Elitist Elites and Non-Elite Elitists

This morning I tweeted a string of thoughts on political elitism. I’m replicating those tidbits here so that I can 1) easily relocate them later and 2) share them with non-Twitterites. Feel free to read the originals in their native habitat.

Helpful background: Slate Star Codex’s “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” (long but worth it) and “Staying Classy” (also long and also worth it).

If you’re not familiar with the cadence of Twitter conversations, the following may seem choppy or disjointed. I didn’t edit much. Other people’s interjections are included as block quotes.


It’s easy to be an elitist when you’re part of the elite. Is that tautological?

Example of a non-elite elitist: high school dropout who thinks people with college degrees should be in charge.

As far as I know, non-elite elitists don’t exist, or there are very few of them. [This assertion gets walked back momentarily.]

However, you could argue that this position, when held by random schmucks, is non-elite elitism: “Donald Trump should run things because he’s a successful businessman” or “Hillary Clinton has lots of foreign policy experience”

And random unimpressive people hold positions along those lines, as noted here:

“I dunno, does not appear to match observations unambiguously. Plenty shit-eating basement dwellers dreaming of elitist shit” — @okayultra

Even non-elite elitists seem to always follow cultural lines. “The people I identify with should be in charge.”

Important to remember: “the people I identify with should be in charge” is different from “people like me should run things”

Like Sam says, there are different elites for Red Tribe versus Blue Tribe:

“this is pretty common, they just define ‘elite’ in non-educational terms — religious leaders, rich people, etc” — Sam Bhagwat

There are arguably even different elites for different sub-segments of each tribe. Progressives’ idols are not neoliberals’ idols.

“Also subtribes — grey, red-grey, blue-grey, etc. (Technocratic elites)” — @orthonormalist

So I’d amend my original tweet like this: “It’s easy to be an elitist with respect to elites that align with your culture and ideology.”

“society is dominated by elites and always will be. Only question is which ones they are” — Adam Elkus

“every time a barbarian horde deposed an emperor a new class of elites was born” — Adam Elkus


Insightful responses from Facebook friends:

elitism Facebook comments

How I Find Clients as a Freelancer

I’ve been working as a freelance writer on-and-off over the past four years, and full-time for most of 2016. My career has only just started to flourish — knock on wood — but since last December I’ve learned a lot about finding work. Even more so, I’ve learned about where to find the best work. “Best” means most interesting and most lucrative.

I’m not promising to Unlock! Your Earning Potential!™ or anything like that. If you’re intrigued by the nitty-gritty of freelancing, you’ve probably read versions of my experience before. But if you’re new to this mode of employment, hearing about how I manage could be helpful. Just another data point to tuck away in your brain!

TL;DR

Freelancing is a relationships game, and this holds true across many industries. Here are the two most important things you can do to improve your career in the long-term:

  • Find the people who are getting paid to do the work that you want to do. Make friends with them.
  • Find the people who are hiring other people to perform the work that you want to do. Make friends with them also.

It doesn’t matter whether you network online or in person, but nurturing solid connections with individual human beings is vital. In fact, “networking” is just a smarmy word for befriending fellow industry participants. Making public contributions to the community will also help expand the mouth of your funnel.

Yes, the unfortunate reality is that building relationships takes time. There is no shortcut that I’m aware of, unless your parents have relevant connections. It’s taken me years to get where I am, and like I said, I’m only just getting the hang of things. However, both aptitude and chance will affect your results. YMMV!

Ways to Meet Clients

Remember, I’m not a veteran freelancer. That said, these three methods do reflect four years of experience. The list descends in order of quality, from most preferred to least preferred. That also happens to be the order from most time-consuming to least time-consuming.

1) Via Friends or Referrals

I became a contributor at Mattermark quite serendipitously. Alex Wilhelm and I had followed each other on Twitter for a while and exchanged a handful of messages. Then he got hired as Mattermark editor-in-chief. On a whim, I sent him a DM along the lines of, “Are you looking for pitches at Mattermark?” The answer was yes.

For me, Mattermark is a perfect gig. I get paid fairly to write about a subject that fascinates me. I have thoughtful editors and I’m able to accrue clips for my portfolio. Writing about startups and venture capital also allows me to conduct interviews that widen my circle of acquaintances.

Desirable jobs like writing for Mattermark come about either because someone I know wants my services, or someone I know suggests me to a person or company in search of a writer. Often these leads literally come through Twitter, because I spend a lot of time talking to people on that service. A subreddit, niche forum, or IRL meetup could work just as well. Sometimes I initiate contact and sometimes the prospective client asks about my availability.

Making friends in order to find clients can take months or years to pay off. It’s speculative and unpredictable, but luckily the process is intrinsically rewarding.

I view every new person I befriend as a possible source of work, and try to comport myself accordingly (with mixed success). Someone won’t hire me or refer me unless they feel good about my work ethic, analysis skills, and integrity.

2) At Random

Sometimes people contact me out of the blue. The projects they bring to the table can be delightful or baffling. Sometimes these prospective clients accept my rates without batting an eye, and sometimes they ghost when I start talking numbers.

I am not sure how to optimize for this other than having an online presence and constantly self-promoting. Although it’s a bit mysterious, I do like getting work via surprise email. It seems to be a result of personal marketing that I’ve already done and would keep doing anyway.

For example, a Dutch tech consultancy reached out and asked me to help internationalize their website. If I remember correctly, they found me via a blog post about product communication that I shared on Hacker News.

3) By Applying Willy-Nilly

I do this less now, but I used to get one-off jobs all the time by applying to Craigslist listings. Other sites like Indeed and Glassdoor can also be fruitful, but people tend to look for full-timers on those platforms, rather than freelancers. Besides, Craigslist is unmatched in terms of posting volume, and their simple, utilitarian interface is a blessing.

The key here is to have a general cover letter that you can adjust as needed. The amount of time you spend customizing your initial contact with the prospective client should be directly proportional to how much you want the job.

Applying to a random Craigslist ad is how I got my first professional freelancing gig, managing social media for Creeklife. I’ve landed numerous other gigs this way, ranging from soulless #content writing to sociopolitical essays.

Conclusion

That’s it. Those are the three ways that I’ve found my clients. As you can tell, I vastly prefer the first method. Four years in, I feel like networking is finally starting to pay off for me. Thank goodness that my personality prompted me to do lots of arguing and chitchatting in the first place! (I know that not everyone is able to spend years doing speculative emotional labor. I’m not sure how to change that.)

It’s not easy. Anyone who tries to sell you a simple step-by-step guide to being a successful freelancer is oversimplifying. Maybe you noticed that the guidance in this blog post is pretty overarching and vague. I didn’t even cover how to differentiate yourself from the competition! And how do you go about making friends, anyway?!

Well, them’s the breaks. You have to muddle along yourself. Seek out information proactively. Anyone who’s not comfortable doing that isn’t suited to freelancing.

Joining Self-Flagellating Liberals Everywhere

"I'm trying" graffiti. Photo by Tyler Callich.
Photo by Tyler Callich.

Like many of you, I was thrown for a loop by the results of this election. Over the past five days, I’ve been struggling with my feelings. I don’t believe we’re on the edge of a national apocalypse, but I didn’t believe that Trump was going to win — in fact, I was positive that he wouldn’t. How can I trust my intuitions about the future?

When I say “intuitions” I don’t mean random uninformed guesses. I follow the news pretty closely. I saw the polls. But it turns out that my sources of information were just as unmoored as I feel now. How much of my wrongness was due to what I was mentally synthesizing, and how much was the way I synthesized it? Spoiler alert: I’m not sure yet.

Since Tuesday I’ve started following conservatives on Twitter, both happy #MAGA ones and despondent #NeverTrump ones. (If that seems like an empty gesture, it’s because you don’t realize just how much time I spend on Twitter.) I can no longer be so arrogant as to avoid making an attempt to understand people whose views I disagree with; whose political agendas I find abhorrent.

And I can no longer conflate the views with the people, writing them off as racists and sexists beyond salvage. Yes, it’s cognitively dissonant to say that people who materially support a sexist, racist politician are not sexist and racist themselves. But there’s levels to this shit, as Meek Mill might remark. Not all prejudice is overt or conscious, and from what I see Trump supporters saying, blame-fueled identity politics helped this backlash arise.

I am more interested in effective discourse than I am in absolute moral rectitude.

I think any entrenchment on the left is a mistake — reality is clearly more complex than we realized. Than we were willing to realize. It’s not that I don’t think despicable white fear and rape culture played into this. I would have to be absolutely blind to think that — like I said, I read the news.

I think my fundamental mistake was not realizing just how close this election was. I couldn’t see that a buffoonish “Cheeto Jesus” could resonate so strongly with people who don’t share my cultural or class background.

It would also be a mistake to forget the closeness of the election after Trump’s victory. A blogger I highly respect, Scott Alexander, said on his Tumblr:

I didn’t predict that Trump would win. But I predicted he would come within 2-3% of winning. I don’t know why somebody whose pet theory is able to explain why someone can get 45% of the vote, shouldn’t also be able to explain why he got 47% of the vote.

And I think almost everybody agreed Trump would get at least 40-something percent of the vote, so what’s left to explain? Sure, we’re not Nate Silver who can use weird voodoo to figure out exactly what every single poll shows, but we understand the underlying trends just fine.

Slightly higher turnout could have shifted the results. Both candidates were extremely unpopular and many voters declined to show up to the polls. As it stands, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote — although it’s worth noting that the Trump campaign didn’t make an effort to turn out conservative voters in states like California that would never go red. Still, this wasn’t a blowout.

And yet Donald Trump’s win shocked me, to the extent that I feel shattered and unable to trust myself. (It’s also makes the country’s future terrifying. We’ll get to that.) The person Scott Alexander was conversing with, Tumblr user nostalgebraist, articulated part of my feelings pretty well:

I knew Trump had a substantial chance of winning. But I hadn’t internalized that on a gut level. The qualitative and the quantitative comfortably supported one another: there could be substantial polling error, but if there isn’t then Hillary’s gonna win, which of course she is because just look at Trump, right? I wouldn’t have bet against Trump at any odds longer than Silver’s, and yet when I was on the bus home Tuesday evening I felt at ease, not nervous but actually slightly buzzed, as if I were going to an exciting party that evening. And by the time I went to bed, I felt like the cosmic balance of the universe had been disturbed. I knew it could happen, but it wasn’t supposed to.

That reflection ties into an essay that struck a deep chord with me, “On Trying Not To Be Wrong” by Sarah Constantin:

Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, the Secretary of State went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI. Surreal, right?

No.

It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong. […]

There may be a crisis in politics. But before we can do anything sensible about that, we need to understand that there is a crisis in credence. If the world looks weird to you and me today, that is not a matter for rueful laughter, it is a sign that we are probably badly wrong about lots of things.

And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.

That’s where I’m at. I need to figure out how to be right again.


Most of what I wrote above was personal. In terms of political action, here are some ideas:

My partner and I have loosely discussed moving in the next year or so, if it’s financially feasible. California affords me few opportunities for high-leverage activism, since we’re a staunchly blue state. I’m tentatively interested in moving to a red or purple state where I could potentially help flip a state legislature.

That’s it. Thanks for bearing with me. Let us all take a moment to mourn for the Affordable Care Act.

Blood and Thunder + Hillbilly Elegy

I recently finished two quintessentially American books. I had been working on Blood and Thunder since I got back from hiking in Desolation Wilderness with my father. After closing that historical epic, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy, planning to just read a chapter or two. Well, I ended up tearing through the book and didn’t get to sleep until after 3am.

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

Blood and Thunder uses the life of famous frontiersman Kit Carson to track “the Conquest of the American West” (so declares the subtitle). Author Hampton Sides describes the role that Carson played in various quasi-scientific mapping expeditions, the United States’ wars with Mexico and the Native American tribes of the Southwest — especially the Navajo — and the general aftermath of white settlers claiming land previously occupied by indigenous tribes. The book is well-researched but not academic, so it’s both edifying and gripping.

The sub-topic I found most fascinating was the mutually fraught relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers (both Mexican and migratory American), which focused on the New Mexico Territory. Plenty of racism was involved, but before the army came west the white residents of New Mexico were not holding their own against the Diné (the Navajo’s word for themselves), the Utes, or other local ethnic groups. Native American raiders stole scores of sheep from the settlers, and slave expeditions went back and forth between the New Mexicans and the tribes.

This is not to say that fiat United States aggression against the Native Americans was justified — it was a continuation of European Americans’ protracted genocide of indigenous people. Kit Carson himself, though he had personally killed many Native Americans, attributed their worsening plight to white violence. However, the escalating atrocities were mutual, even after the Navajo Long Walk, which I didn’t know. It goes to show that the situation on the ground is always more complex than the neat narrative that comes out of it.

In keeping with the theme of moral complexity, Hillbilly Elegy is fundamentally about how poor Appalachian whites bear some responsibility — ultimate responsibility, author JD Vance might argue — for their own demographic’s sorry state. The book is 75% memoir interspersed with 25% social analysis. I bought this after reading an interview with Vance and seeing Hillbilly Elegy praised by Nils Gilman. Vance’s story and commentary were very, very good.

Photo by renee_mcgurk. Rusted-out truck in the woods.
Photo by renee_mcgurk.

Vance uses his own life as an example and a lens. He describes the loving chaos of his extended family, punctuated by mutual abuse among the adults, and the recurring trauma of his immediate home life. Vance attributes his later success as a Marine, college student, lawyer, and husband to the constant, fiercely loyal, and raucously affectionate presence of his grandparents. He describes the importance of being taught to believe that his choices could matter, that he could influence his fate by working hard and being diligent.

“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.” — JD Vance

I am more liberal than Vance, but I agree that we’re each responsible for how our own lives turn out. There’s politics and then there’s reality — I belong to myself, and you belong to yourself. We must strive for survival and success. Especially since the systemic change comes slowly.

But hey, another thing we should strive for is making the government serve its people more than the opposite arrangement!


Go buy Blood and Thunder and Hillbilly Elegy. If you have to choose one, Hillbilly Elegy is more “essential reading”!

Remote Mentorship

I read a lot. And I learn a lot from what I read. When I discover a writer I really like, whose work is particularly insightful, I glom onto them — I’ll tear through their whole archive, or if they’re particularly prolific, read all of their classics (defined as the pieces they themselves reference the most).

The internet’s casual and iterative blogging culture encourages this behavior in a way that the offline world doesn’t. Sure, you can read every book an author has written. But what about doing that and following their life on a day-to-day-basis? Social media lets you get to know someone in real-time even when they have never registered that you exist.

Map of the internet via Bill Cheswick. Remote mentorship is possible because of this technology.
Map of the internet via Bill Cheswick.

The term I use for this process is “remote mentorship” — it’s similar to traditional mentorship, but without the constraints of time or place. The mentor doesn’t have to be interested in the mentee or pay any specific attention to them. There’s no need to meet for coffee or exchange letters. In fact, this is scalable mentorship: someone can post once and influence many, without having to dispense one-on-one advice to each enthusiast.

I maintain a public list of people who shaped my intellectual growth. Some of them have mentored me in the traditional sense, and some are friends, but the majority are busy professionals who have maybe acknowledged me once or twice on Twitter. It’s not the same as dedicated hands-on mentorship, but I get just as much out of reading Slate Star Codex as I have out of personal coaching relationships.

Remote mentorship is a combination of the intellectual hero-worship that’s been around forever (boosted by the printing press), and today’s burgeoning influencer economy. It’s like the nerdy version of lusting after Instagram stars.


I’ve been thinking about this for literally years, but I owe a hat-tip to Venkatesh Rao’s “Cambrian Explosion of Consensual Realities” for the immediate inspiration. Guess what Rao qualifies as 😉

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