Edema Ruh

It's sufficiently surprising not to be center left in Silicon Valley. Today I want to take a stab at explaining how I formed my worldview and the events that led me to it.

There hasn't been a single moment I can point to and say "this is it". In hindsight the process feels like multiple instantaneous flashes, events that made me question my beliefs, combined with consistent background radiation of struggling with understanding myself over a sustained period of years.

There were a few common threads I can tease apart. First, I happened to have developed friendships with three people who were pretty far left on the political spectrum. At the time I felt deep in my gut that there is something wrong, but I didn't have the emotional or intellectual architecture to articulate it. Their arguments and passion were very compelling, so I went with that instead of the vague feeling in my solar plexus.

I became close with these people, each in a different way. As the relationships developed, over the years they became more and more tense. In each case the person eventually demanded something of me that I couldn't bring myself to give and the demands were so obviously unreasonable there were no mental gymnastics I could perform to convince myself of their reasonableness. In each case I said no. In each case rather than accepting it, the person disappeared in a way that I considered a betrayal.

The friendships ended within less than a year of each other, give or take. It took time for me to put the events in their proper place. At the end each event brought me to the same conclusion— the person used the ideology as a means of developing power over other people, rather than a force for good as they claimed. Having grown up in a former communist country I had experienced first hand how hard left ideologies destroy societies, and had a received view that large scale destruction starts with the individual. But I never understood how the two connect. These events in my personal life made this connection clear.

Then George Floyd was killed. I was sympathetic to the protests, but as they got hijacked by extremists and turned into riots I had a sense of deja vu. The demands were so obviously unreasonable there were no mental gymnastics I could perform to convince myself of their reasonableness. Minneapolis was turned into a war zone. Where I lived in San Francisco I heard sirens all night every night for days. Manhattan, Chicago and Los Angeles looked like Rick and Morty's episode "Look Who's Purging Now". But every conventional media outlet told me everything is peaceful. Every politician either hid to wait things out, or set up a fund to bail out looters and arsonists because it was a shortcut to power.

Throughout all this there's been another thread. Having seen middle and upper management in corporations up close, I knew that about 10% of the work is the work, and the other 90% of the work is a form of corporate Game of Thrones where individuals and factions struggle for power. I wrote about it here. My understanding of corporate hierarchies took a similar course to the understanding of political ideologies. Initially I felt something is wrong, but didn't have the experience to articulate it. But everyone made the case for OKRs, metrics, milestones. Superficially the case was compelling and the people were passionate, so I took them at face value. Eventually I observed that the more literally you take your job, the less likely you are to rise through the ranks in the organization.

Again it took time to understand this, and again I kept coming back to the same conclusion— you have to ignore what people say and watch what they do. A few resources helped along the way. Robin Hanson's Overcoming Bias blog is excellent. So is Joe Henrich's book The Secret of Our Success, which is anthropology 101. I recommend both.

Years ago I read Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of The Wind (which is a great fantasy book if you're into that sort of thing). The main character, Kvothe, is part of a tribe known as Edema Ruh. They're a traveling band of perpetual outsiders modeled after the Romani. Somewhere in the book Kvothe explains his psychological makeup: "before I was anything else, I was the Edema Ruh". This sentence arrested my attention. I remember asking myself the same question— what was I before I was anything else? I didn't need to think, the answer leaped to mind. Before I was anything else I was a Soviet Jew. It has been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I can see aspects of a culture it can never know about itself. A curse because it leaves me a perpetual outsider.