The Four-Year Locusts

Every four years, locusts descend on America. They tear through civic society, devouring any organization or community they can reach. Ideological movements, charitable causes, even hobbyist communities—all are food, to be ripped apart and turned into more buzzing drones, serving no ends but the swarm’s. When it finally disperses, it leaves behind a trail of wounded communities and withered institutions.

I am talking, of course, about the presidential election cycle.

As the election season gets underway, we are told that the enemy is uniquely evil, the foundations of the country are uniquely vulnerable, and if the wrong guy gets in then everything will be on a downward trajectory that could destroy all goodness and light in America. You may recall this from the elections of 2016, 20122008, and to a lesser extent 2004. (I’m too young to remember 2000 very clearly. Perhaps it was different, that far back; this has been getting worse over the years.)

The cycle starts with the journalists. It’s an interesting question how much of this stems from a genuine belief that this election is the turning point, and how much is a cynical ploy for readership, influence, and funding, but the effect is the same either way. The front pages and news programs are overrun by public statements, gaffes, and poll numbers, while op-eds and talk shows lend their voice to the chorus of doom.

The swarm swiftly makes its way online. At first it acts through the self-crowned thinkfluencers who follow a quarter-step behind the media juggernauts, but it doesn’t stop there. The ideas are tailored to turn regular people into chanting mouths repeating the same slogans in the same dire tones, and it’s only getting more virulent as time goes on. In 2016, for the first time, a great many of my European and Australian internet friends were taken by the swarm. They spent hours haranguing strangers on the internet, they strained friendships to the breaking point, they spent sleepless nights imagining the terrors the enemy would inflict if they won—all for an election on the other side of the world, where they couldn’t even vote.

And then finally the great day has come and gone, and for many the hated enemy is in power, yet somehow things are not so bad as they seemed. Slowly, over a month or two, people calm down. The previous administration’s legislation isn’t quite overturned. People forget that they were seriously worried about widespread attacks on gay men, or the repeal of the Second Amendment, or whichever fantasy sent them into a panic. Yet the damage to civic society remains.

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Let’s look closer at what happens to communities and institutions. The swarm doesn’t just go after individuals. Groups are a natural place for it to feed. Any functional community is a concentration of engaged people who trust each other, brought together by a core of organizational resources. If the swarm can consume those resources, so much the better. So, naturally, the memeplex has come to include that you should bring your community into the righteous struggle. Purge the enemy. Recruit the masses. Dispatch foot soldiers to the larger fight. If even a small faction is following this plan, political discourse will dominate the community. Those who resist this are shouted down as missing the bigger picture, or even as enemy collaborators.

The community’s original purpose suffers as energy is directed elsewhere. The most dedicated members retain their original commitment, so they’re the most likely to leave in disgust as they realize how fickle their peers are, or to simply seek a private space where they can discuss their purpose without being distracted by the swarm. As the most dedicated drift away, the community hollows out.

I have seen this happen many times, including to some of the more fertile intellectual spaces in the public sphere. To speak of 2016 alone, on the left, the election kicked the effective altruism movement from slow decline into free-fall. Meanwhile, on the right, neoreaction was cannibalized by the alt-right hordes which it helped spawn, with only a fragment remaining intact in self-imposed isolation. In spaces where neither side wins a decisive victory, the result is ongoing conflict; to this day Twitter remains far more combative than it was in 2015.

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What should one do about this? Can anything be done?

While the swarm is too big to defeat entirely, local defense is possible. Some areas can be kept clear. What is precious can be guarded. The swarm is temporary; you need only outlast it.

First and foremost, protect yourself. Do not give the swarm more of yourself than you choose. They will tell you that this fight is the most important, that this enemy is the most dangerous, that yours are the only words which can sway your friends and family to the light; this is a lie, even if the swarm’s agent believes it as he exhorts you to join him. Most people would do better to mind their business, as Ben Franklin would say, than to lose themselves in someone else’s fight. Do your job, tend to your household, cultivate friendships, fall in love. If you’re trying to change the world, then stick with whichever plan seemed wise during the midterm elections. That said, if you have thought about it soberly and still think it best to participate in the struggle, then do exactly as much as makes sense, in exactly the ways that make sense, and no more.

Under no circumstances should you pressure anyone else to join the swarm.

If you are part of a community that you want to preserve, make preparations to defend yourselves. Maybe the community leaders should agree to be on watch for political arguments that get out of hand, and to shut them down as they occur. Maybe your events will need an explicit “no politics” rule. Maybe you’ll have to ban repeat offenders from your group chat. I have no universal recommendation; much depends on the details of your situation. Even if you prepare well, know that some of your peers will be taken by the swarm. Decide ahead of time what to do about that. The threat is larger for groups that are more valuable to devour (larger, better organized, more money, more influential, etc) and groups that are memetically adjacent to the swarm (i.e., more political), while it is lower for groups with better intrinsic defenses (high morale, skilled narrative leaders, etc).

For the foreseeable future, at least, the swarm is a force of nature which must be reckoned with. Stay focused, stay calm, and mind your business.

What To Do If Nuclear War Seems Imminent

This document describes precautions to take in a scenario like the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nuclear war seems plausibly imminent within the next days or weeks. This is not a guide for what to do if a missile is currently inbound and will strike within minutes or hours.

Overview

If tensions between nuclear powers are running extremely high, and you are in or near a plausible target during a nuclear war (such as a major city in the United States or Europe), then I recommend evacuating to a safer place as soon as possible, and staying for days or weeks until things have calmed down. New Zealand is an excellent place to go.

This plan requires that you maintain a valid passport, so that you can leave your country on short notice if needed. No other special preparations are needed.

Proper calibration here should include substantial tolerance for false positives. For people with the means available, I think it was correct to evacuate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it did not end up leading to nuclear war.

Why New Zealand?

New Zealand is of little or no strategic relevance to the current conflicts between nuclear powers. The experts I’ve talked to agree that it’s implausible that anyone would target New Zealand with nuclear weapons, or that anyone would invade New Zealand in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

New Zealand is easy to enter. Anyone with no notable criminal history and a valid passport from most countries, including the US, EU, and Canada, can get a New Zealand tourist visa on arrival, with no need for a prior application, and stay for up to 90 days. (Make sure to get a round-trip ticket, or they might not let you in.)

New Zealand is a major food exporter. If supply chains are disrupted, you’ll be close to the source.

New Zealand is very stable internally. It has a strong Anglo tradition of governance, reasonable national pride, no coups or civil wars within the last century+, negligible riots or ethnic strife, etc.

New Zealand is culturally familiar. It’s an English-speaking country that’s firmly within Western Civilization. As such, most of my audience will be more comfortable staying there while waiting for tensions to calm down, and will stick out less if there’s chaos or rioting after a war.

No other country is so good on so many of these dimensions.

Backup Plans

If you are unable to enter New Zealand, then there are many other countries which look like good options: many South American countries, Australia, and Botswana. Partial notes here.

If you are unable to leave your country (this is unlikely if you have a valid passport; see below), then you should drive to a small town far from any metropolis or other plausible target. (After brief examination, for people in the Bay Area, I recommend the Modoc Plateau in northeast California as a default unless/until more research is done.) Once there, organize, acquire supplies, and find a location to dig fallout shelters. Construction is described in Nuclear War Survival Skills, the full text of which is online. The book claims untrained civilians can build the shelters in 1-2 days.

Other Concerns

How will I know when to evacuate?

This will probably be obvious. Past diplomatic crises between nuclear powers have frequently been widely publicized.

If I decide to evacuate, I will send a brief alert to anyone who signs up to receive one via this form.

Won’t all the flights get booked due to mass panic?

Probably not, judging by past cases. For example, it looks like there were no large-scale evacuations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in spite of very alarming headlines. (It seems to me that most people have trouble thinking about nuclear destruction in a way that permits any action whatsoever.)

What about nuclear fallout?

Based on a friend’s analysis, fallout risk in New Zealand is low unless New Zealand itself is targeted, and the experts I’ve talked to agree that this is implausible.

Fallout is dangerous for about two weeks. Nuclear War Survival Skills (full text) describes how to build shelters, which would be uncomfortable but effective.

Good Citizenship Is Out Of Date

Norms of good citizenship have been declining. These norms are a crucial piece of social technology vital to the health of local communities and institutions. While good citizenship norms are certainly still present in America today, they are substantially weaker than they were in the 1930s-1950s. This is not because of contemporary people’s personal failings; rather, it’s because we’re still operating from a foundation of norms that were built for the New Deal era, and so are not adapted to today’s conditions.

A society’s norms lead to better or worse outcomes depending on how well they fit the circumstances. For example, in a small town, politeness norms often involve greeting everyone you pass and sometimes chatting a bit; this functions well because there are few people and they mostly know and care about each other. In New York City, this would be utterly impractical, so instead politeness norms demand ignoring passersby. Less adaptive norms will naturally lose force as people notice that they don’t lead to good outcomes. Norms can be adapted to physical characteristics (like population), to the landscape of institutions (contrast American vs Mexican norms of bribing police officers, which are adapted to the local police institutions), or even to other norms (contrast American vs Japanese norms of public cleanliness, which are adapted to local levels of conscientiousness and trust).

In the mid-1900s, the norms of good citizenship were richer and more powerful than today. There was a shared idea that the good citizen was an active and integral part of his or her (norms differed somewhat by gender, but there was more similarity than difference) local community, as captured by arch-Americanist Norman Rockwell in his iconic Freedom of Speech. The good citizen was supposed to be involved with organizing at least one local civic organization, perhaps a church, or a local relief society, or a fraternal club like the Shriners. My grandfather made a point of serving on the board of the St. Louis chapter of the ACLU and writing incessant letters about local issues to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, while his wife was heavily involved with the St. Louis planetarium and science center. For them, these things were part of a larger project through which engaged citizens would do their part to bring about a better world.

(I don’t mean to imply that everyone was always, or even usually, following such norms. For most people, these things are aspirational, like the contemporary norm that one should read the article before sharing an inflammatory link. However, even aspirational norms can have a notable effect on most people—think of how the idea of homeownership affects even people who rent, or how the idea of launching a startup affects programmers who have never founded a company—and an influential minority will make a serious project of living up to the ideal.)

Over time, society changed, and the norms became less adaptive and thus less powerful. For example, 12 Angry Men, a classic of 1950s American civics, shows how a good juror was meant to behave: a bulwark of Enlightenment justice shielding the common man from the passions of the mob, independent-minded, reasonable, and charitable. (I don’t think fiction determines these patterns, but I do think it reflects them, and sometimes crystallizes them into their most coherent forms.) Since then, as jury trials have been dropping off in favor of plea bargains, these norms have become less relevant. This pattern has played out many times, in ways large and small: some part of society changes, so the norms relating to that part become less functional or less important, and so the norms atrophy.

As a result of this process, norms of good citizenship are not nearly as satisfying to aspire to as they once were. Today’s citizenship norms tend to be negative rather than positive: don’t be racist, don’t damage the environment, don’t fall for fake news. The few positive directives tend to advocate vague and passive things like “being informed”, or at most participation in a large faceless mass, such as voting or marching in protests. There is no conception that a good citizen should build, in the way that a citizen of old would aspire to support the opera house or be a voice at City Council debates or what have you. There are still people who build local institutions, of course, but when I talk to them they mostly seem motivated by local pride, and not by the idea of participating in an overarching national or civilizational project that motivated my grandfather’s generation. Not coincidentally, this call is now much more rarely felt by upper-class or upper-middle class people, who today often see themselves as too cosmopolitan to be involved with local institutions.

In Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, note how establishing that Mr. Smith is a popular Boy Scout leader is instantly sufficient to tell the audience that he’s an upstanding, competent pillar of the community, more worthy of power than the corrupt insiders who know how to work the system. His role as a local institution-builder makes him part of the living sinew of civic society, and it is morally right (if not necessarily practical) that he should become a Senator. Today’s culture doesn’t have any roles with quite the same cachet.

A large reason for the decline in norms around building local communities is that there is a new source of competition for organizational talent: building online communities. From personal experience, I know that leading local and online communities can be socially rewarding in similar ways. So, they will draw from a strongly overlapping talent pool. While online communities fulfill some of the functions of local communities, they don’t fulfill nearly all of them. Building online communities is not a part of good citizenship ideals in the way that building local communities used to be (try to imagine a modern remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington where Mr. Smith is a beloved forum moderator), largely because we don’t know how to make a complete civil society out of online institutions.

The decline of these norms is a loss, and our society is the poorer for it. However, they cannot be restored by simply repeating what our ancestors did; the reason the old norms fell out of favor in the first place is that they are no longer as fit for their purpose. If similar norms are to exist in the future—and I believe they can—then they must be built to function in the social and technological landscape of today.