On Writing Around Censors
The New York Times’s treatment of Slate Star Codex is a reminder of the many ends to which we write.
One of the costs of a censorious society is clarity of writing, and consequently of thought. If one must write, evasive thinking is an easier way to dodge cancellation than purely evasive writing. “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” That’s Francis Bacon, and probably the best thing he wrote (unless it’s The Tempest after all). The act of writing is exacting, and it improves with the care and precision of the effort. But this means—as illustrated by the hubbub around the New York Times’s treatment of Scott Alexander, the pseudonymous blogger behind Slate Star Codex—that the opposite is somehow true, too, and oblique writing, carefully and precisely done, can clarify thinking and maybe even uncover truth.
This hubbub comes from the fact that NYT insisted it could not write about Slate Star Codex and its Big Tech-orbiting, futurist readers without Scott Alexander’s real last name. He deleted the blog in response to their inquiry. It’s back and now he’s on Substack. I can’t give much more context than that without sounding very nearly insane; you either know the scene—with its Grey Tribe self-described Rationalists striking out for an empire of letters away from all this Blue Tribe on Red Tribe violence—or you don’t. Are you or have you ever been a member of the libertarian, atheist, computers-are-my-theory-of-mind party? Slate Star Codex was an invitation, or was the other kind of party, but for online nerds. I don’t have space to be nuanced or fair.
But Scott Alexander did, and that is why the arbiter of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” couldn’t leave him or his interlocutors alone. He wrote fat posts about the seams in the fabric of society and of our brains. They were exhaustive and technical, and this was, along with his pseudonym, obviously a defense mechanism. The New York Times is, along with Disney, the Disney of our highly developed, artificial social substance. There is—one hopes, trusts, and prays—a true or real beyond and beneath everything you see. But for being told what you’re seeing and how to talk about it, there’s the NYT. Slate Star Codex, with its very rich, very smart, often both, fans, was seen as competition. For a while, though, it had successfully hidden in plain sight.
This playing the long and niche game has mostly worked out and might still work out for a lot of people questioning the pieties of the present (I should hope so). But it comes with a cost, as I’ve said. Most normal, well-socialized people aren’t going to read a bunch of big blogposts—on any topic, let alone artificial intelligence or scissor statements or gender or drugs from someone with a pseudonym. They’ll barely read the NYT. There’s nothing popular about writing like Slate Star Codex, at all. But in less or differently censorious times, even recently, there have been clear communicators of difficult and important questions, such as C.S. Lewis. He wrote for general readers. His work is short and pithy, helpful but not condescending. The middlebrow has had moments of mass appeal, but no longer; you should probably blame education.
It’s not all bad. There’s a positive to obscurantism, too. If you are the sort of person for whom a very complicated piece of syntax is being strung together—the intended audience, or almost—then deciphering the thing is itself an exercise in thinking; you are being taught, not just informed. I start with X; I derive Y. I tell you that. What formula did I use? Figure it out. What follows? Yes. We’re building something in the clouds, and though that’s clear enough to the watchmen, their efforts to stop it only force everyone to fly that much higher. Or maybe it’s to dig lower, underneath things, an opening up, a clearing away, looking for emergence.
Now, one might hope to bring these both together, to find a way to write or speak in a manner that teaches even the masses, but can be delved into, and deeply, by the disciplined. This would mean developing a mastery of language such that the ascent would never need one to abandon what has already been understood, that it would be only further up and further in. One would need a very great thinker to do this, who understands things from their origin and can bring them to their end. One might conclude that only a God can save us now. Jesus taught in parables and welcomed even the little ones.
In the meantime, this Slate Star Codex episode raises a question. Just how smart, or how actually elite, do we think the New York Times team is? What about the rest of the media establishment? While for the day-to-day of living under social rules and respecting certain pieties, it doesn’t matter if inquisitors are true believers or if they’re cynics, it does suggest something about how long the thing can last. Lies are corrosive. Despite Francis Bacon, nature still tends to win.
From a longer view, as eminent moderns the space between Slate Star Codex and NYT is much smaller and emptier than either would ever admit aloud (though now Scott Alexander is sure to be signaling it often on his Substack). If the Old Gray Lady knows that, and just doesn’t want Grey Tribe company at the top, then the N.Y. and D.C. divide with S.F. and Miami is a civil war, which has its own sort of vitality. But if the media elite really have fallen into the narcissism of small differences, are writing inexactly, confusing turf for the regime, then it’s all artless decadence on decadence.