PIRATE WIRES #13 // More Important Than Votes

roses for ruth bader ginsburg, shared values vs. the culture war, what is america?, and one step closer to the twitter apocalypse

Roses for RBG. Last week, after a lifetime of service to this country, and to the institution of the court that she revered, the honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. She led a remarkable career and life, as has been noted often since her passing, and I’m sure we’ll hear a great deal more about her accomplishments in the coming days and months. But as with the passing of Antonin Scalia I found myself this weekend rather less affected by the specific substance of Ginsburg’s professional achievements as I was by her character, and in particular the wisdom and grace with which she pursued relationships with justices from “the wrong side” of the bench.

When Scalia passed, many of his detractors engaged in a display of joy as predictable in the age of Twitter as it was grisly, but Ginsburg’s eulogy hinted at a world of collegiality and love among rivals that felt unreal to me even a few years back, and is near unfathomable today.

In a time so shamefully partisan, her display of affection felt courageous, which I suppose in hindsight, from a woman such as Ginsburg, should not have been surprising. The love she felt for Scalia was, of course, famously reciprocal, and this week, on news of Ginsburg’s own passing, Scalia’s son shared the following anecdote:

Pundits often marvel at this “unlikely friendship,” and it’s almost always used to comment on civility in politics, and especially today, with the stark absence of such civility felt by most Americans of every political orientation. The conventional frame is Ginsburg and Scalia agreed on almost nothing, but nonetheless managed to connect with each other as humans and disagree with dignity, and wouldn’t it be nice, we say, if America could be like that again. Until this week, I mostly thought about the relationship this way myself — a nice comment on the character of Ginsburg and Scalia, and a sad note on these divisive times we live in. But the more I learned about the relationship between these justices, and thought it over, and especially after I returned to Ginsburg’s eulogy of her late friend, the more I wondered if the two were really all that different. To some degree, it seems as human nature to search for meaning in collective identity, and as faith and nationalism have both collapsed this century many Americans are left with a hopelessly deficient political identity as their principle gateway to human connection. As the political left sees a sister in Ginsburg, and the political right sees a brother in Scalia, the average American projects his or her own tribal filter onto the justices and finds a friendship here legitimately impossible to imagine. But Ginsburg and Scalia shared a chief identity beyond their respective political tribes: they were judges. 

“We were different, yes, in our interpretations of written texts,” said Ginsburg, “yet one in our reverence for the court and its place in the U.S. system of governance.”

To decry a lack of respect today in political disagreement, and to point to this relationship as an example of how such disagreements could and should be managed, is perhaps to miss the rather fundamental aspect of the friendship: on questions pertaining to the nature of the court, which was their life, the justices were in complete agreement. Their friendship wasn’t built on respect among differences, and finding common ground on interpretation of divisive law, which was never their job. Their friendship was built on a bedrock foundation of shared values, and chiefly, I think, the value of a sober, neutral court — however so difficult to secure. These were guardians of a sacred institution, and they believed that institution must stand beyond politics. Both justices believed it their duty to interpret law, not write it, and in this function a lack of partisanship on the court was critical. They also believed it their duty to defend the court from any such encroachment, which is why, despite partisan expectations, Ginsburg was so openly critical of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for attempting to pack it, and of the Democratic Party, in contemporary times, for suggesting again we debase the court in so obviously a partisan manner:

We have, without any doubt, a chaotic coming months ahead. Despite best intentions of the bench, the court has become in some sense a de facto legislative body, which of course every politician understands if few are willing to admit. A new justice will be nominated — before the next presidential election — and the acrimonious national debate that follows will make the Kavenaugh debacle look by comparison a fun and flirty parlor game. The right will push forward with Senate hearings despite all previous opposition to the concept four years ago, and the left will decry the hearings despite all previous approval four years ago. The Ocasios of the world will continue in their budding, vile obsession with packing the court, and it will become impossible among Americans in disagreement to find some bridge between positions. This is because our chief conflict isn’t really one of policy, but identity. The average American simply doesn’t have the court in common as did Ginsburg and Scalia, and without shared values of some higher rank than what we think about the President, or the Speaker, we will never find a way to reconnect.

“Some things are more important than votes.”

Scalia wasn’t simply talking about decency, or kindness, or some other ambiguous, feel good virtue. He was talking about an actual value he and Ginsburg both believed in, and could name, and did, and lived their lives in service to. That isn’t a small thing. What do you believe in?  

More importantly, I think, what do we believe in?

If we’re going to avert total social cataclysm, this is one of the only questions that really matters. Many friends of mine in the technology industry have tried to find a shared value for America in the future, in a world of abundance afforded by technological utopia, in rocket ships and robots and biological immortality. I myself have contributed to this story with Anatomy of Next, the podcast I run for Founders Fund, and in particular with the question of Martian colonization, a dream that has animated me since I was a little boy. But my sense is the quest for technological utopia is in some way incomplete. Rocket ships are no longer moving the dial like they did when Americans were still concerned there might be nuclear war with Soviets on any given Tuesday. That was an existential threat. We were perhaps, as a country, less animated by space exploration than we now, in hindsight, like to frame it all. In 1969, space exploration was symbolic of American virility, and we just wanted to live. The reason we wanted to live — wanted our children to live, and our grandchildren — was a shared morality that cherished America as itself a sacred value. Americans believed we were a force for good in the world, and how could we not after vanquishing the Nazis and splitting the atom?

I still believe in America, and in the way I think both Ginsburg and Scalia did. I value the history, the technological genius and industry, the future mythology, and the heroic nature of this country. But after a decades-long assault on our self-conception from academics and entertainers and writers who hate themselves for other reasons, for deeper reasons, but can’t quite face the harrowing, narrow fact of their own true selves, does the average American see himself this way? I think it’s clear we’ve lost our common ground in this dimension, and increasingly I think that’s what this cultural turmoil, and confusion, and this endless war of lesser tribes, is actually about. Do you believe we’re a force for good in the world, and therefore worthy of moving forward through history, and the cosmos, and shaping both, or have you internalized the negative view of America, and Americans — yourself included — and of the human race more broadly? Do you think we’re the problem, rather than the solution?

I believe the human being is the antidote to entropy, and America the most potent distillation of our greatest qualities. But hell if that story hasn’t lately felt an uphill climb. The chaos of our present identity crisis is deafening.

The internet really isn’t helping, while we’re at it. I’ve written a bit about the impact social media is having on our discourse, though with my own cut, which is I think Twitter may literally end the world. In Jump, I argued ubiquitous mobile internet and viral engines like Twitter in particular have set the stage for meme-induced global mass hysteria, a phenomenon we’ve never seen before and so I think are systematically underestimating. A piece of new information, often incomplete or incorrect, can now reach hundreds of millions of people in less than an hour, spurring immediate, often destructive action. The specific potential manifestations of something like this are endless, and the unknown nature of “the Big One” is what I most fear — a piece of information that catalyzes actual cataclysm. We need some kind of intellectual firewall, and maybe more than that we need a way to calm down, and to think through new information with sobriety. I offered some suggestions, both cultural and product oriented, on how we might monitor and manage global mass hysteria. But honestly who am I kidding? We can’t even figure out what to do with literal foreign propaganda outlets like the Global Times (which you can just ban, Jack, I promise Kara won’t be mad) and clearly — admittedly! — false information.

I saw a tweet go viral this weekend I suspected immediately, for its bizarre cadence, as fake, but for the emotional charge of the content could not in any way question. Fortunately, within 24 hours of its viral ascent, the author came clean.

Now here is the evergreen fucking problem: the original tweet received millions of impressions. The correction? Maybe a few thousand (at least that’s what it looked like before the author blocked me). In the context of bad faith actors like the man above, I doubt there’s much we can do beyond, at the very least, stripping him of that little blue check mark that invites the world to take him seriously. But from journalists at the Post to your grandad on Facebook misinformation is accidentally spread, by would-be good faith actors, all the time. I’ve gotten things wrong myself. Most of us have. But when we get something wrong that goes viral, how do we reach the people we’ve misled? As yet, we can delete the original piece of misinformation and offer a correction, which I’ve seen journalists do before, but we can’t undo the damage. Free idea (which I’ve tweeted before, and will probably tweet again and again until somebody listens): one-time, mass direct messaging to everyone who shared or fav’d a tweet, strictly available for corrections at scale. Twitter can mercilessly ban any feature abuse. Problem solved?

Probably not, or not entirely. But at least we’d be trying something. My God. Shake off this nihilism. We have to try something. There are absolutely enormous questions we’re having trouble, as a culture, answering. What is true? Can “truth” be moderated? How? But when an author agrees there’s no ambiguity, and they just got something wrong, how the hell have we not implemented such an easy solution?

Does anyone reading this know Jack? Can you please interrupt him from his silent retreat in the desert and ask him to do something here? We’re sort of in the middle of an information crisis, just before an election, and it would be great if we had an adult in the room at one of the most powerful media platforms on the planet.