers’ lives, and two trillion dollars building. Our elites are no longer capable of managing realities, only perceptions.

Ditto the Western media that spent years on Russiagate, pee tapes, the Steele dossier, Cambridge Analytica, and all manner of fantastical claptrap, and then just woke up one day like the fever dream had never happened. Or QAnon, the anti-vaxxers, the Ivermectin people, the Trump-is-really-president contingent, all of whom continue spiraling downward into the lunatic abyss of conspiratorial unreason. Reality is purely optional for most Americans now, until one day reality decides to bite back very hard and suddenly you’ve got a disastrous evacuation with almost two hundred deaths in a suicide bomb attack (avenged via a dubious drone strike that likely killed many children).

Biden is already spinning the perception of realities he was incapable of influencing, abetted by a pliant media that relativizes the self-evident catastrophe against some remain-forever hypothetical nobody but washed-up neocons seriously advocate. Let’s face it: It’s kind of exciting here in the cave where everyone can virtually participate in the drama without having to be crushed in the landing gear of an evacuating C-17 when things go horribly wrong.

Closing his famous analogy in The Republic, Socrates summarizes what would happen if someone who ventured into sunlit reality were to return to the cave, where those who never left are still squinting at flickering shadows. That person, eyes dazzled by the light of truth, would seem blind and helpless to those still shackled to their smartphones:

Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

To those still stuck in the cave, exiting the darkness for light seems a debilitating act worthy of capital punishment. It’s much better to stay in the cave where things are purely virtual than to maim oneself with hard realities. Assuming of course the realities can be kept out of the cave. If they can’t, then they must be grappled with in the darkness, informed by nothing but vague and twisted impressions and with absolutely nowhere to run anymore.


1

From a footnote in Chaos Monkeys: Ad majorem Dei gloriam (“For the greater glory of God”) is the motto of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. The intellectual storm troopers of that faith, the Jesuits were behind everything from wars to defend their missions in Paraguay during the seventeenth century (memorably recorded in the Robert De Niro film The Mission) to the education of such luminaries and rogues as Descartes and Subcomandante Marcos. To this day, they run a global network of universities, including Georgetown, Boston College, and Fordham, and countless high schools throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States, educating elites from Silicon Valley to Santiago de Chile. Fidel Castro and I graduated from the same Jesuit school—Castro shut down the school after seizing power, and it decamped to Miami in the sixties—and I had to write “AMDG” on top of many a homework assignment in my day.