(1/12/21) three american superpowers
for the outraged, the stuck, the apathetic
“Care stops at the threshold of your apartment. You lavish and stroke your personal world, but when you reach the public space, you pull on your war face.”
Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
In 2021 America, everyone feels relevant and everything feels personal.
In 2021 America, very few people are actually relevant and very few things are actually personal.
Everyone feels relevant. After I finish writing this note, I'll post it in various forums, which altogether feel like The Whole World. “Only” a hundred or so people will see it. “Only” ten or so people will read it. It feels as if everyone knows about me.
Everything feels personal. Details of my browsing history get encoded into compressed hints so that my favorite apps can cater the right ads to me. Just for me! How nice.
Very few people are relevant. The way we think, speak, and interact with each other originate from memes, songs, and reality television. They model conflict, and we follow suit. Ratings skyrocket. I am a mouthpiece. These words are not my own.
Very few things are personal. Many recommendation algorithms seek to reduce me down to a minimally complex, maximally valued field of characteristics. I am a consumer, a daily active user (DAU). I am not a person.
It's funny, this chasm between the feeling and the reality. The environment around me convinces me that I matter, my voice matters, SIGN HERE. But this environment is working to make me not matter at all.
Every detail of my life feels so important and consequential (the photo captions, the morning writing routine, the hashtag causes, the publishing schedule, the snarky takes).
Every detail of my life is actually not as important as it is made to feel. Imagine the freedom with which I could construct my life if this truth permeated.
We are stuck in cocoons of inadequacy and complacency. We have been robbed of our sense of agency. We seek out prescriptions and saviors and villains.
I am somewhat skeptical of Curtis Yarvin’s politics, but I do directionally agree with part of his answer in A General Theory of Collaboration.
"So everyone should disengage. Volunteers should disengage; they are probably just propping up a bad government. Dissidents should disengage; they are probably also just propping up a bad government."
Disengagement does not mean "stop caring".
Disengagement means actually observing the roles that we are playing, consciously or unconsciously. From where are our opinions truly originating? By observing so, we can play these roles with care. Some of these roles are unwise.
As Ram Dass put it in his landmark text Be Here Now:
"Until you can hear your body, you cannot bring it under voluntary control in such a way that it helps you."
And this brings me to the talk of superpowers.
There are three superpowers for the modern American. They are for anyone, really, but we Americans are a very self-obsessed folk.
These superpowers are such because they allow us to think deeply and create masterpieces.
They are superpowers because very few of us currently manifest them. I certainly don’t. The current atmosphere subverts our ability to think clearly and create honestly.
Superpower #1: Skepticism
The need to verify things for yourself. It's exhausting, but it sheds arrogance and protects you from bullshit peddlers. You learn who you can trust — and these are the people telling you to verify things for yourself anyways.
Superpower #2: Suspension of Disbelief
The embodiment of a proposed system despite your skepticism of it. Great ideas come from everywhere, and a lot of times they are buried in scabbed seeds. Try out something you disagree with. Try it on for size. Just try it for a quick sec.
Superpower #3: Tolerance for Cognitive Dissonance
The holding of opposing beliefs together without dismissing one or the other. Just holding both up together, just for a moment— that is a closer approximation of the full picture of things.
I end up in a very bizarre place when I work on these practices. I find myself saying “I don’t know” all the time. I become more attuned to people bullshitting me or trying to sell me on something.
Ideas that I once found dangerous make a tiny bit more sense. Ideas that I once found sacred make a tiny bit less sense.
Ideas become expressions of emotions. I begin to hear the songs of joy and sorrow that motivate rigid intellectual views. Truth starts looking very different from the mere ordering of right and wrong.
These are our superpowers. In a world that renders us small and irrelevant, we must step into them.
I first wrote this essay in August 2020 as a personal reminder to myself. Adapting it here for you.