Since the mid-18th century, we have been in what we are told is the “Age of Reason”, which was supposed to make the world better by banishing superstition and delusion from public life. As with basically all of the Enlightenment’s promises dealing with human nature and the proper way to order civil life, it has not delivered on that promise, and in many cases has actually made the problem it set out to solve worse. The persistence of dangerous delusions is what prompted me to write my last column, which focused on the need for dissidents to avoid them entirely. That said, dabbling in the dark arts of forbidden social science has been a specialty in this space since I founded it nearly a decade ago, and in that spirit, I’d like to go into further detail on a certain variety of delusion that the Enlightenment has empowered; one that is especially visible in the end-stage form of Enlightenment thinking that we see in the crumbling remains of Western Civilization. I call it the “Midwit Fooler”. That’s a term that needs a little explanation.
First, the concept of a “fooler” comes from the term “Grandma Fooler”, which refers to a counterfeit item designed to look like something genuine and desirable. The idea is that an unwary consumer might buy it, not really understanding the difference between it and the real thing. A good example is found in the innumerable cheap iPod knockoffs that could be found everywhere from convenience stores to magic claw machines in the ’00s and early ’10s. These were universally complete junk, and caused many a bad Christmas morning for a young member of Generation Z when he found that grandma had put one of them under the tree for him instead of a real iPod.
As for the “midwit”, they are the consistently troublesome class of people who exist just to the right of the peak of the IQ bell curve – around 110 to 120 – those who are above average, but not truly brilliant. These are the bourgeois, the upper middle class, the successful businessman, manager, or white collar worker. There are two big problems with them. The first is that they are the group that has held all the real power since the Enlightenment – for all of the pretensions to helping the poor or working class of the many revolutions it birthed since 1776, all of them can best be understood as a rebellion by the bourgeois against the pre-1776 ruling class. The second is that the midwit IQ range is a notorious Dunning-Kruger trap. One effect of this is that people in this class are all too often drawn to ideas that range from harmlessly silly to insane and dangerous. And since they make up the group from which our ruling Managerial Class is drawn, when they believe nonsense, it hurts all of us.
However, it isn’t just any patently ridiculous idea that will attract them. Ones that become widespread tend to share certain elements that make them truly effective Midwit Foolers. A recent reading of Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails set me onto the task of looking at few of the more prominent MFs in the world, including Classical Marxism, current-year postmodern Social Justice, New Age spirituality, and the Qanon movement, to see how many I could identify. I present these as being generally rather than universally true, however, most of these elements are shared by all of the MFs I could think to examine.
Many of these are interconnected, so please excuse a bit of repetitiveness:
•Perhaps the most important element – the one that makes it specifically a Midwit Fooler – is that it must have some kind of barrier to entry presented by being moderately intellectually challenging. However, it must strike the right balance; being just difficult enough to impart an air of intellectual exclusivity to it, while not being so difficult that it drives midwits away. I call this the “mystery novel effect”, because an optimal balance is about the same as a good murder mystery (this is why such things – from Agatha Christie to this week’s episode of NCIS – have always been popular among midwits). If the mystery is too simple, the midwit will be annoyed that there’s no challenge presented; no bragging rights to having their guess confirmed at the end (even though the story was subtly designed to gradually lead any midwit to the right conclusion). But if the mystery is too complex, then the midwit will be just as annoyed, this time because it was hard to follow and they didn’t even come close to the correct answer. Thus, an effective MF should require some real study, and be difficult enough that the midwit feels as though they’ve accomplished something by getting through it and coming to understand its conclusions (of course, as with the mystery novel, what they’ve really come to is the answer that the creator of the MF has been guiding them toward). The aspect of containing some manner of a code cracked and a riddle solved in ways not understandable to just anybody gives the midwit a warm feeling of belonging to an intellectual inner circle, quietly confirming their superiority to those outside of it.
At its core an MF always exists as a way to sell bourgeois midwits an easy, comforting answer to a complex, troubling question. But since midwits are just smart enough to know that easy, comforting answers to complex, troubling questions are invariably wrong, they must be made to seem more challenging than they really are. The midwit desperately wants to think of themselves (and be seen by others) as enlightened, but can’t understand why the Buddhist master Lin Chi once warned that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”!
•Speaking of this, to work, MFs rely on the concept that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. The midwit is not a complete moron, and won’t fall for just any old bullshit – it takes a deeper, more complex kind of bullshit to fool him. John Derbyshire once described pseudosciences as “elaborate, plausible, and intellectually very challenging systems that do not, in fact, have any truth content”, a thought that applies just as much to pseudophilosophy, pseudoeconomics, or pseudospirituality. And it is invariably one or more of these on which an effective MF is based. The MF relies on the midwit to be someone with knowledge that is broad, but deep only in their professional field. For anything else, they are knowledgable only to the point of having perhaps read a book or a few online articles about it, which due to Dunning-Kruger, leaves them perennially stuck at the peak of “Mt. Stupid”.
And that is the exact location where cranks, con artists, and snake-oil salesmen with an MF to tout will be waiting for them. Of course, nobody who knows the subject on which any particular MF is based in any depth would ever believe it. Genuine Buddhist masters laugh at the “Buddhism lite” sold by New Age charlatans to credulous Boomers; real-deal intel agency spooks will apply their palms to their foreheads at the mention of Qanon; anyone who has ever run a business can tell you all the ways in which Karl Marx didn’t know what the hell he was talking about when it comes to economics. But the midwit who knows a subject only casually, but not well enough to tell the “pseudo” version from the real thing, is a prime candidate to fall for an MF.
•As part of the challenge of it, a really engrossing MF should have its own unique set of lingo or jargon. This may involve unique word coinages, or proprietary definitions of existing words. Being an insider means being privy to the secret signals of the inner circle, and being an intellectual means being one of the select that know the “true” definition of a word instead of merely the common one. If use of the jargon confuses an outsider, then all the better – if they declare it mumbo-jumbo, that proves their inferiority and inability to get on the adherent’s level, and if they seem genuinely interested in understanding it, then it becomes the first mystery for the potential new initiate to tackle. Why did Qanon acolytes take joy in hours spent deciphering his cryptic quatrains? Why did Herbert Marcuse write impenetrable walls of proprietary Marxist lingo? That’s why.
•An effective MF must provide its adherents with validation; it must help them to feel as though they truly are who they see themselves as being in their idealized internal self-image. Of course, an effective MF tells people what they want to hear, and not everyone wants to hear the same thing (nor has the same idealized self-image), so a targeted message is important. But they all share the same mechanisms of validation, which are attuned to the midwit mindset, and are then customized for the political, philosophical, and spiritual specifics of the target audience. For example, just about all midwits want to see themselves as intellectuals, thus, for as much outright naivete as it often takes to believe in an MF, they are always presented with a carefully-crafted image of sophistication, and often even of rationalist skepticism. Similarly, because midwits desperately want to believe in their own virtue, there is usually some element of world-saving involved with an MF. And there are always the twin boogeymen of scoffers who the adherents can feel intellectually superior to, and enemies who they can feel morally superior to. In short, the effective MF is based on the idea that selling people the chance to believe that they really are what they wish they were will always be a very compelling product.
•The long tail of the Boomer generation in our culture means that many (though not all) MFs involve some spoken or unspoken element of (completely riskless) resistance or rebellion. Even something as seemingly innocuous as New Age has a hint of this – the motivation of many a Boomer who got into kabbalah, crystals, or Buddhism lite has deeply involved rebellion against their Jewish mothers or the nuns at the Catholic school they were forced to attend. And of course, there is the modern Social Justice Warrior, who rebels against a power structure that surrendered to their Boomer grandparents 50 years ago, a set of social arrangements that stopped being current 60 years ago, and a boogeyman who died in a bunker 75 years ago. But the post-1965 bourgeois especially has a strong tendency toward the self-image of a temporarily embarrassed revolutionary (either of the “Lexington in 1776” variety or the “Woodstock in 1969” variety, depending on political outlook), always waiting on, and agitating for, the revolution to start (And what happens when it finally does? We may find out soon, and the midwits may find that it wasn’t as much fun as they expected). They hate the idea of being a “normie” and long for the Romanticism of the Byronic rebel-hero. And of course that self-image wouldn’t be complete without the key element of the Romantic sublime: fear. This is why so many MFs contain a strong infusion of that, too – normally in the form of either an implacable enemy or an impending disaster lurking just around the corner. Fear brings people together and infuses a sense of urgency into what they’re doing, and of course, they also have the added bonus of tending to shut off critical thinking. Again, these elements of rebellion and fear are not completely universal in MFs, but are enough so that one or both are usually present in some form or another.
•An effective MF should never be afraid to ask for some sacrifice from its adherents. There are two important reasons for this. One is that having sacrificed for an idea or movement will make people feel much more invested in it. It keeps people from drifting away, because most humans can’t rationally process the concept of sunk costs – investing some makes them want to invest more, because they can’t stand the idea that what they have already invested may have been a waste. But secondly, and even more importantly, there is nothing that world-savers love more than an opportunity to virtue-signal through sacrifice and self-denial. Often this includes self-abasement to the point of what seems to be masochism, but an effective MF ensures that this is never more than a show. Just as the academic material of the MF must be somewhat challenging, but not excessively so, the opportunities for self-abasement must generally present as being painful, but not actually be so to any real degree. For example, the white Social Justice Warrior may condemn their own “whiteness” on Twitter and spand an afternoon kissing the boots of some puzzled random black person in the midst of getting a selfie to post on Instagram, but few offer to move out of their comfortable suburban houses or trendy city neighborhoods and into the black ghetto (thus the saying about them that they “Talk like MLK, but live like the KKK”). Still, comfortable moderns take any sort of sacrifice, no matter how much of a “humblebrag” it may be, as a form of martyrdom, and nobody wants to feel as if they’ve been martyred for nothing. What a sunk cost that would be!
•Finally, an effective MF must have a strong aspect of the social to it. Some MFs may actively proselyte in order to gain more members, and some may not in order to seem more exclusive, but all will strive to build some kind of community around their beliefs. This serves a couple of important functions. Of course, the utility of fellowship in building any movement – whether an MF or not – has long been recognized. Establishing an active, even fun community, drawn together by a calling to a higher purpose, makes an adherent feel not just important and validated, but valued as an individual within a group of friends. And it also increases their investment in what they’re doing; to leave the community means the loss of those friends, and perhaps even ostracization by them. This is why proper skepticism (as opposed to the proprietary definition of that term used by the left, which is simply a synonym for Reddit-style snarky atheism) requires a slight antisocial streak – that is is always necessary in order to be able to say “Plato is a friend, but the truth is a better friend”. Most people don’t have that in them, and will allow their brain to self-delude in order to stay within a social circle in which they have been accepted and found a place, even when unmistakable disconfirmation of its beliefs has presented itself. This will keep them anchored right where they are.
Of course, I would expect that my readers, who are only the most genuinely intellectual sort of people, would never fall for an MF themselves. But, the false promises of the Enlightenment aside, we are headed into a future with more superstition and delusion, more passionately believed in, than ever in our history. You’ll need a keen eye for recognizing these in all of their forms, as they will infect many of those around you. So keep an eye out for these Bad MFs as, like weeds sprouting through cracks in abandoned sidewalks, they start to grow through the fissures in our rapidly-crumbling civilization.