It is a delicious experience to get caught up in the swell of a movement.
Al Gore was in Denver this one time. There was a protest. Gore was an investor in Occidental Oil (I know, right?). Occidental had just fallen into a scandal over maybe hiring some “security contractors” to remove the native inhabitants of an area they’d secured mineral rights to in a South American country I cannot recall. The removal process went badly.
I was a seventeen-year-old, straight-edge, virgin, who trained 16–24 hours a week in classical martial arts, for a hint at my hormonal predisposition. I did a little reading on the massacre, an article, maybe two, and I showed up. I was angry. This was a thing to be angry about. Swipe right. Match.
Truth? Up to that day, I had never been involved in any public political action without my mom. With my mom, I had been to neighborhood planning meetings, school board hearings, courtroom battles, Marades, and other events. We’re also from a Baptist tradition which takes mandates from Jesus quite seriously. So, we’d been to hospitals and prisons to minister to people I didn’t or barely knew, taken strangers into our homes, and been involved in a number of public feedings. Leftists call it mutual aid. Christians call it ministry. Same thing. The only differences are that Baptists work out of clean kitchens, and tend to be a little less evangelical.
It was spring or early summer — the Occidental Oil protest.
There were people with bullhorns and people yelling nearly as loud. This was pre-Twitter. Like, MySpace probably existed, but smart phones didn’t. People were still mostly living life IRL. Those in attendance had been gathered through word of mouth and pamphleteering. Flyers were passed out at basement punk shows and posters were hung in anarchist bookstore windows — ‘cause once upon a time we had a solid spread of those in Denver.
There’s a different feeling to protests organized with eye contact.
Emotions were high. The air was warm. Clothing was loose and sparse. Except for me. I showed up in all black, military surplus BDUs and a balaclava. I gravitated toward the only other people in masks, just bandanas over their faces. I was passing out flyers I’d made about meeting to organize other political actions.
A very tall and comically skinny kid in a bandana approached me with one of my fliers. He leans over and, with an unexpectedly Texan accent, dropped a hint in my ear, “People think you’re a cop.”
Sweating profusely in a couple more pounds of black clothing and gear than I could have possibly needed, I took a moment to have a very small, quiet, self-contained identity crisis. I stood silently, watching girls my age strip down and pour red paint over their bodies to perform a mock-death for the slain members of an indigenous tribe none of us really knew anything about. It was probably about a three second pause. My lanky friend interrupted with the addition, “It’s okay. I just wanted to tell you. I know you’re not a cop.”
We started talking. Later that night, I met the rest of The Asshole Collective.
And I was caught in the swell.
A quarter of a century later, that lanky southerner and I both have stories, scars, and safer careers. We recently hung out on his Brooklyn stoop and I enjoyed his second hand smoke without harassing him about it.
We kvetched about the many errors in movement politics, strategy, and tactics. The “kids these days” complaints of semi-retired street politicos with more diapers than minds to change.
In the intervening time, we’d both seen dozens of affinity groups, collectives, co-ops, and whole movements cannibalize themselves with malice and vitriol — while blaming people and systems that barely knew they existed the whole way down.
Since leaving the nest of teachers union organizing, I’ve been behind the curtain of numerous unions, a couple of political parties, commiserated with domestic terrorists, developed with billionaires, and documented the findings and tactics of grassroots initiatives across the country.
But, nearly all of those efforts fall short of their noble visions. And, never because of the problem the members are fixated on. Those problems are real, they just aren’t the problems that destroy collective efforts. And, the problems people are looking to solve aren’t generally the barrier to their own solution. That would be too easy.
I’ve seen communities of forest defenders paralyzed by rampant sexual assault in their camps, committees of philanthropic consultants tangle themselves in posturing and virtue signaling, grassroots movements debase themselves with idealistic bridge burning, and more scandal, betrayal, and suicide than I will burden you with now.
People who want to change the world are people who tend to get distracted by big obvious problems, which prevents them from solving little tricky problems. And, those little tricky problems are the ones that unlock the possibility of addressing anything bigger.
So, a little while ago, I set out to tackle those little tricky problems.
I’ve been searching for the solutions to the problems that communities are reluctant to tackle for a long time. Issues like:
But, while searching for something very rare and fragile, one mostly finds pieces and signs, little fragmentary clues that the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible is real, that it is there for the taking.
Before Linger’s rooftop patio was one of Denver’s finest dining experiences, it was my make out spot. I used to go up there with punk girls train hopping their way across the country. We’d see the hearses come and go below us from the mortuary garage and look over the whole city and talk about anarcho-syndicalists utopian fantasies. And, on the most special nights, the romance of the social fantasy overtook the erotic and we talked revolution and social change through the whole night.
A sea of coffee fueled late night debates in diners, continued into coffee shops and bookstores with a backdrop of sunrise reflecting off of our paint drying on warehouses along the train lines. We sat on floors, back to back, like soldiers in the mud, turning pages to the soundtrack of Godspeed and Songs: Ohia. We absorbed Newton and Churchill, but not that Newton and Churchill. We bounced Angela Davis off of Foucault, off of Jenson, off of last week’s new zine.
And, we brought some of our less destructive schemes to life as well. Community bike shops, collective housing, printshops, and tucked away semi-autonomous zones in national forests and rented warehouses, where we got to experiment with designing our own social conventions and conditions.
Kids Fest, Two Weeks of Chaos, Burning Man, and dozens of road trips and escapes to deep mountain hot springs, spokes councils, Free School, Food Not Bombs, rap battles in the woods and campfires under loading docks all lead in tiny little microcosmic threads toward the possibility that people can relate to each other with a different set of intentions than the guarded transactionalism of the prescribed world. Those threads were spun from ancient scriptures, from contemporary philosophers, from biomimicry, and from good ol’ trial and error. So many trials; so many errors.
A while ago, I began to collect these threads into a book. The book, I have hopes, may serve as a springboard for any number of efforts. The subjects which it addresses are very difficult to address without space and focus. Some questions are so challenging that we dare not look at them without setting aside time and coming at them in a safe place with a hot toddy. That is what this book is for, taking the sting out of the subjects which tend to blindside changemakers by wading into them through spacious prose and generous deliberation.
The first effort to publish the book didn’t get off of the ground. But, I wouldn’t say that this campaign was without success. Let’s look at what happened and how it might be enormously helpful in charting a clearer way forward.
First. I am not a person who easily flits about social environments, in meat space or online. I find it very taxing to rapidly navigate the transitions between Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Each platform has different rules about what can be said, to whom, and for how many peanuts. And, the rules have attracted and conditioned the communities that use them.
A few years ago, I settled on trying to reach people through Instagram. I ran a bunch of little experiments, found something that worked, and grew my audience from 700 to 13K in the span of a couple months — or so I thought. All social media is borrowed land. We are sharecroppers in these spaces. Nothing is ours. Not even the attention others would like to share with us.
The way Instagram works, or fails to — from the creator perspective — is that the people in charge tilt the algorithm to capture more market share from other platforms developing new features and hooks. What worked for those months when I was growing stopped working when the platform pivoted to a new strategy.
No matter, I still had that 13K audience, or did I?
I started producing content to promote the book, did my best to keep it valuable, kept giving away nuggets and offering generous questions, but the more I pointed toward my off platform offering the more my reach was throttled down. I experimented and put out a piece that had nothing to do with the book. It got ten times the reach.
I began the campaign with two simple assumptions:
Well, the first assumption was correct enough. It is a safe position for the campaign to fail. I didn’t end up in work debt with too short a runway to fulfill on it.
You can’t eat safety.
The algorithm did not agree with the second assumption.
I shifted most of my efforts to just hitting the phones. That worked well to activate my personal network. When I asked folks to share the book with their networks, I got two basic responses:
Both totally valid.
Throughout my book, I make very bold claims about how social structures are flawed and how economic and ecological movements fail. I assert that all conflict between emotions and reason is a result of a disintegrated mind, which needs to be integrated in order to solve the problems which arise from it. I assert that all social, political, and economic ideologies, and all potential ideologies, are nearly worthless for the task of solving contemporary social problems. They’re no more useful than a car that’s been totaled but has a few salvageable parts. I assert that everyone who strongly believes that hierarchy, violence, western culture, capitalism, or patriarchy are wholesale and bedrock evils believes so — first — out of genuine love for humanity and hope for the future, but also out of cowardice. Those things aren’t bedrock evil. None of them is evil in and of themselves. In the cases where they are connected to evil, what is actually evil is a layer or four down. And the urge to think of these innocuous things as evil comes from our juvenile horror at the prospect of looking under the bed, of probing into the dark to find the actual monster.
We cannot shirk the adventure and hope to gain the grail.
So, here are my conclusions about that first book launch campaign:
To y’all who are still reading this, God bless your wonderful hearts. At the risk of losing you here, it is always in the back of my mind that because my writing is on the internet I am in competition with kittens et al for the attention of finicky human eyes.
Together, we’re going to improve things, starting with getting this book out.
Next up: how it’s going to happen …
Below, I’m going to outline my action plan for the immediate future of sqglz. This includes how I’m going to get the book out in the next campaign, how I’m going to create more density in the value I offer, and the details of my thinking about both.
Instagram was an easy answer to the problem of reaching out to new people, but focus on Instagram has minimally two major downsides in the context of this work:
Thinking in longform first helps to get the whole story out and elaborate rigorous first principles arguments. Obviously, that’s the point of putting my very best thinking, the stuff that really pushes the edge of social philosophy, into a book.
In addition to the book, I’m going to focus a lot more on getting better longform content, like this, onto this site. To support that, I’m going to be a lot more focused on my newsletter. And, after that, YouTube will probably be my biggest social media type outlet. Instagram will get little highlight reels. On platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and X, what works best is to have one very specific schtick — even if there are actually a lot of components to what one does. So, I’m going to be narrowing that down. If you’d like to inform that highly specific niche, and my content production in general, take a moment to complete the survey here.
Every single time that I put out any piece of content I’m going to be asking folks to do something. Leave a specific kind of comment. Follow a link. Buy a book. Call your mom. What I find ironic is that the folks who get most triggered about the idea of a person constantly selling are my most socialist leaning friends. If that’s you, consider revisiting the Communist Manifesto or the Little Red Book. Nobody sells more constantly or belligerently than an evangelical communist. But sales doesn’t have to be belligerent.
These are the things that I believe are most important about always selling:
staying or getting on the same side of the table
What this means is that the incentives of all arrangements contain no contradictions or conflicts. If all incentives are aligned, then even transactional operations are quite generative.
triple wins, always triple wins
Seeking the triple win is subtly but importantly different than merely aligning incentives. A lot of people reach out to me with ideas about projects and conversations. Honestly, I want to do most of them. Establishing a mutual collaboration satisfies the mandate to come to the same side of the table, but we can sit together on the same side of the table and both lose. The triple win means that each effort is structured as a xanatos gambit in which no matter the outcome I, my client or audience, and the people they serve, all get something out of the operation. If its not a triple win, I ain’t doin’ it.
So, what’s the ask right now?
In this article, the ask is that you sign up for the sqglz newsletter. If you like the sound of what I’m saying enough that you read all the way to here, then you’ll probably benefit from keeping track of where this all goes. And, if you do stay tuned to sqglz developments, you’re likely to encounter some salient questions and some actionable methods which help you to help others.
None of us wants to win alone. So, if you’re already subscribed to the sqglz newsletter, please share this with someone else. That’s the triple win.
Now, maybe no one will read through this long article. Maybe a few folks will read it but no one will sign up for the newsletter. I still needed to process through the post mortem for the campaign. Doing that processing in a public way means that I have to make my thinking clearer than if I just made a few notes to myself. So, even if the article gets no attention I still did what I needed to do, my audience was given an opportunity, and the folks they serve have an artifact of strategic thought which they themselves may find at some point. That’s the xanatos gambit element here.
Why was the goal so high to begin with? Good question. I believed that the goal needed to account for the worst case scenario — fiscally speaking. That would have been if everyone who backed the campaign backed it at the lowest margin level.
That wasn’t what happened at all. Most people backed at higher margin tiers, or simply backed for more than the required amount.
So, now I have a pretty clear idea of what to expect and can reasonably lower the campaign goal for the next run. Done and done.
Kristina asked for a gathering of local backers. She asserted that she’s pretty sure that the people I know, and who came forward to back this project, must all be pretty awesome. She’s right.
So, I’m going to try to throw some kind of thing. Obviously, I would love it if all of the wonderful folks from Bangalore, Bogotá, Brussels, Florence, Ho Chi Minh, Lagos, London, Mumbai, New York, Seattle, et cetera could all make it out. But I understand the unlikelihood. Anyway, if you’re in Colorado, look forward to an invite.
Backers who spread the good word reported back that their friends found the claims about the book too audacious. So, in order to bridge that gap, step into a greater mindset of abundance, and other clichés, I’m going to put a limited but generous amount of the book up online for free.
I know that in so doing many people will skim even that limited bit, feel like they got it, and move on. That’s totally okay. I’m not for everybody. A small number of those people will talk shit about how it doesn’t make sense, is problematic, and worse. That’s also okay. Honestly, we all know that those folks were never going to get it. So, I’m done worrying about it.
In fact, I’m willing to say that if you all support me in extending this generosity, I would like to make the digital version of the book entirely free at some point. This is a lot of work. So, that’s not just a me decision.
Let’s see what we can do together.
Last night, Kyle and I got into this protracted conversation about whether or not we can really know that there aren’t sharks more than sixty feet long and other giant nightmare creatures that live primarily in the aphotic zone. If you don’t know Kyle, I’m sorry. You should. He’s the best.
My side of the argument was that the unknown unknowns are too great. I also grant that I don’t have any reason to assert the existence of such creatures. I was simply asserting that literal Cthulhu may just be a deep sleeper with a glacial metabolism, adapted to live on the giant sea worms that are adapted to live on volcanic vent gases.
There are 39 million books in the Library of Congress.
Why do I believe that you should care about this one.
It’s because of what we don’t know.
And, it’s because of what is being attempted
— what I’m attempting to connect.
When Edmund Gettier casually passed off his seminal work on epistemology for publication, he didn’t think that much would come of it. It up-ended not only epistemic philosophy but continues to rock boats in all fields. When Kant published his much more verbose treatise on the same subject, he believed that it would change the world. But no one understood it. Well, not for quite a while.
I’m not Gettier and I’m not Kant. But I do have some ideas about how society has failed to metabolize both of their contributions, how those contributions relate to each other as well as others, and … And! I can describe it all in, more or less, plain English.
But that’s not all! If you buy now, I’ll give you the whole book for three easy installments … sorry. Throwback to that bit about always selling.
In seriousness, that’s not all. The above philosophers were primarily writing to an audience of academics, in some ways detached from the major struggles of society. Now, their work does pertain to those struggles. But, the gap remains mostly unbridged.
And maybe I haven’t bridged it either. I’m not sure. I can’t be sure. But, what I am pretty sure of is that what I’m working on contains at least part of the bridge. Approximately 200,000 words of the bridge — to be a little more specific. Yeah, sorry, translating ground breaking epistemological and metaphysical thought into actionable social design frameworks in plain language is wordy.
You’ve come with me this far.
And, are you someone who dedicates any amount of your precious time and resources to improving your community, to developing new economic models, or to regenerating ecosystems?
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