Education, Status Anxiety, The New York Times and The #WarOnNerds

For a long time I have been a proponent of the idea that the current culture wars surrounding “nerd culture,” social media, women in tech and the like are a systematic phenomenon best viewed as a case of hipsters engaging in cultural colonialism. I have also argued that Mytheos Holt’s “#WarOnNerds” theory, which argues that this cultural colonialism is ultimately a reaction to the economic impact of the internet, is the best explanation we have. In this article, I will be analyzing a recent article in The New York Times which not only validates the #WarOnNerds theory, and integrating this analysis with insights from economist Bryan Caplan’s recent book The Case Against Education.

The Case Against Education, In Brief
The generous level of state subsidization that our society gives to the education sector is premised on the idea that, basically, education makes people smarter. Education makes you smarter and more able to do more useful things, or in other words education “creates human capital.” The implication of this is that government subsidy of education usually pays for itself.

But there is an alternative understanding of the role the education sector plays within our society; this alternative understanding is called the signalling model and was introduced by Michael Spence in his 1973 article Job Market Signalling. In this model, education exists to verify an employee’s pre-existing competencies; education does not have to make people smarter at all, but merely to separate the “more smart” from the “less smart.” This doesn’t make education worthless; the worth of education is that it provides information to employers.

Caplan argues that the return on education (the wage premium educated workers can expect) is 80% explained by signalling and 20% explained by useful skills (or human capital). But even if the wage premium is only 50% explained by signalling, the implication is that our society is massively over-investing in education and in particular college degrees. Not only that, but by increasing the ease of going to college, the signalling capability of a single undergraduate degree is greatly diminished; the genuinely smart people start needing qualifications beyond this in order to prove their competence to potential employers. This in turn triggers even more investment in education not just by the government but by private individuals spending their own money on credentials; the end result is credential inflation and, because education doesn’t necessarily increase skills, economic inefficiency.

Credentialism, Elitism and the Clerisy
Credentialism is the treatment of credentials (college degrees being the most obvious case) as, effectively, class markers or degrees of social status. A lot of people like to discuss the academic left and how they are enemies of meritocracy; whilst this is not without truth, the reality is that the academic world in general is inclined towards credentialism and treats credentialism as a “true” meritocracy that is valid. Obviously this is somewhat self-serving; higher education’s economic usefulness requires it to be a successfully operating meritocracy, and thus undermining the meritocratic nature (or perhaps image) of higher education makes higher education look like a white elephant.

Why would credentials be markers of being a higher-order person? The signalling model gives us a provisional answer; credentials serve as a proxy for intelligence. The academy, for all of the academic left’s whining about the “myth of meritocracy,” steadfastly believes that it is the true meritocracy and that the credentials it dispenses are proxies for intelligence, and that they are (or should be) the Philosopher-Kings of our society. Such a social structure, according to them, isn’t unjust, for it is a true meritocracy; indeed, it is a geniocracy or an epistocracy.

Caplan argues that education is oversubsidized and that too many people are going to college. What this implies is that larger numbers of people than ever are absorbing, probably tacitly, the credentialist mindset and thus thinking of the academy as the “just” class system.

The academy can be thought of, broadly, as part of the Clerisy; the Clerisy is the class of people that produce discourses, ideas, knowledge, ideals, and culture. This class includes academics but also journalists, bureaucracy and administration, artists and entertainers, and politicians. Success in most of these fields almost always requires higher education of some kind; we can thus presume that the academy’s somewhat self-serving credentialism is rampant amongst the Clerisy as a whole. The Clerisy, thus, will be inclined to see itself as the “true” upper class, the smart and talented and cultured people who should rule, who should control the discourse, who should ‘curate’ our culture, and who should define our ideals. Since they do exert a substantial amount of control over our discourses and culture and ideals, it is no surprise that their credentialist mindset will proliferate across society at large. To borrow Gramscian terminology, the Clerisy will set up a cultural hegemony which defines the Clerisy as the just overlords of a true meritocracy where one’s merit is defined by credentials.

To borrow the language from Spence’s Job Market Signalling, there was a signalling equilibrium at play where people simply had settled and confirmed expectations; people with college degrees were smarter than people without. Mainstream discourse, because of a belief that education created rather than verified human capital, promoted and subsidized higher education, and treated it as not just a mark of class status but a mark of justified class status. The Clerisy became the “true” upper class (in terms of cultural esteem/respect); you could be a billionaire and still be vulgar white trash (see Trump, Donald) but even if you have less money, having the right credentials from the right institutions meant you were a sophisticate, an intellectual, a curator of culture, someone to be respected.

Enter Silicon Valley…
The signalling equilibrium was shattered by Silicon Valley.

Previously, we have stipulated (like Spence, 1973) that college degrees serve as a signal of productivity or intelligence. This makes credentialism into a meritocracy, and the Clerisy into a cognitive aristocracy.

But whilst college degrees certainly are more likely to be held by the intelligent than by the less intelligent, Caplan argues that college degrees signal a package of employer-desired traits. This package includes intelligence, but it also includes conscientiousness and conformity. We are not merely talking about intelligent workers, but productive and dutiful ones who are willing to endure impositions and regulations from employers, or at least are willing/able to fit in with the social-cultural environment of one’s chosen field should said environment be rigid and narrow.

Silicon Valley, or more specifically the rise of the tech industry, was a slap in the face of the Clerical-Credentialist worldview. Silicon Valley was a place dominated by people who were highly intelligent, but often low-conscientiousness and certainly not very good at conformity; the fact that Silicon Valley is located in the San Francisco Bay Area isn’t an accident, and plenty of counterculture types were instrumental in the genesis of the sector. Famous tech gurus like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were college dropouts (and Peter Thiel runs a foundation that encourages students to drop out of college and enter the tech sector, see https://www.newsweek.com/2017/03/03/peter-thiel-fellowship-college-higher-education-559261.html). People with very out-of-the-mainstream and disapproved-by-the-majority-of-the-Clerisy ideas thrived in Silicon Valley, including libertarians like Thiel, neoreactionaries like Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin, and plenty of non-orthodox leftists. The characteristic “nerd” psychological profile which combines high intelligence with lower conscientiousness and very low conformity (sometimes stemming from simple inability to conform) thrived in Silicon Valley even without credentials. And they got filthy rich.

This alone hurt the Clerisy; a bunch of counterculture loser hippies and socially awkward geeks made a ton of money and gained absurd amounts of fame sometimes without having a college degree. The freaks didn’t even wear suits on the job! Not to mention they subscribed to weird and heretical viewpoints like the “Californian Ideology” of Ayn-Rand-inflected libertarian transhumanism and technological optimism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Californian_Ideology), or the idea that jurisdictional competition can create better governments (an idea important to both Seasteading (which tends to be promoted by libertarians) and Moldbug-style neoreaction).

The wrong people with the wrong personalities and wrong ideas were making too much money. This had several impacts; first, it challenged the Clerisy’s self-conception as an epistocracy/geniocracy, and instead showed that not only was the Clerisy defined by intelligence but also by a particular set of preferred personality traits including conformity to social norms. Second, it lessened the prestige of higher education by showing dramatically that extreme levels of success didn’t require credentials. Third, and most dramatically, the internet absolutely slaughtered the profit margins enjoyed by traditional bastions of the Clerisy (this is what Mytheos Holt discusses at length); the music industry and newspaper journalism are the two most dramatic examples of this, and the entire establishment media also faced more competition because of how the internet greatly reduced start-up costs for alternative journalism outlets.

At the exact same time that the internet was slashing the profit margins enjoyed by the Clerisy, it became apparent that there was something wrong with higher education. Tons of young people who had been sold the standard story of college as a dependable road to success were finding their tuition skyrocketing, their student debt mounting, their degrees becoming less effective at securing employment and their expected future salaries dropping; higher education is the “Clerisy factory” and suddenly we discover it has been overproducing clerics.

The Contemporary Clerisy And Aggrieved Entitlement
They spend absurd amounts of time, money and effort on degrees which become more and more worthless. They were told that these degrees will and should distinguish them not merely to employers, but to society, and confirm their intellect and status as a “better person” and even perhaps a Philosopher-King. This was consistently told to them over and over by the media, by the higher education sector, by educated professionals, and by politicians who kept funding education because they thought all expenditure on higher education would pay for itself. They were told they only need prove themselves, and then they’ll have a place in the established Ivory Towers, in society’s hallowed institutions.

And they find themselves with an English Lit degree that tens of thousands of of other people have, a mountain of student debt, few job prospects that don’t involve “uber driver” or “barista” or if they’re lucky “writing outrage porn that pays by the click,” and seeing those those icky sticky nerds in the Bay Area with pseudointellectual ideas, unprofessional demeanors, fewer qualifications and weird mannerisms get well-paying white-collar jobs, and even create entire new industries. And now, because tech means people can fact check them and talk back to them, they no longer have the uncontested cultural influence they once did; their ivory towers are no longer so lofty.

Can we blame them for feeling absolute resentment and contempt at this? Indeed, just like Elliot Rodger, they feel like aristocrats whom have been unjustly denied their status and are now being humiliated by those whom are rightfully their inferiors! Their dignity has been usurped; they must be avenged!

In other words, to borrow the words of feminist sociologist and #MeToo’d-alleged-sex-predator Michael Kimmel, the entire Clerisy is suffering from a monumental case of aggrieved entitlement. It is Nietzschean ressentiment.

We can explain the Clerisy’s attempt to infiltrate and colonize nerd culture (and the organizations which make it up) as a simple attempt to make more stuff for them to do, and thus give them more jobs, combined with an attempt to reclaim the power they lost through taking over the organizations which caused their status reduction. “Women in tech” “diversity initiatives,” the hipster colonization of the gaming press, big feminist pushes in comics etc. can all be understood as a mixture of make-work-program and entryism.

And Now For The Actual Article In Question…
As an embodiment of the mentality the new Clerisy have, I submit this following article by Jennifer Wright, published in The New York Times, entitled “Jocks Rule, Nerds Drool” (https://archive.fo/bBsYD).

The New York Times is an hallowed institution of journalism; it is not an alternative or fringe publication but rather the preeminent newspaper of the mainstream American media. This isn’t a place for discourse that happens outside the Overton Window; this newspaper defines the Overton Window. Indeed, it is an organ of the Clerisy’s cultural hegemony. This article, therefore, cannot be dismissed as some lone ranting voice in the wilderness or as an opinion that isn’t widely-held by at least a meaningful portion of the Clerisy.

“Nerds were smart and decent underdogs who just needed a good-hearted lady to notice them and maybe get them a pair of contact lenses” the article says near the start, thus showing that the writer apparently believes movies accurately portray reality. I wonder if she’d give any credence to “nice guys” claiming that mainstream culture told them that being nice to women would get them laid…

“These days, stories of misogyny in nerd-world — and allegations of sexual harassment in tech companies — have become incredibly common.”

They’re also frequently fabricated and encouraged by a culture of Listen And Believe.

“I wasn’t that surprised, then, when Chloe Dykstra, the ex-girlfriend of the Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick (whom Rolling Stone has called “King of the Nerds”), wrote in an essay that her boyfriend of three years had emotionally and sexually abused her. (While she did not name him, the piece is understood by everyone in the industry to refer to him. He denied the abuse.)”

Again, this is Listen And Believe. We’ve had high-profile false rape allegations from Jackie Coakley (UVA), Crystal Mangum (Duke Lacrosse) and Emma Sulkowicz (Mattress Girl) along with incidents of falsifying rape threats (Meg Lanker-Symons) in recent years, and yet Dykstra’s essay is uncritically accepted here even when Hardwick denies it. Did anyone in the mainstream press apply similarly lenient scrutiny to Eron Gjoni’s “The Zoe Post”? It should also be mentioned that Hardwick was cleared of the accusations after his employer investigated them.

“Women aren’t the only victims of bad behavior by nerdy guys. Another “King of the Nerds,” Elon Musk, didn’t improve nerds’ image when he tweeted that a diver who assisted in rescuing 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand was a pedophile. Mr. Musk later apologized, and said he had been angry with the diver for criticizing Mr. Musk’s design of a mini-submarine to rescue the boys.”

Being angry on Twitter is now extremely significant bad behavior. Not to mention that there has been an absurd, and increasing amount of press criticism of Musk over recent months, which only intensifies when Musk counter-criticizes what is said about him. The Clerisy, as usual, gang up on the nerd and continue to attack.

“The notion of nerds being kinder than other men fades faster every day.”

It turns out that when someone is bullied over and over again they tend to get embittered by it. Seeing nerd culture consistently attacked by the press covering it is going to make nerds angry. Some nerds are mean to some non-nerds, but after literally years of “Gamers Are Dead” and “Bring Back Bullying” can you really blame them?

“Part of that has to do with the way nerd culture has subsumed popular culture. Some of the most popular movies in America are based on comic books. If it was a little nerdy to spend too much time on the internet in the ’90s, well, everyone is now on the internet essentially all the time. Computer dating used to be for geeks who didn’t want to go to a bar. Now, only the most prudish millennials haven’t tried Tinder.”

This is the “we’re all nerds now” argument, and it effectively amounts to advocating cultural genocide. If everyone’s a nerd, no one is. It is also unsound because it equates “reading comic books” and “spending time on the internet” with being a nerd, but nerdiness was never primarily about the hobbies but rather about having a particular kind of temperament that results in social alienation. Just using the internet doesn’t make one nerdy.

“Nerds are the overdogs now. If they got into tech early, they’re obscenely wealthy…”

Apex fallacy. A small number of nerds are very rich, but there are plenty of nerds who aren’t loaded. Plenty are unemployed or poor; having high intelligence is good, but low conscientiousness and conformity can make someone an undesirable employee. In addition, as Silicon Valley has become more invaded by hipster-SJW-normie types, the corporate bureaucracy has grown, thus making what was once the New Jerusalem of nerds into a very hostile-to-nerds working environment. Just ask James Damore.

“…and all of America now likes the stuff they enjoyed as kids…”

This is extremely contestable to say the least. There’s a substantial difference between going to the latest Marvel flick to chomp on popcorn and laugh at the gags, and being the kind of person who has a decade-or-more collection of comics.

“But they’re not wielding that power in a way that is especially kind or thoughtful.”

Who? And to whom? Nerds are not a monolithic hive-mind; indeed the opposite is true (low conformity has to count for something) and nerds are almost impossible to lead and coordinate (both the atheist movement and the libertarian movement, disproportionately nerdy movements, are full of fractious infighting and Christopher Hitchens described the operation of organized atheism as “like herding cats”). In addition, package-dealing every video game enthusiast with billionaire tech oligarchs is the apex fallacy at best.

“So what about their old schoolyard nemeses, those heartless bullies — the jocks?
Well, they suddenly seem pretty great by comparison.
On July 30, the N.B.A. star LeBron James opened a school in Akron, Ohio, that promises free lunches, bicycles and tuition to all its students, as well as guaranteed tuition at the University of Akron for all of its graduates.”

Philanthropy is of course a good thing, but let us point out that because of credential inflation and the fact that a substantial amount of education’s value is signalling rather than human capital, this guaranteed tuition may not amount to much or be a very good use of Mr. James’ money. It should also be noted that the credentialist mindset of the Clerisy is exhibited by praising the guaranteed college tuition.

“Many on Twitter pointed out that this might be a more generous use of wealth than attempting to fund space travel, as Mr. Musk hopes to do.”

Efficacy/efficiency can sometimes be a better thing than generosity. Not to mention that there aren’t too many economists on Twitter.

“In June, the former N.F.L. player-turned-actor Terry Crews gave Senate testimony in which he spoke about having been sexually assaulted and warned against the “cult of toxic masculinity” that led him to believe he was more important than women.”

Because the sexual assault of a man by a man has something to do with women, apparently? Why would one man’s belief that men are superior to women motivate him to sexually assault another man? In addition, it says a lot that a mere act of virtue signalling (which isn’t even a charity donation) is thought of as evidence of being a better man than basically every nerd alive; causing a massive economic boom and generating a huge amount of wealth and greatly reducing the startup costs for thousands of small businesses is, apparently, less virtuous than some public self-flagellation that broadcasts one’s wokeness.

“And of course there’s Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, who drew national attention to police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.”

I actually think police brutality is a very big problem in the United States (although I think Black Lives Matter are incorrect in their assessment of the cause of it), but Kaepernick’s act was a symbolic gesture. To be fair, it was costly and endangered his career, but one celebrity’s act of virtue signalling is seen as outranking creating huge amounts of economic wealth; this is an obscene misallocation of priorities.

“Despite their good deeds, they have been frequent targets of the president himself.”

And despite the incredible good deeds of nerds, they are frequent targets of the mainstream media. Their own hobbyist media turned on them. Now The New York Times is joining ex-Gawker now-The Intercept journalist Sam Biddle in calling to “bring back bullying.”

“None of these guys sound like the heartless, monosyllabic brutes pop culture made jocks out to be. They sound like the kind of men who would patiently listen to you and commiserate after a nerd sexually harasses you.”

The article names four athletes. Apparently this is a representative sample of jocks! Not to mention this absolute projection and sick, borderline sexual fantasy straight out of hurt-comfort fanfiction, of being harassed and then being comforted by some big buff sexy athlete.

I’m sure he comforts you because he cares, and not because he wants access to your vagina.

“These jocks are deeply decent men standing up to bullies in power. Just like nerds in old movies used to do.”

Again, its wrong to conflate all nerds with Silicon Valley tech oligarchs. Not to mention that nerd organizations have been systematically colonized by SJW-normie-Clerisy types, whom are accumulating absurd amounts of power in these institutions; Google’s firing of James Damore was hardly about nerds attacking other nerds.

In addition, this fantasy of “lacking power” (when one is writing in The New York Times) and seeing nerds as “bullies” just encapsulates the entire attitude of the aggrieved Clerisy; how dare the social inferiors usurp the position more properly occupied by credentialed intellectuals who write for The New York Times!

Some people of more “red pill” inclinations have decided to note that every example of a “good jock” cited in the article is African-American, and that the author of the article is married to a “goony beardman” a.k.a. “soy boy.” But I think it is far too reductive to claim this article works out to nothing more than a sexually-unsatisfied woman’s desire for the BBC. The article really works out to the aggrieved entitlement of an elitist, credentialist establishment which is rapidly losing its cultural hegemony, profits and prestige.

Silicon Valley took their power, took their jobs, destabilized their self-identity and value system, and lessened their cultural prestige. The Clerisy’s hatred and resentment of the usurper is understandable, but it only shows how shallowly-held their commitment to egalitarianism really is. They inherited an elitist, credentialist mindset from their colleges and expected to be the new aristocracy.

When capitalism arose in Europe, the aristocracy tried to halt the rise of the merchant and middle classes. They made wealthy businessmen use the tradesman’s entrance. They constructed complex codes of etiquette, aesthetics and taste designed to differentiate “old money” (the aristocratic kind) from the vulgarities of “new money.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same; today’s aristocracy, convinced in the legitimacy of its superiority and in the inferiority of those who are not part of it, define the Overton Window, police the parameters of trendiness and good taste, and make sure that those without the proper breeding credentials, tastes, careers and ideas aren’t allowed in. But now their gatekeeping apparatus and ability to define the standards is crumbling, and those icky sticky lower-class people are now usurping the aristocracy’s place. And this, fundamentally, is what articles like Ms Wright’s are responses to.

Of course not all education is worthless, not all nerds are college dropouts and not all people with college degrees are elitists who masturbate over the Plato’s The Republic. But the point is that education, due to questionable human capital benefits, has been oversubsidized. Because a large portion of education’s value comes from signalling rather than human capital, the oversubsidy of education has created credential inflation, and has also exposed a large number of young people to an elitist culture that advocates an aristocracy of credentials and justifies itself as a “true meritocracy” (unlike the rest of our society). A lot of young people with high enough intelligence, high conscientiousness and also high conformity, proved themselves within the hallowed institutions of the Clerisy and expected their college degrees to pay for themselves; they were deposited into no-longer-profitable industries, burdened with student debt, fending off legions of equally-qualified competitors for the few jobs available, and when they did get a job with a platform everything they said could be dissected and critiqued and fact-checked by a whole legion of voices without ‘acceptable’ opinions or ‘respectable’ qualifications. Or they became baristas.

The rise of Silicon Valley thus represents an obscene injustice, a theft from them, a denial of the status they are entitled to as one of those better people who proved themselves in the real meritocracy. At best, Silicon Valley represented an alternative system of status-acquisition and thus threatened their monopoly, but Silicon Valley’s invention of the internet did worse through greatly reducing their profit margins. The rise of less-credentialled, high-intelligence, reduced-conscientiousness and low-conformity people to the height of wealth just rubbed their face in the failure of the credentialist narratives they were brainwashed with.

No wonder they lashed out. No wonder Ms. Wright whined about how the nerds bullied her, in the pages of the Clerisy’s most prestigious forum. She gave voice to what many members of the Clerisy feel.

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  • Robert Crayle

    Can anyone remember the time when fratboys and sports-stars were the faces of “rape culture” in America? Ben Roethlisberger, The Duke Lacrosse team, actually LeBron James himself got a shot aimed at him. Seems it’s better to have rapey villainous men who at least know them place.