Sorry I didn’t write to you last week. I’ve come down with a malaise of uncertainty. I don’t know why I write these letters, why I care so much about automated propaganda and the dystopic condition. I write a thousand words every week and cast them into the slavering void. What good does it do?
I’m certainly not an expert. On anything. I’m a perpetual dilettante, a generalist, all curiosity and no persistence. I’m a two-time community college dropout. My legitimacy is feigned, my credentials are cardboard. Even my imposter syndrome has imposter syndrome.
When I started writing SCIOPS years ago, I had the opposite problem. I suffered from the Cassandra effect. I was confident in my assessment of the world. I just wished anyone would listen.
This because I had predicted the presidential election correctly, against most everyone I knew. I didn’t want it to be true, I just saw it coming. In 2015, I took one look at the reality-TV star blustering his way through the first Republican primary and said, “That fucking clown is going to be the president of America.”
My family and friends all scolded me: “How could you say that?” As if I could accidentally speak it into reality; as if I had impolitely said “Voldemort” in public. They preferred to listen to the pundits and pollsters, to continue living in the hazy illusions of the Obama era.
Nobody explicitly blamed me when the election shattered their brittle optimism. But they did ask me for explanations. So I started writing this newsletter, to explain why a clown was the president.
I was fresh out of the woods when I made that call. I had just rejected commune life and returned to the grid, burnt by passive-aggressive pacifism and fake sustainability. I still wanted to do good in the world, I just realized that living a million miles from anywhere and infighting with other radicals wasn’t having any effect. I had learned my lessons there, and wanted to try something else.
My new theory of the world was based off the dissonance I saw between people’s words and their actions. All these hippies and primitivists I admired had gone mask-off over the years, revealing the fascistic messy bitches underneath. Milking goats and foraging berries? Awesome. Wishing for the imminent death of anyone who dares another way of life? No thanks.
Sometimes people deliberately say one thing and do another. The single guy who claims a vow of celibacy keeps trying to take you for a long intimate hike. The people who go to town for groceries make a big deal of how grim and energy-draining the city can be, so that no one realizes they’re eating chocolate in a hotel room and taking unlimited showers.
Most of the time, though, people see themselves as the hero of the story. They concoct elaborate rationalizations for their decisions, spinning stories of romance and adventure and struggle. They buy tickets to their own movies. They repeat their excuses aloud, hoping that belief will make them true: I just want to be friends , or I’m the one doing all the work around here , or What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him .
So that was my insight: people do things for reasons they don’t know. Lust and greed and ignorance drive the vast majority of human behavior. This unravels the entire basis of democracy and capitalism, the Rational Individual making Efficient Choices. It leaves us in a world of persuasion and propaganda and cultishness.
The reality TV star won the election because elections are treated like reality TV now. You might think that you have political views, educated opinions on policy. But as the persuaders repeat their incantations they warp the world in which your opinions may matter. They set the terms, they define the options. Your behaviors are prescribed. You merely rationalize your “choices” after the fact.
This worldview is one that leads to the dark side. If most people don’t know what’s good for them, shouldn’t we be the ones to tell them? Why not learn the tricks of persuasion and apply them to the world? I can rule it better than the current jagoffs. If my eyes are open to everyone else’s bullshit, surely they must be open to my own. Right?
Of course not. I’m just as dumb and self-serving as anyone else. This is the problem with manufactured consent. The oligarchs steering this society are no smarter than the rest of us. That’s why we’re driving off an apocalyptic cliff.
The more I’ve thought about propaganda the more I want to believe in democracy. I want mass movements that deliberately speak new worlds into existence. I want people to take up the tools of information, to create and manipulate and distribute their own visions of the world. And that seems to be happening. At least, measured by the amount of podcasts and newsletters I follow.
Ultimately, the world is too big and interconnected to predict. Maybe meme magic made the difference in that election. Maybe Cambridge Analytica and their hyper-targeted ads did it. Maybe it was Wikileaks, or Russia, or Q. The world is overdetermined. Politics in the age of distributed propaganda is a hyperobject. It’s too big for any one person to understand.
The irony is that the president himself didn’t expect to win. Of course, now that his brain is rotted he thinks he’s the best president ever. The Twilight King, forever sundowning. But his original plan was just to make a scene and boost his TV career. Now we’re all royally fucked.
Causality is broken. Nobody is in control. The world is hot mess and there’s no turning back. But the upside is this: if nobody can predict which action will make which impact, you can do anything . Who’s to say which meme, which podcast, which newsletter might tip the balance?
If even the president is an imposter, why shouldn’t I write this letter? I’m not an expert on automated propaganda. Nobody is. But maybe if we put our heads together we can make the difference. We won’t know unless we try.
Thanks for reading,
###### SCIOPS is a weekly letter which is perfectly harmless until it isn’t. Feel free to forward it, or share it, or use it to alter the course of history. You can find a web version of the latest letter here , or view the archive here .
If you have thoughts, questions, or criticism, just respond to this email. Or, contact me securely at firstname.lastname@example.org
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