Roman Rhetoric and Florentine Politics: A Reply to Yarvin

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Mencius went to see King Huei of Liang. The king said, “Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?” Mencius replied, “Why must your Majesty use that word “profit”? What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.

Context determines meaning and readership matters. Like the parables, what is written for some is not written for all, and a few given to understand always implies a many left unpersuaded. Curtis Yarvin knows something of writing for the few, so it came as a not unwelcome surprise to find this last week that he had chosen to use a State of the Union blog post here by me to tee off a recent missive from his Substack, “Gray Mirror.” He objects to my hope, professed as “We are Going to Win,” and so wrote “You are going to lose” in reply. I will not blame him for either misunderstanding me or misrepresenting me; it serves his purposes, and his subscribers, to appear to be stabbing me in the front. It’s good theater and he knows his audience. I know mine.

Curtis Yarvin writes for courtiers and would-be courtiers and, if he is very lucky, for the statesman they surround. A latter day Baldassare Castiglione or Niccolo Machiavelli, in his Gray Mirror he advises a future prince on what it takes to rule. Safely presuming that the many of the few that are his readers will never have the chance to try their hand at a rod of iron, his reflections are more a glass to see through than to see the royal self in, a particular perspective on our politics that clarifies what is usually distorted. Indeed, he writes for people like me, and so I will not bother you or him with a line by line response to his bits-and-pieces use of my short post, but simply say I happily take his point–that the institutions of the regime must be razed or wrested away from those who hold them if there is to be any national political reform–and propose in answer that this is his readers’ job, not yours.

Who are you? I write for a hyperlocal elite (at that Yarvin will scoff), outside D.C., Boston, and S.F., for pastors of churches, teachers at private schools, leaders of regional nonprofits, for small business owners, and peers eager to occupy town and county seats. I write for people who know that things have gotten very bad, that the country is sick, that even civilization is lying in hospice, but who–because, like Yarvin, they understand the ballot box is not a mechanism of power–know with equal certainty that whatever it is that they can do about all this, whatever they are responsible for, is near at hand. You are not fighting here in the capital, and your fight is not here, but at the homefront.

And so, when I say to you, think in terms of half centuries, win where you are by any means necessary because you must protect and provide for your children regardless of what comes at the scale of continents, then pace the Gray Mirror I am not telling you to do nothing. Instead, I am telling you to take over school boards, to accrue social and financial capital and to use it, to run as much of your town as you can, to treat book groups like cadres, to take over municipal waste management, to make your community self-sufficient, to get out the vote, perhaps even to protest, civilly disobey, and become friendly with organized crime. All politics really are local, even national politics. That means both that someone must be here in the swamp to do certain national politics things and that what is done locally can create–though in a world of astroturf and professional activism less often than you might think–the conditions that characterize the country’s political life.

My rhetoric is based on ethos; I am making ethical arguments about what kind of people readers of The American Conservative outside the Beltway should want to be. I am assuming the existence of a community that needs only to be spoken for to realize its own reality and draw courage from the fact that its members do not labor alone. Yarvin, programmer, theorist of cybernetics, writes with logos, explicating the logic and logics of power and rule. His appointed role is to remind his readers that the American state does not need a software update; it needs new hardware and a user who knows what he is doing. Call it CEO restoration or constitutionally royalist theory, maybe CRT for short.

The protracted medieval culture war that historians call the Investiture Controversy–over whether earthly emperors or the Roman pope had prime shepherd’s power to appoint bishops and abbots, princes of the Church–had curious consequences in the city states of Italy. Under the names of Guelph and Ghibelline, the international politics of the Holy Roman Empire were translated into parties that survived the resolution of the original conflict. Guelphs were partisans of the pope, while Ghibellines made up the imperial party. Then with Pope Boniface VIII, the Guelphs split further, into Black and White, the Whites not Ghibellines, but no longer of the papal party, either. Dante Alighieri was exiled from Florence as a White Guelph, when the Black Guelphs took control of the city. The conflicts and rivalries persisted centuries after their initial cause had been basically decided.

Yarvin is perhaps best known for his coinage of “the Cathedral” to describe the culture-making and culture-enforcing institutions of elite America. While essays arguing that wokeness or progressivism or liberalism “is a new religion” are now very nearly overdone, he was early to the party observing parallels in form and function between churches of yore and puritans of now. Yarvin is a Ghibelline, or trying to be, and his condescension comes from worry and frustration, a worry and frustration that we (you and me, poor White Guelphs to him) don’t know of what the Black Guelphs in control are capable–or the fact that we, like Dante, are already in exile.

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