Doom Porn (Part I)

Red: Feel bad about it if you want. But
you didn’t pull the trigger.

Andy: No. I didn’t. Someone else did, and
I wound up here. Bad luck, I guess.

Red: Bad luck? Jesus.

Andy: It floats around. Has to land on
somebody. Say a storm comes
through. Some folks sit in their
living rooms and enjoy the rain.
The house next door gets torn out
of the ground and smashed flat. It
was my turn, that’s all. I was in
the path of the tornado.

I just had no idea the storm would
go on as long as it has.

Think you’ll ever get out of here?

Red: Sure. When I got a long white beard
and about three marbles left
rolling around upstairs.

Andy: Tell you where I’d go. Zihuatanejo.

Red: Zihuatanejo?

Andy: Mexico. Little place right on the
Pacific. You know what the Mexicans
say about the Pacific? They say it
has no memory. That’s where I’d
like to finish out my life, Red. A
warm place with no memory. Open a
little hotel right on the beach.
Buy some worthless old boat and fix
it up like new. Take my guests out
charter fishing.
You know, a place like that, I’d
need a man who can get things.

Red: Jesus, Andy. I couldn’t hack it on
the outside. Been in here too long.
I’m an institutional man now. Like
old Brooks Hatlen was.

Andy: You underestimate yourself.

Red: Bullshit. In here I’m the guy who
can get it for you. Out there, all
you need are Yellow Pages. I
wouldn’t know where to begin.

Pacific Ocean? Hell. Like to scare
me to death, somethin’ that big.

Andy: Not me. I didn’t shoot my wife and
I didn’t shoot her lover, and
whatever mistakes I made I’ve paid
for and then some. That hotel and
that boat…I don’t think it’s too
much to want. To look at the stars
just after sunset. Touch the sand.
Wade in the water. Feel free.

Red: I don’t think you ought
to be doing that to yourself, Andy.
That’s just shitty pipedreams!
I mean, Mexico’s all the way down there,

and you’re in here, and that’s the
way it is!

Andy: You’re right. It’s down there, and
I’m in here. I guess it comes down
to a simple choice, really. Get
busy living or get busy dying.

– The Shawshank Redemption, 1994

The great Austro-libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard used to say that he was permanently pessimistic about the short-term and forever optimistic about the long term. What did Rothbard mean by this paradoxical quip? I was chatting to a friend and fellow Outsider over a darn good Mexican lunch the other day who offered this: it means being alert and alive to risks without being dead to opportunities.

I liked that. It’s an Outsider’s mantra. At a macro level, I think Rothbard was essentially saying that the general trajectory of society is toward ever freer and more peaceful cooperation which yields social and economic progress despite the best (worst?) and most heinous efforts of The Meddling Class. It’s recognising that people and societies are pretty good at overcoming problems over time, even if they stumble and fumble along the way.

Our self-anointed political priests can and do mess things up and even reverse progress, but that’s not where it ends. While disaster can strike at any time, particularly in the synthetic political economy we live in today, that doesn’t mean disaster has to have the final word. There’s a reaction function outside of the Meddling Class. People don’t sit idly watching their wealth get ransacked and their happiness mortgaged to the whims of narcissists. They push back. They invent ways around the bottlenecks. They find new ways to repel the plunderers and build wealth. They look at rigged games and say “screw that.”

That’s how Outsiders live and fight. But remember, nobody said it would be easy.

In The Battle of Evermore, I spoke about how we’re in an epic battle against the destructive utopian delusions of the Meddling Class. When contemplating the litany of social, political and economic train wrecks these mandarins foist on us daily and how they retard human potential, it’s easy to get despondent, hopeless, and eventually fatalistic about it all. Why bother if you’re just vainly hacking at the dragon’s toe before it turns you into a pile of charcoal. Fight? What for? What’s the point if it’s all rigged and stacked and run by clowns in suits who never go away?

And once fatalism takes hold, cynicism tends to become the default psychological defence mechanism. It protects us from the pain and shame of shattered high hopes.

There’s also a kind of addiction associated with cynicism – an addiction to bad outcomes. Cynical predictions in tough times get you a pretty high hit rate and a gambler’s dopamine hit as a cheap emotional painkiller of your subconscious disappointment. Something like: “How could those brain-dead bulls not have seen the market crash coming?

The problem is that fatalistic cynicism is your gateway to Doom Porn – an obsession with the collapse of the financial or social system. Doom Porn is a lust for the idea of systemic catastrophe, an intellectual and emotional addiction to mapping out and prepping for bad future social scenarios.

Doom Porn is a massive online industry. Books, blogs, products, doomsday prepping – all geared to how the world’s going to end or some version of ‘ecopalypse’.

As pornography is an amplified sexual pseudo-reality that allows porn addicts low-cost and synthetic arousal without using authentic emotional energy and sexual skill, so Doom Porn is synthetic intellectual arousal that lets users avoid grappling with the hard task of truly preparing for and contributing to complex future potentialities which hold both risks and rewards. Doom Porners seem to me to engage in intellectual self-pleasuring rather than honest inquiry or action-relevant analysis; a sort of fantasy macro schadenfreude played out in their minds.

If pornography addicts can eventually become sexually dysfunctional, Doom Porners can become socially and financially dysfunctional. By shifting the bar of expectation so low so that one is never again let down or duped by the game-riggers, Doom Porners all but eliminate their exposure to and participance in good outcomes. Fatalistic cynicism anaesthetises constructive human agency and thought orientation shifts almost exclusively into an abstract, ill-defined dystopian future, leaving community, business and investment strategies frozen, protective, and atrophied. Risks become magnified and opportunities darkened.

Doom Porners seem to be those who got knocked over once and didn’t know how to get off the canvas or just lost the will to. Their model of reality failed them once, and instead of finding a new and better way to guide their decisions, they sought excuses in fatalism. Or maybe they changed their model, but, scarred and cynical from a severe event developed one with an overly pessimistic recency bias, validated in an echo chamber and extrapolated forward toward doomsday. These are the poor bastards who fought and lost and then basically lost hope. Now they wallow in Doom Porn. Then there are the addicts who haven’t even fought yet. Those too daunted to even step onto their battlefield. They run to Doom Porn as a hideaway from having to face their battle, convincing themselves that the system is so rigged and broken there’s no point even clocking in. Doom Porn becomes at once justification and self-medication for a failure to launch.

And truth be told, I’m pretty sympathetic to the Doom Porners. Heck, I’ve more than dabbled in my fair share of Doom Porn. It’s an easy crutch. Humans can mostly handle losing, even losing big. We’re pretty resilient like that. But we don’t like being the sucker – that can rip our souls out. A lot of people succumbed to Doom Porn during and after 2008/09, and it’s pretty unfair to judge them harshly for going there. People didn’t only lose big – they were the suckers too. That’ll cut you deep. They got a surprise uppercut to the jaw by the Meddling Class and then still had to pony up for the damages (bailouts). Doom Porn was their escape, their medication, their outlet.

The younger generation growing up in financial and political disarray, rolling financial malaise, overpriced and toothless university education and out-of-reach asset prices were and are similarly easy prey for Doom Porn. See this Doom Porner cohort in action in the comments section – pure, distilled fatalistic cynicism (Gold BITCHEZ!). It’s no coincidence that ZeroHedge invokes the nihilistic ‘Tyler Durden’ from Fight Club.

But as much as I sympathise, Doom Porn is not an option. It’s to the Macro Outsider what Kryptonite is to Clark Kent. It turns you from a fighter into a snivelling rat. It’ll dull your faculties for purposeful, constructive action. It’ll drag you into a defensive cul-de-sac. It’ll pull you into the shadows of irrelevance. You’re better than Doom Porn. You’re smarter than Doom Porn. You’re stronger than Doom Porn.

Doom Porn isn’t really even prediction. At best, it’s just low-cost, low-resolution sketching of the worst of the wide range of plausible futures. As analysis, it’s prone to superficiality. As a coping mechanism, it’s dysfunctional and self-limiting.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) says to “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” If you watch the whole clip, you see Red wallowing in Doom Porn and the crappy inevitability of prison for the rest of his useful life. He lowers the bar of expectation so much that he’ll never again be shamed by shattered high hopes at his demeaning parole hearings. He becomes fatalistic and cynical, and then stops fighting (well, almost). But Andy is an Outsider in Shawshank Prison. He never stops chipping away for something better, literally but also mentally and emotionally. The difference between Andy’s philosophy and Red’s: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

My sense is that Doom Porn is a get-busy-dying strategy. It’s like raising a white flag in your Battle of Evermore. Red was mired in Doom Porn while Andy cultivated intelligent hope aimed at by concerted, dedicated action. I’ll have more to say about hope, optimism, and scepticism in Part II, including thoughts on playing the Small Game and the Big Game, why Nietzsche was spectacularly right, but also wrong, and what his predictions can teach us about preparing for the future.

For now, let’s just dwell on Murray Rothbard’s and Andy Dufresne’s hope. Hope isn’t a strategy, it’s true, but without hope, you don’t have a strategy.

Russell Lamberti

May 16, 2017