No Self, No Politics
A Couple of Bullshit Book Reviews
Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright
If you want to know the origin story for my post, Happiness Is Bullshit, you’ll need to know a bit about this book. The author, Robert Wright, is into evolutionary psychology. He wrote the most readable introduction to it on the market (I recommend it if you’re new to the field).
Wright is also into spirituality. He wrote a book about the history of religion called The Evolution of God, and a book that takes a spiritual view on the trajectory of human progress called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.
The fact that Wright is into these two things—spirituality and evolutionary psychology—is a miracle. This combination never happens. It’s really something we need more of. Like really really.
Evolutionary psychology can be pretty soul-crushing. I would know: I’ve crushed my own soul with it so much that I’ve basically become a soulless wraith that can only survive by feeding on the souls of my readers. Sorry about that.
But to make it up to you, I’m recommending Why Buddhism Is True, so you can start to develop a kind of spirituality strong enough to withstand the onslought of Darwinian cynicism. Wright walks you through the logic of Buddhism, arguing that it is the antidote to getting your soul crushed by evolutionary psychology. He argues that mindfulness meditation is the only way to fight back against your inner monkey, and help you transcend the crappiness of our species. He argues that meditation helps you see bullshit in the place you’re least likely to see it: in yourself. In fact, your sense of “self”, as you normally feel it, can go away altogether with sufficient practice. Wright argues that meditation can heal our divides, make us happier, and become better people.
I’m not as optimistic as Wright, but I admire the positivity. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out—how to bring a little positivity to this substack—and I haven’t quite pulled it off. Maybe I need to meditate more.
Speaking of which, want to know how I figured out that happiness is bullshit? I read Wright’s book and started meditating. I got really into it. It made me happy. I got to the point where it made me happy almost instantly. I would sit down, take a deep breath, pay attention to the sensations of my breath, and immediately feel good. Worked like a charm. And yet, I gradually just kind of… stopped doing it. I got bored. I started wanting to do other things instead.
It was a really bizarre experience. Here was this thing that I knew made me happy. I could feel it almost instantly. It was reliable—a sure thing. And yet, I did not want to do it. It always seemed like the least appealing thing to do with my time. I would have conversations with myself like:
“David, you should really meditate. It will make you feel good.”
“Yea, but I don’t want to.”
“But it will make you feel good.”
“Yea, but I’d rather read something or write something or watch TV or get some work done.”
“But those things don’t make you feel as good as meditating.”
“Yea, but I don’t care.”
“You don’t care about feeling good?”
“I guess… not?”
That’s when it hit me. Happiness is bullshit. Nobody wants to be happy. Mindfulness meditation is just a simulacrum of happiness without its reinforcing properties. Which means it’s not naturally motivating, like food or sex or status. And of course those things are motivating. We evolved to be motivated by them. But we did not evolve to be motivated by the feeling of happiness itself. If we did, I would want to meditate. But I don’t. Therefore, I don’t want to be happy. And since I’m probably not a mutant, I’m just a normal human, then probably nobody else wants to be happy either. If they did, they would all be meditating right now. But they’re not. And neither am I. Because happiness is bullshit.
Then again, maybe you’ll have better luck than me. Maybe the habit will stick with you. It evidently has with some people. Maybe you’ll build a community of Buddhists that will encourage you to keep up the practice. Maybe I’ll join your community and start meditating again, not because I want to be happy, but because I want to be part of a community, like all humans do. Maybe. There’s only one way to find out—and that’s by picking up a copy of the book.
Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics, by Christopher Freiman
I studied Political Psychology in grad school, and my dissertation posed the question, “Why do we hold the political beliefs we do?”
You might think the answer is, “Because they’re true.” But you would be mistaken. Our beliefs are mainly about rallying support for the various factions and interest groups bound up with our political coalitions. Truth is beside the point. Whatever makes the country better is beside the point. Our politics is essentially no different than the politics of other social animals: we form complicated alliances to compete for power, status, and resources. The main difference between us and other animals is that our alliances are bigger and more complicated, comprising “strange bedfellows” like the alliance between devout Christians and wealthy businesspeople in the Republican Party (an alliance that is uncommon in other countries). If you want the full argument for this position, see my recent academic paper on the topic. If you want the general gist, see this post.
Just as seeing how the sausage gets made turns you off to sausage, seeing how our political beliefs get made turned me off to politics. It was a troubling experience. As someone who cares deeply about seeing through bullshit and believing true things (or who likes to think he does), I find it difficult to be a political person. Since ideologies are designed for rallying tribes, the odds of them accurately describing reality are low.
If you’re a member of “elite”, highly educated circles like I am, you are pretty much obligated to care a lot about politics, and to nod your head in agreement whenever people engage in partisan rants. In fact, you are obligated to join in on the ranting. It is a social ritual as old as our species: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and ranting against shared enemies has become the easiest way of making friends. Easier than talking about our passions, tastes, experiences, and curiosities. Easier than trying to understand how the world works, or why our species is so peculiar. Easier than talking about our families. Easier than almost anything.
So I have found myself increasingly alienated by our culture’s growing obsession with politics, despite the fact that people like me are in the majority. For example, did you know that roughly one in three people didn’t vote in the last presidential election, and that in prior years, it was closer to one in two? And that’s just for presidential elections—turnout is much lower for state and local elections. Besides, even among the people who do occasionally vote, a wealth of research shows that most of them don’t know much, or care much, about politics—they’re basically apolitical. But you never hear from these people on the internet, on podcasts, or on television. They don’t write books (that I’ve read). They don’t have substacks (that I’m aware of). They obviously don’t run for office. So it seems as if they don’t exist. But they are there, living among us. They deliver our packages, serve our food, fly our planes, fix our cars, and babysit our children. They’re not silent, because silence is deliberate. They are the Quiet Majority.
I used to be ashamed of my lack of interest in politics. Elite culture had convinced me I was a bad person for it. I felt guilty. I would try to force myself to keep up with political current events and manipulate myself into feeling as outraged as the people around me. I’d yell at myself: “David! Feel outraged!”. It didn’t work. I couldn’t feel anything about politics except despondency at the tragedy of the human condition. I flailed around for alternative political tribes to join but couldn’t find one that wasn’t overflowing with bullshit. I eventually settled on a vague sympathy for anarchy—the quixotic dream of a society without politics. Maybe if we could just stop competing for control over the monopoly of violence, or simply lose interest in controlling people with violence at all, and just live and let live, with a thousand different societies, businesses, communes, clubs, nonprofits, security companies, and arbitration firms, precisely tailored to the idiosyncratic needs of their members, with people free to join or leave whichever one they wanted, the world would be a better place. Less conflict, more diversity, better incentives, more effective and affordable security, fairer and speedier trials, less war, less crime, more options, more vibrancy, and more hope for the best societies to prevail against the worst ones, not through conquest, but through the freedom of voluntary association. The human species has lived without governments for roughly 99% of its history on this planet. Legislatures, nation-states, and militaries are recent innovations. Our minds are ill-equipped to deal with them. Perhaps it is time to return to our natural state, as members of small, nomadic bands, freely merging together and splitting apart as needed.
Is this bullshit? Probably. But it’s the best rationalization I could come up with for convincing myself that I wasn’t a bad person for ignoring politics.
But I have since come up with a better rationalization, and it comes from the wonderful and aptly titled book Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics, by Christopher Freiman. At the heart of the book is a powerful and underappreciated insight: politics is not the only way, or even the best way, to make the world a better place. Our culture has been working tirelessly to convince us of the opposite: that there is no nonpolitical way of being a good person. Ethics has been subsumed by politics. Curiosity has been subsumed by politics. The simple desire to learn a bit of evolutionary psychology has become a political statement. We can scarcely watch television without picking a side in the culture war.
To say this book is a breath of fresh air is the understatement of the century. We have literally thousands of books, published every year, with the implicit message that we should care more about politics. Yet there is only one book, to my knowledge, that argues the opposite. There is no way we’re getting both sides of the issue by any stretch of the imagination. The deck is so stacked in favor of political fanaticism it doesn’t even make sense to call it a deck—we might as well call it a skyscraper. There needs to be more books like these. Even if Frieman is wrong, we really need to give his position a fair hearing. We need to do some serious soul-searching about the role that politics is playing in our lives, and whether that role is a healthy one. I hope you join me. Perhaps we’ll find our souls again after all. And who knows? With a bit of Buddhist tranquility, we might just be able to uncrush them, or at the very least, become a little less bullshitty.
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