Ancient Romans had a game similar to rugby called Harpastum. The goal was to get the ball to the end, and since there were no rules on grappling, injuries were high. Beyond that the rules varied. Galen, the famous Roman physician, claimed that harpastum was one of the greatest exercises “better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing” it was”profitable training in strategy”, and could be ”played with varying degrees of strenuousness.”
Signal, Noise, and Jack Bauer
Danny Butterman: Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?
Nicholas Angel: No.
Danny Butterman: Have you ever fired one gun whilst jumping through the air?
Nicholas Angel: No.
Danny Butterman: Ever been in a high-speed pursuit?
Nicholas Angel: Yes, I have.
Danny Butterman: Have you ever fired a gun whilst in a high speed pursuit?
Nicholas Angel: No!
A while back, Daniel Drezner wrote a prescient post about the emotional exhaustion that he observed as indicative of a certain persuasion in foreign affairs analysis:
The key things to realize about the neoconservative worldview is that:
1) Reputation and the image of strength are everything;
2) Countries bandwagon to the strong states and eschew the weak states.
3) Even the slightest concession in the present weakens one’s reputation and strength for the future; so
4) Any concession in a present negotiation ineluctably leads to unconditional surrender in the future.
Where I think Drezner errors is his ascribing this tendency solely to the neoconservative worldview. This isn’t really a failing that necessarily issues from the neoconservative perspective — in large part because the much-overused “neoconservative,” like its similarly neo-‘d cousin “neoliberal,” is a clumsy moniker for a more diffuse set of beliefs, ideas, personalities, and policies than its promiscuous usage implies. Hence, as some early readers of this post reminded me, it’s hard to say what “neconservatives” Drezner’s analysis applies to. But that isn’t really the important part of why the tendency is more general.
With a few alterations, this Drezner précis could also describe the domestic political “horse race” coverage that Nate Silver so famously battled against. A world where every incident that receives a lot of press coverage is a “Game Changer”, a world where the election is forever “up in the air” despite statistical evidence to the contrary, and a world where victory depends on the strength, cunning, and resolve of powerful men alone.
Or, more colloquially, the world that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's villain Vladimir Makarov describes with his speech during the MW3 reveal trailer: “It doesn’t take the most powerful nations on Earth to create the next global conflict. Just the will of a single man.”
To call this a Great Man theory of history or world affairs is to misdiagnose. Take 24's Jack Bauer, for example. Jack Bauer is integral to saving the day every season of 24. We can’t laugh entirely at this notion — recent work in international relations shows that the hero can’t be dismissed. Leaders do shape the structure of the international system, even if they are also constrained by it. But the idea that the hero is important (and how important he is) isn’t really the key assumption (or debating question) posed by this kind of worldview.
Rather, every action movie is just a snapshot of one bad day/week/month out of many more in a year. Jack Bauer may have to be on point for those unlucky 24 hours, but what does he do the rest of the year? Likely write paperwork, practice his marksmanship at the range, and deal with a number of lesser cases that never rise to the all-consuming importance of That Day In Which He Expends Bullets and BlackBerries Like A Endless Round of Team Deathmatch. All of that occurs offscreen and doesn’t matter - just like Jack Bauer is never shown on the toilet or doing any other sort of mundane activity.
The biggest structural unrealism embedded in 24 is the idea that only That One Day matters. That the fate of the nation and sometimes the world hangs in the balance for 24 hours, and depends entirely on Jack, Chloe, and the team. Those 364 other days? Irrelevant. The problem with this worldview when applied to any large-scale endeavor, be it an election or international security crisis, is that in real life it will never be clear which day is the critical time. There is no clock steadily ticking down, no Kiefer Sutherland voice-over narration. There will be, however, a very many days that seem at first glance to be important but upon closer analysis can be dismissed as noise — pure and ephemeral randomness. And a lot more determines the dynamics and end result than just Jack’s marksmanship and Herculean ability to rapidly maneuver throughout the greater Los Angeles and New York City areas in defiance of the worst traffic in America.
Worldviews that place great importance on the notion of a singularity at which the fate of the world will be decided by the clashing wills of titans have a bad habit of seeing every instance that laps up press attention and fits a comfortable Gotterdammerung/Armageddon narrative as the time to pray to Saint Jack to pick up his pistol and his BlackBerry, instinctively say “dammit Chloe,” and leap into action and stop the terrorists.
So what happens when you (1) over-classify game changers and (2) inevitably see most of your game-changer predictions fail? You can rationalize it by one (or both) options from this menu:
- Simply ignore the past (and failed game-changing predictions) completely and treat the world as a kind of Markovian process where the present is the only thing that matters.
- Argue that the future is forever in contestation, and that the fragility of the international order is such that, as per Makarov (conveniently: a Russian ultranationalist!) the will of a single man is enough to upset the equilibrium of the decadent and complacent West.
Upon closer examination, both perspectives are essentially the same. They just use a different argumentative strategy. The first one simply ignores the past, the second one uses it instrumentally as part of a narrative (see: Munich analogies) that finds great moments in history where the iron dice is cast and the fate of Mom, Apple Pie, and The Flag hangs in the balance.
ThinkProgress blogger (and soon to be Project X'er) Zack Beauchamp tweeted a while ago that structures, regularities, and fundamentals matter — and that while domestic analysts studying politics had come to understand this, foreign policy analysts did not. The problem is that the perspective that one garners from taking into account structures, regularities, and fundamentals is one that sees a high level of noise in the world and attempts to develop highly precise tools for cutting through it to find the signal. It is a perspective that leads to "incremental" and "dull" analysis and better fits the temperament of the accountant than the romantic.
When it comes to much of what we regard as politics and punditry, the lack of passion and romanticism that soberness necessitates is a feature, not a bug. Many are drawn to politics because they are romantics, full of passion and aesthetic verve rather than statistics books or “dull” and “incremental” scholarship about the stuff of both domestic and intentional affairs. It is no wonder, perhaps, that the kind of worldview I describe here is more than just action movie heroics taken as holy writ. It is also in many respects a kind of throwback to the sort of Victorian-era mythos and tropes that Spengler and others mined for their works. The world has become decadent and complacent, unable to notice a vigorous, vital, and evil force emerging from the darkness. It strides over the weak forces of order, defeating them with frightening ease. A titanic battle looms, one that will be the defining struggle of the age.
As art, there is nothing more sublime than this sort of aesthetic. It’s what makes John Boorman’s Excalibur the greatest of all of the cinematic representations of the Arthur mythos. And it’s what, on a more vulgar level, made 300 and Lord of the Rings so popular at the box office. It is the height of drama, tension, and narrative payoff. If everything wasn’t on the line, why watch Rocky fight in the first place? But as a guide to everyday life — well, there have been entire dissertations written on how using themes that could have been stolen from Wagner operas as a wellspring for your political philosophy and rhetoric leads to dangerous ideas about public policy.
Andreesen-Horowitz’s Marc Andreesen, commenting on Newsweek's recent game of “Where’s Satoshi?” tweeted that “there is a growing CP Snow-style divide between people who trust math/science/tech and people who trust people/institutions.” That’s true, but it’s also lamentable — the world genuinely needs those who both are versed in the technical as well as the social and political. Both intersect, as Herbert Simon implies with his metaphor of an technological artifact’s “inner laws” and outer environment that those laws intersect with.
But another far more serious divide looms — between those who see politics in “dull” and “incremental” terms and those who view politics as a sort of literary romance. Unlike Andreesen’s divide between the technical-trusters and the people/institution-trusters, this one is harder to bridge. There isn’t necessarily an natural or obvious intersection between the two camps. There is very little romanticism in R scripts, Bayes, or prediction models. The lyrical and passionate Nassim Nicholas Taleb of “Black Swan” fame seems to be the exception to the rule, but an exception nonetheless.
So if you’re analyzing politics, you can regard the world as a dark and uncertain place full of noise and randomness — with your tools as imperfect and fallible tools you use to try to find the signal. It’s a viewpoint that I’ve struggled with myself, in large part because of my instinctive attraction to the romantic view. Hey, at the end of the day I bought MW3 because of the Makarov “will of a single man” voiceover in the trailer. I’m not automatically in the first camp — if I was, why would I need to go into a PhD program if I’ve already learned that sort of analytical mindset? I haven’t, and I’m still working on it.
You could, however, forego the attempt entirely. You can aim for the romantic view, where the answers are already known, every struggle is the beginning of that 24 hours ticking down, and the man who wins is he who can fire a gun whilst jumping through the air. It might be more fun, it might save you from being “dull” and “incremental,” but it’ll also, as Drezner argues, exhaust you. Many people have opted for this fork in the road instead.
Maybe one day can matter — though not as a metaphysical, Splengerian conflict. If one day matters, it is as the product a particular confluence of structures, fundamentals, leaders, information, and conflicts. And we acknowledge that one day can make the difference while also acknowledging that the outcome could also be the slow accretion of other days that cumulates in strategic decision. Or perhaps the thing we want to explain or predict is a combination of the two. The choice bolls down to whether or not we want to approach such an analysis from the romantic perspective — or whether we aim for something else more frustrating, incremental, inconclusive, and ultimately more rewarding.