A Few Excerpts from Dan Carlin on Lex Friedman

I recently listened to my first episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History — a tour of the transatlantic slave trade entitled: Human Resources. Dan’s story-telling and research shine in this nearly 6-hour episode. He deserves all the accolades he gets. The style, quality and nuance of his work is well-advertised, I’m just late to the party. He immediately jumped into my favorite creators.

As a fan of the Founder’s podcast I found an interview with its host David Senra to be as compelling if not more than the books he highlights (a high bar), so I decided to hunt down interviews with Carlin. The first one I clicked on with Lex Friedman did not disappoint. I include 4 excerpts that stood out to me but most of the interview was enlightening and wide-ranging so I wouldn’t stop at these excerpts.

3+ hour interview (Lex Friedman on YouTube)

I used GPT-4 to clean up sections of this transcript: https://www.happyscribe.com/public/lex-fridman-podcast-artificial-intelligence-ai/136-dan-carlin-hardcore-history

An example of how propaganda can scramble your beliefs in a way that creates collective distortions that are hard to see

[Carlin is a war historian and while he admits to his bias towards individualistic ideals “I’m famously one of those people who buys in to the ideas of traditional Americanism”, his characteristic nuance is well-displayed in his deep skepticm of the “military industrial complex” and how its inclination towards self-preservation as an institution often exerts undue influence in when America looks at its menu of choices]

“Many people living today seem to think that patriotism requires a belief in a strong military and all the features we have in the present. However, this is a departure from traditional Americanism, which viewed such elements with suspicion during the first hundred years of the republic. They saw them as foes to the very values that Americans celebrated. The question arises, how could freedom, liberty, and individualistic expression thrive with an overarching military always engaged in warfare?

The founders of this country examined examples such as Europe and concluded that standing militaries or armies were the enemy of liberty. Today, we have a standing army deeply woven into our society. If one could go back in time and converse with John Quincy Adams, an early president of the United States, and reveal our current situation, he would likely find it terrible and dreadful.

Somewhere in our history, Americans seemed to have strayed from their path and forgotten their founding principles. We have successfully combined the modern military-industrial complex with the traditional benefits of the American system and ideology, so much so that they have become entangled in our thought process. Just one hundred and fifty years ago, they were seen as polar opposites and a threat to each other. When discussions arise about the love of the nation, I harbor suspicion towards such sentiments.

I am wary of government and strive hard not to fall prey to manipulation. I perceive a substantial part of what they do as manipulation and propaganda. Therefore, I believe a healthy skepticism of the nation-state aligns perfectly with traditional Americanism.”

The problem with dictators or strongmen even if they are wise and benevolent

“The challenge in a system such as a strongman system is the question of succession. When you have someone who can control and navigate the ship during a violent storm, if you’re not establishing a system that can function without you, then the severe instability and the dreadful future that you justify the strongman for is only postponed. Unless he’s actively building the system that will survive him and allow successors to carry on his work, you’ve merely created temporary stability. It’s the same problem that occurs in a monarchy.

In a monarchy, you have a king who might be good or perceived as good, but he will eventually hand over his duties to someone else. However, the system doesn’t guarantee a smooth transition because no one has really worked on it. For instance, you would need to inform me if Putin is establishing a system that can survive him and that will maintain the stability that the Russian people appreciate him for, even after he’s no longer in power.

If the oligarchs simply assume control afterward, one could argue that there were 20 good years of stability. However, if we consider the metaphor of a ship of state, the person steering the ship, from the Russian perspective, may have done an excellent job, but the challenges still exist and he won’t be in command indefinitely.

Therefore, it seems logical to assume that his responsibility is to ensure there’s a successor who can continue to steer the ship for the Russian people after he’s no longer there.”

Lex asks how we will “destroy ourselves”. Carlin gives a framework for handicapping what calamity will undo us.

Lex: If you were to wager on the method in which human civilization collapses, rendering the result unrecognizable as progress, what would be your prediction? Nuclear weapons? A societal breakdown through traditional war? Engineered pandemics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or something we haven’t anticipated? Do you perceive a way humans might self-destruct or might we endure indefinitely?

My perspective is primarily influenced by our ability to unite and focus collectively. This informs my estimates of the likelihood of one outcome versus another.

Consider the ’62 Cuban missile crisis. We faced the potential of nuclear war head-on. That, in my view, is a hopeful moment. It was one of the few instances in our history where nuclear war seemed almost certain. Now, I’m no ardent Kennedy admirer, despite growing up during a time when he was almost revered, especially among Democrats. However, I believe John F. Kennedy, acting alone, likely made decisions that spared the lives of over a hundred million people, countering those around him who preferred the path leading to disaster.

Reviewing that now, a betting person would have predicted otherwise. This rarity underpins our discussions about the world’s end. The power to prevent catastrophe was in the hands of a single individual, rather than a collective.

I trust people at an individual level, but when we unite, we often resemble a herd, degrading to the lowest common denominator. This situation allowed the high ethical principles of one human to dictate the course of events.

When we must act collectively, I become more pessimistic. Consider our treatment of the planet. Our discussions predominantly center around climate change, which I believe is too narrow a focus. I become frustrated when we debate whether it’s occurring and if humans are responsible. Just consider the trash. Disregard climate for a moment; we’re harming the planet simply through neglect. Making the necessary changes to rectify this would necessitate collective sacrifice, requiring a significant consensus. If we need around eighty-five percent agreement worldwide, the task becomes daunting. It’s no longer about one person like John F. Kennedy making a single decisive move. Therefore, from a betting perspective, this seems the most likely scenario for our downfall as it demands a massive collective action.

Current systems may not even be in place to manage this. We would need the cooperation of intergovernmental bodies, now largely discredited, and the national interests of individual countries would need to be overridden. The myriad elements that need to align in a short span of time, where we don’t have centuries to devise solutions, make this scenario the most probable simply because the measures we would need to undertake to avoid it appear the least likely.”

[a later thread that rounds out his thinking on this]

“Returning to our primitive instincts, we are conditioned to address immediate and overwhelming threats. I hold a considerable amount of faith in humanity’s response to imminent danger. If we were facing a cataclysmic event such as a planet-threatening explosion, I believe humanity could muster the necessary strength, empower the right individuals, and make the required sacrifices. However, it’s environmental pollution and climate change that pose a different challenge.

What makes these threats particularly insidious is their slow development. They defy our innate fight or flight mechanisms and contradict our ability to confront immediate dangers. Addressing these problems requires a level of foresight. While some individuals can handle this, the majority are more concerned, understandably so, about immediate threats rather than those looming for the next generation.

Could we engage in a nuclear war? Absolutely. However, there’s sufficient inertia against this due to people’s instinctive understanding. If I, as India, decide to launch an attack against China, it’s clear that we will have 50 million casualties tomorrow. If we suggest that the entire planet’s population could be extinguished in three generations if we don’t act now, the evolutionary trajectory of our species might hinder our response.”

Will the US tear itself apart in a second civil war?

Lex: What’s the way out of this, is there some hope to avoid something, and I hate to use the terminology, but something that looks like a civil war? Not necessarily a war of force, but a division to a level where doesn’t any longer feel like a United States of America with the emphasis on “United”. Is there a way out?

I read a book a while back. George Friedman, the Stratfor guy, wrote it. It was called “The Next Hundred Years”. I remember thinking I didn’t agree with any of it. One of the things he might’ve said in the book was that the United States was going to break up. Something stuck in my memory about that.

Some of the arguments were connected to the differences we had and the fact that those differences are being exploited. We talked about media earlier and the lack of truth. We have a media climate that is incentivized to take the wedges in our society and make them wider. And there’s no countervailing force to help.

There was a memo from a group called Project for a New American Century, and they took it down. But the Wayback Machine online still has it. It happened before 9/11 and spawned many conspiracy theories because it suggested that the United States needs another Pearl Harbor type event. Such events galvanize a country that, without them, is naturally geared towards pulling itself apart. These events act as the countervailing force that otherwise is not there. If that’s true, then we are inclined towards pulling ourselves apart.

The media environment profits from widening those divisions. I was in talk radio, and there were those who used to be upset with me for not playing into this. We would have intense discussions after broadcasts, with program directors emphasizing heat. They wanted heat not for political reasons, but to attract listeners and engagement. Because of the format’s constraints, you don’t have a lot of time. They once told me the audience needs to know your stance on every issue within five minutes of turning on your show. This system is designed to pull us apart for profit.

That’s one example of many in our society that function in that manner. The Project for a New American Century document suggests we’re naturally inclined towards disunity. I think that’s what George Friedman’s book was suggesting, which I disagreed with at the time.

In answer to your question about civil wars, it’s different now. We don’t have a clear geographical division like before. Now, we’re divided within communities, families, and voting districts. So you can’t disengage. We’re stuck with each other.

If there’s a civil war now, it might resemble the late 1960s and early 1970s with bombings and domestic terrorism. You don’t even need a large chunk of the country pulling apart 10 percent of people who think it’s it’s the end times can do the damage, just like we talked about terrorism before and a can of gas and a big lighter. 

Terrorism doesn’t need a particular origin or agenda. It could be someone upset about election results. If we’re looking at probabilities, everyone has to behave for society to work. Only a few need to act out for things to go sideways. For every action, there is a reaction, all they have to do is start the retribution cycle. And there’s an escalation. It creates a momentum of its own, which leads fundamentally, if you follow the chain of events down there to some form of dictatorial government as the only way to create stability. You want to destroy the republic and have a dictator? That’s how you do it. And there are parallels to Nazi Germany, the burning of the Reichstag, etc.

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