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The Need for Triumph

I think there are only two things anybody cares about in this world. One, survival. Two, conquest.

Venus Flytrap, “Venus and the Man”, WKRP in Cincinnati

I loved WKRP when it ran. It had its big syndication revival the year of college I had before the Navy. Watching “Turkeys Away” is a Thanksgiving tradition.

Yet, one of the episodes that has stuck in my head is a serious one. Yes, WKRP was a sitcom, but like sitcoms since the beginning of time it had the occasional serious episode with a message. “Venus and the Man” was one such episode.

Venus is talking to the station’s cleaning lady when he finds out he son has dropped out of school. Venus offers to see if he can convince the man to go back to school. At one point the young man confronts him about what value does an education have. He deflects the easy answer, a job, by pointing out there unemployment lines were full of people with educations including college degrees (the episode aired in early 1980).

Venus responds with the quote above. Using that as a jumping off point he gets the young man to agree to return if Venus can teach him about the atom. While he succeeds, and the episode is worth watching for the way he teaches it, Venus later admits the odds of the young man staying are low.

Still, the survival and conquest line has stuck in my head for just shy of forty years.

If you go places where there are poor people and moderately well off people and rich people and the distribution is really steep then the rate of aggressive behavior in young men, and it is usually within their own ethnic group, starts to sky rocket out of control.

Jordan Peterson, “The primordial narrative”, Maps of Meaning, 2016 (relevant excerpt)

My introduction to Jordan Peterson is different from most people outside of his students and colleagues. I was directed to his discussion of Pinocchio in the Maps of Meaning, 2017 classes by J. Daniel Sawyer at The Everyday Novelist. Of course, if the lecture to which I was pointed was part of a class, I couldn’t just start in the middle of the class. I had to watch from the beginning. I found the lectures interesting enough that I watched more.

More than one person will conclude I am a stupid person because Peterson is a uneducated person’s idea of a smart person.

Well, unlike the two people linked above, Peterson has changed my political outlook (although Jeff has influenced my D&D outlook, which may mean more in my everyday life).

And contrary to the New York Times, among others, he didn’t radicalize me to the right. That would be hard as I’m much more politically conservative than Peterson. He radicalized me to the left.

Specifically, Peterson got me to care about inequality. He brought the argument to bear that has me thinking it is a problem we need to tackle. However, listening to his discussion, also reminded me of Venus Flytrap.

I wish, I honestly wish, I thought the aggressive behavior issue that maps to the Gini Coefficient could be solved by a guaranteed basic income(GBI). I mean, that idea is so liked even Richard Nixon tried to implement it. Milton Friedman supported it via the reverse income tax, which is an idea I have found palatable at different times in my life. Certainly, if we are to have a welfare system I prefer it to the various mismash of programs we have, often with a strong “dance for me” component.

Regardless of my mixed support for a GBI program, however, I don’t think it will address the issue behind Gini Coefficient predictions of violence. Violence committed by poor young men is common in the UK, despite a much stronger social safety net than the US.

Because in the end, a GBI is about survival. Young men, on the whole, are about conquest. You see it in a favorite phrase in the military to describe young recruits, “young, dumb, and full of cum”. You see it in lots of literature about young people going out to make their place in the world. Often, probably more often than not, the high Gini Coefficient reflects an inability to get ahead, to gain not just wealth but status for poor young men.

It reflects men trapped with world to conquer. Unlike Alexander the Great they do not weep because they are conquered everything and have no more worlds to conquer.

They rage because they are denied any socially approved method of conquest.

So they turn to socially unapproved one.

That is a waste.

It is a waste of a mass body of young people with the potential to do good things and live good lives. It is a waste of freedom on the part of their neighbors who live in fear. It is a waste of society’s resources, money, attention, and cohesion, in increased policing.

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. – Albert Einstein

In the normal course of the essay today, I should propose a solution here.

I don’t have one. I’m writing this in the older meaning of essay as a verb: “to make an attempt at; try.” I try to find a proposal here, but I find myself still trapped in Einstein’s warning. I cannot get beyond political ideas about moving money around.

Moving money around may keep people fed. Like I said, I do not think it provides a chance at conquest in a socially acceptable manner.

I heard the quote in a story. I was introduced to Peterson as an aid to understanding and writing stories. Although I am not interested in heavily dialectical fiction, but all fiction teaches. A story has a moral universe and argues for or against it by the nature of the journey of the protagonist.

These ideas show up in my stories, although in very opauge forms. If I write enough stories, perhaps one of my stories will flow out my fingers with an idea.

I doubt it, but one can hope.

Note on the header image: Today we feature the HMS Triumph, a battleship built in 1903

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  1. BobtheRegisterredFool BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’m not impressed with the “stupid man’s smart man” model for Peterson.

    I may not be the brightest bulb, but it seems obvious that someone’s intellectual interests can be narrow or wide, and that when you are dealing with wide intelligent people, you find people who are sound on some things and unsound on others. Where the second model description is concerned, I looked up poststructuralism recently. I’m not sure the distinction between that and postmodernism matters when addressing a general audience.

    I remember a moment of regret when I was younger. Basically, regretting that there were no opportunities for me to exterminate indians or bomb Japanese. From there I moved to the position that while I was not gaining anything by testing myself in the most stringent way, domestic peace and security were valuable enough to be worth that price.

    Of course, since I have been drawn into this intellectual war/cultural war/information war, maybe even intelligence war thing. Probably not involved in the last, and my level of engagement in the others is questionable.

    I took the handle Fool because I have long been blinded by vanity about my supposed intelligence. It is a tactic to close myself off to appeals to that vanity.

    Over the past year, I have found a new direction for my career. A new ‘game’ that I want to test myself against. I can’t yet evaluate how profound the effect of that will be. Maybe it will be too much for me, and I will wimp out.

    My thought is that the lack isn’t entitlement spending. I usually blame flawed education and the regulatory state. Here I see issues involving perception of ‘games’, weighting of ‘games’, and excessive limitations on ‘games’. The value of education is in increasing effectiveness at certain ‘games’. If people don’t know how to see that a game exists, they can’t compete at it. If the administrators are heavy handed, the wins go to people who are not the best athletes at that game. If you don’t learn to see many games, search through them to find the ones important to you, and understand how to win by being a better athlete, you won’t invest in being a better athlete. Petty violence games are easy to notice and engage in, even if someone would really enjoy and excel in a different game. So, again, I’m finding myself thinking that the STEM education fad folks have some right ideas, and wrong implementation conclusions.

    • I love quoting those “stupid person’s smart person” thing and especially the uneducated one.

      Do I have a Ph.D. or even a master’s degree? No.

      Am I widely read in several fields, a veteran of multiple careers in divergent fields, and possessed of several skill sets, both physical and mental? Yes.

      Outside of deep specialist knowledge, I’ll match my education against most people who brag about their education any day. The people whose education I won’t match against mine are people like Dr. Peterson who are well read instead of still working on it (like me).

      I also very much get the “the fool” moniker. What I know is countable and finite. What I don’t is uncountable and infinite. Therefore no matter how much I learn I am not closing to knowing it all.

  2. The Peterson quote points to something very important, but he doesn’t have it quite right. It is not ‘inequality’ that results in the violent behavior…nobody becomes a street thug because Jeff Bezos is a kazillionaire…it is a perceived lack of agency.

    • Yes, and I do recommend listening to the linked lecture, either the excerpt or the whole thing.

      That lack of agency, however, is what I’m after with the “survival and conquest” quote. Having no agency denies conquest. That said, answering you reminds me that it also threatens survival. Perhaps that is an understated part of the cause of violence in Peterson’s theory. When everyone is equally poor, the threat to survival is shared and so you don’t strike out at allies. If some people are extremely rich relative to you and you perceive lack of agency you can take their existence as a threat to survival.

      I wonder if that explains my observation that advocating socialism in various forms seems to be a common reaction to strong inequality. Wat Tyler’s Rebellion and the demands of Wat Tyler have gotten me really interested in why socialism (is there a better word here, as socialism might be too specific) seems to be a reoccurring idea in human societies.

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