In normal times and seasons, air travel is a routine thing – at least in my time. My dad was born in 1912. That year, a trip between Tampa and St. Petersburg, two cities sitting on opposite sides of Tampa Bay, took two hours by steamship, at least 4 hours by rail. Traveling by automobile around the bay took as much as 20 hours. On Jan. 1, 1914, the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service took off, operating between St. Petersburg and Tampa in a Thomas Benoist-designed flying boat. The 21-mile flight took 23 minutes. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was a short-lived endeavor — only four months — but it was a profound technological shift in the way we lived and perceived our present and future. Some refer to such things as “shock level” events – events that impress, frighten, and make us wonder about tomorrow in new ways.
What constitutes a “next step” and a “shock level” event is, no doubt, in the eyes of the beholder. Our everyday life is said to be in shock level zero (SL0). We are surrounded by the technology we accept and use. In 1960 it was a telephone in the house. That same year, in the comic strip “Dick Tracy”, the ace detective had a wrist watch that was, for all practical purposes, an Apple Watch. Had the 1960-me encountered an Apple Watch, not even Dick Tracy would have prevented me from moving to SL1, shock level one. SL1 includes the next-gen technology that would impress, frighten or befuddle many. Such things as cryptocurrency and NFTs might be an SL1 experience for some. For others it is already an SL0 event.
People who speculate about such things ponder SL2, SL3 and SL4 events. It is a moving target, although Shock Level 4 is held to be the singularity, the profound technological shift, a hypothetical inflection point at which artificial intelligence develops past the control of humans, and technological growth becomes irreversible, exponential, and infinite. This occurrence is embedded in lots of films such as the Terminator series, The Matrix and lots of other popular sci-fi films and books. The outfall of the SL4 theme is the inevitable loss of human freedom.
In an interesting take on the same outfall, in the Avenger movies, the character Loki, the Norse god of mischief holds that the ultimate desire of humanity is to rid itself of the burden of freedom so that they can know true peace. In The Avengers Loki crashed into modern-day Vienna bringing chaos and havoc. A huge crowd of people cower in fear, kneeling, as he utters the infamous line: “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose. Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.”
In The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill by rebel leader Morpheus. Morpheus says “You take the blue pill… the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The red pill represents an uncertain future and, unknown to Neo at the time he takes the red pill —it would free him from the enslaving control of the machine-generated dream world and allow him to escape into the real world, but living the “truth of reality” is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represents a beautiful prison—it would lead him back to ignorance, living in confined comfort without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix.
If one pays attention to a narrow sector of the increasingly uber-conservative right of modern politics, you may encounter the far right’s counterpart to “woke” – they are “red-pilled.” But it is not a reaction to “woke”; the term has been “in the feed” for far longer stemming from the 1999 Matrix film’s influence among folks in the US technology sector.
You have probably never heard of Curtis Yarvin. You probably have not heard of his online moniker of “Mencius Moldbug”. In 2007 he posted “The Case Against Democracy: Ten Red Pills.” The opening lines are:
“Have you ever considered the possibility that democracy is bunk? I grew up believing in democracy. I’ll bet you did too. I spent 20 years of my life in democratic schools. I’ll bet you did too. Suppose you were a Catholic in 16th-century Spain. Imagine how hard it would be for you to stop believing in Catholicism. You are a Catholic. Your parents were Catholics. You were educated by Catholics. You are governed by Catholics. All your friends are Catholics. All the books you’ve ever read were written by Catholics.”
His point, in content with his neo-monarchist conclusion, is that most of us took the blue pill and are incapable of realizing the subjugation in our lives, but we are happy and gladly fit in, so why consider alternatives. Just as he would hold that 16th century Spaniards do not need more Catholicism to be free of subjugation, we moderns don’t need more democracy, we need an alternative.
Yarvin/Moldbug is not the first critic of democracy. Winston Churchill observed in 1947. “No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Where the majority of folks such as Churchill would offer to continue working on the form, Yarvin/Moldbug would tell you it is all “bunk” and suggest you consider ten “red pills.”
Scroll through the list of his 10 red pills thought experiments, and by the end, you should see some ideas emerge that echo sentiments on the far-right of today’s politics. Yarvin/Moldbug suggests that today’s blue-pill society has emerged from democratic New Deal-style politics of the left that are moving towards anarchy and a condition in which too much liberalism has maximized human stupidity rather than any kind of righteous will.
Yarvin/Moldbug’s apparent solution to the problem wasn’t, ‘Well, let’s all put our heads together and try and figure out a solution” – it was let’s find a way to fully enable our executive branch—so much so that the president is actually a king or some form of facism. Anything short of that is “blue pills soaked in Red #3.”
But Yarvin/Moldbug has been linked to mega-billionaire tech investor and world-shaper Peter Thiel for roughly a decade. In 2013, tech entrepreneur and current cryptocurrency mogul Balaji Srinivasan gave an oddly political speech at a start-up event for young programmers that was believed to be directly pulled from Moldbug’s work. By 2017, it was reported that Steve Bannon was a fan of Moldbug’s. Most recently, Tucker Carlson had Moldbug on his new daytime talk show this past September, where he was called by his birth name and made some familiarly myopic appeals.
In contemplating the lasting impact of Moldbug’s red pill co-optation, the Bannon is probably the best comparison point to consider. Both men live by Moldbug’s truism that “nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.” Bannon managed Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Lest you think this is a Republican-Democrate piece, it is really a warning to us all.
What is strikingly at odds is that the Matrix trilogy is about insurgents in an oppressive system, but the current cohorts of Yarvin/Moldbug celebrate the movie’s imagery and yet want the president to be much more powerful. One can disagree with the previous or the current President’s agenda and world view… but neither would have a role in the Matrix and their political team members are not real-life Mr. Smiths (…another Matrix reference….sorry)
But as influential as he may be to bigger voices, Yarvin/Moldbug has never been anything like a household name. Without tracing the lineage, you are hearing content lifted from other writings by Yarvin/Moldbug. Both Tucker Carlson and Republican Senator Josh Hawley have taken to their soapboxes to deliver speeches about how masculinity is under urgent attack in America – a theme common to folks like Yarvin/Moldburg.
There’s no question that the words “red pill” had taken on a broad new cultural association and under many forms. The emblem had traveled well outside of what the Wachowskis (creators of The Matrix trilogy) envisioned. Now, it is the central metaphor for a huge hodgepodge of loosely affiliated online communities known as the “manosphere”: PUAs, MRAs, incels, the alt-right. “Taking the red pill” has come to mean opening your eyes to a world that was conspiring against men in order to change the nature of American life. Breitbart called the red pill “a symbol of those who have seen past the mainstream media filter” and not longer accept media’s pandering to the “shallow, stupid, and spoiled brats we call Wokesters.”
To make such a notion broadly disseminated and convincing, one needs an accelerant: money. Remember mega-billionaire tech investor and world-shaper Peter Thiel? He founded PayPaul and became uber-rich with it. As mentioned earlier he has long been associated with the ideas of and those similar to Yarvin/Moldbug.
In the intervening years, Thiel branded himself as a contrarian. He published philosophical essays, often dark musings on politics, technology, Christianity and globalization. He wrote that he had come to “no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” arguing that American politics would always be hostile to free-market ideals, and that politics was about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent. Since then, he has hosted and attended events with white nationalists and alt-right figures.
Mr. Thiel, who became known in 2016 as one of the biggest donors to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, has re-emerged as a key financier of the Make America Great Again movement. After sitting out the 2020 presidential race, the venture capitalist this year is backing 16 Senate and House candidates, many of whom have embraced the lie that Mr. Trump won the election. What sets Mr. Thiel’s spending apart, though, is its focus on hard-right candidates who traffic in the conspiracy theories espoused by Mr. Trump and who cast themselves as rebels determined to overthrow the Republican establishment and even the broader American political order.
The candidates Mr. Thiel has funded offer a window into his on-going ideology. While the investor has been something of a cipher, he is currently driven by a worldview that the establishment and globalization have failed, that current immigration policy pillages the middle class and that the country must dismantle federal institutions. In an October dinner at Stanford University for the Federalist Society, he said that the United States was on the verge of a momentous correction. “My somewhat apocalyptic, somewhat hopeful thought is that we are finally at a point where things are breaking,” Mr. Thiel said.
In January Thiel hosted a fund-raiser for a conservative candidate challenging Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming for a spot on the ballot in November’s midterm elections.
While a major supporter of Trump in 2016, Thiel “sat out” of the 2020 election cycle. Insiders have speculated that only now, given the former president’s desire to return to the Oval Office, Thiel senses that Mr. Trump can be a conduit to push through his ideological goals – with Thiel-funded Senators and Representatives also in place.
Connecting dots that don’t really connect? Perhaps? Perhaps not. The fusion of ideas and serious money is always dangerous. It makes one long for the days when the Koch brothers were king-makers.
If you wonder how this all came across my “radar screen” is was the part of the original piece that referred to Catholics in Spain. It was used in a different context, but follow a reference, click a link, and one find what one finds…. and then I mused about it for a good long while. And I am still musing about what impact all of this might say about Catholicism in the United States.
Disclaimer: a lot of the core research and dot-connecting was done by others whose work I used and then lost the references. My apologies to those authors.