I have three “rules” – I usually think of them as being “for economics” even though they emerged from my experience as a cook. They’re basic and broad, and meant to be broken.
- Be Cool.
- Believe Everything.
- Be Yourself.
The first rule is first because its the one I break the most. Being cool does not mean being good – the word has become, in this era, a kind of catch-all superlative. When I think of cool, I think of Miles Davis, who may have been the coolest person who ever lived. He was angry, vengeful, womanizing, drug-addicted; none of that mattered though, because he was cool. What do I mean by that? Back in the 1950s, when jazz was performed in fashionable nightclubs, and real live gangsters would hang out in those nightclubs, they would get shushed when Miles walked out on stage. Guys who would never take lips from anyone would suddenly be put in there place by the short, ugly black guy on stage, because if they weren’t quiet, and respectful, of Miles, he would leave. And the nightclub owners knew it. For a black man to do that in the 1950s was incredibly powerful- it subverted the social paradigm. And Miles was able to do that because he was cool. He did not back down. He did not show fear. The flip side of this can be seen in the famous debate between Gore Vidal and William Buckley. Deep in an argument over politics, Vidal asserted that Buckley was a crypto-Nazi, and Buckley lost his cool, and called Vidal a “queer.” And at that precise moment, Buckley lost the debate. It wasn’t about his arguments, nor his character. The moment he lost his cool, the debate was over. Buckley, who had a long and influential career afterwards, never fully recovered from this moment.
The second rule is a kind of reverse skepticism. We live in a post-modern era, where everything dissolves as soon as we try to get a handle on it. Every idea is a rabbit hole. Nothing relates to anything, and vice-versa. Assumptions cannot be counted upon. I have found that the way to deal with the situation is simply to believe everyone and everything they say all the time. Trump supporters are a perfect example. Saying they are crazy will not help anyone, least of all the folks hoping to arrest his progress towards the White House. You have to believe them when they say they support Trump. The way towards understanding people who you can’t understand is to take their words and reverse engineer your way towards a world in which those words are true. One of the great weaknesses of reactionary conservatism, in my view, is that it depends upon the falsehood of liberalism – that is, Obama is presumed to be lying all the time. Does that mean he is, in fact, lying all the time? No! But it means that that disbelief is built into people’s views. They need Obama to be lying, because otherwise their views don’t make sense. Cognitive dissonance is a more powerful thing than is ordinarily recognized.
The third rule is, in some sense, an admonishment to the first two. Are you frightened? Are you confused? Remember that when you think about other people. They may seem cool, and they may seem to believe crazy things, but they might just be like you. Do your beliefs seem to always conveniently affirm your feelings? There’s something to that. Evidence based analysis often requires a kind of detachment – David Hume is a great example of how radical skepticism can be immensely useful – but to be effective, you should always keep in mind that you are not a perfectly detached, rational, evidence-based analysis generating being. Being a human means that you are embedded, fearful, and given to bias, just like everyone else. Keep that in mind. Keep it up front in your mind. I’ve known a lot of really smart people who can occasionally come across as blind. “This doesn’t make sense!” they might declare of some arrangement or system, because they assume that a system should be rational. Systems are created by people, and a given system might make sense to the person who created it, but not to an outsider.
These rules, like any rules, are not hard and fast. They’re guidelines for thinking about the world that I find useful. That’s all.