A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars

I am basically a pacifist, inclined to what in India is sometimes derisively referred to as Gandhigiri (loosely “LARPing Gandhi”). If I don’t check the tendency, I naturally retreat from, and go into denial about, unpleasant and violent realities. But it’s time to admit it: the United States is in the middle of the worst culture wars I’ve seen in my life, either in my 20 years in the US, or in the previous 20 years in India (which in the 90s saw equally ferocious, but less digitally mediated, culture wars). And for once, you can’t blame Trump. He’s more consequence than cause.

To endure through a war without either retreating from the fray, or developing crippling PTSD from losing too many poorly picked battles, you need a good map of the battlefield, a sense of the movements of various combatant groups, their objectives, tactics and strategies, awareness of recent battles and their outcomes, current live battles, and emerging flashpoints. Here’s my first draft attempt.

I’ve used the popular politics 2×2 meme (left versus right, authoritarian versus libertarian) as a basic canvas for this map. Let’s start with the numbered key to the conflicts before launching into some commentary.

Key Battlefronts

Full disclosure. I am not going to pretend to be personally neutral here. With rare exceptions, my personal sympathies pretty much uniformly fall on the left side of this map, with most of my ideological commitments being left-libertarian. With my editor hat on, I try to ensure that this blog spans a broader spectrum of implicit political positions than my own writings do, but it still isn’t Switzerland.

Here is a list of some key battlefronts, corresponding to the numbered locations on the map. The list is not meant to be comprehensive (though feel free to suggest more in the comments), merely indicative of the broader contours.

  1. GamerGate front: Along with #5, probably the original flashpoint, the Fort Sumter battle of our times. The August 2014 conflict between fans of traditional gaming and indie women in gaming staked out what remains the key battleground today. Nominally, the battle is between those who want stronger, more accountable governance of online de facto public spaces, and those who want them treated like true public spaces with strong free speech protections. Harassment, trolling, botnets, private/commons conflicts, censorship, all fit into this battle. In some ways this is ground zero, and sets the rules of engagement for all battlefronts.
  2. Climate politics: Largely fought between a mix of old and new left on the one hand, and a corporate-backed (Koch brothers, Big Coal etc) climate skepticism faction on the other (supported by a volunteer army of dedicated foot soldiers serving as small-scale retail doubt merchants). Interestingly, this flashpoint includes a climate hawks vs climate doves schism within the left. This battlefront can be found more in the blogosphere than on Twitter or Facebook, as well as in institutional backrooms. It is one where both sides have settled in for a really long slugfest. If I were to draw a more metaphorically rich map, this would be an oceanic battlespace, like the U-boats vs Allied shipping battle in the North Atlantic in World War 2.
  3. Healthcare: This is almost entirely old left versus corporate welfare state, with Obamacare repeal efforts in Congress being the focal point. Rank and file on Twitter are relatively less active on this battlefront because there’s not a whole lot for them to do (besides endure sustained FUD from both sides). But this is almost certainly the most consequential culture war (and being fought in town halls), even though it does not play out as visibly as some of the others.
  4. Academia: This is probably both the murkiest and most visible battlefront, and has contributed to our wartime lexicon such phrases as “safe space” and “trigger warning”. Celebrated cases like those of Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson have played out here. Four forces meet at this battlefront:
    1. The academic Marxist left defined by authoritarian intersectionality politics and postmodernist (very broadly speaking) intellectual culture.
    2. A broadly anti-blank-slate set of postmodernism-skeptic academics who include both left and right members as well as relative outsiders like Nassim Taleb
    3.  A broad coalition of student activists (who can turn militant) encompassing BLM, LBGT activists, and various other factions. They form the core of the SJW (social justice warrior) cadre.
    4. A minority of politically right-wing academics who are surprisingly not much of a factor relative to doctrinal heretics within the left (broadly construed)
  5. Ferguson Front: The primary cause for BLM (Black Lives Matter), this battlefront pits the black community against the police state, the penal system, and homogeneous right-wing white populations. The battlefront acquired sharp definition in August 2014 with Ferguson, but the history of course goes all the way back to the first video-taped incident with Rodney King back in the 90s. Gun rights activists and the NRA are part of this battlefront (via, for example, the Trayvon Martin shooting). The Christian right and neo-Nazis maintain some awkward neighborhood relations somewhere around here.
  6. Sexual harassment Ground War:  The #MeToo movement in the mainstream media, the tech industry, and academia. Key flashpoint battles include Susan Fowler vs Uber, the Matt Lauer case, and a variety of academic cases. Though there is a corresponding battlefront on the right (Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Steve Wynn cases), the pressure to clean house and instill new norms is far higher on the left. The right for the most part appears to have successfully controlled this front.
  7. Sexual harassment Air War: The entertainment industry has unique high-visibility characteristics that make it a separate front. It started with Bill Cosby, but the Harvey Weinstein and Louis C. K. cases are what made the #MeToo movement cohere. The aftermath of frantic virtue signaling theater at awards ceremonies has driven this to evolve in different ways than the ground war.
  8. Hyperneurotypicals versus non-neurotypicals: This is a relatively young and new battlefront but might easily turn out to be among the most consequential in the long term. It pits autism spectrum individuals (or those who self-classify onto it with dubious justification), particularly in the tech industry, against the increasingly tricky-to-navigate environment of fine-grained emerging authoritarian-left norms governing interpersonal interactions. Unlike traditional attacks on “PC culture,” the non-neurotypical argument, that the regulation of thought and speech by the authoritarian left imposes an impossible cognitive burden on a disadvantaged minority, acts as a sort of internal paradox. I predict this will be what what shifts the advantage from the authoritarian to the libertarian left. The James Damore vs. Google battle is an early view of how this type of battle plays out.
  9. Old versus New Decentralizers: This pits old-school decentralization ideologues, who often came from green/environmental/sustainable/local movements, against a new breed that is fueled by crypto wealth and is stridently libertarian in its p2p sensibilities.

There are definitely many more battle annotations one could make on this map. Among the important battles I left out to avoid clutter are mass shootings, anti-immigrant (and anti-Muslim in particular) flashpoints, LGBT rights, the opioid epidemic, and various endemic conflicts having to do with homelessness and poverty. There are also long-running battles such as the Drug War, and abortion rights, which have been eaten by software and gone online. And finally, there are localized battles with national and global consequences, such as the battle over housing in San Francisco, which will determine the future of Silicon Valley and therefore the world.

If I left out your favorite battle, let me know in the comments. There’s a chance I’ll make a bigger, more complete map.

Some battles are not part of the culture war proper, but increase the overall FUD within it. The prime example is the battle over irreproducible results in science, especially in social psychology. Since so many of the battles involve deploying social psychology arguments, this makes the whole theater of scientific justification on all sides very shaky.

War Mind, Peace Mind

You may have a different reaction, but I’ve personally found that accepting the reality of a wartime condition in the zeitgeist is oddly calming and anxiety-relieving, like accepting the reality of a bodily ailment.

Over the past few months, I’ve made a mental shift to what I think of as war mind. Civilian, peacenik war mind, Gandhigiri war mind, but war mind. It resets many behavioral defaults to new values, and has me modulating and managing my online interactions differently. Seemingly crazy behaviors start to feel sane. Seemingly sane behaviors start to feel crazy. I am still largely a pacifist, but I do pick the occasional battle. At least once in the last year with a Russian bot.

If you think I’m overstating the case here, and making out minor online kerfuffles to be a condition of widespread Hobbesian war, you just might be enjoying the security of a well-protected institutionally ensconced life, likely with a cushy paycheck job and a home far from the battlefronts. A place from which you get only a sanitized view of what’s going on. If on the other hand, you take the culture wars seriously, chances are you are both exposed to them and not entirely free to retreat from them.

More importantly, chances are, you have something at stake, and a reason to take part in the conflict on one side or the other, either as combatant or peacemaker.

Sometimes the combatants win, sometimes the peacemakers win, but the clueless always get traumatized.

Though largely bloodless (with the notable exception of #5), the use of the term war is not allegorical. The bloodlessness is a consequence of the remarkable efficiency of information wars, which allows combatants to inflict psychological trauma and institutional destruction on the adversary with very little bloodletting.

But the damage is real, as are the warlike intentions. To assume good faith as the default or mere misguidedness, rather than active malice, is to set yourself up for damage. To unleash a botnet pumping up a hashtag around an inflammatory topic is undeniably an act of undeclared war. To send rape threats to women in public forums, forcing them to retreat from public view, is not very different from invading a city and driving women into hiding. It is probably paranoid to assume that random people you meet online are malicious until proven otherwise, but you should at least keep in mind the possibility that they could be malicious. Or a patsy for someone who is.

If you haven’t personally experienced damage online, go on Twitter and take a look around at what more vulnerable people than yourself are being subjected to. It’s not pretty.

I find it rather astounding that many are able to convince themselves, on the strength of the role played by jokes and memes, and their own experience of relative safety online, that this is all just a huge joke. And it’s not just the parade of black men being shot on video by an unchecked militarized police. Week after week, dozens of people suffer physical or mental trauma, financial losses, and destroyed careers and reputations, in the course of the culture wars. Sometimes it’s a huge, concerted online+offline malicious campaign that does the damage. Other times, it is blowback from a single ill-considered tweet that attracts an enraged mob looking for something new to feed on.

And for every celebrity caught up in the conflict, there are dozens whose pain is only visible to their friends on Twitter. And for every one of those, there are probably dozens more who end up as collateral damage — as often from friendly fire from beFUDdled allies as from adversarial malice — in the conflict.

And we can’t blame the Russians or Wikileaks or the latest inflammatory Trump tweet. At least not entirely. They provide some of the fuel, but not the sparks. The culture wars are raging because there is plenty of mass-movement true believer energy spoiling for a fight on all sides. We’ll be discussing the root causes — perhaps it is inequality, perhaps it is finally dealing with the legacy of slavery and structural racism, perhaps it is deteriorating public health from a failing healthcare system — for decades. But what actually matters today is simply recognizing what is going on.

And there are plenty of high-powered, heavily resourced homegrown combatants in the fray as well, ranging from the OG billionaire crowd — the Kochs, Mercers, and Soros class — to entrants from the new economy ranging from Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus and bankroller of underground meme factories) to Peter Thiel (who broke new tactical ground with his takedown of Gawker media).

The wars are also new, in a way combatants from the old culture wars of the 60s and 70s don’t seem to want to recognize. Not just new in terms of tactical innovations and the fourth-generation nature of the conflict, but in terms of an expanded, and fragmented, ideological landscape that creates unexpected new alliances and antagonisms. The plural wars is justified.

Compared to the relatively monolithic Counterculture versus The Man war of the 60s, decorously announced by Eisenhower in his farewell address, the current state is practically Hobbesian. Instead of being given a friendly early warning by a decent president, for many, the first sign of the war was the election of an awful one two years into the hostilities (I date the start of the new culture wars to GamerGate/Ferguson in August 2014).

While the old Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals) playbook is certainly being deployed by all sides, there are also entirely new and unwritten playbooks being developed and deployed.

If you assume you have seen it all before, and that there’s nothing new here, you are likely playing right into the hands of those who are refining novel ideologies and tactics.

The long tail of new ideological combatants is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the new battlefield. From anarcho-capitalist (ancap) crypto warriors to non-neurotypicals, there is a veritable zoo of combatant types and ideologies here, all busy pseudospeciating adversaries (I prefer that term to the rather useless othering) and finding creative new ways to hurt each other. You reductively map it to the 1960s/70s culture wars of Nixonland at your own risk.

Tweeted Notes

I haven’t yet gathered my thoughts on this whole theme properly, besides drawing my map, but I did tweet a bunch yesterday (March 5), throwing out some initial thoughts on the culture wars topic. I’m compiling them here.

The overarching theme of these tweets is this: there is a war on, and except for the low level of actual killing, it is a real war, not an allegorical or metaphoric one. The most visible battlefields are online forums like Twitter, Facebook, and various well-connected regions of the blogosphere. But there is also plenty of old-school direct action on the streets, in traditional media outlets, and behind closed doors.

The combatants include professional cyberwarriors and seasoned amateur guerrillas pursuing very well-defined objectives with military precision and specialized tools. Then there is the small but highly skilled corps of shitposters whose skill at information warfare is matched only by their fundamental incomprehension of the real damage they’re unleashing for lulz. And finally, masses of clueless patsies being programmed like insect swarms by all sides. What Renee DiResta labeled always-on mobs in her post last year.

In other words, there is a war on, it’s very real, causing real pain to many, and involves huge consequences hanging in the balance, from the future of academia and the conduct of science to the future of the planet itself.

Believe it or not, the swinging of a presidential election is actually a fairly minor chapter in the ongoing saga. When it’s all done and over with, and the dust has settled somewhat, I believe we’ll look back on this era as being as consequential in reshaping the future of the United States and the world as the Civil War.

Here are my tweets from yesterday, slightly cleaned up.

  • All my tweets today inspired by one overarching thought: we are not living in peacetime. We’ve been living through a (relatively bloodless) wartime since mid-2015. Not just that, but in many respects a wartime comparable to WWI in terms of scale of social/institutional change.
  • We may have arrived in an era of permanent fake news, with no possibility of authoritative common ground on anything. How do you adapt to/survive in such an info environment?
  • The speed of bullshit is the same for all observers
  • The growing conspiracist fringe (comprising subcultures that organize around one or more core crackpot beliefs) is not a solvable problem. I propose calling them lottery worlds. Key governance problem is socializing outcomes when one occasionally turns out to be right.
  • The deployers of fake news as a weaponized infowar tactic aim for 3 outcomes in enemy populations: 1. Fragmentation of truth ground (divide) 2. Retreat of adversaries from public spaces (conquer) 3. Mutual cognitive retreat among neighbors, at speed of bullshit, from doubt (incapacitate)
  • The great irony of today (or perhaps it’s a judo move, which Putin is reportedly good at) is that anti-democratic ideologues have pushed us into a condition of monstrously metastasized hyperdemocracy, operating within structures too indirect to handle its raw force. Well played.
  • For most Americans, work reality is primary social reality. Community/neighborhood realities have been weak to nonexistent (cf Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis) since ~1980s. Paycheck people have been unusually cognitively protected from infowars relative to free agents/unemployed.
  • Allowing myself the conceit of self-classifying as a good (as in non-malicious) blogger, I wonder if the blogosphere is overall turning lemon market, bad driving out good. It isn’t as bad as twitter or Facebook, but blogosphere too has skidded downhill in fake news era.
  • If I weren’t a blogger I probably would have left social media in the last year. An interesting challenge if your work requires you to stay in public info spaces is that you have to choose between believing you’re going crazy or that the culture wars are real, with real PTSD
  • The appeal of both libertarianism and monarchism, so different on the surface, is the same: a refuge from crowds gone mad due to info ubiquity and bullshit superubiquity. Jose Ortega y Gasset (Revolt of the Masses) saw this coming a century ago, but it’s only truly arrived in this decade. Neither has a hope in hell of traction without radical (=dystopian) simplification of society.
  • In an infowar battlefield, you’re only as powerful as size of your connected subgraph in the random news forest. Instead of retreating, try and increase the size of consensus group. Share/amortize info verification/falsification costs. Next best thing to own primary sources.
  • News has a CAP theorem breakdown problem. When producing news-like content becomes cheap enough, people will choose consistency plus availability and give up partition tolerance. Neighbor vs neighbor. Alt fact vs alt fact.
  • The basic reason infowar tactics work at scale is that our brains are wired for evidentiary scarcity (like our metabolism is wired for scarcity of salt/sugar/fat) We seek confirmation (fragile) over disconfirmation (robust) because that’s rational in info-scarcity environments
  • If you’re retreating from social media, narrowing info sources to fewer “trusted” ones, and breaking up with friends who suddenly seem to have gone crazy,… Congrats, you’re a casualty of infowar. If you think of it as mental health/self care, it’s worked even better on you.

When I’ve laid out this case, that there’s an actual war on, in recent months, I’ve often gotten a particularly silly response: that it’s all in my head (and the heads of those who agree with me). It’s all just a matter of words and words can’t hurt or do damage. That if I’d only stop consuming (or I suppose, producing) so much social media, and spent more time in “healthy” activities, I’d see that this whole thing is a figment of my imagination.

This of course, is a true patsy take. Which side you’re a patsy for is revealed by what “healthy” activities you recommend for those in the fray. Common revealing suggestions include “just focus on building things,” “focus on family/friends IRL”, “meditate”, “go to the gym and deadlift”, “read classic old books, not this trash” etc.

Patsy, patsy, patsy, patsy, patsy.

My general conclusion is that the people who respond with denial are rationalizing a personal retreat by pretending that there isn’t an actual serious conflict underway. That even momentous events like the rise of Trumpism are one-off accidents and that we’ll return to “normalcy” once the damn millennials get jobs and settle down instead of wasting time tweeting and eating avocado toast.

I have no problem with people who feel they have to retreat from the fray simply as a matter of personal mental health (normalizing mental-health self-care is one of the good things that might come out of all this). Or those who find peace of mind by unplugging and meditating more. That does not mean there is no conflict or that those who stay in the fray are fighting an imaginary war that’s all in their heads, or that it won’t matter in the end.

In fact, this kind of retreat is precisely the reaction many of the hardier combatants are looking to provoke among adversaries. To retreat without even realizing that retreat has been forced on you, rather than chosen by you, is to lose without even realizing you were in a fight. And cede access to public territory you didn’t know you had a right to (and need for).


If you do agree that there is a real war on, and that it’s worth fighting to whatever extent you’re able, there are many more questions to ask and ponder. Here’s a sample/core dump of my current thinking.

When will the war end?

Probably 2020-2024. The peace-making technologies and governance initiatives in the works will take at least that long to be rolled out, and it will take at least that long for the current global swing towards ethnonationalism to work itself out.

What can we do about identity politics?

Nothing. People with many different identities are in the battlefield now and they’re not going away. All politics involves identities, and it is better to have them acknowledged and deployed consciously rather than pretending everybody is the same. A basic mistake the right makes is to assume that deploying identity in a culture war is a choice rather than a condition of entering the fray at all. This will be a healthy thing in the long term even if it feels toxic now.

Should I retreat from social media?

You can if it makes you feel better and you need to take care of yourself. Just don’t pretend there isn’t a war on or that those in the fray to a greater degree than you are imagining things. And don’t act all surprised if somehow you end up as collateral damage despite being in retreat mode. As a wise woman once told me, you may choose to unsub from the culture wars, but the culture wars sub you.

Who will win?

A grown-up and expanded version of the libertarian left (driven by the tech industry) along with a cleaned-up and shrunken version of the authoritarian right (defined by a minimum viable policing function). Neither the authoritarian left, nor the libertarian right, has what it takes in terms of cultural capital to go the distance, and both are already in rearguard mode.

Half of this is the outcome I’d personally like, but that’s neither the reason I think it’s likely, nor the reason I’ve picked the quadrant I have. The other half is something I wish didn’t have to be the case, but I think people hoping for a fully demilitarized state with low/non-existent institutionalized violence (in the form of police and penal systems predisposed to criminalize poverty and misfortune, and a security state predisposed to criminalize foreignness) are delusional.

The authoritarian left will lose because it underestimates the degree to which humans want to freely negotiate their own relationships with other humans, rather than within some sort of coercive matrix of doctrinaire mutual expectations mediated by prescribed identity performance masks. This does not mean identity politics will go away. It will merely be an very weakly regulated aspect of human relationships, worked out 1:1 most of the time. To the extent larger scale institutional behaviors focus on this aspect of human relationships, it is the institutions that will weaken and die.

The libertarian right will lose because it underestimates the degree to which humans are driven by genuine, non-judgmental compassion and collective instincts, and inclined to rely on large-scale patterns of mutual aid that are not also patterns of mutual judgment. If there’s one lesson that was driven home for me reading writers like Hannah Arendt and Ursula LeGuin last year, it is that the sovereignty ideal at the foundation of most libertarian thought is an impoverished variety of full-blown freedom, which can only be realized through richer patterns of connection.

It took me a long time to recognize the depth of this truth because I personally am much less sociable and mutualism-driven than most humans. I mostly free-ride on the others being this way.

Why will they win?

Ultimately, for drawn-out conflicts like this, those who can build economic power steadily rather than draining it, tend to win. I had a good tweet about it a few months ago:

If a military conflict lasts longer than 3 yrs, economic strength determines outcome.

If an economic conflict lasts longer than 30 yrs, ideological superiority determines outcome.

If an ideological conflict lasts >300 yrs, technological generativity determines outcome

We are in the 3-30 years range here. Judgements about which ideologies can grow, go mainstream, and exist sustainably as part of the institutional landscape become much easier if you think 30 years out instead of 3. Very few ideologies have the legs to last long. Most are just good for a few years of bloody skirmishing, not for building lives around.

What is the future of democracy?

Bright but transformed. The world is too complex and interconnected, and individuals too empowered and mutually connected, to be governed any other way. But the renaissance in democracy driven by digital technologies may leave it unrecognizable.

Can we return to human-scale technology?

No. There are bots, look around. The genie is not going back in the bottle. We’re just going to have to tame it.

Isn’t this just tech addiction, to be fixed with more responsible UX?

The folks at the Center for Humane Technology seem to think so. I don’t. I hope I am wrong and wish their project luck (disagree and commit), but I think it is largely wishful authoritarian-left thinking.

Thinking this is a “technology” problem feels like a category error to me. Like calling the conflict with Al Qaeda/ISIS a “war on terror.”

We are not fighting because unethical dark-pattern designers are making us click without thinking. We are fighting because there are reasons to fight and valuable things to fight over, such as control of rich and powerful institutions.

How will the US emerge from this?

Diminished but stronger. There will be a transient dip in global influence and stature lasting a couple of decades. But the bright-side angle here is that this is the only place in the world culture wars could play out. After the trauma comes the psychological growth, and that will be valuable. In a way, parts of the world that seem to be cleverly avoiding similar culture wars are building up cultural growth debt.

As has been the case many times in the past few centuries, the US is deceptively backward seeming here. It is actually ahead of the curve in important ways, while seemingly more culturally advanced countries have kicked growth tin-cans down the road.

Will we see a return to normalcy?


Thanks to Renee DiResta for many useful discussions 

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Halikaarnian says

    I agree with most of this, but I think you left out a key nexus (although you referenced it while discussing patsy-formation behavior). This is the Self-Improvers vs Structural Changers nexus, and it runs through most of your other examples while twisting at 90% angles in some cases. The former is usually associated with a right-libertarian perspective (given the emphasis on personal agency) and the latter with a left-authoritarian one (emphasizing the need to reform institutions and the strong effects of privilege/history), but sometimes it becomes a debate between tech-friendly leftists and Luddites, and sometimes it transcends the 2-axis political field in any meaningful way (transhumanists versus sanctity-of-nature types on both the right and left).

    • CasioTheSane says

      Isn’t the self-improvers vs structural changers axis the same thing as libertarian vs authoritarian?

  2. Brett Bellmore says

    Hm, I’d argue with the size of some of those circles; The NRA and the Nazis are shown comparable size, while the NRA has about 5 million paid members, and surveys have about 14 million self-identifying as members. And the entire Nazi movement in the US could probably fit in a large hotel.

    I’m also wondering where the ‘Antifa’ are on this chart. Authoritarian, (You can’t spin violently ‘no platforming’ people as not authoritarian.) Left, and at least as big as the Nazis. Don’t they deserve a place?

  3. As I understand it (admittedly not in any detail), anthropological research shows that traditional societies (i.e. those without law enforcement by governments) generally live in a state of perpetual low-grade war. Raids by a handful or a dozen of young men on a neighboring tribe kill off enemies a handful at a time, with enemies reciprocating at unpredictable intervals. Alliances are constantly shifting, and it’s not unheard of to walk into an ally village and discover they are now enemies (you won’t walk out).

    Occasionally power imbalances get large enough to permit one tribe to stage an outright massacre of another. Alternately, schisms between members of the same group are not uncommon.

    I think this sort of constant, moderate-grade chaos is a better analogy than “war” for what is going on. I don’t see it ending any time soon.

    • Endemic warfare is what you describe, and I agree it is a better analogy than the total war paradigm posited in this article. “War is a continuation of politics by other means”, but these culture wars are social, not political.

  4. As I was reading this I couldn’t help but wonder what Col. John Boyd would have made of this all.

  5. I feel the term “Culture Wars” has, itself, become outdated in this new environment.

    So I hereby officially propose we adopt the new, bump-stock-upgraded, plainly superior term that is “Universal Basic Warfare”.

    It’s a little twee, and more than a little ideologically lopsided (but only at first-, second-, and third glances because, really, we’re just the intestinal megafauna of a blood-chillingly indifferent and remarkably expedient System), but it can, if you squint a little, be used to describe our brand new Digital Noosphere.
    The place (and time) where you can find yourself with an idea-gun at your fingertips and a thought-enemy across the Social, with their own brand new Dunning-Kruger Assault Infohazard already aimed at your all-too-easily-scrambled dopaminergic pathways within just two clicks from starting your browser up.

    What you do with that particular starting scenario is, as always, a matter of personal discretion. But it will definitely cause a public outcry, regardless of outcome.

    Snark aside, I have an anecdote that sort-of illustrates (anecdote being the singular of data) why all this culture-warring is so heavily concentrated in the US and can’t gain as strong or as important a foothold in, say, Western Europe (whatever the Populists Against the People of the Visegrad group want to believe).

    Once upon a time, I wet to a university named [REDACTED] in Belgium. For credits, I took an introductory course in philosophy. The second lecture was pre-faced by the most SJW looking young woman you could possibly imagine (no dyed hair or anything of the sort, plain clothes and a clipped, almost military speaking style befitting a face as stoic and austere as a a Sumerian king) introducing her topic: she wanted the philosophy faculty to include a gender studies course, and wanted us to sign her petition. The papers were passed around – pretty much said whatever one might reasonably expect them to say.
    After lecture, she waited for us to hand the petition papers back. As the petition papers kept coming back she was visibly losing some of her composure, and when they were all in she grabbed the papers and left in a hurry. She was completely red-faced and obviously very upset and I surmised that nobody had actually signed her petition.
    This was in a room of a hundred people, half female, about as ethnically and nationality-ly diverse as it can possibly get.

    What was more interesting than that is how quickly those hundred or so students dispersed afterwards. There were always groups of people hanging around outside, discussing the lecture topic, chatting, smoking, whatever, after lectures, but not this time. Everyone else also left in a hurry, nobody hanging around to chat or smoke (!) or talk with the prof (a popular one and a pretty good lecturer, always had discussions with students after lectures), who also made himself scarce rather quickly.
    It was a scene of general public shame-face, like they all failed to call the ambulance, or nobody intervened in a fight on the street, or something. Most certainly there wasn’t anybody around talking about the petition, not even the student who wanted us to sign it.

    The phrase that bubbled to the surface of my mind in that moment was “Fortress Europe”, and I wondered if I should have signed the petition, if only to provide a sliver of false hope to that unfortunate student; just the tiniest sign that she wasn’t completely alone, which she absolutely was.

    • Holly. Step away from the keyboard. Do it now, and all will be forgiven.

      Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

    • Interesting. Thanks for posting it.

    • The SJW everywhere are in a minority but they have the heckler’s veto. The minority can and do prevail if they are uncompromising. And, many of the SJW’s end up in positions to do harm irrespective of what their wards believe: for example: professors, university administrators who will push ideas regardless of student majority opinion. Bureaucrats and politicians who will make SJ-type laws despite the majority population wanting otherwise and so on…

      • You’re missing the point. Why should curricula be formulated by popular student opinion? Why should anti-discrimination legislation be formulated entirely by the majority with no direct experience in the ways and means of the issue at hand?

        • I didn’t mean to say that it should be formulated by popular opinion. My point was in the context of Holly’s example where she points out that the classroom did not agree with the SJW person. My point is that it doesn’t matter as the minority can prevail, and you seem to agree, right? Now, whether or not they should prevail depends from case to case and should be based on better arguments, not numbers I agree but neither the heckler’s veto.

  6. I’m not sure the result of any of these culture wars waged in cyber spaces can be measured in terms of anything worthwhile. I “retreat” or retrench or abscond from/within communal platforms due to what I call the “whatever factor”: the anthropic principle of subjective argumentation.

    If rabid disseminators and promulgators of dreck (surely if the cybercene presently burns with war, then the weaponry must be the yotta-ton of junk info) and their warlords torch a pseudo public place such as one proprietary platform or other, what is that to me? At best, that platform is a transparent overlay to whatever life I already have. Any new human network I may have gained I can exploit on decentralized media such as email, or truly public media such as a park.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m too libertarian rogue to have ever believed that twttr, fb, et al ever were the public commons they happily lied about being. Social platforming is developmentally commodity by now and they are well along the main sequence towards played out.

  7. I really dislike your left/right characterization, because of my own observations is that neither the new left nor the new right act particularly leftie or rightie in their moral values. For instance, the orthodox left lacks an adherence to openness and liberty, the alt-right lacks an adherence to purity and loyalty. The desire for progress is little more than a hollow tradition, pursued for motivations more commonly associated with social conservatism. This contradiction is evident when you pick at progressive framings about sexual and racial oppression, which involve a consistent infantilisation of the demographics in question, as well as a paternalistic approach in addressing it.

    I also can’t help but contest your characterization of the conflict in the gaming community and its position as center-right. Brad Glasgow’s surveys have consistently shown it to be a politically balanced demographic, with many people who remain committed leftists despite disagreeing with left orthodoxy. It has a right-wing reputation only because the far-left labeled it as such, just like it did with the Men’s Rights community. The characterization of “traditional vs indie” is also a red herring, as many of the games that fell afoul of the orthodox’s moral judgements in fact came from second-tier or indie studios themselves. This false dichotomy was a narrative where a particular indie clique and their press collaborators took ownership of the entire indie phenomenon, to afford themselves underdog status.

    It is also a poorly kept secret that the online harassment, trolling, doxing, sealioning and mobbing the orthodox left likes to accuse others of were in fact techniques pioneered and honed in progressive communities. They were used to attack and discredit critics and solidify the power of the new left priesthood in the communities you’ve identified. Interpreting August 2014 as some sort of primary watershed moment in this regard is part of the narrative reframing the progressive media has tried to pull off. But there was nothing about it that was new or poorly understood. In fact, from my own experience on the ground, what made that conflict uniquely different was that there were enough people waiting in the wings to explain to the confused and insular gaming communities exactly what was happening and why, as well as how to avoid the common rhetorical and moral traps that had allowed orthodox ideology to steamroll over numerous communities before.

    This narrative reframing is IMO one of the most pernicious aspects of this entire phenomenon, because it means critics and bystanders alike are tricked into arguing from the cultural reformer’s frame. This then fuels the information warfare by confirming common misconceptions. That way, it appears e.g. the gamers or tech nerds aren’t upset about their community being attacked and colonized by sociopaths, but rather, they are merely upset because they aren’t allowed to be as chauvinistic and autistic as they want.

    I’m also reminded of Jordan Peterson’s observation recently where by denouncing any foul play in his name, he merely confirmed the association between him and ‘deplorables’. Such denouncements have never been made by his opponents, who engage in far more consistent and disruptive behavior, such as the recent disruptions at Berkeley.

    “Gamergate is about harassment” is ultimately as hollow and disingenuous an argument as “Black lives matter is about looting”. But for some reason, the former always gets repeated in some form or another, even by critics, while the latter does not.

    • Gamergate emerged from the bowels of the internet. What goes on in the bowels of the internet? If you’re not familiar with the bowels of the internet yourself, you won’t quite know.

      (This makes acceptance of the standard narrative a useful litmus test — if you buy it, you’re probably not, and if you don’t, you probably are. The standard narrative is confused about what goes on in the bowels of the internet, because the only people in the position to write it who’d know better have an interest in not clearing things up.)

      The event that started Gamergate is that a Helldump reg got called out. But what does that mean?

      Back in the day, there was a very large forum called Something Awful. It was. It’s where 4chan came from. And it was so large that you had to buy an account on it. People did. Like any cultural movement, it had its geeks, its MOPs, its sociopaths, and its trolls. This very large forum had a subforum called Helldump, which was a little like Encyclopedia Dramatica or Kiwi Farms.

      (ED isn’t directly related to SA, as far as I know, but there was a lot of horizontal gene transfer. It spawned out of LJ, but I wasn’t on LJ and don’t know anyone who was.)

      Over time, SA grew closer in culturespace to the emerging social-justice left, which was very much a thing before GG — probably continuously from its ’90s flareup. This was primarily led by its sociopaths, i.e. moderators and people the moderators liked, but also had a lot to do with SA making a Ron Paul forum that was promptly conquered by people pretending to be Communists to troll the Ron Paul fans; Communism having thus become the hot new meme, everyone who wanted to be cool radicalized.

      The social-justice left had developed the institution of the “callout”: if someone does something sufficiently “toxic”, what you do is you write a big long thing about it and you post it publicly so everyone knows to avoid the “abuser”. If you heard about the Sam Kriss thing, that’s what happened there: he was a fairly prolific SA troll back in the day, and he got called out.

      And what happened is that Eron Gjoni did that to Zoe Quinn and, for whatever reason, it didn’t go well.

      (It is probably important to note that callout posts are generally written by women, and that this one was not. I do not think this is an entirely unconsequential detail.)

  8. Lacking any bombs to throw for now, I’ll throw in one little firecracker.

    “Gamergate is about harassment” is ultimately as hollow and disingenuous an argument as “Black lives matter is about looting”. But for some reason, the former always gets repeated in some form or another, even by critics, while the latter does not.

    Exemplifies a reasoning fallacy that may or may not have a name, leap from some qualitive similarity to exact identity.

    Also, if you, in your world of sensitivity to insults that affect you, and obliviousness to those that affect others don’t know it, “Black lives matter is about looting” or some version of that gets repeated ad nauseum. Among most the 30% or whatever of Americans who make up the Trump hard core, and among quite a few of its fellow travellors, any other position is greeted as pure libtardity. Variants include BLM is about rape, BLM is about the “knockout game”, BLM is about kidnapping and torturing some retarded white kid.

  9. The thought process behind avoiding social media so that one won’t lose reputation over a careless tweet reminds me of the oft-received advice that rape can be avoided by avoiding skimpy clothing and poorly lit streets at night. Both suppose that the threat is a faceless boogieman waiting in the shadows, and that the safest place you can be is at home with the door locked.

    As with sexual violence, I suspect the culture wars’ biggest and most dangerous front is being fought within the family. Spouse against spouse, parents against children. The only way your home can be a safe space from the culture wars is if the whole household is loyal to the same faction.

  10. It’s a mimetic crisis in the sense of René Girard you cannot escape it and it will get much, much worse before it gets better.
    Have you heard of René Girard before?
    A Christian nut somehow and yet he has interesting ideas about violence and culture.

  11. Venkat,

    Thank you for this article. Fascinating, and thought provoking — as always.

    “The libertarian right will lose because it underestimates the degree to which humans are driven by genuine, non-judgmental compassion and collective instincts, and inclined to rely on large-scale patterns of mutual aid that are not also patterns of mutual judgment. ”

    Hmm. I consider myself a Libertarian conservative, and this characterization strikes me as being, well, “not even wrong”.

    Later in this essay you say, “We are fighting because there are reasons to fight and valuable things to fight over, such as control of rich and powerful institutions.”

    I am a Libertarian conservative because of the second half of your statement. If we didn’t have rich and powerful institutions, which are mostly insulated from any real accountability, half of the reason for the culture wars would be gone. And that would be a huge step forward for our nation.

    Libertarians are both rare and independent so I speak only for myself here.

    Rich, powerful institutions are to sociopaths what petri dishes are to bacteria. Rich growth media which shields them from environmental competition.

    Ironically, your Gervais series was part of what solidified this belief in my mind.

    • I am a Libertarian conservative because of the second half of your statement. If we didn’t have rich and powerful institutions, which are mostly insulated from any real accountability, half of the reason for the culture wars would be gone. And that would be a huge step forward for our nation.

      Any institution sophisticated enough to make a computer (or do any of a thousand other things you take for granted) will be rich and powerful enough to struggle over. Think about it: America and Japan have lots of rich and powerful institutions; Liberia and Yemen have very few. Where would you rather live?

  12. Ravi Daithankar says

    Interesting read! Had a few basic disagreements though which made the prognosis fall apart for my world-view. I figured I would talk to that part instead of risking a total TL;DR. :)

    When will the war end?
    Every period in history has been more or less equally tragic. One of our collective cognitive blindspots is to overstate the poignancy and importance of the present moment. Evolution has us predisposed for that. What’s happening today is (and therefore seems) of far more importance to our existence than what happened 25 years ago. But in an analytical sense, it amounts to a kind of Recall Bias. Virtually every decade of the last century had its moments on the precipice and you could argue there have been culture wars going on ceaselessly. Peace is the time it takes to reload your gun. I find it more valuable to look at it as a continuum between slow burn and raging fire rather than the more simplistic war-peace duality.

    Who will win?
    Winning sounds like it has a kind of finality to it. I think in the short run, over the next decade or so, irrespective of where you fall on the map, how much you have will determine how likely you come out ahead. I know that sounds too simplistic, almost banal, but I am not just talking about having resources in terms of money or power. It could range from what passport you have to what kind of code you write. Those are the guys who will ‘win’ it over the next 5-10 years while we continue to see intermittent, shorter pullbacks in favor of the “forgotten guy” like we’re seeing right now. Over the long run too, the same pattern will sustain, but it will turn louder and louder, and more pronounced. Kinda like rapidly building tempo in EDM music. The crescendo will come as a memetic, cultural trance that actually requires reimagination on a civilizational level. The process leading up to will resemble radioactive half-life decay; a cultural exponential decay, if you will.

    Why will they win?
    In the short run, there is too much momentum on the resources side. There’s really no retarding force in sight to redistribute, rationalize, or bridge that divide. Over the long run everyone loses. Or wins, depending on who you talk to.

    What is the future of democracy?
    Democracy has been hacked, both as a process and as a concept. As a process, it has been hacked through levers like fake news, masked intent, unapologetic public distraction, virtue signaling aimed at the most low hanging emotions etc. As a concept it has been hacked and breached, because its biggest systematic weakness has been laid bare: democracy is a pure numbers game. It takes just one angry bumpkin to cancel out one Einstein. And it is objectively easier to cultivate a thousand angry idiots than it is to develop even one analytical mind. So it is a kind of systemic asymmetry virus that’s infected the build and I don’t see how that can be overcome. It might still be the form of governance we most want, but it is going to become lesser and lesser so. I try to imagine what the endgame will look like but I need to flex my imagination muscle a lot more before a reasonable picture can swim into focus.

    Can we return to human-scale technology?
    I think so, but not in the sense that most people imagine. It will be more a case of Einstein’s World War IV quote where we start scaling back because it is both imperative and beneficial. Again, won’t be as dystopian as that sounds, but some shade of it.

    How will the US emerge from this?
    I waver on this a little bit because I am not convinced how resilient the US is. It is insanely strong, but I am not sure about its resiliency mainly because it hasn’t been tested systematically and on such a fundamental, societal level. If the very way that people in a society think and act changes so dramatically, what does that mean for the institutions and systems?

    Will we see a return to normalcy?
    Again, a loaded question. I think right now is not abnormal or sub-normal. To me, it is amped up normalcy, which means it is more perception than intrinsic; a result of the new union between technology, new media, and the culture, rather than out-and-out culture wars. Culture wars have always been around in more or less equal measures. They wax and wane, ebb and flow. The waxing or heightening can easily be conflated with a new culture war of never-before proportions, but whether it actually is or isn’t can only be judged in hindsight. The Civil Rights movement of the 60s did turn out to be a colossal culture war. #MeToo probably won’t even come close.

    • You are trying to predict unknown “unknowns”.

      • Ravi Daithankar says

        You could say that. Although what I was really trying to do was to iterate on the unknowns that Venkat speculated on, in his post. “Prediction” has the sound of putting something out there without any real or even arguable grounding. I like to believe I indulge in more of Social Constructivism than prediction. But I also do love to delude myself, so you may be right. :)

    • “Democracy has been hacked”
      This is by design and something that the US Constitution writers knew as well. Which is why you have the Constitution in the language of “the people have xx right and the govt will make no law to infringe upon it”. The writers knew that if democracy has to work, its only possible with strict protections for individual liberty in the form of a strong, enlightened democratic republic and strict checks and balances on the government.

      Which is also the reason why democracies have no meaning in places like the Middle East or India because the republic is weak in the sense of protecting individual liberty and rights. But, strangely, while we hear a lot of talk about being pro-democracy from western leaders, you won’t see the same clarity of presentation as say the constitution writers or some leaders for previous generations who stressed individual liberty and rights.

      • Ravi Daithankar says

        @JB, I don’t think you understood what I meant by ‘democracy has been hacked.’ The Constitution has almost nothing to do with it. If democracy were code, the Constitution would simply be the user manual or at best an admin guide for that code (with the amendments being the Release Notes, if you care to extend the analogy even further). As you can imagine, how well articulated an admin guide is has very little to do with how successfully a code executes.

        In fact, I’d go one step further and posit that a ‘successful’ democracy and one that has been hacked are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Because a successful democracy is merely one in which people are free to make their choices, vote on those choices, and form governments that promise to administrate in alignment with those choices. The quality of the governance that you actually end up getting as a result of this exercice has NOTHING to do with the succcess of the democratic system. As for the hacking, well, that happens at a higher level. You hack the system by corralling people to make choices that are not only NOT in their own self-interest, but choices that they wouldn’t have made (and therefore not voted on) if they weren’t deliberately heralded in that direction. So in a sense, the code executes itself and doesn’t return any bugs, but the output is precisely the one that the system was supposed to guard against. If that is not hacking, I don’t know what is.

        Btw, for whatever its worth, the constitution of India also guarantees pretty much the same, and some would argue even greater freedoms as the US constitution. As someone who has spent a majority of his life in India, I am even tempted to say that democracy is more vibrant and representative in India than it is in the US, but making that statement without defining a qualifying framework around it would risk complete misunderstanding on the part of someone reading it, so I won’t go there. My point is that if the verbiage, vision, and checks and balances in a constitution were the true measure of how robust and impregnable to hacks a system really is, by now we would have iterated down to one single constitution that all democracies in the world would have adopted (and adapted) and we could have all lived happily ever after.

        • I don’t care much for the code analogy so please excuse me if I ignore that. I am not denying that democracy can or has been hacked. I’m saying I don’t care if it has been as long as my constitutional rights are safe. I’m saying that public opinion is anyway fickle and easily manipulated since time immemorial – so it should be no surprise anyway. I’m also saying that the writers of the constitution knew that democracy is easily hack-able and that is why the language of the constitution goes:

          “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

          because the authors tried their best to safeguard freedom regardless of what congress the elections threw up.

          I agree with your comment: “It takes just one angry bumpkin to cancel out one Einstein.” It reminds of a quote, not sure by who: democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is the well-armed sheep contesting the vote. The point is the Constitution must protect the minority from the mob (the Einstein from the bumpkins, the Galileo from the church) and in the constitution the minority is defined as an individual as that is the most granular one can get.

          It is a myth that people want freedom. It is usually only a handful of people in society who desire and make use of it. Most of the public is perfectly happy being lorded over and will revolt only to settle for yet another lordship promising stuff. They just need the illusion of being free. Elections should be made as unimportant and as limited as possible in a strong republic. And, the more you limit government, the less the chances of it being hacked as well.

          I have no interest in the democracy part (or more specifically the electoral part) of a democratic republic. This is completely opposite to your opinion where you think that the constitution is secondary to the democratic process. I have the opposite view.

          And, also being Indian, I disagree and actually find it ridiculous that you would argue that the constitution in India is better. As an example; compare the language on free speech in both constitutions as a basic but major difference. I don’t want to get into a debate on this either, but I’d just say that I completely oppose your view on the two constitutions with a key example being the free speech amendment language.

          Indeed, we would have done better if we had gone closer to the US constitution as that is a really short and clear document. Unfortunately we inherited the British style which is inferior, in my humble opinion. We also had to bring together many disparate tribal mentalities so there had to be various loopholes which end up being misused the state.

          This discussion actually shows the true problem with immigration and another aspect of culture wars – something which should actually be in the forefront of the debate but unfortunately isn’t. Regardless of whether you or I are right, we are two examples of immigrants who believe in different cultures, even when talking about something basic as democracy. At the least you must concede that there might be legitimate reasons to prefer one form of democracy over another and that immigration tends to make this choice without any debate and in my view a worse outcome.

          • Ravi Daithankar says

            Ok, now I am confused about what your basic point is. For someone who is so enamored with how well articulated the US constitution is, do you still agree that the democratic system that it is supposed to protect, has been undermined gradually but fundamentally (and not just in a legal, transactional, Russia-meddling sense)? Or are you saying that while it may have been undermined, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are assured your individual freedoms by the constitution?

            So the code analogy wasn’t to your liking. Irrespective, I am not sure I understand from your reply how exactly a constitution protects freedoms or democracy based on what is written in it. I am not saying that what is written in it has no bearing on what plays out in reality, nor am I debating whether one constitution can be “better” than another. What I am saying, is that there are forces that are bigger, more fundamental, and therefore more influential than a constitution and these factors really enable or impede a democratic system in ways that no constitution can ever deal with. These are cultural, sociological forces that pre-dominate and pre-date institutions, constitutions and democracies. I am talking about belief systems, norms, notions of moral and immoral, right and wrong, you get the drift…As a side-note, these forces (and not how a constitution is written) are also the reason some societies are more predisposed to functioning as successful democracies and others aren’t. As long as these forces are dormant or active only subterraneously, the constitution and its reach determine the success of a society as a democracy. However, if these forces are harnessed, actively deployed, and oriented conveniently (essence of hacking), push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter how well thought out or well-designed your constitution is. At that point, the battlefield is essentially elevated to a higher ground. The interplay then is happening on cultural and maybe even a civilizational scale. And I am yet to see a constitution protect an individual, once that reality is triggered.

            You mentioned how well-articulated the right to freedom of speech in the US constitution is, and how that supposedly results in better protection of freedom. Are you saying that if someone had dropped that exact verbiage in the Indian constitution back in 1950, a constitution that you allege is more deficient otherwise, somehow Indians would have enjoyed more freedom of speech today?

            The reason you see freedom of expression (among others) routinely abridged in India is not because the constitutional language protecting it isn’t pointed enough, but because there just isn’t enough popular belief in the value of those rights. The covert cultural forces that condone that freedom being abridged are stronger than the overt constitutional guarantees an individual has to defend themselves from those forces. That’s the reason the same constitution (almost verbatim) affords an individual significantly more freedom in Britain, than it does in India. That’s the long and short of it. If the verbiage in a constitution isn’t borne out by the collective belief in a culture, its thin ice, period. And collective belief (along with other cultural forces), is far more malleable than we like to believe it is, the world over.

        • While I said I don’t want to argue this issue much, for the record, I call the Indian system an elected monarchy not a democratic republic, so needless to say I disagree…

          • Ravi Daithankar says

            I am tempted to ask if you care to elaborate on what you mean by an elected monarchy exactly? And how it would be materially different from any other ruling elite, including a government in another democracy. But I guess we’re already down one bunny trail so we probably shouldn’t venture down another one simultaneously. :)

        • “do you still agree that the democratic system that it is supposed to protect, has been undermined gradually but fundamentally”

          I would and am concerned about liberty being undermined by the state (elected and non-elected) when it gradually infringes upon the individual’s rights, which does happen, yes, mostly by the expansion of a state’s powers beyond the essential. I don’t really know what you mean by democratic system so I don’t know if we agree! :)


          “I am not sure I understand from your reply how exactly a constitution protects freedoms or democracy based on what is written in it.”

          By putting a limit on what laws a govt can enact as exemplfied by the quoted para in my previous comment.


          Any forces, belief systems, right or wrong have to be codified into law for them to be concrete right? So, that is the shape of the republic, no? Yes ofcourse culture matters and that is reflected by the constitution that a culture selects. A theocratic state and overly religious culture will select a religious consitution for example.

          Consider Egypt: muslim brotherhood wanted the consitution to have parts of sharia. The secular, liberal parties objected, eventually revolted and selected a secular constituion. They might even have had a technical minority so it was termed a coup in democratic terms. You could even say that democracy was hacked as MB was elected legitimately. But, what was better for freedom? A theocratic constitution or a secular one? The cultural battleground you talk about was reflected in the battle for the constitution. And, the majority needn’t be right – which is why I discount elections, or just democracy, especially majoritarianim.


          “Are you saying that if someone had dropped that exact verbiage in the Indian constitution back in 1950, a constitution that you allege is more deficient otherwise, somehow Indians would have enjoyed more freedom of speech today? ”

          Yes, exactly! I looked into this in full detail a while back, but a quick google search turns this up by a lawyer and previous minister making a similar point to mine and comparing the verbiage.


          If you don’t want to read the entire thing, the gist is that:

          “The Constitution caveats the freedom of speech and expression with the following all encompassing restrictions that are prone to expansive, ambiguous and self-serving interpretations.”

          as a contrast, there are no caveats in the US constitution.


          May I also refer to the Federalist papers as they might be interesting in this context.

          • Ravi Daithankar says

            “By putting a limit on what laws a govt can enact as exemplfied by the quoted para in my previous comment.”

            But the Constitution can say anything you want it to say, and it won’t matter until it is upheld in practice. Which in turn depends on whether the people of a land actually believe in that or not. Like I said earlier, the very same constitution does work for Britain a lot better, doesn’t it?

            “Yes ofcourse culture matters and that is reflected by the constitution that a culture selects.”
            Exactly. But not just that. Whenever they come up against each other, Prevalent Culture > Constitution. As much as we’d hate for that to be. Verbiage, country, system of governance notwithstanding.

            “But, what was better for freedom? A theocratic constitution or a secular one?”
            This is where I think you are missing the point. Whichever out of the two turns out to be ‘better for freedom’, it is purely coincidental to the culture that actually allows that freedom. Talking specifically about Egypt, if my hypothesis is right, we will see a relapse into the same mess, the new secular constitution notwithstanding.

            Have you ever noticed how almost no ancient civilization and/or indigenous culture has really succeeded in protecting freedoms the way the West talks about them today? It is no coincidence that India, China, Egypt, Mid East, South America, even Africa, all of which predate the West as identifiable, historic cultures suck at affording their citizens the kind of freedoms the West does. That’s because they are essentially governed by the momentum and baggage of their history, conflicts, and ultimately culture, even while the present-day overlay may be that of a constitutional republic that’s being governed by laws. Attributing that to the deficiencies in their constitutional language is grossly misunderstanding the scale of complexity. The success of a system depends on how strongly its institutions (which in the case of a democracy are governed by the constitution) resist structural, cultural stresses. That duel in my opinion, is almost always settled in favor of the culture, not the institutions. Owing to a relatively small 250-year history coupled with a comparatively homogeneous culture, the US hasn’t been stress-tested yet. How the institutions respond will determine which way it shakes out and that can take decades and generations before it is even evident. That’s what I was referring to in my original comment to Venkat’s post when I talked of resilience. As for why the West has done better in terms of individual freedoms than more ancient cultures, well, that is an anthropological deep-dive and a completely separate subject.

        • “I am tempted to ask if you care to elaborate on what you mean by an elected monarchy exactly?”

          Its just a reflection of the fact that the courts don’t work. The constitution/republic is poor quality and hence doesn’t really defend liberty or property rights even. If you care about freedom, you care about laws protecting an individual against the most powerful mobs in the country. There is absolutely no hope of that hence no liberty. Without any checks and balances on govt, it is pretty much a monarchy, also motivated by the fact that we call it “Raj” and that is how the elected officials behave and they know no better in their own cultural tradition as we did not have the same evolution of democratic processes as in the West. Our culture went from monarchy to colonialism to democracy-mimicry. Our institutions are all “cargo cult” like with no depth or traditional understanding.

          Btw, did you know that the US constitution is 8000 words while the Indian constitution is 145,000 words. Well, I’d take the former just for brevity’s sake! How bad can it be? It has persisted for 200+ years.

          We rank 136 in press freedom out of 180 countries. I’d suspect the lowest of any “democracy”. We rank 143 in economic freedom, lower than Pakistan. If you don’t have economic freedom or press freedom, do you qualify as a democratic republic? The answer to me is obvious and objectively so.

          • Ravi Daithankar says

            “Its just a reflection of the fact that the courts don’t work. The constitution/republic is poor quality and hence doesn’t really defend liberty or property rights even.”
            That to me is a major attribution error. You have to put in perspective that we are talking 1.3 bn people with an unimaginable breadth and depth of conflicts, managed by a fraction of the resources that are actually needed. Even just the logistics of that situation are herculean.

            As for those rankings, I am not necessarily disputing the state of affairs they point to, but I don’t put much stock into them either. Ditto with those rankings where places like Nepal and India are supposedly ranked the happiest in the world.

            Btw, since you brought up how cargo-cult has weighed down our institutions and how short circuiting the evolution process hasn’t worked out, how would a more robust constitution address that? Sounds like you’re singing my line there!

        • I disagree with almost everything, unfortunately, but I’ll leave it at that in the interest of cutting this short. I’ll go back to my initial point that the hackability of democracy should be a secondary concern (and by that I mean hacking of the electoral process specifically) than the quality of the republic vis-a-vis liberty. In its essence, the point of the republic should be to address the imperfections of democracy. To put it more directly, there isn’t much point of a democracy if it doesn’t uphold liberty. And, I haven’t been convinced otherwise.

          However, I am more interested in clarifying something. You seem to argue that some cultures do not afford liberty to the extent of the US system. That American liberty is exceptional and anthropological in character and that mass immigration is likely to alter this situation towards reduced liberty. That seems to be a position similar to the alt-right who would oppose mass immigration on the basis of differing stance on liberty and if someone on the alt-right was to say this, one would call them a racist. Am I totally misunderstanding something here?

          • Ravi Daithankar says

            “You seem to argue that some cultures do not afford liberty to the extent of the US system. That American liberty is exceptional and anthropological in character and that mass immigration is likely to alter this situation towards reduced liberty. That seems to be a position similar to the alt-right who would oppose mass immigration on the basis of differing stance on liberty and if someone on the alt-right was to say this, one would call them a racist. Am I totally misunderstanding something here?”

            Yea, you did misunderstand this. I do think that no culture (or very few cultures) today afford the kind of liberty the US does. Which is not to say that the US is somehow exceptional, but that it is so young and nascent compared to other cultures, that it has an inevitable, long road of course correction ahead of it. It is enjoying a kind of beginner’s luck at a board game, if you will. But every passing decade, every passing century, will inevitably see layers of what you and I call freedom today being diluted. The process is almost biological. As the burden of passing time and life experiences gradually increases, institutions and systems respond and evolve to become more self-preservational than rambunctious, ambition-chasing. Any youthful exuberance or naive notions of chasing freedom and liberty etc. hollow out until you settle at an acceptable/necessary level of everything. People in their 70s or 80s will tell you they have seen this happen with the US itself, in their lifetimes! Freedom and liberty, the way the US likes to talk about, is not a ground state of being. It is more like an artificial high. Also, I am not saying this with any sort of value judgement (good/bad, desirable/undesirable, happy/sad) attached to it. I am just calling it the way I read it. I wish you are right that there is a key variable (the constitution, as you believe) that can ensure this high can be sustained.

            I am really trying to avoid pivoting to hardcore philosophy here, but like every other thing on this planet, it will have to get worse before it gets even worse.

            Btw, I was never referring to mass migration in this context at all. That can at best be a catalyst, and in either direction at that.

            Good talk.

  13. We’ll be discussing the root causes — perhaps it is inequality, perhaps it is finally dealing with the legacy of slavery and structural racism, perhaps it is deteriorating public health from a failing healthcare system — for decades.

    I don’t understand how you are going to reduce a “culture war” onto good old social struggles?

    There is, as it seems to me, a strong dissolution energy, which destroys the Western civilization, not only in the USA and this energy comes from within. The west goes up in flames, though, as you noted, not physically, but culturally, intellectually and spiritually. Personally I’ve no idea where to go with this and I’m reluctant to make predictions. I will lose the war anyway, no matter who reigns in 2024.

  14. Tamara Troup says

    Very interesting article. It will be interesting to read analysis of the various tactics and engagements. I hope the Truth Troll skirmish will receive close attention. This learning experience became a right libertarian victory decided by the left authoritarian. It could have been the Culture Wars’ Battle of Bull Run.

  15. Pretty good article. Some thoughts:

    If this is a war, war’s perhaps not as bad as I thought.

    Based on spending much of my time on 8chan, I think the autism spectrum group and the traditional gamers and 4chan group are more aligned than opposed. For example, a lot of the HWNDU flag-finding was done by people at their computers poring over data and this was often referred to as weaponised autism. Info-digging threads on /pol/ were (perhaps still are) a similar story. There’s also the fact that similar people use similar insults against both sides—team SJW calling them misogynists, dudebros, neckbeards, incel etc.

    Anime communities are another front in the culture war. Mentions of “the cartel” on anonymous imageboards are referring to this front. I don’t understand it very well myself, but it seems that the broader anime fandom is leftist or at least likes soviet russia imagery, and there is a minority of right-wing ‘anime nazis’ on twitter and the imageboards. The cartel is something like the informal core of the loose group of anime fansubbers, which is handy for denying that it exists.

  16. Guillermo Watanabe says

    Hi Venkat,
    excellent post. Feels like you’re speaking directly to me, here.

    I retreated off the internet over the course of 2012-2013 — deleted my blog, deleted my twitter (never had facebook), changed my email address, quit my job at an internet-centric company. Began using the internet in read-only/lurker mode — only for work, email, and a few choice sites (I discovered ribbonfarm dot com around the same time).

    It’s mostly been a good decision for me – a lot less stress, i have more time for other things, I’m able to focus better, live in the moment more, be present with the people actually around me, and spend less time fretting over the fact that a bunch of strangers have the wrong opinions. Occasionally feel sad that the internet turned out the way it did; it seemed to have so much potential, back in the late 90s -early 2000s, and now — now it’s the hellhole you described.

    So when I read this:

    In fact, this kind of retreat is precisely the reaction many of the hardier combatants are looking to provoke among adversaries. To retreat without even realizing that retreat has been forced on you, rather than chosen by you, is to lose without even realizing you were in a fight. And cede access to public territory you didn’t know you had a right to (and need for).

    I’m exactly who you’re talking about, and i find this perspective challenging. Unsettling. Thought-provoking.

    Did I choose to retreat or was I forced to retreat? What does it mean to say I have a “right to”/”need for” twitter etc. as “public territory”? What’s the alternative to retreating? Am i shirking some kind of… of duty to fight in the culture wars? Am I missing a chance to make an actual difference to causes I care about? Am I letting people down by not fighting? What does this fighting consist of? Can it be conducted ethically?

    If I believe that climate change (to pick one battlefront from your examples) is the biggest problem of our time, then… what? I make a facebook account to send climate science measurements to my climate-skeptic relatives until they block me? I make a twitter account to yell at climate-change deniers on twitter? I repeat the arguments they’ve heard a thousand times, they repeat the arguments I’ve heard a thousand times, I make points that have already been made better by other people, they reblog memes, we’re both angry and nobody changes their mind… so what? What good does any of this do?

    I don’t want to hurt anybody. I don’t want to spread fake news or disingenous memes. I certainly don’t want to harass or dox anybody, or get them kicked off of a service, or make them feel so bad that they delete their blog, or any of the other nasty things that seem to be the main weapons in the online culture wars you described.
    I would certainly like them to change their minds and join me in supporting a revenue-neutral carbon tax (or a different policy if we’re persuaded that a different policy is better), but how the hell does wading into the swamp of twitter 2018 accomplish that?

    That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. I’m not posing it to say “You’re wrong, Venkat” but rather “I wish I knew how to engage with social media in a way that’s productive and not soul-destroying.” I’m very curious to hear any further thoughts you have about productive engagement with this mess.
    Thank you.

    • I was criticized by some for being on the internot in 1988. I was criticized by others for letting MZ kick me off FB on07-07-17. Those people are not in my inner circle of friends, a circle composed of some mid to upper hundreds of people.

      Maybe you were forced to retreat, and maybe you pre-emptively retreated, and maybe you acted of your own volition. Go with your volition, and consider your circle of friends for advice.

    • “I wish I knew how to engage with social media in a way that’s productive and not soul-destroying.”

      There’s your trouble. The problems you want to address, e.g. global warming, cannot be meaningfully addressed through social media. Trying only makes you look like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park: Step 1- Raise awareness of the issue, Step 2 – ???, Step 3 – Save the world.

      • Guillermo Watanabe says

        Hi Jay,

        The problems you want to address, e.g. global warming, cannot be meaningfully addressed through social media.

        Yes, I agree. That’s why I joined a startup dedicated to reducing the soft costs of solar energy. I’m trying to address the problem through my work, and also through lobbying congress for carbon tax, etc.

        I’m trying to grapple with Venkat’s assertion that social media non-engagement constitutes retreat, or constitutes giving up something one has a right to. What do you think of that idea, Jay? Social media isn’t good for fixing the climate, but is there something that it is good for? What is your stance on trying to improve the state of discourse on the internet versus giving it up as a lost cause?

        • I’d say that discourse on the internet varies widely. Some of it’s pretty good. But it’s also the case that any particular conversation varies over time. Idiots are numerous and trolling is easy; it’s pretty much impossible to fight trolls with thoughtfulness. I take more of a guerilla approach, avoiding concentrations of “enemy” power and looking for opportunity.

          Of course, this has implications for anyone trying to run a website. Writers want attention, but attention brings trolls. When any particular site gets overrun with trolls, thoughtful people go elsewhere. Web communities tend to have a life cycle that starts in obscurity and ends when comments are finally disabled because of all the trolls (and spam, of course).

        • It’s possibly worth bringing in the psychology of gaming, if the considering it in terms of the psychology of war is itself distressing, the structure is the same, just with less assumption of aggression. The problem is that doing so means you ignore the actual aggressive impulses or potential for concrete damage that can occur.

          So it’s perhaps better instead to consider it in terms of being in a warzone, rather than being a participant of war:

          If you are hit by an attack, that does not mean that you are bound to reciprocate in kind, but it might tell you one of the following things:

          •What you were doing was considered threatening to someone’s agenda, in other words disruptive to their objectives.

          •You specifically weren’t threatening, but someone similar enough to your profile was, and so you got hit as collateral damage.

          •You owned territory, in terms of sustained habits of attention among some audience, but were not particularly helpful to someone’s agenda, in a way that meant claiming your audience and getting you out the way was better than directly competing.

          The latter is indistinguishable from business dirty tricks, although the timing of your retreat, 2012, suggests some links to the big social complexities going on at the time.

          •You were one of a number of generalised refugees whose daily life suffered from a general increase in violence in your local area. No specific collateral damage from loose pattern targeting, but too much daily gunfire and smoke in the background.

          The last one is the least helpful, but it is a necessary null hypothesis. That you left because of two much ambient stress, not because of anyone particular seeking to increase that stress in you.

          It’s also worth remembering that this is a war fought with a passion born of it’s ephemerality; if you can’t determine what territory is best to “claim” what actually constitutes a gain, then you can either seek to determinedly construct some self-referential program, or seek a random spread of as many “gains” as you possibly can, in the hope that some turn out to stick.

          The entire conflict that resulted in you leaving the internet may have been premised on tactics that never actually made any sense, because their apparent victories had no fundamental relationship to achieving their strategy.

          This is not just true of cultural internet wars either, this is just a characteristic of war, applied to the specific arguments and associated propaganda campaigns of the modern world.

          In that context, the difference of consciously retreating, rather than simply emphasising your health, is attempting to re-associate pain not with the agenda and projects you used to pursue, but with the friction those projects faced in their actual environment, and how that caused your resources to become overstretched, or exposed you to vulnerabilities.

          Trying to determine a concrete enemy can be helpful, or it can lead to paranoia, so the better thing is trying to determine precisely what it is you lost, and why you were forced back, so that you can determine in future if there is room to return to some form of the previous role, and what countermeasures or extra resources you would need to prepare to improve your chances of weathering such resistance in future.

          In short, civilians are those most prone to ceding territory in a war, because they have essentially 4 options; barricade, flee, hide, request help; and only the first of those allows them to stay in place. In modern social network terms, the first three are less distinguishable, but in principle barricading would be reinforcing your existing conversational networks at the cost of rigidity, fleeing would be abandoning investment in particular kinds of conversation, and hiding is re-entering the conversation via a different angle, either in terms of identity or medium.

    • I decided to quit the FB climate change argument about a year ago, and have not regretted it.

      The very rare positive part of being there was encountering someone who disagreed with me (I think climate change is real, probably anthropogenic, but not clearly a bad thing) and was actually willing to have a productive exchange, citing arguments and evidence. That happened perhaps two or three times over several years. The rest of the time was “arguments” by people on both (all?) sides, almost none of whom understood how the greenhouse effect worked or much cared what the evidence and arguments against their position were.

      So one possible response to the question of how to engage with social media productively is to be one of the few people actually interested in the ideas rather than the battle, and find somewhere to do it. In my case that current means Slate Star Codex—a link in a comment there was what got me to this page and the very interesting map/essay.

  17. Joe Fallica says

    RE: A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars

    The war you describe is a modern (current) version of all the previous wars.
    Wars are a group of “people” minding their own business and happily trying to raise their young who are interrupted by the label rousers of leaders and instead are goaded to send their young into the mouths of cannons in support of the canons of their pet labels.

    Perhaps this war you perceive doesn’t use immediately lethal guns, and perhaps, just perhaps actual death does not occur, but surely it results in the death of sentience. “I’m sure they amount to the same thing.

    I’m struck by your map’s use of “labels” totally obliterating “people” as do most wars. The modern headlong dash to “Globalism” evaporates the need for each PERSON to have an identity with their neighbors with which to shore up their own personal identity. That interplay between me and you is as necessary to living as is the air we breath, the food we eat, and the fun in which we engage.

    If instead of labels, you used descriptions of those segments of people, you would find it not so easy to group the soldiers of the war. Perhaps we can recognize each other. One of the lies perpetuated since has been “We are all the same.” We are not, not in abilities, not in expectations, not in our humanity nor in our divinity. We are equally different. Not better, nor worse except within the confines of arbitrary purity of economics, or politics, or societal prowess. Such comparisons are thefts of happiness. (Thanks T. Roosevelt)

    Your efforts describing the current and near term (3 – 300 years) is yet another nail in the coffin in which people re born and in which people die, never knowing life is about person. Yes! lets fight for the labels, the Left, the right, the young, the old, the female, the disaffected, the autistic, the criptos, the NRAs, Prisoners, Cops, Techies, Immigrants, Poor, Christians, Jews, Muslims , the culturists, the historists, the futurists, the red, the greens, the evironists, the profs, the students and a thousand other labels. Lets forget those pesky humans people who just assume live growing old watching their young grow up.

    Yes fight for something bigger than you for there is something bigger than you, you’re just a miserable human who has no agency. All you life you have been told what to do, how to think how to see by parents, teachers, priests of all stripes so often, you have no need to be responsible for you and your actions.

    If things go to hell…
    – it was the glass that fell, not I who knocked it off the table.
    – it was the research which was incorrect, not I who followed the survey
    – It was the politicians who led me astray, not me who abandoned my responsibility to live MY life instead of their neat well packaged visions.
    – it was the banks who stole my job, not me who wanted more and more money without matching it with more of my effort
    – it was the “label du jour” at fault, not me who followed the leaders headlong dash off the cliff.

    What if they gave a war and no one came.
    What if the students got off the treadmill and used their own perceptions about the fight.
    What if we all “DID” surrender and totally got off “anti” social-media and used our humanity to understand our divinity telling us it’s all bullshit.

    You’re born, and you die. In between you live appreciating what you see and what you do and especially what others do… just like kids do.

    What if lemming people (you and I and that guy overt here and that woman standing behind that kid) just stepped off and let the leaders go of the cliff alone.

    Finally a pet peeve: I think PWDT are the most overlooked GIR, as a result TBETOE for the situations in which they FTS.
    Are abbreviations and labels conducive to reduced inflammation and rational discourse or are do they simply show sloppiness and laziness at being more explicit ?

    NO MOR @%^&$&^ labels, abbreviations and arcane words to separate the writer from the reader.

    Key: PWDT=People who don’t think
    GIR = Group instigating war
    TBETEE= They blame every thing everyone else
    FTS = Find them selves

    Keep on keep’n on

    • Not bad! What I said above regarding one’s own volition, but with more literary artistry. Keep on truckin’yourself!

    • M. Carpenter says

      Thanks Joe for the bit of reality. This essay makes me sad for the future because sitting this war out behind the computer is not at all bloodless. There are real consequences to the fantasies that obfuscate the reality that includes real blood with collateral damage that sheds real blood. Not to mention that the bunker mentality of the screen will neither feed you nor shelter you as you imagine yourself above the fray. Maybe my mind is small but the only consequence I can envision from this bunker mentality is a return to a rather primitive way of life. I hope I am wrong.

  18. Venkat – I’ve been following your writings for a about 1/2 year – I think you’re brilliant.

    I’m also deeply read into George Lakoff and am getting deep into Carol Gilligan – what they are profound in pointing out – is the crisis between patriarchy and democracy (Lakoff basically frames this as Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent). This crisis is what explains Jonathan Haidt’s findings in the rating of his big six Moral Values.

    Patriarchy ‘genderizes’ key values – e.g. (from Gilligan) In a patriarchy an ethos of care is feminine – in fact masculinity requires good doses of ‘carelessness’. But in a democracy care is a human concern (e.g. nurturant parent family).

    This is deeply entangled in the culture wars.

  19. Paula From Ages Ago says

    Hi Venkat, long time no read. Just want to point out that mass immigration is not a side issue, it is *the* issue motivating the rise of ring-wing politics throughout the West. Whatever one’s views of mass immigration, its ultimate effect is ethnic cleansing of whites from all Western nations. No current white-majority country will remain white-majority past the middle of this century, with only a few exceptions. Right wing politics will continue to grow and gain strength as long as mass immigration and its attendant anti-white media/academic narrative continues.

    • Guillermo Watanabe says

      Paula, i think you’re right about the cause of the rise of right-wing politics. But it sounds from your comment like you equate “whites not being in the majority” with “ethnic cleansing of whites”. Is this what you believe? Do you really not see a difference between those two things? Or is this intentional rhetorical hyperbole?

      Because, I’m white, i live in a town that is about 50% white and falling, in a state that is majority-minority, and I sure don’t feel like a… a… victim of ethnic cleansing. I’m trying to be polite, but honestly? the very idea strikes me as so absurd that I’m not even offended, just frankly baffled.

      It’s pretty nice here. I’ve got neighbors from multiple continents and we all get along well. We all shop at the same farmer’s market and our mixed-race kids go to school together. Never heard any of this “anti-white” rhetoric you mentioned. Nobody’s asked me to leave. If this is the right-wing’s nightmare scenario, I really don’t understand what they’re so afraid of. Seems like a successful case of integration and the “melting pot” ideal.

      I would think that if “ethnic cleansing of whites” was happening that there’d be, maybe, some kind of secret police busting into my house in the middle of the night with guns and without a search warrant to drag me away to some containment facility with no due process of law.

      That does happen, but it happens to Latinos, and the secret police are called ICE.

      Apologies if I’ve misunderstood you or misrepresented your views.

      • Leaving aside the rest of the argument, I’m not sure how well it’ll hold up to claim the impossibility of an ethnic cleansing without secret police in the comments to a post about war without guns.

        But why would whites want to ethnically cleanse themselves? In cases like that — one can readily observe Muslims “ethnically cleansing themselves” in the Middle East — the problem is perhaps that the distinctions are incorrectly drawn. In the Middle East, our Muslims are in fact Sunni and Shia. And in America…?

        Every so often, you encounter something that makes you think that maybe the narrative you’ve been assuming doesn’t fit; and you can’t quite work out the details or even be sure the thing is of any consequence, but neither can you uncrack the egg. For me, it was when I read that Thomas Nast was markedly less racist than ‘his time’ — except towards the Irish.

        Living in Boston, I’ve gotten a bit of the local history, and it’s not uncommon for it to be narrativized in terms of the English vs. the Irish. If you go out to the right a little bit, you get the same narrative, but also applied to busing and the like. And if you go way out to the right, you get that narrative, but expanded to explain the ’70s as the Anglos trying to drive the Irish and the Jews into the suburbs so as to assimilate them, or at least reduce the risk of riots. And sometimes this is described as the ethnic cleansing of various parts of Boston.

    • “Right wing politics will continue to grow and gain strength as long as mass immigration and its attendant anti-white media/academic narrative continues.”

      The latter is a problem, the former isn’t. Ideological leftists should be combatted, not immigrants. And like the other followup commenter suggests, a gradual peaceful demographic transition is NOT the same as “ethnic cleansing.” That’s pure unhelpful hyperbole. But while it doesn’t apply to the US it does apply on some level to Europe, notably Italy (and South Africa right now).

  20. Nice thread, nice comments. Glad I stumbled here this afternoon!

  21. I enjoyed Venkatesh’s article. From time to time I’ll read something that changes the way I think about things, either specifically or more generally. Afterwards, I have a new understanding, a new rubric that enables me to ‘see through the pack’, as they say in Australian Rules football. I’m not there yet, but I am getting a 45-degree view, that’s better than I had before.
    The problem of course is that, on every issue, of the ‘right’ or the ‘left’, we are all predisposed to hold on to our current understanding, our own ‘convenient truths’, and its hard work to discard them There’s an investment there, of the ideas, sure, but also of the people or the institutions which brought us there. It is hard to be truly independent of thought, maybe even impossible. If the debate is being twisted, if we are being sealioned [a lovely phrase I hadn’t encountered before, but a phenomenon I’ve seen many times], it is easier just to cede the ground and walk away. Is that losing? That all depends on what you, as an individual, want to spend your time doing. But, as in so many of our social endeavours, if you understand your little part in the overall scheme of things, then it is much easier, and more productive, to decide what you want to do, and how important.
    So thank you Venkatesh, for your part in that.

  22. MichItaly says

    I am not going to pretend to be personally neutral here. With rare exceptions, my personal sympathies pretty much uniformly fall on the left side of this map, with most of my ideological commitments being left-libertarian.

    To not pretend is very nice of you.

    But shouldn’t “not being neutral” take the shape of something more subtle and nuanced than assigning FOX NEWS and Breitbart those huge surfaces, each larger than the entire Mainstream Media (as you benevolently name it) on the other side?

    Even the placement, and rendition (with that bright red designed to over-emphasize) of that swastika are very un-neutral.

    Let’s take #1.
    It was about mostly apolotical gamers who were used to read articles on games written by “people like them” for many years, and soon, as the video game industry business grew, found game-related information handled and controlled by “professional journalism” in the same fashion as “professional journalism” handles and controls every topic of social relevance/connected with power management (I have Samuel Francis’s excellent Leviathan and its Enemies in mind).

    Games were pulled into the politics, propaganda, evil and good power-management myth-making, domain.

    And of course (just as a little aside) reviews became nothing but disguised ads in the service of bigger publishers. Everything, including game “journalism” turned into industry components, engineered straightly to maximize profit and “inform” people accordingly.

    Of course, no spark of truth on the issue can be found on places like WikiPedia or could be read in the anti-GG hit-piece copy-pasted in every mainstream media source.
    As I said, this is a child’s game for the informational mass organizations tasked with ideology formation and preservation in the managerial state.
    But what you expect 15-25 year olds who know nothing of how power is managed when they see such a change, and the people “writing about games” don’t write about games in any real sense any more, but simply try to grab a slice of public “virtuosity” and climb their ladders?

    They were befuddled as it were.
    So far as mass information organizations are concerned, games are now part of politics, culture formation diffusion and enforced “correctness” as suits the purposes of the elites.

  23. Seems a bit off to place the tech industry in the libertarian left quadrant. Tech industry leaders have been doing nothing but offering public support to the authoritarian left recently. And I think that the executives of large corporations see the “fine-grained emerging authoritarian-left norms governing interpersonal interactions” as a very convenient vehicle to maintain their position and wield power/control over their workers by being able to impose consequences essentially arbitrarily while pointing to the ever changing “rules”.

  24. Sarah Constantin says

    I’m one of your “patsies”, but I don’t think politics is *nonexistent* or unimportant, I just think it’s beyond my capacity to affect. If I am not very much like most people, I won’t be able to convince most people to do as I like. This has always been true, even before the culture wars.

    There was never going to be a Sarah-flavored society. There probably isn’t ever going to be a Sarah-flavored social scene. There can be societies that happen to be good for Sarahs, among other people, to live in. Building those is not going to be a Sarah-flavored activity — i.e. not pleasant and not my comparative advantage. Politics, as a project, is for people who have more common ground with other people.

  25. David Speyer says

    I don’t see how you can put BLM at positive y-value; their primary position is opposition to the police. I know that most of their opponents are in that region of the map, but maybe you can visualize them as raiders, charging into distant idealogical territory to fight their battles.

    Also a bit bugged by what you chose to omit. I don’t care much about mass shootings but “anti-immigrant (and anti-Muslim in particular) flashpoints, LGBT rights, the opioid epidemic, and various endemic conflicts having to do with homelessness and poverty” strike me as a good summary of “things that don’t get much online play, but are vastly more important in their effect on typical lives”.

    • Opposition to the police is a sensible position insofar as police are doing things that go beyond their duty as police:

      If you don’t oppose the police for not acting as police, then you are defending a tribe, not an institution.

      The primary example is this; americans have the right to bear arms, and yet americans are frequently being shot because they pose a potential risk to police, as they may be armed, and an emotional judgement on the part of the police that they may be in danger is sufficient to shoot them.

      This is practically speaking experienced by black people in america, but it is an obvious systemic failing. Of course a man with a gun may be a threat to life, because that is the purpose of a gun, and any adult citizen has the possibility of having such a gun, so may potentially be a risk to a police officer. This puts any citizen at risk of sudden death, and the fact that due to cultural factors it is primarily a specific group that suffers from this should be irrelevant in terms of the urgency of sorting it out.

      As a campaign, they are rooted in emphasising specific excesses of use of police power, or unaccountable misuses of the position of being a police officer, that have affected a specific community, because they believe that these breakdowns in the policing system are not dealt with or are amplified for race related reasons. Specific deaths, and what caused them to happen, people responsible, why they weren’t reported etc. This inevitably results in attacking the police individually or collectively, but it does so from the principle of recognising what a policeman should be doing. In that sense, and in the banality of it’s slogan, it is a profoundly centrist campaign:

      “We want to be policed according to our currently stated rights in the manner experienced by the median members of this community.” is an almost parodically centrist goal, if you remove the anxiety inducing element of the reason they are not median community members being assessed to be largely racial.

      • Police Violence is a complex system of problems that you cannot fix with a tweak to the system. I’m on the side that tweaking a broken system is more likely to bring it further out of spec than into a spec that system is incapable of.

        When I was studying sociology at a State U in the deep South, several professors would ask who owns a gun. Of course, a couple of white dudes with ducks unlimited hats would raise their hands, but by and large the majority of hands going up were black females.

        I dated one of those black females for awhile, and though she only lived about three miles from me, she lived in rent 650 USD a month cheaper than me and a space 200 square feet bigger. We stopped once to get smokes at a gas station, and while she was in there, a group of gold-toothed, mean-faced thugs started congregating around the front of my car, staring me down.

        We’d had a bit of the “Why are you dating ‘our’ women?” business here and there before, particularly when eating at restaurants. But this was late on a Friday night, and the heavies seemed to be deciding what to do about it this time.

        Fortunately, I had been to the range that day. I didn’t have my gun, but I still had boxes of bullets behind my seat, so I picked one up and started trying to dance it between my fingers, studiously ignoring the gathering group…. and they dispersed very quickly.

        Anyways, at another time my girlfriend called the police because a man was beaten with blunt things outside of her house (which she was renting cheaper than my *apartment* remember). I waited with her on the phone, for four hours while the police didn’t show up, and a guy bleeding and moaning in her yard.

        So, there’s pretty good reason for someone living in that environment to be armed. There’s pretty good reason for the cops to be afraid to show up. There’s pretty good reason for anyone driving through an environment like that to be armed. Those black females in my sociology classes were rational and intelligent actors (9mm bullets are one of the most reliable equalizers in a fight between a big man and a woman).

        Meanwhile, I doubt anyone would get away with harming someone on the steps of Agnes Scott College, an up-price women’s private school, which amazingly is also within 5 miles of where the guy lay on the grass with no police response. And the ladies at Agnes Scott are probably marching for gun control right now.

        I’m not saying we shouldn’t pry things from cold dead fingers. I spent most of my adult life living in a country without firearms where the violent crime rates are non-existent. They also had a much more equitable wealth distribution (one of the biggest predictors of violent crimes being wealth disparity)….

        Anyway, you start merely tweaking the system, you’re not going to get a better result. Right now the system stably outputs a certain murder rate, a certain number of mass shootings. Maybe you take away guns and inner-city rapes go way up. Certainly you have even deeper permanent resentment among those “flyover state people” that everyone seems to want to disenfranchise of any meaningful voice. Maybe none of those things are politically very important, since the Agnes Scott girls “feel safer” so you don’t hear about it until a decade later.

        The Austin guy was using bombs. The Vegas guy was wealthy and pre-meditated and probably couldn’t have been stopped by anything anyone is proposing to do anytime in the next 5-10 years. Hell, I think he would have pulled his plan off in England if he had wanted to.

        But to change the system requires a lot lot more. First of all, I think you’d need to change management culture and thus politics to think in terms of complex systems functioning over the long term. Also, you’d need to think in terms of desired outcomes rather than merely eliminating unwanted things in reaction.

  26. Ah, but what are the causes of the war?

    On the one hand, the war would be happening even without the internet. As anyone who, as they say, remembers the ’90s will know, it already was. On the other hand, the war is obviously caused by the internet. So it seems probable that there are a few things going on.

    1. Bog-standard American ethnic conflict between everyone and everyone else, of the sort that you can get the general idea of from American Nations and the like, complicated by the vast immigrant populations that Woodard doesn’t mention, and simplified by the emergence of a national Unreconstructed Culture that originated largely in the South, with Borderer attitudes and Cavalier pretensions: the Confederate flag now flies in Oregon and Maine. The most memorable internet manifestation of the Unreconstructed Culture is Pax Dickinson: an ultrademocratic pro-secession at-least-ex-monarchist and self-proclaimed “Redneck Zionist” who was a CTO in NYC until Gawker got him fired.

    This seems to mostly be a battle between two factions, each with several subfactions: the Progressives and the Right. On the Progressive side, we have (of course) the Yankees, and then we have the diverse coalition they’re trying to assemble; the Yankees don’t seem to mind that this coalition at least claims to hate them as much as they hate the Southerners, nor that it could very well become a power center of its own and no longer act as a client of the Yankees. This is a common problem in Anglo-American history. Osama was a freedom fighter! Thanks, Reagan.

    Within the diverse coalition, we have all its constituent ethnicities. The Irish used to be a core group here, but my impression is that they’re jumping ship — I don’t know if this panned out, but there was serious talk of the Trumpist coalition trying to make inroads in Massachusetts. The Jews are quite unpopular with the rest of the coalition, and might leave as well, which will make things a lot more interesting — then again, they have no attractive alternatives. (This is, I think, one of the biggest mistakes the Right is making right now.)

    Re: Steve Wynn, there’s a Wynn casino going up right now a few towns over from me, and the consensus opinion around here seems to be that he’s getting dragged through the mud because other big names in the industry are making a play to take it from him.

    2. Widespread adoption of the internet leading to conflict between traditional media and (ugh) “digital natives”. This is where we take off our Middle East hats and put on our materialist hats. Benedict Anderson said that the emergence of nationalism was catalyzed by the printing press, as a newly literate bourgeoisie found itself with a base of language-specific shared knowledge and thus began to think of itself as A People; the internet’s catalysis of a Nationalist International, which speaks the shared jargon of the imageboard, is perhaps along similar lines. Another thing that was catalyzed by the printing press was the Protestant Reformation, and, well.

    I think this is the biggest angle that’s missing here. On the one hand, it’s not uncommon to see the anti-GG faction come out explicitly against meritocracy and implicitly in favor of raising the importance of networking; on the other hand, the GGers were and still are actually mad about the fact that having connections to journalists is useful. (And why shouldn’t they be? We do have judging on merit alone as a value in our culture. But now that’s being contested.)

    The obvious tell that there’s something going on here is the hatred for bluechecks among the ‘Protestant’ corners of the internet. ‘Catholics’ are predominantly bluechecks, and often try to maintain a serious image, or at least a respectable one; ‘Protestant’ big names try to maintain an internet-literate image, i.e. esoteric memes; and many of the rest will happily RT hentai in the middle of serious political threads. (Once again, why shouldn’t they?)

    3. The re-emergence of feminism, which you can connect to the Neurotypicality Question if you like, or not. I am not straight enough to have anything to say about this, so I won’t.

  27. Interesting essays. Two points:
    1. Your map includes liberaltarians, Christian Right, Old Left. It does not include either right libertarians or left libertarians, which you would expect to occupy the two bottom corners. Why?

    2. Where, in your analysis of the culture wars, do you count people who come up with convincing new ideas and inject them into the intellectual world? They don’t necessarily fit on one side or another of a controversy, but they influence the controversies. Examples would be calling attention to the incentive effects of civil forfeiture, introducing the sex/gender distinction in order to classify mtf transsexuals as really women and ftm as really men, Taleb’s point about black swans, and (earlier) public choice theory and rent seeking. Should they by classified as inventors of new military technologies, possibly usable by both sides of a war?

  28. This is a good perspective. What happens if you project it onto accelerating change? What happens when you layer in “everything else” – e.g., structural consequences of technological unemployment; increasing decentralization of violence and asymmetric conflict; old fashioned great power conflict and the collapse of Pax Americana; climate change into immigration into ethnocultural conflict – all in the context of a culture war amidst accelerating change?

  29. This is extremely off-base but appropriately self-absorbed as it excludes the biggest cultural war of our time. The one started by Osama Bin Laden and Muslim Brotherhood – the only one that really matters and the culture war that actually going pretty well and the West is losing IMHO. Yes, yes, I know that is ridiculous right? Well, that is what every liberal civilization has thought – self-absorbed, complacent, politically correct, extreme liberal – these aren’t special traits specific to this time and age. It has been oft repeated in history. What could the Barbarian Goths probably do to mighty Rome. Oh and there is no mention of foreign-sponsored think-tanks and university money which goes towards culture propaganda but apparently Russia deserves a big bubble. There is no mention of censorship by tech media. Censorship of identity of criminals in Germany and Sweden. The UN culture war by the OIC. Non-coverage of certain crimes in media (for example the Utah school bomb issue or McGarrity on whack-a-mole terror arrests per week) as opposed to wide coverage on the gun-control issue. I could go on and on and on but I know it will be pointless. It is a lost cause. Just hilarious at this point.

    • Oh and closely related is the culture war between the classical liberals vs everybody else. The classical liberals span both of the labels: Democrat and Republican, “liberal” and “conservative” (because liberal today does not equal classical liberal and conservative today does not mean orthodox religious). Anybody complaining about hate speech can’t claim to be a liberal. The problem isn’t rape threats, that threat will always exist with or without the internet, which is why removal of patriarchy is now suddenly a problem. Its funny how the feminists want the govt to fulfill the traditional role of patriarchs in their families. End up with a worse solution. SMH.

  30. As someone who got caught up in it just a few seconds ago, it amuses me to observe that you have managed to create a blog post about war that manages to contain within it a natural argument generator of a more old fashioned type; is the ordinal placement of these groups in terms of liberality, authoritarianism and right or left wing correct?

    I like your observed paradox within “real and stylistic autism” vs “respectful norms”, and I think it’s the peak of a much bigger iceberg called “respect for the mentally ill”, which in it’s focus on atypical expression, has a lot further to go in terms of shaking up the current left wing discourse. All it needs are some well articulated theories completing that inversion, in the hands of someone extremely young.

  31. Alan Blair says

    Hmmm, I would refine the dimensions, there are individualist Right-Wingers and community Right-Wingers, there are also individualist Left-Wingers and those Left Wingers who follow a party line. Libertarians tend to be individualists, but so are members of the NRA (every-one has a gun) and the Academic-Right (strong individual rights). They do not tend to be Authoritarians, but their individualism is not rooted in Liberterian creeds (individuals as unconnected soverigns). Family, Religion, and Tradition are important to them. Also, I view Russian and China are both being Right-Wing Authortarians. They both like strong centralized government, traditional family, very limited individual rights, and are strong ethno-nationalists. My own view is these conflict are all part of the ongoing Big Sort. I doubt common approaches to the big questions will work. Just keep property and persons free (e.g., cannot take property, hurt or kill people) and folks will sort them-selves into the communities they like in the moment. Some firms will say no police can buy and all employees must support gay rights Others will say as long as you do your job or like our products, God speed and then you will a right-wing firm that loves police and will not hire gays. You will get firms that cater to specific races or psychological conditions (these increasingly overlap). The only commonality is that the individual will be increasingly soverign and sort them-selvers accordingly. The limits (if any) will be on how to handle child-rearing. Some groups will say kill the unborn children you do not like, others will insist that all must live. Perhaps at age 16 chilren can decide to shift communities. To me these all all patterns of how to write/re-write ourselves, it will get much more interesting when we start to alter our genetics or integrate more completely with computers.

  32. Alan Blair says

    Also, I do not think these conflicts are akin to war. No one is (yet) organizing to kill members of the other group(s) on a systematic basis. The Jews are not the source of all our problems, the people need to overthrow the capitalist class, etc. If Pinker is to be believed we are getting better at not killing each other. On the other hand-we are well-organized to kill hundreds of millions in a day or two. If we do this, the above graphic will no longer be very applicable to anything.

    • Jack Williamson says

      The clever and complex military industrial complex is smart enough to do most of its killing away from its allies and heartland, and to finance itself with printed money and deficits that will never be repaid. The artificially manufactured real enemies are in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan, with Iran waiting in the wings. Why aren’t the dead children lined up on the ground and aired on Fox News?

  33. Jack Williamson says

    There are actual geographical aspects to this war. Red states and
    blue states are, obviously, in different places. Rural (and I
    include smaller cities here) areas and large urban ones profile in
    hugely different ways, even within red states.

    Canada is an interesting peripheral player in all of this.
    Undoubtedly it is culturally American, but both more regulated and
    more free. Socialized medicine and an incarceration rate that is tiny
    compared to the gulag archipelago of the USA. A tightly regulated
    formal economy and a booming informal one. A monarchy where the
    royals are treated as celebs rather than rulers. In other words, a
    country that has grown by compromising, looking the other way,
    keeping old institutions but transforming their functions, and
    drinking lakes full of beer.

    The defining Canuck Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 entailed
    less than 200 fatal casualties. This seems like ancient history, but
    it speaks volumes about Canada’s overall taste for real internal
    conflict. I suspect that her place in the current culture wars will
    be similarly relaxed. And, not without effect on her southern neighbor.

  34. Venkatesh is right about many of the aspects of these culture wars. There’s a lot of debt gathered up over the last few decades having to do with growing inequality and healthcare costs (Demming named excessive healthcare costs as a deadly disease to business success before 1988, now I submit it is the single biggest obstacle to entrepreneurialism).

    The SJW issues feel basically 1990s, but I think that’s because the cultural debts predate the 90s.

    BLM is a long time coming, with the original Black Panthers using open carry laws and merely posting ‘observers’ to peacefully stand a distance away and observe interactions between the police and members of their communities….

    So, we’ve got these huge issues looming right now, and politicians often feel like fossilized relics of a system that has been failing to deal with this stuff for decades.

    Then there are new problems. Like in 2012, Obama informed us that the legal reasoning for extrajudicial bombing in Yemen cannot be tested, audited, or even perused by anyone. And before that, Apple patented the round cornered square. All this tech while our legal system has barely got its feet underneath it for 1980s computer questions (can you copy software for personal backup? Can a Eula compel you not to modify your own property?)…..

    Meanwhile deep learning and beyond is happening and will accelerate. I believe the fossilized remains of systems that have failed to address major issues from last century for decades are not even on the map regarding problems of 2012 or 2018, let alone 2022. The political leadership system is not even wrong about contemporary issues, and freakishly has been in not-even-wrong territory for some time…

    Is it possible that some culture wars (like Trumps tweets) are a psy-op to buy time for the cia (or *someone*) to decide what to do? It’s weird, but I mean that as a serious question. Does that mean I’m a casualty?

    Some things are damned illegible, but it’s clear that they’re probably entirely illegible to “the powers that be” as well.

  35. Somewhat surprised to see China far to the economic left on the map (they have high inequality in wealth and income, and are very dependent on a capitalist international order, and matching domestic production to the demands their of, for their prosperity)
    To use the literally vs. seriously distinction (which in this context feels a bit like picking up some strange piece of alien weaponry abandoned on the battlefield, and just hoping that it hasn’t been booby-trapped, and that I’m pointing the right end away from myself before pressing the trigger): Sure, they are literally a communist one-party state, but is this really to be taken much more seriously than the GOP literally being the party of Lincoln?
    There are probably ways to define the “economic left” in a way that makes this placement make sense, but it isn’t how I would naturally understand the term.
    Any thoughts on this are welcome.

    • “Thereof” not “their of” in the first paragraph, of course.
      Actually, that wasn’t a typo, but a deliberate move to sneak an undetectable, slow-acting basilisk into the minds of readers with memetic markers particular to my enemies.

  36. Is the libertarian-authoritarian axis intended to encompass any sense of the collective, of “we”? If choice is black and white between “I choose” and “Someone else chooses for me” then indeed it is a war with a winner and loser. If we allow for the possibility of collective action, an acknowledged or crafted identity among our several identities that allows for individual influence without pretending absolute autonomy – there is a path to peace.

  37. If a military conflict lasts longer than 3 yrs, economic strength determines outcome.

    Then why did the US lose in Vietnam? The economic strength of the US was clearly greater than that of North Vietnam, or even China…

    • I phrased it as ‘economic strength determine the outcome’ rather than ‘economically stronger party wins’ for a reason. While the two often go together (example the US civil war), the point is that you have to analyze the economic condition rather than military capability. In this case, the relevant comparison is not US economy vs. North Vietnamese or Chinese, but US economy versus itself a few years earlier. The peaking and derailing of the post WW II prosperity led to domestic unrest and influenced war policy.

  38. Venkatesh:

    So much great stuff here – just getting around to reading it.

    I’ll just echo and amplify the point hinted at by a few above: while you’re surely right that the internet has sped up the info cycle and probably enables greater fragmentation and therefore more fronts in the war, I think your “Nixonland” dismissal of analogies to past decades is a bit hasty. A lot of the factions involved in these kinds of conflicts in the 60s and 70s had nothing to do with each other and were fighting completely different wars: I don’t think the Black Panthers and the ERA boosters had much to say to each other. As for my lifetime: since the late 70s the culture wars have been massively fragmented and multi-front. Consider:

    Andrea Dworkin vs Pornography
    Louis Farrakhan
    Pat Buchanan
    Jerry Falwell
    Satanic Panic vs Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal
    Lyndon Larouche
    Carl Sagan
    Tipper Gore vs Public Enemy
    AIDS / ACT-UP et al vs Ronald Reagan
    Anita Hill vs Clarence Thomas
    OJ Simpson, Rodney King, and the LAPD
    “PCU” and it’s real-world counterparts
    Storm Thurmond and Jesse Helms
    9/11 and its aftermath
    The Iraq War
    Left critics of Obama / police state / drone wars
    Racist Birther critics of Obama

    I mean, the obvious missing/changed element is the nerds: whereas in the 80s they were just victims of the Satanic Panic which told them they couldn’t play elf games, today they have billions of dollars and control the dissemination of all media so they are allowed to champion the cause of autism as a lifestyle choice or whatever.

  39. The Drug War underlies a lot of the conflict, and that has seen its Stalingrad, though the case for decriminalizing hard drugs will be more difficult than for marijuana. China, Russia, and other rising powers that despise “Western decadence” will provide competition that will return US focus to what matters.

  40. Agree with many points. Another few I’d mention:
    1. The map is improvable, indeed. To pick just one thing out: neither is China so far left, nor Russia so far right. Not even if only compared with the US. Both are, however, VERY authoritarian, so their “low-hanging” tales on the map are not interpretable.
    2. Considering battlefront #1 as the “ground zero” of our day’s culture wars (or in an even larger context, as the text also seems to suggest), which is reinforced by the many references to tech/gaming/crypto and just IT-stuff in general on the map, is yet another telling glimpse into that weird, geeky mindset that is still busy projecting the latest fine-tuned version of its alternative, imaginary, digital world onto the real one, just to meet yet another pre-programmed rejection. – While many other points you raise are valid, despite your general denial, this one only exists in those heads which think like that. But in those heads it’s usually dogma, so rational arguments are ineffective. The entire crypto-world is a prime example. The quantity of believers does not validate the quality of their religion. It never has.
    3. Do you at least recognize the scathing irony in a US-resident’s present-day wail about not living in peacetime? … nevermind the perceived specific date since when..

    Generally tho..
    Culture wars present an interesting topic to contemplate over. But IMO they are themselves just symptoms. Dig deeper to find the real ailment.

  41. The libertarian right may lose the culture war, but I doubt that they care rofl. They are too busy acquiring capital and criticizing the federal reserve to enage with the “sheep.” The MGTOW vs redpill culture war is left out, I assume that you left out the manosphere quarrels for a reason.


    The male response to changing gender rules and divorce laws is going to be huge culturally. It will take a generation to see the effects of a civilization raised by single parents, but they will not be pretty.