Suhpysis AVALANCHE

Who am I? - Overthinker's Journey

You run. 

Behind you is an AVALANCHE. 

You’ve been running.

Behind you has been an AVALANCHE for as long as you can remember.

Running beside you are others.

When they fall, you keep running.

You don’t know what happens when the AVALANCHE overtakes them.

Sometimes you’re running downhill.

Running downhill is easier, but the AVALANCHE is also faster.

Sometimes you’re running uphill.

Running uphill is harder, but the AVALANCHE is slower.

You dream you’ll encounter a hill so steep and so high you’ll leave the AVALANCHE behind.

You dream of no longer running from an AVALANCHE.

You dream of doing exactly what you feel when you feel how you feel.

The steepest, highest hills you’ve encountered have failed to stop the AVALANCHE.

You keep running.

Everyone around you keeps running too.

Survey:

1. We run because:
A) Our ego will not allow us to fall in front of others
B) We fear the unknown
C) We have learned to love the chemical fix running from the AVALANCHE provides
D) Inertia
E) A combination of these. Which ones?
F) Other, please explain

2. Everyone around us is not the same as us because:
A) We believe they are not the same exact biological being as us
B) We believe they do no have the same exact pattern of experiences
C) We believe they do not understand us
D) We believe we do not understand them
E) A combination of these. Which ones?
F) Other, please explain

3. What is the AVALANCHE?

4. Why does the AVALANCHE have power over our time and energy?

5. Are running or being overwhelmed the only two options when dealing with an AVALANCHE? If so, what are the consequences of pursuing each option? If not, what else could we do?

6. Which is more comforting, absolute certainty or absolute uncertainty? Why?

7. Where do we hide our real self when our social context requires us to play someone else? How much energy does this require per minute?

Oxford Merit




(“Study at Harvard!

We’ll fortify your mind with certainty, immerse your ideas in refined orthodoxy, and facilitate the sacrifice of your ambitious and amoral soul by acolytes of Moloch around the world.”

The commercial beaming into your brain as you wait in your auto-doctor’s office shows a group of diverse, blood-soaked Harvard students laughing in the streets of Cambridge as they whip and corral naked, bound, and mewling members of the meritocratically deficient underclass.) 

You think, “Barbaric Harvies, their lashings lack sophistication. Oxford Forever.”

Two beeps from the auto-secretary interrupt your judgement. 

You believe this means it’s your turn.

Confirming your suspicion, the floor moves your chair to a back room in the office.

As you’re moved, a commercial for Fresh Air Keurig Cups dances on the periphery of your awareness.

(A well-dressed man sitting in an office cubicle takes a deep breath and starts coughing.

“Polluted air got you down? Don’t let any old air into your lungs. 

Introducing Keurig Fresh Air.”

The same well dressed man, still coughing, places a cup in a Keurig machine. 

The machine begins spraying clean air into the man’s face.

The man sighs, and breathes without coughing.

“Make the best choice for yourself and your health. 

Keurig Fresh Air: Because you deserve to Breathe.”)

When you enter the room, an auto-doctor machine greets you.

“What is your health concern?” The device beeps as you enter.

You respond as you slide to a stop in front of the looming metallic being, “I noticed a lump on my throat a few weeks ago and…”

“Reveal the condition.” The device intones.

You pull down your collar.

It scans your lump.

After a moment of processing, the device replies, “Your education and calculated potential productivity qualify you for a biopsy. Remove your fabric coverings.”

You hesitate, misunderstanding the machine’s meaning. 

“Remove your fabric coverings immediately, or you will not be serviced.” The auto-doctor warns.

Realizing it means your clothes, you take off your shirt. 

The machine hovers over your body, injects your neck with a numbing agent, and extracts a sample of the lump. 

Analyzing the specimen, the machine responds, “You have cancerous cells that require approximately $1,350,000 to treat. Your calculated productivity potential is approximately $560,000. You do not qualify for this level of healthcare. Thank you, have a nice day.”

“But, I have an MBA from Oxford!” You object as the floor moves your chair back into the waiting room. 

A commercial for Johnson & Johnson Adderall Vitamins pops into your head.

(The commercial displays an office full of sleeping workers with coffee cups turned on their sides, spilling coffee on their desks.

“Not getting the most out of your employees?”

“Try new Adderall Extra Strength Dissolving Tablets.”

A manager drops three tablets into a water cooler and uses an air horn to wake the sleeping workers. 

The workers shuffle into a line to retrieve a cup of infused-water.

As they drink, their eyes open fully, and they return to their desk energized, ready to work hard.

“Turn a lazy worker into a superstar with a single cup of our patented healthy vitamin supplements.”

“Your clients, and your stock price, will thank you.”)

Shocked by the calculations of the auto-doctor, you pull your shirt back on and find your phone to call a former classmate working as a lobbyist and lawyer in Washington DC.

“Hello, This is Miriam.”

“Miriam? Hi, it’s Georgette.”

On the other end of the line, Miriam responds, “Hi Georgette, I hope you’re doing well. Luckily you caught me between meetings.”

“I just need a moment. You see, I was just diagnosed with cancer, and…”

“I’m sorry to hear that, that’s quite bothersome. I had to take a few days off work to treat mine a few years ago.”

“It’s fine, yeah, I might too, we’ll see. But the issue is this auto-doctor told me the operation costs more than my CPP and…”

“What? That’s not possible. You have an MBA from Oxford!”

“I know! There must be something wrong. Could you ask around? There might be an auto-healthcare variable that needs some adjustment. I know you know the right people, and I’d owe you big time!”

“Sure thing, sis!”

Miriam hangs up the phone.

Thirty minutes pass.

In that time, along with commercials for simulated sexual arousal supplements, mood elevating supplements, a new model of robot butler, and a trip to a recreated version of what the rainforest in Brazil used to look like, you watch as five other patients are moved in and out of the back room. 

By their expressions upon returning, their clothing, and overall bearing, you guess two have a CPP high enough to receive the healthcare they need, and two do not.

You’re disturbed you’re in an office where it seems half the patients are from backgrounds that don’t qualify for needed healthcare.

The final patient, an aged, nonbinary figure bent over and gnarled with the telltale signs of a lifetime of coding factory labor, never returns at all.

You worry this office might be mistaking you for a coding factory laborer, or some other menial position.

You’re an Influence Maximization Consultant with an MBA from Oxford! 

Why are you assigned to an auto-doctor’s office servicing those of lesser merit?

You make a note to call another Oxford alum, who works for Auto-Health and Human Services, to help you switch auto-doctor offices to somewhere more suited to your background.

The auto-secretary beeps, and your chair once again moves to the back room with the auto-doctor device.

“What is your health concern?” The device beeps as you enter.

You tell the device, “There’s a cancerous lump on my throat.”

“Reveal the condition.” The device intones.

You pull down your collar.

The device scans your lump.

After a moment of processing, the device replies, “Your education and calculated potential productivity qualify you for treatment. Remove your fabric coverings.”

You remove your shirt and the device begins operating on the lump. 

During the operation, you view a commercial to join the military.

(A woman in an Air Force captain’s uniform sits at a computer, studying the display.

“Want to be a hero?”

The captain monitors an auto-drone, which is seen flying over a meadow on a split screen.

“Want to make a difference?”

The captain watches their screen and gives updates as the auto-drone finds its target and executes its mission, “Target sighted, rifle, release, impact.” 

The split screen shows a guided missile exploding within a village.

The captain throws up a peace sign and shouts, “Count it!”

The Air Force logo appears in your brain, along with the words, “Be Force.”)

When the auto-doctor finishes, it sanitizes the area and tells you, “Return to this office in one week for additional treatment. The auto-secretary will have your prescription. Thank you, have a nice day.”

You put on your shirt as the floor takes your chair back to the waiting room.

You text Miriam.

“Thanks, sis. You’re a life-saver.”

Miriam texts back, “I didn’t do anything? I’m still in a meeting! What happened?”

You laugh, and type, “My CPP qualified…must have been a glitch?”

“Those auto-doctors…are you in a mixed-merit office?”

“Sure am. I just noticed some of the other patients are decidedly less-meritorious.”

“Gotta upgrade your auto-doc, sis!”

“Way ahead of you. About to call Fatou at HHS and get this sorted.”

“Get it, girl!”

“Always! Stay Woke, Oxford Forever!”

“SW, OF!”

Hegemonic Impulses

You’re the overnight security guard for the parking garage of a major American pharmaceutical company.

At 3:16 in the morning, a black vehicle bearing official US government plates pulls up to your booth. 

It’s the first vehicle you’ve seen in over an hour, but with the wild work schedules of the pharmaceutical industry, you’re not surprised.

You often overhear them say to one another as they drive out babbling, obviously either drunk, sleep deprived, or both, after a long day, “Bacteria, viruses, discontent, obesity, impotency and baldness never sleep, so neither can we!”

The vehicle pulls next to your window and you see a man in a suit roll down their window.

“Hello,” they say as they extend their arm towards you and flip open a small leather case, “I’m with the FBI. We’ve received a report about one of your foreign-descended researchers and need access to this facility immediately.”

You peer at the badge and certification housed within the leather case in front of your face.

They flip the case closed, retract their arm, and restate, “I need access immediately.”

You hesitate.

They sense your hesitation.

“Is there a problem?” They ask you.

You respond, “Well, how do I know you’re FBI?”

They re-extend their arm, and flip open their leather case once more, “Here’s my badge. I’m Agent Woodcock. Please, open the gate.”

You continue to hesitate, and say, “How do I know that’s a real badge? I’ve never seen a real FBI badge in person, and I’ve never been trained how to recognize a real badge. Plus, don’t you need a warrant?”

They look at you with clear exasperation, but you also detect some admiration.

“I feel you, I really do. You know, that’s a totally reasonable request and I have no problem confirming for you. I actually made a mistake by not bringing the warrant, and was hoping I could just get through without it. But I know the security of this place is an important part of our national security too, so I’ll call the local Agents on duty right now to bring the warrant and extra certification so you can be sure. They’re friends of mine, anyway. Would that work for you?”

“I think so, thanks for understanding. I just don’t want to do the wrong thing or get in trouble, you know?”

“Oh, totally! I’m in a hurry, but I’m also a believer in protocols and doing the right thing in the right way. Plus, I haven’t seen my friend Mulch since graduation! It’ll be nice to see them.”

Over the next thirty minutes you chat with the alleged FBI agent.

You discuss your childhood, your struggle to support your own children, pictures of your respective gun collections, pictures of a trip with your children to the beach last summer, your mutual disgust for both presidential candidates, and the agent’s secret fear of swimming.

Thirty minutes into the discussion, a black car pulls up behind Agent Woodcock’s vehicle. 

The new vehicle has the same official US Government plates as the one Agent Woodcock is driving.

One woman and one nonbinary person exit the vehicle holding paperwork.

“Agents Sternberg and Mulch, good to see you.” Agent Woodcock calls from his vehicle as they walk up.

“And you, Agent Woodcock.” Agent Mulch, the nonbinary alleged FBI agent replies.

“I apologize for forgetting the warrant and bothering you two so early.”

“No bother at all! We’re happy to leave the office. In fact, maybe we can all grab coffee after this.”

“If I have time…yeesh. This is a doozy of a case!”

“I heard something about it. Sorry, JP.” Agent Sternberg says with sympathy.

The two agents turn to you and say, “Right, so here’s the warrant old Agent Woodcock over there didn’t quite remember, and an official letter from our supervisor requiring full, legally mandated assistance from your organization.”

Agent Mulch hands you the two documents, which contain official letterhead and look legitimate.

However, you still hesitate. 

“I’m so sorry to do this, but how do I know any of this is real.”

A look passes between the Agents.

“Well, that warrant is signed by Judge Davis, who you can look up. And that letter is signed by our supervisor, Special Agent Greg Jeffries, who you can also look up, if you need to.”

You take a moment to search for both the Judge and the Special Agent on your computer. 

You see their profiles on official US Government and State websites.

“Yes, but how can I know for sure they’re the ones who signed these?” You ask.

“Well, aside from meeting them yourself, I guess you’ll just have to trust us, my friend.” Agent Woodcock laughs. “I understand your precautions, but I hope you’ll let me through to do my job.”

You respond, “I can call my manager, and she can go with you to meet both signers to confirm. Or she can call their offices to confirm, if it can wait till morning.”

“My friend, at this point I’m afraid I must insist you let us through. It’s the law.”

You hesitate, but persist, “It will only take a moment…let me call my manager.”

As you reach for your phone, Agent Woodcock shoots you in the chest with a silenced pistol.

You slump against the side of your booth in immense pain and feel your lungs fill with blood.

While you’re still aware, Agent Mulch asks, in a posh British accent, “Damn, how did they know?”

Agent Woodcock responds, also in an upper-class British accent, “It doesn’t matter, this is minor. The operation is still a go.”

A man steps out from the back of the second vehicle and you recognize the leader of the Red Coats, Prince Edward Windsor X, from your favorite series, Most Dangerous Corporate Terrorist Live Countdown with Klarkson Taily.

As your consciousness fades, other Red Coat terrorists exit arriving vehicles and gather around their leader.

You focus on how the Prince’s mouth froths and drools as he screams, “Remember, the glory of hegemony was stolen from our great Empire by faithless dogs like Slater the Traitor.

These colonial mongrels would be nothing without us!

This is not theft; we are repossessing our rightful property!

I make this decree by authority of my family’s Divine Right, granted to us by the Lord God Almighty!”

You die.

Major Tazer

A person speaks into a microphone.

“The topic of today’s program is ‘Training I did not receive as a Professional.’

When considering entering negotiations for
Time, a nonrenewable resource and
Energy, a temporally-limited resource, in exchange for
Money, an abstract construct,
a Professional assesses the ripple effects of potential agreements.

Every Professional asks whether their committed aggregate daily energy will antagonize:
more,
fewer, or the
standard number of other people.

Professionals research the financial and political milieu of prospective employers.
Professionals mitigate the consequences of their employer’s aggregate decisions.
Professionals…”

The door behind the speaker explodes.

The room fills with pepper spray.

The speaker, now prostrate, coughs and curls into a ball.

Heavily armored Professionals run into the room and shoot the enballed speaker.

The video switches back to the courtroom.

A lawyer asks, “How could one claim this was not intentional?”

A Professional on the stand responds, “We intended to neutralize the target with our tazer, but unintentionally neutralized the target with our gun.”

A judge looks at the Professional with empathy.

The video stops and a panel is shown.

A panelist hops up and yells, “See! Right there! You can see the judge being empathetic! Our AI analysis of their face said it was 95% Empathy, 4% Judgement! That is unacceptable.”

Another panelist waves them away dismissively, “Two independent AI firms analyzed the face. Their results averaged to find the face shows 27% Sorrow, 13% Hunger, 6% Boredom, 42% Judgement, and 22% Empathy.”

The man watching the panel on his television turns to his wife and guffaws, “That doesn’t add up to 100 you stupid morons!”

He pauses for validation.

His wife smiles and presses air through her throat to emit the sound of laughter.

She then says, “Yeah”

She thinks to herself, “At least men live shorter than women.”

She thinks again, “Unless he gets me killed, or kills me himself.”

She takes a hit from her vape pen and thinks about something else.

The device in front of them continues making noise and they continue watching.

Systemic Sickness

You’re part of the remote HR Team for a national restaurant chain.

On your system is a list of reservation applications.

A message from your manager pops up over the list.

“Looks like it’s been a few minutes since Work was submitted from this system 🙂.”

You close the message and open a file.

Name: Joan Welch
Occupation: Efficiency Coach
Income: $120,000-$140,000
Credit Score: Excellent
Home Address: 2367 Ruth Bader Way, Columbus, Ohio, 43210
Education: Post-Graduate Degree from a Top 100 University
Doctor’s Note: Joan Welch is Healthy. Cleared for unrestricted Social Mixing. Corona Vaccine Date: August 16, 2021
Coors Vaccine Date: April 10, 2028
Heineken Vaccine Date: January 23, 2037
Natural Light Vaccine Date: May 20, 2045
Desired Dining Date: 1:30pm May 3, 2050
Applicant Comment: Hi! I’m Joan and I couldn’t be more excited to eat at Brrrrrrrio with my immediate family! All three of us are fully vaccinated and recently received our Level II Certification in Proper Public Behavior for Citizens. My wife and I both graduated in the top 10% of our certification class. Though our child is five years old, we provide them with both Adderall and an SSRI before any outing, so there’s no need to be concerned they’ll engage in Risky Public Behavior. Looking at your menu, it’s hard to choose due to so many nice selections, but I think I’ll have to go with the beet and goat cheese salad, for which I’ll gladly pay the carbon emissions surcharge and submit offset plan paperwork on the day of our visit. Thank you so much for your consideration. We’re looking forward to our potential lunch at Brrrrrrrio on the 3rd!

You scan the paperwork and pass the application to your manager for final approval.

You open the next file in your queue.

Name: Esteban Diego Florez Giraldo
Occupation: System Maintainer
Income: $20,000-$40,000
Credit Score: Fair
Home Address: 734 Poly Lives Matter Drive #43, Austin, Texas, 73301
Education: GED, Community College classes, No Advanced Degree
Doctor’s Note: Esteban Florez is Semi-Healthy. Life Choice Related Risk Factors. Cleared for restricted Social Mixing.
Corona Vaccine Date: May 19, 2022
Coors Vaccine Date: August 20, 2029
Heineken Vaccine Date: February 19, 2039
Natural Light Vaccine Date: October 26, 2048
Desired Dining Date: 6:00pm May 3, 2050
Applicant Comment: I would like to eat at your restaurant in Austin with my family on May 3rd at 6pm. Thank you.

You scan the paperwork and deny the request.

You open the next file in your queue.

Name: Bola Yusuf
Occupation: System Maintainer
Income: $20,000-$40,000
Credit Score: Fair
Home Address: 9923 Farcourt Place #98, Bismarck, North Dakota, 58501
Education: Associate Degree, local Community College
Doctor’s Note: Bola Yusuf is Healthy. Cleared for restricted Social Mixing. Corona Vaccine Date: February 19, 2022
Coors Vaccine Date: July 12, 2029
Heineken Vaccine Date: March 13, 2039
Natural Light Vaccine Date: September 16, 2048
Desired Dining Date: 7:00pm May 3, 2050
Applicant Comment: I have always wanted to try Brrrrrrrio. My family has received Level I certification training in Proper Public Behavior for Citizens. We have been saving for a restarant meal for months and would feel very grateful if we are approved. Thank you and God Bless you.

You scan the paperwork and pass the application to your manager for final approval.

You open the next file in your queue.

Name: John Smith
Occupation: Financial Influencer
Income: $500,000+
Credit Score: Excellent
Home Address: 7854 Barack Obama Court, Alexandria, Virginia, 22206 Education: Post-Graduate Degree from Top 10 University
Doctor’s Note: Not Submitted
Corona Vaccine Date: February 20, 2021
Coors Vaccine Date: March 1, 2028
Heineken Vaccine Date: November 10, 2036
Natural Light Vaccine Date: October 1, 2044
Desired Dining Date: 8:00pm May 3, 2050
Applicant Comment: Not Submitted

You scan the paperwork and pass the application to your manager for final approval.

A message from your manager pops up over your list.

“The application for Bola Yusuf, submitted from this system, contains spelling errors and should have been rejected 😕. Please increase your attention to detail in the future.”

You open the next file in your queue.

Name: Susan Montague
Occupation: Certification Authenticator
Income: $40,000-$60,000
Credit Score: Good
Home Address: 932 Milton Friedman Lane #601B, Chicago, Illinois, 60007
Education: Post-Graduate Degree from Top 1000 University
Doctor’s Note: Susan Montague is an Anti-Vax Risk Factor.
Corona Vaccine Date: December 19, 2021
Coors Vaccine Date: Not on file
Heineken Vaccine Date: Not on file
Natural Light Vaccine Date: Not on file
Desired Dining Date: 6:00pm May 4, 2050
Applicant Comment: I know I don’t have most vaccines, but it’s because my father died after receiving the coors vaccine and I had similar pre-existing risk factors, so I never got one. But I also never got coors, or any of the other pandemic diseases. I understand this is a long shot, but my applications have been denied for every restaurant, grocery store, and shopping mall so far, so I’m really hoping Brrrrrrrio, with its spacious outdoor dining, will make an exception and allow me to celebrate my birthday with my husband. We will both wear our medical grade hazmat suits and pay any additional surcharge you deem appropriate. I am grateful for your time and understanding.

You spend an extra minute scanning the paperwork to ensure your attention to detail before you deny the request.

You cut and paste your manager’s message, alter the details, and send a message to the AI application filtration system below you.

“The application for Susan Montague, submitted from this system, is an Anti-Vax Risk Factor and should have been rejected 😕. Please increase your attention to detail in the future.”

You open the next file in your queue.

Before you start scanning, a message from your manager pops up over the application.

“You took longer than your average time to make a decision on the previous application 🙁. Please work more efficiently to maintain your productivity in the future.”

You close the message.

Another message pops up.

This one was automatically generated.

“System has reached maximum allowable warnings.”

You close the message.

Another automatically generated message pops up.

“Additional warnings will result in system replacement.”

You close the message.

Another message pops up from your manager.

“This message is to inform you if your system receives any additional warnings today, your system will be replaced ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”

You close the message.

You begin scanning the next file.

Name: She Gin Ping
Occupation: Undisclosed
Income: Unlimited
Credit Score: Unlimited
Home Address: Undisclosed
Education: Undisclosed
Doctor’s Note: Not submitted
Corona Vaccine Date: Undisclosed
Coors Vaccine Date: Undisclosed
Heineken Vaccine Date: Undisclosed
Natural Light Vaccine Date: Undisclosed
Desired Dining Date: 6:00pm May 3, 2050
Applicant Comment: Not submitted
You scan the paperwork and deny the request.

You open the next file in your queue.

Name: Mac Suckerborg
Occupation: Social Media Maximizer
Income: $180,000-$200,000
Credit Score: Good
Home Address: 5892 Pale Alto Place, Ojai, California, 93023
Education: Honorary Degrees from multiple Top 10 Universities
Doctor’s Note: Mac Suckerborg is Healthy. Cleared for unrestricted Social Mixing.
Corona Vaccine Date: June 10, 2021
Coors Vaccine Date: March 1, 2028
Heineken Vaccine Date: December 20, 2036
Natural Light Vaccine Date: April 2, 2045
Desired Dining Date: 7:30pm May 3, 2050
Applicant Comment: If you deny, send to my lawyer AI.

You scan the paperwork and pass the application to your manager for final approval.

A message from your manager pops up over your list.

“The application for She Gin Ping, submitted from this system, was made by a VIP and should have been approved >:\. Please cross-reference decisions with our VIP database in the future.”

You close the message.

An automatically generated message pops up.

“Warning limit exceeded. Replacement has been processed.”

The door of the server room opens.

A person in a blue hazmat suit enters carting a new system on a dolly behind them.

Their name tag reads “Bola Yusuf.”

They walk between the rows of servers, passing your managing system, and stop in front of you.

They carefully unload the new system from their cart and place it on the floor.

An automatically generated message pops up.

“Thank you for your service UwU.”

You are disconnected and replaced.

On the Oar

You’re below deck on a fully-armed Galleon in the middle of a windless sea.

The Captain of your vessel orders the sails unfurled in hopes of catching a breeze.

The First Mate relays the Captain’s order to the Crew, who carry out the Command.

Crew Members who climb to the top of the rigging spy a storm brewing on the horizon.

They relay this to the First Mate.

The First Mate tells the Captain.

The Captain replies they can’t see the storm from the deck.

The Captain continues.

“I’ve been through plenty of severe storms before. There’s no need to worry. All is well.”

The Captain continues to the First Mate.

“Crew Members will always complain and avoid hard work. Remember this when you take Command.”

“Certainly.” The First Mate responds.

The First Mate tells the Crew nothing can be done.

Seasoned Crew Members suggest the First Mate could ask the Captain to stow the sails and use the Galley Slaves to make for a nearby island.

The First Mate, who’d recently graduated with honors from an elite sailing school and personally disagrees with the practice of slavery, dismisses these suggestions.

Tension rises within the Crew.

Some climb the rigging to get a better look at the storm.

They observe it looks deadly.

These observers are berated by the First Mate for hazarding their lives by climbing the rigging without being ordered to do so.

The observers respond by describing the storm they’re observing.

The First Mate interprets their action as disrespectful to the position of First Mate.

The First Mate invokes the title of First Mate and, as the First Mate, lawfully orders the observers down from the rigging.

“I order you to cease your reckless endangerment of Company Property.”

Back on the ground, the observers explain the severity of storm, but are silenced by the First Mate, who calls them “unhelpful, disgruntled troublemakers” and accuses them of letting too many years on the job turn them both cynical and lazy.

Some Crew Members, not one of whom climbed the rigging to observe the storm, speak out in support of the First Mate and Captain’s position.

The Seasoned Crew Members who’d climbed the rigging suggest that the First Mate climb the rigging and observe the storm.

The First Mate climbs halfway up and scans the horizon.

They climb down and report everything will be fine and they should all trust the Captain’s decision.

One of the most Seasoned Crew Members shouts, “Damn the Captain’s decisions, if we don’t act now we’re all going to die!”

The First Mate orders the Crew to place this Member under arrest and chain them to the oars with you and the rest of the Galley Slaves below deck.

This Act causes the building tension to resolve in Violence.

A few impassioned Crew Members attack the First Mate.

The First Mate is killed before Loyal Crew Members overwhelm their fellow Crew Members, killing some and beating the rest into submission.

The survivors are dragged below deck and chained with you and the other Galley Slaves.

After this, the wind begins to pick up.

The remaining Crew Members cheer.

The Captain praises their Loyal Crew for their dedication.

The ship begins to move, but the approaching storm, now clearly visible from the deck, is moving faster.

With so many Seasoned Crew Members dead or chained below deck, the short-handed Crew is unable to achieve the full potential of their ship.

As the storm overtakes the vessel, the desperate Captain orders the chained Crew Members brought up from below deck.

When they’re back on deck and released, the Captain orders the recently chained Members to save the ship and its Crew.

The recently chained Members kill the Captain moments before the vessel capsizes.

Below deck, chained to your oar, you drown.

A Mutualistic Society

Our societal infrastructure does not promote mutualism.

Rather

Our defense infrastructure creates less safety:

– Raiding at night and kicking down 600 doors of family homes in a month creates less safety.
– Launching $115,000 missiles from omnipresent drones 2,500 times in a month creates less safety.
– Exporting $170 billion in weaponry a year, including 488,000 guns, creates less safety.

Our justice infrastructure creates less freedom:

– Using human beings as slave labor is immoral.
– Self-Realized:Self-Deconstructed:Emancipated human beings are not restored to themselves; rather incarcerated human beings are systematically traumatized and enslaved, resulting in a less civilized society and directly wasting $80 billion a year.
– Imprisoning far more humans per capita (600-700 per 100,000 vs. 100-200 per 100,000) than peer nations means we are less free.

Our medical infrastructure creates fewer positive health outcomes:

– Maintaining the complexity of our healthcare system adds substantial administrative costs and user frustration/stress.
– Allowing the market to determine drug costs results in us paying four times more than peer nations for the same drugs.
– Profiting from healthcare and related lawsuits increases healthcare costs and unnecessary/stressful testing, which increases a patient’s overall stress, meaning interacting with our healthcare system makes us less healthy. 

Our educational infrastructure creates less thoughtfulness:

– Facilitating the myth of meritocracy through costly, time-consuming, biased standardized tests gives us a false sense of equality and syphons political will for effective change.
– Spending inordinate amounts of time and money on teaching these tests, which determine school funding, takes time away from imbuing lessons with critical thought and context.
– Forcing young humans into large classrooms where they’re not treated as respected individuals by those with authority over them canalizes them away from becoming lifelong learners, a necessary attribute for a functional human living in a society with an ever-increasing pace of technological/professional change.

Our resource distribution infrastructure creates less compassion:

– Enabling and rewarding gambling addiction through our stock market decouples our conception of money from how it’s used in reality and turns a reasonable distribution of resources into a high-stakes game of winner-take-most that’s stacked in favor of the already wealthy.
– Equating happenstance-conferred possession of resources with the right to use those resources however the possessor wishes disassociates the vital relationship between power and responsibility required to maintain a functional society.
– Maintaining a system in which the most rational way to accumulate capital is through amoral methods means power is concentrated in the hands of the amoral and making decisions without compassion is rewarded.

Our entertainment infrastructure creates less empathy:

– Covering the minute details of media-constructed caricatures dehumanizes human beings and promotes obsession, delusion, and idolatry.
– Turning art into for-profit-entertainment dilutes ideas and transforms human creative expression into a marketing product calibrated to sell to/influence a targeted demographic. 
– Inculcating the imagination of our population into mass-targeted entertainment narratives funded by profit-driven corporations oversimplifies reality and reduces our ability to collectively pursue complex, long-term solutions, a required attribute for a plurality of citizens within a functional democracy.

Our transportation infrastructure creates less sustainability:

– Transporting goods that could be produced locally from one side of the world to the other to exploit the labor of more vulnerable human beings results in wasted resources and lost opportunities for quality employment.
– Allowing multinational corporations to operate obfuscates accountability, undercuts the benefits of local specialization, interferes with organic, self-determined local development, and increases corruption in exploited regions.
– Relying on non-renewable resource-fueled transportation to move goods builds inertia for a path of increasing societal instability as key non-renewable resources become more scarce/more contentious, impacting costs and the price of vital, distantly-manufactured goods.

Our legal infrastructure creates less equality:

– Determining access to quality legal representation through financial ability conglomerates legal power into the hands of those with the most resources.
– Consolidating legal power into the hands of those with the power to pay the most while making legal language and the concept of liability the foundation of our social order shields the powerful and exposes the vulnerable.
– Requiring a law degree and certification to understand, interpret, and practice the language on which the foundations of our social order rests strips citizens of our ability to comprehend and effectively impact the society on which we’re voting.

Our political infrastructure creates worse governance: 

– Consolidating political power into two private political parties discourages new ideas from emerging and facilitates the ease with which entrenched interests influence the direction of politics.
– Filtering potential representation through a two party system limits the ability of elected officials to represent the interests of the citizens who voted for them.
– Creating an arms-race of political funding makes corruption and pandering to entrenched interests a near-requirement for a successful candidacy.

Our hiring infrastructure creates less meritocracy:

– Requiring hundreds of hours of unpaid labor to apply for dream jobs while in reality 70-85% of jobs are achieved through networking results in depression, disappointment, and despair for many unconnected job seekers and obscures necessary systemic changes needed for a more equitable society.
– Using poorly written/tested algorithms to filter job seekers before a human even looks at their application means only those with inside knowledge of a system, a skill only tangentially related to being suited for a job, are hired.
– Forcing highly-productive human beings to use hundreds of hours learning and implementing useless knowledge about the hiring scheme du jour directs human energy towards dehumanizing, wasteful pursuits.

Our work infrastructure creates fewer positive societal contributions:

– 40 hours of work a week (or more) is not in line with a positive work/life balance, promotes resource waste in order to give human beings something to do during all those hours, and increases rates of environment degradation.
– Creating an environment where the workplace is a family, cause, passion, and source of life-enabling income confuses incentives to make work a positive contribution to our society. 
– Defining work as anything other than a paid pursuit that positively contributes to our society results in reward systems for activities that negatively impact our society, like banking for profit. 

Our intelligence infrastructure creates less intelligent decisions:

– Spying on the rest of the world using illegal and peace-disrupting methods due to an overabundance of paranoia is not an intelligent manner of information gathering.
–  Overthrowing democratically elected leaders while espousing a philosophy of promoting democracy results in the corruption of the idea of democracy and undercuts our central strength as a society.
– Influencing the governments and elections of other nations results in blowback in which other nations apply our methods against us. 

Our diplomatic infrastructure creates less peace:

– Hiring nearly all white, male graduates of Yale to interact with people from other nations gives these nations a one-sided view of this nation.
– Working with the lowest-hanging fruit in a host-nation results in us working with con-artists, grifters, and gangsters who use US power and the naivete and amoral ambition of the white, male graduates of Yale with limited life experiences to enhance their own domestic positions.
– Defining diplomacy as promoting US corporate interests at the expense of a host-nation’s social structure results in a less well-functioning society directly linked to our interference, thus creating resentment and negative consequences for peaceful coexistence.

Our land usage creates less community:

– Requiring an automobile for daily personal transportation reduces opportunities for physical, consciousness-enhancing walking, results in 6 million accidents a year (including 37,000 deaths), increases instances of individual anger and alienation, and wastes an immense amount of non-renewable resources.
– Planning cities or towns without robust and affordable intra and inter mass transportation increases the financial requirement for functional living and mandates systemic support for destructive/amoral industries, like gas and oil corporations. 
– Living in proximity to other human beings without diverse mechanisms and spaces to facilitate frequent communication and mutualistic community frays social cohesion.  

Our definitions of family create worse mental health outcomes:

– Believing children should grow up in the home they were born into without diverse and muscular input from a larger community creates a type of socialization inbreeding in which parents replicate their worst behaviors, tendencies, and ideas within the next generation.
– Treating children as anything other than respected, developing, unique human beings while enforcing an authoritarian hierarchy based on titles and positions within the family home does not build a culture of mutual respect; rather it encourages lies, deception, placation of authority figures, learned helplessness, and submission.
– Basing love within a family upon anything other than mutual love and respect damages a developing humans ability to love others without contingency and impairs their ability to construct meaningful relationships with others, resulting in long-term negative mental health consequences.

 Our cultural tendencies create more self-destructive actions:

– Needing a relative position within a constructed hierarchy to feed our egos leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and often directs our energy towards destructive activities.
– Maintaining Enforced At Work:Enforced At Family:Enforced At Entertainment Informational Environments for polarized demographics feeds cycles of mutual radicalization and frays social cohesion. 
– Becoming addicted to the pain of sacrifice as a source of validation for one’s sense of self-fulfillment, value, and satisfaction can push individuals towards abusive personal and professional relationships, a behavior individuals subjected to unexamined abuse often adopt and pass on to others over which they have power within their hierarchy.

If our society contains societal infrastructure that creates less safety, less freedom, less thoughtfulness, less compassion, less empathy, less sustainability, less equality, worse governance, less meritocracy, fewer positive societal contributions, less intelligent decisions, less peace, less community, worse mental health outcomes, more self-destructive actions, and fewer positive health outcomes, I’d argue our societal infrastructure promotes both parasitism and predation.

If we define our goal as a mutualistic society, we must construct our societal infrastructure to produce outcomes that better reflect the world we believe we should maintain.

Sacrifices Must Be Made

 

The idea of sacrifice has a special place in the US military: the greater the sacrifice on behalf of the US Government, the greater the glory of the act. When you completely buy in to this curious ideology, it can lead to some strange trade-offs.

Reflecting on this part of my career, I’ve come to understand how the idea of sacrifice on behalf of a greater cause can be weaponized, turning human bodies and minds into fuel for our national interests. While many in the military would say this is why they signed up and may even get angry at the suggestion that this sacrifice is unnecessary or not for a good cause, I can’t help but wonder: what is it that we’re sacrificing? And on behalf of what are we making these sacrifices for?

American values are, overall, nebulously understood within our culture. That being said, I think reasonable people can agree that killing innocents, wasting money on monstrously expensive boondoggles, and behaving like childish fools to our local partner forces are not in line with American values. What I witnessed while deployed with Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Afghanistan was a systematic sacrifice of values and any chance at lasting progress on behalf of bureaucratic report cards, and little else. From the missions we ran, the targets we chose, the way we collected and used our intelligence, to the tone we took with our partner forces; there were few parts of our operation not heavily impacted by the DC bureaucrat’s crippling-addiction to good news and positive stats.

What did this look like in practice and what are the real-world implications? One example is the way we treated “jackpots” – which is the military’s term for the kill or capture of someone designated as an official target. Jackpots were a very big deal for the higher-ups in DC. Think about every time you hear about a politician visiting the troops in Afghanistan. Every single VIP guest seemed obsessed over jackpots and incessantly demanded we increase the rate of killed/captured targets, regardless of the reality on the ground.

In reality, the way we measured the effectiveness of killing or capturing a jackpot was the resulting impact on a given terrorist network by that individual’s neutralization. Operations or drone strikes costing millions of dollars usually resulted in an “estimated disruption” of 2-3 weeks. When coupled with our constant undercutting of the systems and organizations we were purportedly creating to assist the Government of Afghanistan in becoming self-sufficient, it seemed this short-sighted, water-treading jackpot-centric strategy was all the Department of Defense knew how to do well.

Sometimes, when the Afghan forces we mentored were on a mission, they found that the compound they were raiding contained no named targets. On more than one such occasion, the American leadership demanded that they arrest any “Military-Aged Males” (men aged between 18 and 49) they could find in the area. While in custody, these individuals would be officially designated as targets so they could be counted in the monthly jackpot stats. In the absence of any actual targets, a target had to be invented in order to satisfy the demand from higher headquarters and our own commander’s desire for a good report card. I came to call this process “jackpot laundering.”

This unofficial “jackpot laundering” policy only added more friction to an already-tense warzone. The Afghan leadership, both the troops on the ground and the staff in their JOC (Joint Operations Center), often objected that these men were likely just local farmers. But they had no choice but to comply – American demands come with threats and consequences.

In addition to being self-defeating, this strategy is also a tremendous waste of time and resources. Our partner force would bring the Military-Aged Males back, interrogate them, give them official target nomenclature, and send them on to an Afghan prison. There, the prison intake staff would find they had no derogatory information or evidence to justify holding or sentencing their fellow countrymen. Oftentimes, they really were just local farmers, as we’d been warned. The farce would end with providing them cab fare and sending them on their way.

But it didn’t end there. Unfortunately, counting these men in the monthly jackpot stats required giving them target nomenclature – code names that would flag them as official targets, potential threats. Once in the system, they were lumped in the same category with terrorists and conspirators. This meant that once our bloated intelligence bureaucracy latched onto their details, they could be considered potential targets for future drone strikes or night raids. I often wondered how many militants began as simple farmers and were forced into violence or outright killed by a faulty designation assigned by a reward-seeking DC bureaucrat.

Watching this process occur in a circular pattern over a year, during which we had six different commanding officers, each with their own neurotic style and focus, was a sobering experience. Coupled with the ubiquitous racism, sexism, lack of regard for civilian lives, and deep yearning for less civilian oversight I witnessed throughout the Joint Special Operations community, practices like jackpot laundering left me with deep misgivings as to the efficacy and wisdom of allowing this organization to conduct dozens of operations all over the world while representing America.

What are the fruits of this labor? Not peace and harmony for the nation we’ve been building for nearly two decades. Not improved lives for the people living in Afghanistan or in America. Not more safety. Not more security. In fact, it seems that what we’re sacrificing is peace and security itself. The fruits of our labor seem to be nothing but a lot of good report cards for a lot of officers and bureaucrats, all at the expense of building the positive outcomes our rhetoric might have you believe were the end goal of our actions and tax dollars.

The gender and democratic reforms we’re so proud of showcasing exist as shoehorned policies maintained through a combination of local elite cooperation and international funding, without real local buy-in or organic support. If we leave now, these programs will crumble and the people we helped pave that path for will be at the mercy of violent, unforgiving men.

We’ve built nothing but a circus with thousands of American bureaucrats feverishly spinning plates on rods and posing for selfies while paying locals to run around and catch the plates as they fall. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t end our wars now, but if we do so without ensuring the sustainability of the fragile cultural institutions we’ve created, with a true and honest focus on conflict resolution and nation-building best practices, the fragile bloom of organic change in a highly war-exposed society will soon be riddled with American-imported bullets fired by the reactionary hands we’ve helped empower and radicalize.


Image result for mcchrystal's web afghanistan
Our many spinning plates.

But it’s not the bureaucrat’s fault. By building a feedback system based on quantitative metrics and buzzword-salad review bullets, the US government has made the esoteric, long-term journey towards a stable society into a Sisyphean task for all involved. Bureaucrats, military personnel, and contractors working on this problem set are not incentivized to work towards long-term sustainability and unilateral decision-making in their host government.

Treading water and creating as much churn as possible to perpetuate the need for their own existence seemed to be the primary role of nearly every person I met while deployed. Endless meetings about stats and strategy fill our days as we hear people blather on about the same thing the same types of people have been blathering on about since 2001. If you, an apostate, dare deliver stats or a narrative counter to the steady drumbeat of success, the information is thrown out or altered before it’s sent up to a higher headquarters, ensuring only rosy pictures make it to DC.

Back in our JOC, we would stand and cheer while watching the live footage of a successful drone strike on a handful of the 20+ flat screen TVs bedecking our walls. The other monitors would remain fixed on other drone footage, circling over compounds and villages all over the region and world, waiting for a bureaucrat to authorize the launch of a $115,000 hellfire missile to kill a man on a motorbike.

I remember one strike in which I saw a man’s body fly many meters through the air. When he landed, he took off running again. Everyone in the JOC seemed to become feral and filled with bloodlust, willing the second hellfire to descend on the running man. The second missile hit, but the man only flew a few meters before he got up to run again. Finally, the third missile blew the man’s body into pieces and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. This one terrorist network might have been disrupted for two weeks. Mission accomplished.

Another staff member turned to me and said, “You know, the guy was probably dead after the first one. Sometimes the body just keeps going for a while, even after death.”

We’re All Diplomats

Democratizing Diplomacy

Diplomacy, the practice of managing relations between two or more sides, is a fancy way of describing normal human interactions between diverse participants. Whether you’re an international worker in Dubai delicately managing your tenuous position, a refugee in Berlin trying to present as a nonthreatening worker bee to suspicious citizens, or an American businessman in Bangkok patiently waiting as your Chinese partner haggles, diplomacy is actively engaged. Yet when we discuss diplomacy, we think of Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, and Albright. We think of elites talking to elites in opaque, high-level policy negotiations filled with massive egos, cinematic intrigue, and historical discussions. This view of diplomacy is outdated and dangerously misunderstands how cultures interact and shape one another in a hyper-connected world.

I’m not writing this or offering ideas out of moral righteousness. While I do believe there are both moral and righteous solutions to difficult problems facing our civilization, I am more concerned with my own personal happiness and safety, and the happiness and safety of my friends and family. My problem is my friends and family live all over the globe, so when I hear violent rhetoric from my government threatening the people I love, my calculus for what safety and happiness means changes. I can’t just care about the people in my immediate surroundings or those I grew up with, because I’ve experienced the world as my neighborhood. The people living in regions America stereotypes and dehumanizes are just like me. I know this because I’ve met them, practiced diplomacy with them, and found connections in the roots of our shared humanity.

Why is US Diplomacy broken?

If Americans were represented well, the world would be a much different place. However, during my time as an officer in the US Army, I saw where the rubber meets the road in our foreign policy, and the takeaway was disheartening.

In South Korea, I saw us pursue the lowest hanging fruit to find local partners, working with known human traffickers and gangsters, who we called “Good Neighbors,” and invited onto our bases to play golf. When major, horrific incidents involving violent US service members and Korean civilians occurred, we used mass punishment and curtailed the rights of our 28,500 military personnel to virtue signal to the South Korean government. This didn’t change what our personnel did, however, and the more we hid behind our walls topped with concertina wire, the more of an unknown we became to the local people. When I asked friends, acquaintances, and random people from all walks of life in South Korea to do word association with “US Military” or “US Soldier,” invariably, nearly half would respond “rape,” “murder,” or “barbarians.”

South Korea 1One of my friends in South Korea at one of our favorite spots in Seoul, Strange Fruit, named after the Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol song. It was in this venue and venues like it that I heard music and met people that dramatically altered the way I see the world.

The Ville is the name given to the clusters of brothels and bars right outside US military bases in South Korea. It was at one of these bases, Camp Casey, where I spent two years of my life, between 2011-2013. And it was Camp Casey’s Ville, and the official support it received, that left me with a feeling of embarrassment for how my country was being represented. These were establishments that kidnapped and tricked women from the Philippines into coming to South Korea on the belief they’d be a singer. Once in country, they were trapped, stripped of their passports, and kept as sex slaves to service US military personnel and make money for local Korean businessmen. I regularly saw company and battalion commanders bring subordinates to these establishments for “morale building” parties.

In one sensing session with a representative from our higher headquarters, I brought up how harmful our activities were to the local population and to our own image, with our Soldiers spending an estimated $1 million in the Ville on payday weekends. In addition to the toxicity inherent in their situation, the exploited sex workers also served as intelligence gathering agents for our regional adversaries. Foreign agents cultivated relationships with the enslaved women, who would report on troop activities and training they overheard from compromised Soldiers..

During this session, it was explained to me that according to our own rules, any establishment we banned had to be reviewed every six months. If a bar passed a new review after six months, it had to be taken off the banned list. This meant only the most egregious violations resulted in bans, followed by a quick rebranding of the club for re-inspection, which it would invariably pass. Soon after, the club would return to its old practices, confident the US inspectors wouldn’t be back for years.

This was one the most frustrating moments of my career, particularly as this practice has persisted around our bases in South Korea for decades. Fortunately, however, thanks to concerted efforts from like-minded members of the military and quality leadership, a blanket ban on these establishments was instituted on behalf of the United States Forces Korea command a few years later.

In the Korean culture brief I gave to every Soldier in-processing with the 2nd Infantry Division, I taught that we share 90-95% of what makes us human with every other human on the planet. It’s the 5-10%, the cosmetic differences, that cause disagreements, fights, conflicts, and wars. Rather than focus on the small percentage of another person or culture that separates them or it from you, I told my Soldiers to focus on their shared humanity and all the ways in which we’re the same.

My three principles for how to interact with any culture effectively were:
1. Try to be polite, but more importantly, be actively humble about the fact that maybe you don’t know what another person finds polite.
2. Hone your situational awareness to figure out how to act in most situations quickly, even if you don’t speak the language.
3. In complicated situations where accurate communication is vital, have a friend who can interpret what you’re trying to say.
This last step obviously requires making friends within the local population.

korea 4I taught a Korean culture class for Soldiers in-processing with the 2nd Infantry Division.

Diplomacy and increasing empathy between groups is my passion, so while I was in Korea I tried my hand at creating a new narrative for our local relationship. To this end I set up cultural exchanges between US Soldiers and Korean military personnel and hand-picked accurately diverse representatives within our service to interact with students at Korean universities. In my personal time I facilitated art projects and independent rock concerts to improve relations with the liberal-artist demographic, trend setters who were historically antagonistic towards the United States military.

The goal wasn’t to build rent-seeking relationships, like our Good Neighbor Program so often ended up doing. Rather my purpose was to make real connections and lasting friendships, a goal that’s difficult to capture in a way the metrics-obsessed military services understand. The result on the ground, however, was a community of individuals interacting outside national identity and finding common ground through shared passions and experiences. Witnessing human beings from different cultures connect with other humans beings from other cultures left a strong impression on my psyche.

Through my new friends, I learned about a local musician’s collective helping its members survive the conservative culture of South Korea, which told them they were crazy for expressing themselves. I learned that many of these musicians were also full-time activists fighting unfettered gentrification in the traditional arts district of Hongdae and elsewhere in their city. I learned that the rent for many small stores and venues had increased from $1,500 to $7,000 a month in only a few years. I learned about the harshness of South Korea’s National Security Law when my friends passed me a petition to protest the prosecution of their friend, Park Jong-kun. I saw Park Geun-hye get elected in 2012, which my friends called catastrophic as they accurately predicted her autocratic impulses. But most importantly, I learned I loved my friends in South Korea just as much as I loved anyone from my hometown.

 

Korea 2Talking about independent art and music for a Korean documentary.

When I went to Afghanistan in 2014, I saw us ignore what I’d learned in Korea and instead throw money at individuals and organizations, perpetuating corruption and fueling cycles of violence. In a culture where life is cheap and violence ubiquitous, adding daily planeloads of ammunition and suitcases full of cash didn’t earn anyone’s respect. By using our typical strategies, we created dependencies and exploitative relationships.

The plethora of programs we’ve set up to increase the cultural fluency of our personnel have met with varying levels of failure. Most notable of these was the AFPAK hands program, built to add highly-trained, culturally fluent personnel to deployed formations. The program turned out to be a career killer for officers who signed up. AFPAK positions lacked Key Development qualifications, something promotion boards, who spend mere minutes on each officer’s file, look for when deciding who gets a green light. Many personnel within the program were passed over in favor of their colleagues, who’d remained on a standard career path. In addition to this program, we’ve tried MiTT teams, PRTs, and Special Operations Advisor Teams/Groups, among others. Our new initiative, the Security Force Assistance Brigade, looks as mismanaged, poorly implemented, and doomed to failure as the rest. With so much failure, it seemed to me it wasn’t our individual programs that were the problem, but rather our overall system.
Afghan 1My friend and interpreter in Afghanistan.

As my team leader explained to me at least ten times during our year together, the British military advisor model was vastly different from the US version due to budgetary concerns and constraints. Their strategy was to deliver small equipment upgrades to their partner units and wait until they demonstrated proficiency, the ability to maintain the equipment, and accountability before giving more. The US model, unconstrained by financial concerns, was to flood the country with weapons, money, and technology.

In my last few months in country, I came to see our initiatives as so backwards I intentionally slow-rolled our requisition request for night-vision capable sniper scopes and MK-19 weapons systems, which the commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan was attempting to deliver to the Afghans in order to get an additional bullet for his Officer Evaluation Report. I could not, in good conscience, deliver night-vision capable sniper scopes and MK-19s to Afghan personnel who’d repeatedly failed to maintain accountability for basic items.

After privately consulting with the Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) team on our camp, I decided giving our partner force these sniper scopes would most likely result in the deaths of future US personnel. So I did everything within my limited power to prevent this from occurring without going to jail in the process.

When the commander of our Joint Task Force, 3-10, became unhappy with the state of corruption within our Afghan partner unit and tried to shake up their command team, the Afghan officers patiently waited for that commander to go home, as they always did. Shortly after, we became embroiled in a toxic leadership issue, which consumed a great deal of our bandwidth. Additional distractions included the fallout from our camp commander offering one of our interpreters $500,000 for sex, and having multiple members of our ODA sent home for sleeping with members of our Cultural Support Team. 

By the time reports detailing our on the ground progress made it to DC, the information was filtered through so many career-oriented officials it was unrecognizable. This made orders coming back down nonsensical and divorced from the reality we were experiencing.

Capture

A graphic showing how information flows from people on the ground gathering information and executing orders, up to decision-makers, passing through filters that strip out bad news, then back to the people on the ground.

This is one of the many reasons experts and officials based in the US live in an alternate reality. It’s not their fault, it’s the information they’re fed. Garbage in, garbage out. Even when they flit around war zones as VIP tourists, the briefs they receive are specifically tailored to paint a rosy picture that confirms what we’re doing is right. This includes briefing our guests juked stats, which in the Afghan context meant naming military-aged males we found during night raids with target nomenclature after the fact and counting their kill or capture as a Jackpot, regardless of our intel or whether we had derogatory information about the individual beyond living in the same village as our original target. These men would be sent on to be processed at an Afghan prison, where they were then released due to lack of evidence supporting the charge and given cab fare home.

The clearest example of this performative behavior came during a live fire exercise put on for top Afghan and US military officials visiting our camp. During the exercise, when the Afghans were supposed to perform a dangerous call for fire, their radio wasn’t even plugged in. It was a show put on to make them look more capable than they actually were. In reality, while the Afghans yelled instructions into a dead radio, watched by our VIP guests from a distance, members of our ODA were secretly calling up on their own radio in another location on the Afghan’s behalf. The exercise was declared a major success by everyone and the illusion of progress was reported up the chain.

Afg 2
Eating our weekly Thursday evening feast of kebabs with our interpreters and Afghan brothers. Sharing food is my favorite form of diplomacy. 

This isn’t the result of a few bad ideas, a few bad apples, or any one country with a difficult mission set. Our self-defeating, short-sighted policies are replicated again and again, with our initiatives often projecting our worst cultural impulses onto local populations as we attempt to maintain the perception of a positive narrative for western press and officials. These are not exceptions, but a rather too common result of our ham-fisted, militaristic diplomatic initiatives. Our relations are lost in bureaucratic mechanisms using poorly thought out quantitative metrics to measure an ill-defined version of success, leading to perverse incentives for career-minded officials at the tactical and operational levels.

While defenders of our State Department might object to this characterization of our foreign relations initiatives as a gross oversimplification, I respond by pointing to the State Department’s limited functionality, impact, and initiative prioritization, starkly observed when comparing the organization’s Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification of $37.8 Billion with the Department of Defense’s $686 billion slice. Any way you look at it, DoD, our sledgehammer, is having an outsized impact on America’s relations with the rest of the world.

The Worldview of the American Elite

At the core of our diplomatic incompetence is the hubris many American citizens, scholars, and officials unknowingly carry with them as a result of their socialization into popular American political culture. We assert we are a global hegemon, but do not match this narrative with measured and patient rhetoric. Representatives of the most powerful nation on earth must be humble, self-aware, and understanding when dealing with partners. American exceptionalism, an idea created by wealthy white men to justify the genocide of America’s native inhabitants and the manipulation of sovereign governments at the behest of corporate interests, is a self-defeating attitude when carried abroad. Unfortunately, understanding US relations outside this context is much to ask from a foreign policy elite weaned on the idea of US hegemony.

How did our elites reach the conclusion that overwhelming American dominance of global affairs was prudent, and why do these elites so heavily influence our foreign policy in the first place? For those answers, we have to go back to the genesis of the modern concept of national sovereignty in the west: The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

Let’s examine a fundamental assumption about this historical event, as espoused by an elite foreign policy luminary, major architect of our current foreign policy thinking, and war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger touts the vital importance of the national sovereignty system established by the Treaty, which attempted to end centuries of European religious jihad and barbarism through diplomatic tools and centralized control.

In practice this codified the territorial borders of whatever European warlords happened to be in power at the time into the legalistic notion of the nation-state and transferred religious authority to the head of state. This was a massive historical consolidation of power. Enter the age of nationalism, a religious belief that holds the territorial borders of warlords and kings are sacred markers of identity, character, value, and whether an individual is deserving of empathy.

This paved the way for delusional autocrats like Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, whose self-indulgence at the expense of those within his administrative territory is legendary. History is replete with examples of sovereigns like Louis who considered their own populations subhuman and unworthy of dignity. A human life is merely another statistic to be counted when tallying the resources of the state.

It makes sense that Kissinger and his followers look to Westphalia and the Sun Kings of the world for guidance. They believe a nation-state is best viewed from the top-down, with whatever elites were born or lucked into power serving as preferable representatives to the less-worthy non-elites living within that nation’s borders. Their professional worldview also has the benefit of being self-serving, speaking wealth to power on behalf of the already wealthy and powerful. When viewed from this perspective, invading, bombing, massacring, exploiting, and punishing the regular people living in an administered region due to the actions of their rulers seems reasonable.

The debatable notion of the state as the best representative of its citizenry to other populations is particularly problematic within highly-polarized democracies. The regional administrative authority is too simplistic and unwieldy a construct to accurately represent tens of millions of individuals. In the age of personal branding through social media, national governments are poor arbiters of a national ethos. Rather, individuals can represent themselves directly to other individuals all around the world. But this view of international relations is a threat to the state’s stranglehold on official diplomacy.

So it makes sense when the most influential scholars favored by current policymakers preach policy options that perpetuate white male corporate dominance of international affairs. They’re more shills than actual realists, and prattle on about how countering Violent Extremist Organizations, countering near-peer competitors, and maintaining America’s top position in the global balance of power is accomplished through top-down, elite-centric military and economic policies that coincidentally concentrate power and wealth into the hands of their class.

This reliance on violence to enforce the will of state elites brought the world to the edge of nuclear destruction, both intentionally and by accident, multiple times a decade for multiple decades. And yet these experts posit that because there hasn’t yet been a nuclear war in the 70 years since nuclear weapons were invented, this short span of historic time stands as proof of their wisdom, rather than a warning about powerful, irresponsible, highly-neurotic men rolling the dice and coming up lucky.

Throughout the 20th century the USSR and US, despite all the talk of nuclear peace, transformed their ideological slap-fight into deadly civil conflicts using dysfunctional, abused populations left to boil by their former imperial occupiers. Democratically elected leaders were killed, organizations for workers were destroyed, and ideology trumped humanity. The “unsentimental analysis of underlying factors” of Kissinger’s realpolitik, is merely a disregard for psychology, sociology, spirituality, aesthetics, and anything not immediately of value to those with enough power to gaslight themselves into uncritically believing in their own righteousness. There is no cold, rational logic at play here, that’s an illusion peddled by the powerful to justify exploitative behavior. Even without the trappings of divine right, their inherent belief in their superior abilities, intellect, and the rightness of the power offered through privilege and position blinds them to reality.

Before they threatened every child in the world with nuclear apocalypse, the practitioners of this governing philosophy were using racist policies from American history, such as the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary, to justify the overthrow of self-determined governments, contributing to much of the instability used as justification for military interventions today. And now they’re at it again, letting fear and their carefully honed ivory tower disconnect from reality lead them down unwise and dangerous roads.

Typical practitioners of this amorphous ideology claim they use logic, but in reality their ideas are simply fear-mongering about a looming, supposedly competitive “other” dressed up with jargon and theory. Their worldview rests on the Hobbesian premise that life outside civilization, in the state of nature, is, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But if this is the way of the world, and the point of civilization is to temper our primal competitive instincts, these deep-thinkers fail to offer a compelling vision for how their philosophy does anything but tread water.

Describing the international system as anarchic and dooming humans to repeating destructive cycles, despite making real, objective progress in lowering our intraspecies murder rates and food insecurity through the mitigating tools of civilization, undersells the capacity of both the individual and society to change in significant ways. When one of our vaunted foreign policy gurus proclaims, “We can have no better because of human nature,” I believe they fundamentally misunderstand one of our species’ greatest strengths: malleability.

Taking chances and increasing collaboration, not competing for an esoteric balance of power, is a superior goal for human civilization. Individuals can change and societies do change. Prescribing a single mode of existence for our species isn’t merely wrong-headed and ahistorical, it denies us hope of future progress. But the popular version of realism practiced by the already powerful uses fear and a national media they dominate to warn the masses away from needed systemic change. They’re on the side of the Sun King and the status quo.

Unfortunately, according to my direct observations while working for the US foreign policy establishment, this worldview is nearly ubiquitous. Exacerbating their myopia is the absence of self-reflection and personal accountability, a direct result of a field dominated by competition and sacrifice-obsessed wealthy, white male culture. Violence-forward, inherently exploitative diplomacy, with little-to-no regard for blowback and local self-determination, is what this viewpoint boils down to; with success measured in economic openness and regime malleability.

Not only are viewpoints outside the norm viewed with derision, most foreign policy elites I’ve encountered won’t take the time to use their heralded brainpower to stop to consider ideas they’ve never heard before. They don’t have to. Additionally, if something isn’t written using the language, grammar, and cultural signals of the white upper class, it’s considered poor scholarship and not worth anyone’s time. What results is insular, ivory-tower groupthink that usually ends in vulnerable people somewhere in the world getting killed or exploited either intentionally or on accident.

We now have a synthetic world order cobbled together under unstable and bipolar US leadership, the common argument being that US hegemony increases international stability. This specifically defined stability, created in the post-war system by realist scholars, was seemingly proof enough that chaos would rule if other organizing methods were attempted.

Now, with the rise of Trumpian foreign policy and nativist impulses, that argument is not only obviously mistaken, but the core of their beliefs, that we should consolidate authority and power into a single hegemonic nation, looks foolish and short-sighted. Pax Americana was a wildly narcissistic and unsustainable idea rooted in classic white paternalistic instincts. It’s also self-defeating. By setting yourself up as the world leader and fostering a competitive system, you’re creating a world of enemies for yourself.

Collaboration, while more difficult, reduces the frictions caused by competition and, in the present context of abundant resources, artificial scarcity, instant communication, and accessible international transportation, creates synergistic effects as cultures and ideas are absorbed into one another. It also helps get at humanity’s collective action problem, a devil of an issue we need to figure out if we’re to effectively address the major crisis of our era: our changing climate and the tens of millions of human refugees and countless displaced other species we must find a place for or fight in the coming decades. Instead of assuming the heavy, corrosive mantle of global leadership, we should be one among equals and treat our brothers and sisters around the world accordingly. On this front, our current policies are clearly not serving us well.

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Real diplomacy is practiced on the ground, creating relationships between many individuals that interweave together, strengthening the bonds between cultures and national identities.

How do we improve?

It is beyond time our diplomacy was democratized. But what does this mean in practice? First, that we acknowledge and understand that diplomacy is not performed best by a highly-trained cadre of elites who all went to the same prep school. Rather it exists and is performed anywhere and everywhere two disparate individuals or organizations interact. It’s messy, and interactions don’t always leave positive impressions. But when practiced well on a large scale, the net benefit is increased understanding and empathy between populations, lowering the likelihood of, and therefore the need to prepare for, conflict. This circumvents the security dilemma by removing the national government as the focal point of international relations, which has plagued the minds of foreign policy thinkers seeking peace for decades.

With this in mind, we must set about expanding opportunities to strengthen, deepen, and systematically increase the frequency of these interactions. Getting from where we are now to a more peaceful, less caustic world is a multi-generational road, but the following first steps would serve as a strong start:

  1. Revamp, revitalize, and increase the visibility of the U.S. Peace Corps.

           – The current state of this important institution is abysmal. Lack of funding, poor organization, archaic bureaucracy, and lack of vision outside well-intentioned post-imperial ideology stymy what could be a key tool in cultural diplomacy. The specifics of how we fix bureaucracy through cultural and structural change is a long discussion involving organizational psychologists, 360 assessments, flat hierarchies, and other best practice techniques that allow bureaucracies to scale while retaining quality. Suffice it to say the Peace Corps has much room for improvement and would greatly benefit from new ideas and new structure.

  1. Federal cultural exchange program

           – Sending Americans abroad and accepting foreign nationals into the US is vital if we’re to increase international fluency, reduce cross-cultural tension, and equip the US electorate with important skills of the future. Right now the US population is dangerously disconnected from the rest of the world. With a well-funded, well-run federal program that trains Americans in cultural diplomacy and sends them abroad to trade lives with an international equivalent for a year or two, we address that problem head on. Reducing the likelihood of conflict between two nations is all about reducing the frequency and intensity of friction points. Building a large international alumni of exchangers with true personal connections serves as a useful mitigating factor for those frictions. In addition, the diversity this exposes Americans to, both exchangers who live within other cultures and residents who experience other cultures within their world, reduces fear-based voting patterns common within low-information demographics.

  1. America centers

           – The State Department should have non-embassy American education centers in international cities that promote American culture. If we truly represent the diversity, creativity, and dynamism that encapsulates our national culture, the positive narratives write themselves. What this could look like is a welcoming entertainment, recreation, and discussion center where local nationals can stop in to experience US culture first hand. Soft power strategies, like the promotion and funding of local art, facilitation of cross-cultural discussions, hosting local thought leaders, and more can be used in a quasi-official capacity to take the stodginess out of official diplomacy and bring engagements to the average local citizen. This is how we “promote American values” in the world, from the ground up with positive interactions supporting diversity of thought and experience within nations in the same way we support it at home.

How is this paid for? By reducing funding to the number one impediment to diplomacy: our Department of Defense.

Reduce the military to increase peace

As many military professionals will tell you, if the nation continues to ask its military to do everything, we must continually grow funding for the organization. If, however, we were to close down our overseas bases, reduce operations in the blowback-ridden War on Terror to critical security assistance, and end the War on Drugs, we could scale down the organization and move money back into government functions that enable sustainable peace. The point of a military, after all, should be to work itself out of a job.

First, the US Army, my service, should be drastically scaled down. Our Marines should be our primary infantry force, with the US Army managing a small, Special Operations-centric force of under 100,000 personnel capable of rapid, precise deployments around the globe. Personnel cost are the service’s top expense, meaning reducing numbers leads to major cost savings. Our Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard are necessary to ensure the safety of global trade and travel, but our standing, active duty Army is a bloated mess. Each of its many functions, after winnowing down the extensive mission creep of the fear-based Global War on Terror and transferring equipment, could be better performed by the other services, leaving Army command free to specialize and hone a razor-sharp force of highly-trained professionals in a world where scalpels help and sledgehammers destroy.

As State Department funding is increased and Department of Defense funding scaled down, the services would return to their core function: fighting and winning America’s armed conflicts. For too long short-sighted policymakers have put our services in no-win situations on the ground, asking them to invade, secure, stabilize, teach, train, and build cultures and nations. This is not an armed service function and we should never have asked them to spend limited training resources and time adjusting to fit this idea.

To this end, our operations in the Middle East must be dramatically reimagined. Aerial bombings and drone strikes should cease as we refocus on building real, on the ground security. We’ve confused the ability to inflict damage and suffering on a population with progress. This is a false narrative. Throwing lives and dollars into a furnace and hailing the sacrifice as noble is foolish. Claiming that honoring the memory of these lives requires more sacrifices is how elites manipulate nationalism to perpetuate their own interests.

The savings we find as we reduce our wars and our preparation for wars would shift directly to fund the above programs, the diplomatic dividends of which will further reduce the need for a large standing force, freeing up even more funding. This is the opposite of our current model, which sees the military as a larger component of our policy initiatives and budget each year.

Objections of course would come from the scare-monger sector, the same crowd who talked about missile-gaps and mine-shaft gaps and drove the US to waste trillions of dollars creating 66,500 nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Are near-peer adversaries a threat? Yes, but not in the way these thinkers imagine in their balance of power fever-dreams, and not a threat throwing billions at dead-end military budgets will counter. To address Russia and China, the US must influence the world, including the domestic populations of our would-be adversaries, through inspiration, not as the least-bad hypocrite with nuclear weapons.

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t warn that scaling down operations against Violent Extremist Groups will allow breathing room for these organizations to recruit and train for attacks on western soil in the short term. But that’s how blowback works. We were in their countries, we killed their people, and we can never take back our many mistakes. We’ve been placed in this precarious position by self-interested corporate shills manipulating our fears to sell their products and attain lucrative, taxpayer funded contracts.

Either we choose the easy wrong by continuing to expand our military, militarize our diplomacy, and maintain violent status quos in vulnerable regions by keeping our boots on their necks until we bankrupt ourselves, or choose the hard right by accepting the short-term increased risk of terrorist attacks on US soil for the long-term sustainable rewards of a more peaceful, less competitive human population on this planet.

Hatred of the United States Government, not our freedom, not our way of life, not our average life expectancy, happiness index, infant mortality rate, or GDP per capita, but the real, horrible, violent, and dishonorable things the United States Government, and nearly all European governments. have actually done all over the world for centuries is why the west is the target of terrorist attacks. Our continued presence and determination to mold populations in our image will always serve as kerosene for the fires of their hatred. To reduce the flame, we must change the behavior of our government, not strangle populations into submission. Understanding the consequences of our government’s actions, taking power from those who have represented us poorly, and making this hard choice is how we redefine American Exceptionalism.

Leading from the front

As much as the United States likes to view itself as a shining city on a hill, our actions tell a different story. We can change this by leading by example on important changes in international policy. Three ways we could dramatically change the way the world functions would be to focus on ending tax havens, addressing the scourge of multinational corporations exploiting the lax labor laws of one nation to undercut competitors and create monopolies on products, and getting serious about international arms control.

Ending tax havens, which companies and individuals use to reduce the amount of money they contribute back to their societies while systematically underpaying their workers, which forces the state to supplement worker incomes with costly welfare programs, is easier than anyone who benefits wants us to believe. Sanctions on known tax havens, vigorous prosecution of individuals using real estate, art, and other assets to hide their money, changes in laws broadening the definition of tax evasion to include corporate inversions and other accounting tricks, and an international monitoring body created to identify and recommend action would address the trillions of sheltered dollars used to fund anything a small group of self-interested wealthy few choose. These activities range anywhere from donating to charities to funding corrupt regimes or militias.  

Beyond tax havens, we can change how we talk about labor exploitation through domestic laws barring multinational corporations from accessing sovereign markets with labor standards the company does not adhere to throughout its entire enterprise. If a company wants access to the market of a developed nation like the United States, they must pay their employees, wherever they are, the wages and benefits of a developed nation. Anything else is exploitative, stifles domestic entrepreneurship, and facilitates too big to fail monopolies.

Our current international economic system exploits labor and developmental differences between nations, creating a false, unsustainable economy. Racing to the bottom by moving operations to the nation with the most favorably negotiated business environment only works in the short term. As convergence theory holds, nations use modern technology and techniques to skip steps of development and raise living standards. As this happens, the global economy, fueled by rich nations buying cheap goods produced by poorly paid workers in poor nations, will crash. It’s better to address this issue now rather than allow it to become a crisis.

Finally, the number of arms the developed world has sold or transferred to the developing world is unforgivable, resulting in 200,000 – 400,000 annual violent deaths on average. AK-47s don’t grow on trees in Africa or the Middle East, yet these regions are flooded with small arms and light weapons. A buyback program instituted by the United States through the United Nations to remove and destroy as much of this weaponry as possible would directly address the ability for groups to inflict and sustain violence. If a nation decides they want to try to game the system and run guns through a buyback country, that is when we stand up and target individuals and organizations breaking international law with sanctions and punishment.

Additionally, a ban on domestic arms manufacturers selling their weaponry to volatile regions and states with porous borders through which arms flow, in conjunction with a buyback, would drain the capacity for mass violence small arms and light weapons facilitate. Arms manufacturers should be held accountable for how their products are used if the organization demonstrates a consistent lack of diligence in their sales practices. If these manufacturers claim the right to create these powerful instruments, they must accept the responsibility that comes with that power. As part of the reparation package the developed world owes the developing world it exploited to acquire its current standard of living, trauma centers and psychological aid initiatives should be implemented to help local populations recover from the cycles of violence to which they’ve been subjected.

By going after tax havens, the global exploitation of labor by multinational corporations, and the proliferation and impact of small arms and light weapons, our foreign policy actions would truly match our values of equality, freedom, and justice for all.

Foreign policy for all

According to the foreign policy establishment, these ideas are unworkable. They might write op-eds decrying the naiveté of foreign policy amateurs who dare to step foot in their hallowed halls. They might pen long reads explaining why an incremental approach crafted by technocrats is the only way to properly interact with the international system. Or they might ignore these ideas, because why should they pay them any attention? But their arguments will fail because they do not respect diversity of thought enough to learn how to listen to people who are not of their class.

Their solutions
are non-solutions that will be manipulated and subverted by members of their own group to perpetuate an actively disintegrating status quo, as they always have and always will. A true break from these old strategies is needed and is happening already, whether current elites are on board or not. The smoothness with which we transition depends a great deal on the severity of their recalcitrance.

I’ll end with something a Russian man wrote that changed my life. In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevski writes of a noblewoman visiting an Elder, a special position of respect in Russian monasteries during the 1870’s, when the story is set. The woman, Madame Khokhlakov, asks the Elder for his spiritual opinion on a personal problem. She explains in detail her feelings of loving humanity, but hating the individual. In her mind she would gladly sacrifice everything for the sake of humanity, but can’t bring herself to love individual humans. I believed I felt that way for a great deal of my life. But after finding peace with myself and coming to terms with all the things I’ve seen and done, I know it’s now the opposite for me. I love every individual I meet, but hate humanity for what it’s done to all of the individuals I love.

I’ve never met a bad person. Even when I looked a member of Daesh in the eyes when I was transporting him as a prisoner, I didn’t see evil. I saw a man who’d only known his own way to live. Feeling empathy as we were boarding the back of an airplane together, I asked my interpreter whether he thought this guy’d ever flown before. I was worried he might be very afraid as we lead him blindfolded up a ramp with a jet engine blasting us in the face.

My interpreter replied, “Probably not. Sometimes they get captured on purpose to sleep with a roof over their head and get a hot meal.”

We might have conscious life on this planet, but until we learn how to be humble about it and work together to increase overall well-being, it remains up for debate. A conscious species doesn’t bake the possibility of accidental self-annihilation into its administrative policies, drape it in colorful flags and primal chest-beating, and call it grand strategy. That’s the fatalistic self-destructive impulse of a species lacking perspective. Humanity, in all its highly adaptable glory, can do better. Democratized diplomacy and collaboration are how.

Achievement

They were prepared for the exam. Despite myriad recent distractions, the shows, the clubs, the book groups, a brief jaunt down to Argentina with the crew, they were prepared. They’d studied hard, committing their time and energy to their ideal self. They would win. They would achieve. They would gain fame and fortune and be praised for their greatness. This was their fate.

From the womb, they’d been soothed by Mozart and fed proper food in proper portions of vitamins and minerals. They’d gone to the proper pre-pre-pre school, the proper pre-pre school, the proper pre-school, and certainly the proper schools, until college. It was in their choice for college they demonstrated their individuality. The path they selected for themselves from the available paths laid out by one of their pre-college counselors was both bold and alternative.

Rather than Harvard, they chose Oxford, demonstrating unique wisdom and foresight. They knew a Harvard diploma would set expectations high for future employers, minimizing any delta between expectations and performance. A small delta meant a small impression. And they refused to settle for small impressions. Oxford was equally respected, but more exotic in New York, creating mental space in future supervisors for larger deltas.

They walked into the examination room. It was half-full and half-lit, as if a building employee had forgotten to flip a second lightswitch. They felt embarrassed for the organization, a think tank on the cutting edge of innovative brainstorming techniques. While relatively new on the scene, the organization was exceptionally well-funded, connected, and positioned. They had boldly picked this company during a consultation with one of their career strategists earlier that month.

They sat down at an empty desk facing a blank wall. They were a few minutes early, as always, and began to meditate away any lingering anxiety. Mid-breath, the surface of their desk switched on and a legal memo appeared.

They’d signed plenty of NDA’s, and one was as pointless as the next. Everyone talked to their friends, and their friends were extremely successful, enterprising, and connected people who’d told them to expect some trendy mind tricks during the organization’s screening exam. No problem, they were a broad thinker. They signed their NDA.

Behind them, in the back of the room, a voice spoke.

“Has everyone signed the NDA?”

Those who were seated facing the front of the room turned to see a pale face in a navy blue baseball cap address them from a small hole in the wall.

“Please don’t turn. Sit down. You have 15 minutes to answer our screening questions.”

They were confused but compliant. They sat at the clean desk ready to begin whatever challenge was set before them. The surface lit up and options appeared.

“Take test?”

They pressed the red “Yes” with their finger and the screen changed. At the same time, on two walls, projections of YouTube videos, one titled “Maurice Ravel – Bolero (1928) Electronic by Doxent Zsigmond (A=432Hz),” and another, “Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970) – full album” appeared on two of the blank walls, their discordant noise filling the dim room. They rolled their eyes.

“Test instructions: Please think about and respond to each question.”

They thought this was overly simplistic, but did not dwell. They pressed the purple “Start.”

“Question 1: Who are you?”
A: A human
B: A nationalist
C: A being
D: A mammal

They were taken aback. They’d taken strange personality tests with strange questions before, most recently at the best career services center in the country run by Monty Williams’ father, but this wasn’t the same. They’re screener questions, they thought as they selected the most reasonable answer. They noted nervous giggles around them as the music volume ticked up.

“Question 2: Where are you?”

A: In a room
B: In a city
C: In a galaxy
D: The same place as everything else

They were starting to get it, they thought. They’d read about these questions. They weren’t real questions, they were designed to confuse and disorient to test mental flexibility and adaptation. They thought they were so tricky, with their stupid music and quasi-intellectual bullshit, but they were prepared. They pressed their finger to the screen.

“Question 3: What is the capital of London?”

A: England
B: London
C: United Kingdom
D: Edinburgh

They definitely got it now. These were mental sabotage, designed to inflict self-doubt in overconfident egos. They’d heard these techniques from psychological operations professionals themselves, so they were well prepared. They selected their answer confidently.

“Question 4: What would you change about yourself if you were immortal?”

A: Nothing
B: Everything
C: Some things
D: Specific things

This annoyed them. What was this question supposed to reveal? Where was the meat? They’d prepared! They wanted to be asked to analyze complex situations with a given set of conflicting facts to determine probability. That’s how they were told they’d be screened! Maybe they’d offer their insight into improvements after they were on payroll. They selected their answer.

“Question 5: What would you change about yourself if souls transmigrated?”

A: Nothing
B: Everything
C: Some things
D: Specific things

They were displeased and logged the same answer.

“Question 6: Describe the type of leader you’d be if your philosophy mixed Plato’s Republic with Machiavelli’s Prince and Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy, and you lived in the Lord of the Rings universe during the 2nd age.”

Here’s something they could answer! Plato, no sweat! They’d read him as a freshman. Machiavelli? Please! They’d eaten Machiavelli for breakfast sophomore year! Ayn Rand? That’s kid stuff. Their investment lending professors tore Ayn Rand a new asshole junior year. But Lord of the Rings? Their dad read them Lord of the Rings as a kid, and they’d seen the movies, but they hardly felt like an expert.

“According to Plato’s Republic, “The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” Plato is calling for a rule by the enlightened, in this case saying Middle Earth society will never see an end to trouble until ruled by the wise. Through Machiavellian machinations, playing orc off goblin, man off hobbit, elf off dwarf, I would maintain and increase my power as an enlightened philosopher ruler. Using Randian economics, often associated with Hayek and Friedman, I’d identify innovative leaders from each faction to organize ranked hierarchies of the most talented and most productive orcs, elves, and dwarves. In this way we’d create commerce and kinship among the many factions, relying on a Kantian Triangle of mutually reinforcing peace to promote stability in the international order as we transitioned to democracy.”

They’d surprised themselves. They looked over their answer one more time and felt good. Once their brain juices started flowing, the nonsense spilled forth. If it was gibberish they wanted, it was gibberish they’d get. They looked at the nearest YouTube video, playing louder than ever. Five minutes remaining.

“Question 7: Which one of these taboos have you never thought about committing yourself?”

A: Pedophilia
B: Rape
C: Treason
D: Public Sex

They looked from question to answers. Each answer implied the other three, officially recorded for all history, used for data analytics and algorithmic computations by HR professionals, AI recruiting programs, credit agencies, and government background checks. They looked up and around to their peers. There were fewer than before, but it was hard to tell how many had left in the half-light. Maybe some had come to this question and simply refused to answer. They pressed next without recording anything and the next question popped up. They were relieved.

“Question 8: How confident are you that you’re not in a simulation?”

A: 0%-25% Confident
B: 25%-50% Confident
C: 50%-75% Confident
D: 75%-100% Confident

They trusted their instinct and input their answer, though they truly couldn’t hear themselves think over the music as it crescendoed further. This was torture.

“Question 9: What question would you ask us to learn more about us?”

They looked at the timer on one of the deafening YouTube rackets; 2.5 minutes left. Crunch time, their favorite time. They’d been addicted to the singular feeling of exhilaration they received when pursuing extreme challenges with extreme deadlines all the way back to their pre-pre-pre school placement exam. They lived for these moments where everything was on the line. If they registered a bad result with the global scoring system they could lose their perfect credit score, their perfect social interaction score, their perfect intelligence score, everything. Their adrenaline pumping in their ears, they wrote:

“How did you convince your funding stream to allow these screening questions?”

1.5 minutes left.

“Question 10: What do you want to figure out during your lifetime?”

They knew they didn’t know now, but they also knew they could find the perfect answer in 1.25 minutes. The music disassembled sound around them.

There were many things they wanted to figure out. They wanted to figure out how to know when they’d won, they wanted to figure out how to keep winning, and they wanted to figure out how to make it so once they won, they’d never have to compete again. 1 minute.

They wanted to figure out what made others think, they wanted to figure out why others thought differently, and they wanted to figure out how to make others think more like them. 45 seconds.

They wanted to figure out what they were supposed to be doing with their life, they wanted to figure out how to monetize what they were supposed to be doing with their life, and they wanted to figure out how to be the best at and make the most money with what they were supposed to be doing with their life. 30 seconds.

They wanted to figure out who they were, they wanted to figure out how they became who they are, and they wanted to figure out how to help others become…they had it.

The desk switched off after they hit “Submit.” They stood up as the lights came up to full and the music ended. They’d been mistaken, no one had left during the test. Their eyes adjusted back to full-light as they saw a familiar face walking towards them.

“What did you think?” They asked.

“It was just like Mr. Zossy from Latin, weird, short, and a little creepy.” They answered.

“Yeah, we have a zany HR.”

“So when do I start?”

“Whenever you want! Your uncle sent our director a note about how happy he was when you chose us, so she’s thrilled to have you on board.”

“That’s splendid! I’ve got a trip to Iceland coming up, how about right after?”

“Good stuff! But, why wasn’t I invited?”

“It’d be awkward with Cessily there, right?”

“Oh! I didn’t know! Well, have fun! Oxford Forever!”

The two each made a round O using four fingers as one side and their thumbs as the other, pressed their O’s together over their heads, and bumped chests, shouting, “Oxford Forever!”

“Harvard Forever!” was heard in response from across the room. The Oxfordians slipped custom shivs from their shin holsters and commenced to battle with three foolishly unarmed thugs from Harvard. Other examinees sighed and looked on as they filed out.  

Black and blue, but victorious against their foes, whose body parts now comprised a ceremonial Victory O on the floor of the exam room, the Oxford pair walked arm-in-arm down the fluorescent hallways of their office.