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I started the most recent episode of the podcast by confessing I have been overstimulated by recent events. Talking things through with Shadi didn't relax me. Since last night, I have been dumping random thoughts onto chats with good friends, who have very patiently tolerated my polluting their phones. (An especially big thanks to Rachel Rizzo and Marc Schleifer, who have stoically born the brunt of my incontinent texting.) Below is a distillation of some of this one-sided chatter. In the true spirit of the “Notes” column, it is an effort for me to understand why exactly I am so agitated.
Last week, a growing chorus of voices were calling to do “something” about the profusion of “disinformation” that culminated in the storming of the Capitol on January 6. I won’t go through all the ins and outs of the debate, as the substance is ultimately not important. Here are just two examples as evidence that the debate is ongoing:
This week, the kerfuffle surrounding GameStop provided further grist for my mill. Shadi and I tried to distill what’s important about the GameStop story in the latest episode, but if you’d rather read a summary, here’s a good one. And since the story is still developing, if you’d like to be fully up to date I recommend reading through Matt Levine's essays at Bloomberg.
As we wrapped recording, news broke that the subreddit at the heart of the story, r/WallStreetBets, had its chat server taken down. As I awoke this morning, news broke that several trading platforms, including the one most favored by the WallStreetBets crowd, had suspended trading of GameStop, as well as a few other “meme stocks” that were being discussed on the forum.
A lot of the commentary has taken on a moralizing tone, about how “the little guy” is being crushed by entrenched establishment players, and how this is somehow unjust. Conservatives were up in arms over all the loose talk of eliminating them from polite political discourse. Their righteous dissent was being systematically silenced. Similarly, a narrative has sprung up about how a plucky band of activists on Reddit was sticking it to fat-cat hedge fund managers caught with their pants down. That the fat-cats are fighting back in the way that they are is supposed to prove that the system is fundamentally rigged.
I’m much less interested in all of that. I generally find it difficult to moralize, and in cases like these, where there is so much that’s still murky (about both January 6 and WallStreetBets), I suspect moralizing takes us down blind alleys. Instead, what I find most interesting is how this fight is taking place on the terrain of “truth” and “falsity,” and between “rationality” and “irrationality”.
That the election was in fact not stolen by Joe Biden has been demonstrated to my satisfaction, but clearly not to the satisfaction of a substantial part of the country. But to fight this fight insisting on “truth” implies that the people who believe the election was stolen simply don’t know any better, and that they need to be led to enlightenment. Instead, I have had this nagging suspicion that the “rigged election” narrative is just a rallying point for opposition—that most people who say they believe in it instead believe a deeper “truth”: that the system is fundamentally rotten and that they are unable to do anything about it. To express that dissatisfaction, they are doubling down on a falsity in order to stick it to the establishment.
The GameStop story shares exactly that dynamic. The fundamentals of GameStop (the company) are not sound. A kind of surface case can be made that a turnaround could be engineered, and that GameStop could not only survive, but thrive, in the medium term. Yet when you drill down, the hedge funds are on the side of reason here: there is a very good case to be made that short-selling GameStop stock is the rational play. What seems to be driving the Redditors simply doesn’t map onto the traditionally rational universe. Spend some time browsing the discussion threads, and you see that there is a kind of in-group solidarity at play—us against the fat-cats—that is encouraging this destructive brinksmanship. "We might not come out ahead," they're saying, "but if we drive some greasy billionaire to suicide, it will have all been worth it."
What’s interesting is that irrationality is being mustered as a weapon against an establishment that is believed to be illegitimate. And the establishment itself, by holding its ground by recourse to rationality is, in effect, damaging the universal appeal of the rational. If reason brings us these kinds of perverse outcomes, the insurgents seem to be saying, well fuck reason then. I suspect this message is more resonant than we would like to believe.
The GameStop episode, like four years of the Trump regime, will probably not change anything fundamental in society. These aren’t huge valuations we are talking about, and the empire will successfully strike back, and will retain its hold on the levers of power. But all this will nevertheless leave a mark, in the form of a lingering suspicion, that arguments from “reason” are fraudulent, and that people arguing along these lines are hucksters merely shilling for power.
And that will matter in the long run, because it is exactly these pieties about reason that our whole society is based on. And if these pieties become too brittle, we’re going to be in trouble.
I tweeted this earlier today, and I think it encapsulates the above point:
Fundamentally, we think that our civilization is a rational project. And yet we are discovering that the polity is not just passively irrational due to a lack of education and enlightenment, but that irrationality itself is in fact being weaponized as resistance to the status quo.
A vaguely related coda: the rationalist project is also failing elsewhere, perhaps catastrophically. The European Union is in deep trouble for seemingly having botched the vaccination program for the continent. It’s too early to conclude that the bureaucracy won’t be able to turn it around. But if it fails, yet another Enlightenment-fueled mega-construct will have taken a huge blow to its legitimacy.
Expect more “irrationality” to come.