Sensemaking & Gatekeeping: Talking with Fascists
This is a piece about the bounds of Sensemaking, the key distinction between censorship and moderation/curation, and the responsibilities that any and all of us have in this new media environment where all of us are effectively creators, curators and broadcasters.
These are topics that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time, as a refugee journalist from traditional media who’s now set up an outpost in the alternative ecosystem. I strongly believe that if *we* cannot solve this problem ourselves, then the solutions will be imposed clumsily and badly by the big tech companies.
These concerns have been brought into fresh contrast by a new film that Jordan Hall, prominent figure in the Sensemaking/Meta scene, and frequent guest on Rebel Wisdom, just put out with a figure called Brandon Hayes, who is the social media manager for a group called the Propertarian Institute.
In the text accompanying the film, Jordan says that he half expects to get cancelled for putting out the film, that he has been told Brandon is a “bad guy” and that posting it is a “finger in the eye of Sauron”. However, as seems clear from the comments, viewers of the film may be forgiven for not fully understanding why. Jordan and Brandon have a largely good natured conversation, they touch lightly on some potentially hot topics, questions like “tell me about the Jews” are mentioned at one point, references to genetics and “race realism” are hinted at but generally the conversation is haphazard, unstructured and relatively mild, with a shared concern about the influence of the radical left.
However, the context for the conversation is that the Propertarian Institute are a far right, explicitly anti-Semitic organisation which talks openly about sparking civil war, and Brandon is a self-declared fascist. As I’ll detail below, they had a spectacular implosion last year and seemed to have been declining as a cultural force, under the weight of ridicule and deplatforming. Over the last few years they, and principally Brandon Hayes himself, have been systematically joining (and being banned from) different groups on Facebook and elsewhere, particularly heterodox, Intellectual Dark Web and Integral groups, initially hiding their beliefs and intentions with the sole aim of recruiting new members.
A few months ago Jordan Hall, together with Bret Weinstein and a few others, were banned from Facebook. This looked from the outside like a worrying purge of heterodox thinkers. I put out a film about this, with an interview with Bret and another man who was banned at a similar time. In the aftermath of that film, I received a number of emails from people who had been tracking the Propertarians for some time, and told me that Facebook had banned a large number of Prop accounts at the same time as Bret and Jordan were swept up, and that the man I featured in the film had been closely connected to Hayes and others for some time.
I was sent a lot of detail about the activities of the Propertarians. I considered putting out a piece about them then, and decided against it, mainly because it seemed like the group was dying a natural death and I didn’t want to do anything to boost their signal. Instead I forwarded on many of the details about them privately to others with platforms and reach, to give them the backstory. One of the people I sent it to was Jordan.
Jordan Hall is a figure whose work I and many others respect hugely. In his “Situational Assessments”, particularly in the wake of the Trump election, he sketched out a compelling and persuasive explanation of what was going on that looked at “nascent collective intelligence”. I contacted him when I made my breakout film “Glitch in the Matrix” (now nearly 6m views in total) and the interview with him provided much of the analysis of what was going on related to Jordan Peterson and the Cathy Newman interview. In the time since, I have made a number of films with him and he has done many other fascinating discussions with others in the wider Sensemaking web.
Heterodoxy vs Reprehensible
Rebel Wisdom has paid close attention to the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (the informal title for a group of thinkers and podcast hosts) since its emergence in 2018. In the initial New York Times article introducing the IDW to the world, Bari Weiss explicitly named the problem with any movement of ‘heterodox’ ideas: “I get the appeal of the IDW. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the IDW finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.”
For me the IDW was just one outpost in a broader conversation around the failings of the mainstream media, and a successful beachhead to begin to have conversations about topics that were badly covered in an increasingly ideological media. Rebel Wisdom expanded beyond these initial IDW figures to others deeply engaged with the problem of truth in the digital age, and the problems of ‘Sensemaking’.
We all have a sense that the old institutions and structures are no longer fit for purpose. By definition the new ideas that are existentially important to renew culture will come from the margins, they will be heterodox at first. How to differentiate between the heterodox and the generally reprehensible and rightly rejected, is crucial.
I’ll briefly outline my best understanding of who and what the Propertarians are, and who Brandon Hayes is, but my focus here will be on the decision by Jordan to interview him, and how the interview is conducted. Though of course the latter decision is always informed by the former. You will ask different questions, and give different information to viewers depending on who your interviewee is and the context for the discussion.
This is done in a spirit of engagement with Jordan. I reached out to him with my concerns, and we did a dialogue around the issue, which I’m linking to here. As I’ll explain later in this piece, I’ve taken the decision (for now) to release this as a written article here, and an unlisted film with Jordan (left), rather than featuring it on the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel. I also reached out to Brandon and had a conversation with him to allow him to respond to the questions and criticisms in this piece.
Who are the Propertarians?
I take this description from a friend who engaged at length with Propertarian ideas, which fits with my experience.
The Propertarianism Institute is a far-right think tank and political movement. It was started by polymath Curt Doolittle — Aspergers, IQ 165, taken him 30 years or so to build the framework. Has a growing following in the US and is seeking to provide the intellectual architecture for a new conservative movement. Many posts I’ve seen are openly fascist, eugenic and Darwinist: “We are the the most important intellectual movement of the era — the Marxism of the 21st century — and it’s complete inversion: the replacement of the pseudosciences, sophisms, frauds, and deceits of Abrahamism, Marxism, postmodernism, feminism and their attempt at global monopoly — with the restoration of western civilization’s tradition of excellence, truth, duty, beauty, sovereignty, nationalism, and the natural law of reciprocity.
Major points: Semitic cultures are parasitising Western hosts using specific (feminine) group evolutionary strategies
Major piece I’ve taken away is that Western civ is declining because: its dominant evolutionary strategy (of ‘masculine’ excellence, truth, duty, reciprocity and sovereignty) is being outcompeted (or undermined) by ‘feminine’ power strategies of GSSRM (gossip, shaming, ridicule, moralising — the feminine proxy for violence). Propertarianism’s proposition is that Abrahamic cultures have said evolutionary strategies at their root, and these adaptations have manifested in domains like postmodernism, Marxism, feminism, all of which undermine Western civ characteristics.
They hold a deeply social Darwinist perspective — call for soft eugenics, ‘too much breeding of the underclass’. Big emphasis on the natural law of reciprocity as the core evolutionary behavioural mechanism of Western civilisation.
Believe that civil war is inevitable (since 2018 Doolittle has been calling for this) namely because of shifting demographics — the US are ‘importing’ an ethnic electorate which means no conservative will win in the future unless something is done. Open calls to violence if necessary.
As a Jew, I find most of the posts hard to read. Scary actually. Especially if you see how he has laid ‘scientific’ conceptual architecture which seeks to justify eugenics and anti-Semitism (not the first). Would like to see genuine scientific arguments against his propositions (e.g. he refers to the anti-Semitic Professor Kevin MacDonald a lot, whose have been discredited by people like Steven Pinker).
That said, he is willing to speak to harsh biological truths (likely due to his Aspergers, which he admits) in a way that progressives seek to out- wish or deny. Because of our inability to include the tragedy of certain biological truths in our modern debate, they’re going underground and being co-opted by these types of guys, because we can’t have a sensible conversation about the intersection of biology and culture.”
In my call with Brandon I asked him whether it was fair to describe his views as “ethnonationalist”, “fascist” or “anti-Semitic” and he said that it was, but these terms were wrongly used as slurs.
In early 2020, the talk of civil war ramped up, and the Propertarians put out detailed plans of how the revolution could begin in Richmond, Virginia “Why Is Richmond a Perfect Opportunity for Starting the Revolution?”. They issued detailed maps of the infrastructure of the surrounding area, including ammunition stores, banks and key energy networks and proposed that it was the perfect place to begin an insurrection as NYC and DC were too well defended.
“And while battlefield warfare may in fact ‘be hell’ after the invention of machine gun and artillery, the same is not true for raiding, piracy, and hit and run warfare of attrition. Why? Because it is war for profit. And unstated truth is there is no thrill like hunting man.
There will never be a leftist united states. We will compromise by converting blue (left) cities into city states. Otherwise, we will simply let nature take its course once “The Fourth Meal Is Missed” and the liberals discover the true nature of the herds they corralled.” Curt Doolittle.
It is in this light that the key players’ removal from Facebook should be seen. They are certainly on domestic terror watchlists.
How they act
At the core of Propertarianism is the concept of reciprocity as the primary value. In my conversation with Brandon he returned to it again and again as his sole core belief. Yet this is at the core of the objections to Brandon and other Propertarians’ behaviour, whether they are behaving with transparency, reciprocity and good faith.
Over at least the last 3/4 years, the Propertarians have been systematically joining various intellectual discussion groups, particularly linked to heterodox thinkers (IDW/Dark Horse/Portal/Game B/Integral/Jordan Peterson) with the sole intent on recruiting for their worldview and organisation.
I asked Brandon about this in my interview, and he agreed: “I’m trying to recruit people to the natural law, the natural order of things.”
I was first aware of them in one of the most anarchic groups based around Ken Wilber’s Integral theory. Bruce A was the founder of the group, and details their tactics.
“(Hayes) often seemed to be quite unaware that, in his strategies online, he exhibited many of the traits he and other Propertarians decry. He enters communities surreptitiously and appears to like to work from the sidelines, in a way that appears (to me) to be underhanded, undermining, and ‘feminine’ (in his terms). He parasitizes the membership of other community leaders, giving general lip-service or faux support to establish social connections, but undermining or criticizing them or the host culture (Integral, Metamodernism, etc) wherever necessary in order to win people from their present commitments over to his own mission. He works and communicates like a salesman. And as I mentioned to you, part of his strategy is to draw people in with general, abstract logical and moral arguments (that leave the anti-Semitic and misogynist underpinnings relatively unbroached), and then once there is enough of a buy in, to hit them with the (morally framed) “hard pill” stuff (on Semitism, women, race realism, etc) to bring them fully into the fold.”
Jim Rutt was one of the admins on the Game B group on Facebook: “In June of 2020 the moderation team of the GameB Group on Facebook discovered that we had been infiltrated by about 5 Propertarians. They had laid low and not misbehaved until that point, when they began spouting racist stuff. We booted them en-masse. I have heard of and seen other such infiltration attempts. People working on social operating system change need to be on the lookout for infiltration by Propertarians and other groups looking to hijack their efforts.”
In the aftermath of their banning by Facebook, Brandon posted on Twitter: “They culled all the sheepdogs from the herds”.
In my conversation with Brandon he rejected flat out that he had behaved in a non-reciprocal way, and criticised others for tactics of “gossip and shaming”.
The other concern that many have raised is that Brandon employs a “motte and bailey” strategy, starting with a simple expression of easily defensible positions, for example of the value of reciprocity, and initially keeping the more toxic beliefs hidden.
There is also a question of basic truthfulness. Brandon often frames himself as someone trying to “avoid” civil war, rather than spark it. In my conversation with Brandon he denied that Curt Doolittle’s aim was to cause a civil war, however this is demonstrably untrue, as seen in multiple places online including a Quora post from August 2016 where Curt wrote explicitly: “We are on the brink of civil war (and quite frankly I’m working to start it)”.
The Propertarian Implosion
The movement suffered a serious blow during an ‘armed march’ on the Richmond, Virginia Capitol on July 4th. The event was something of a damp squib, and during an address following the march Curt Doolittle appeared to urinate on himself. They lost a lot of the traction they had built up and saw a huge loss of support especially on the far right.
Since then, and their banning from Facebook, they had all but disappeared as a cultural force.
How, not what
I am not going to argue that Jordan should not have talked to Brandon, although I personally would not have done anything to boost his or Propertarianism’s signal. There is a low quality version argument that the legacy media makes that equates any engagement whatsoever with support, in a simplistic ‘guilt by association’ way. The higher quality version of that argument is that intentions and execution matters, simply put, why and how are important.
The conversation around free speech and censorship online tends to collapse into very simplistic and binary positions, particularly on YouTube, where free speech absolutism reigns. It misses the most interesting and central questions. How and why are people invited onto shows, what are the decisions made in terms of their framing, what questions are they asked, and is the audience given enough information to make up their minds on the guest’s true nature and beliefs?
I raise these points in a spirit of inquiry. I have a set of preconceptions and expectations from my background as a journalist. Some may be appropriate in the new ‘alternative Sensemaking’ space, and some may not. Jordan’s response in the film above raises some very interesting and worthwhile points.
The moral code that I ingested as a journalist, and I think it is still a good one is this. You are in a (rare and privileged) position of asking your interlocutor a question, your responsibility is to take on the position of the viewer, and ask the questions that they would want to ask, or that they need to know to understand what this person really believes. There is a special responsibility when engaging with “third rail” topics, that are third rail for valid historical reasons, such as anti-Semitism and ethnonationalism.
There is a deeper question that Eric Weinstein and Sam Harris touch on in a recent Town Hall event, which is, what responsibilities do people in ‘alternative Sensemaking’ spaces have, and how do they differ from those of the traditional media, where the journalists have largely inherited the authority and responsibility of the seat they occupy?
“I hear things like, Eric, you have a platform, you have a tremendous responsibility. What platform? I just I signed up for Twitter. And that that kind of weird new problem is super interesting because I’ve never really had to think about this. I built the entire thing completely, 100 percent by myself. We haven’t had the discussion about the ethics of what if you succeed at what it is that you’re doing on social media. We’re inheriting these questions from people who inherited their platforms. And we didn’t inherit our platforms. We built our platforms.”
My view is that if you are talking to a controversial figure, it’s necessary for the audience to explain why they are controversial, to put some of their previous statements to them if that helps the audience get a good idea of who they are, and to take care in framing the conversation.
Of course this can become performative, and a large part of the decline in media is due to journalists trying to position themselves in relation to ‘good opinion’ and their reputation in front of other journalists, rather than positioning themselves relative to the truth.
But this is where I think Jordan’s conversation with Brandon falls short. There may be value in steel-manning Propertarianism and seeing what grains of truth are contained within it, but this conversation did not achieve that. I’ll start by saying that these conversations are *not easy*, but when we’re playing with fire, we have to take precautions to avoid getting burnt.
From the outset, even though Jordan makes an effort to grasp the nettle and go straight into “the Jew stuff”, he doesn’t give the audience any context for who this person is or ask him what he believes. He never asks Brandon to outline his philosophy or explain why he’s so controversial that it could lead to Jordan’s banning from the internet. The impression given of the whole dialogue in both tone and content is that these two largely agree, have shared views on the importance of genetics and race realism and that Brandon is an ally and friend in a shared and existential war for civilisation.
Jordan takes the lead in bringing in scientific concepts like lineage selection, without fully spelling out their relevance to the topic at hand. The effect is to signal scientific credibility and credence to Brandon’s racist beliefs, without actually asking him to do the work of spelling out what he believes.
At the start of the interview Brandon and Jordan together frame Brandon as someone who “tells the truth”. Worth raising here the difference between “truth” and “truthfulness” that Daniel Schmachtenberger describes in War on Sensemaking. Brandon may be speaking the truth as far as he understands it, but whether it is “truthful”, ie: bearing some resemblance to reality, is the question at issue here.
Several times during the interview, and especially at the end, Brandon explicitly frames the interview with Jordan as a trusted friend and ally in the cause.
If we read the comments section, it’s clear very few people recognise what they have watched, or who Jordan was speaking to.
What does the interview achieve? Is Brandon a compelling enough character, with interesting enough ideas to spend so much personal capital and credibility? Does “poking Sauron in the eye” justify the collateral damage of boosting the signal of a fascist without shedding light on his actual ideas and beliefs, or interrogating their truthfulness?
I reached out to Jordan to have a dialogue around these questions. The full film is linked to above and is well worth watching. His perspective is that he’s not engaged in an ‘interview’ with Brandon, rather an exploratory conversation, with no awareness of an audience.
I have sympathy with this perspective, Rebel Wisdom is also in an inquiry about more organic, exploratory forms of sensemaking, rather than a traditional broadcast/audience model. This still raises the questions for me on how to do that in a way that provides the context I outline above, without the dialogue falling into an outdated interviewer/interviewee model.
He agrees that we need to evolve a defence mechanism to screen out toxicity, and uses the example of a cell membrane. For him, the non-negotiable for engagement is “real relationship” which achieves integrity, and says he is still in an exploratory phase in relationship to Brandon.
He also makes the point that, given that techniques of warfare and destruction are only becoming more and more accessible, that there is no alternative to engaging with those who are oriented towards conflict, and that we need to learn how to do it better as a matter of urgency.
Before publishing this article I reached out to Brandon in order to give him right of reply to the criticisms in it. I have added his responses in the relevant sections of the piece.
What do we do as a network when confronted by bad faith actors? What does an immune system for the health of the information commons look like? Is this article part of it?
Journalists and the legacy media developed systems, norms and procedures over centuries, that are being eroded in the space of years. While the system had become corrupt and dysfunctional, as yet we have no replacement for this problem.
The information doors are open, for good and ill. And we don’t yet know what to do about it, how possibly to curate, or even make sense of the new landscape. We don’t fully understand our responsibilities. What would a code of ethics look like?
Good faith dialogue and reciprocity is at the core of the kind of conversations that Jordan Hall, John Vervaeke and others have been pioneering, called Dialogos. It is intensely reciprocal, the aim is to go to the edge of our thinking, to enter a space of not knowing, to build on each other’s thought and to potentially end up somewhere completely new. By definition this cannot happen with someone who is already convinced they know the answers and is merely trying to convince others.
As John Vervaeke said, “I can talk to anyone I have deep philosophical differences with, but only in good faith. If they are coming in with a predetermined objective, for the purposes of conversion rather than conversation then they are effectively trying to subvert the intellectual commons.”
Why I’m Writing This
Writing this article is not a decision I’ve come to lightly, I also have concerns about boosting the signal of the Propertarians. I’ve decided to do it for a number of reasons, I raised concerns privately before, but I think this conversation changes the calculation, and context needs to be given on who they are and what they are doing. I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t engage, that’s entirely up to them, only that they should know the background and context.
I do it — again — with the hope that others will join in having this conversation together about rights and responsibilities, as it’s overdue and necessary.
There is a danger of drawing more attention through raising this. One could imagine the article that a bad faith actor at Vox or Slate could make (linking together IDW/Far Right/anti-Semitism). My judgement as a journalist is that this is unlikely to happen *yet*, it’s not a big enough space, and the link to the genuinely high profile IDW figures is tangential enough that it’s not really a viable mainstream story.
Also I believe that this wider heterodox space we are in particularly the (meta web / Sensemaking web / Game B) conversation is only going to get more traction and more profile, as we’re asking the most important questions about the future, so there will never be a better time to have this conversation when we can still do it relatively safely.
Still, I do it with immense trepidation, I value Jordan tremendously as a thinker and it is not obviously in my, or Rebel Wisdom’s interest to raise these questions or draw attention to bad actors. Aligned incentive structures that mean we steer away from criticism are a failure condition, even though no-one enjoys criticism, it’s essential for evolution, so long as it is done in good faith with those who genuinely respect us and wish us to grow.
I’ve decided to release it as a written piece here on Medium, and with the conversation with Jordan as an unlisted film, rather than releasing in publicly to the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel. My sense is that the right people will see this anyway, and it balances the necessity for a response with not boosting the Propertarian signal too much.
As I said to Brandon during our call, I hope that he finds others qualified to challenge his views on race and engages with them in a spirit of openness, not ideological inflexibility.
Rights & Responsibilities
There are many questions here that we need to wrestle with, principally, what are our responsibilities as curators/Sensemakers? How much responsibility, and what kind of responsibility do prominent figures / epistemic authorities have themselves? Especially when they likely didn’t ask for the authority and trust that was placed in them by others.
What responsibility do I have as someone who has promoted Jordan’s work and boosted his signal, to address this? I see myself more as a curator than an “epistemic authority” like Jordan. Rebel Wisdom has more reach than Jordan’s platform, with 200k+ subscribers on YouTube, but Jordan has a lot more authority than I do personally. However, ironically, this is probably an area where I have more experience, from twenty years in journalism.
Through all my work with Rebel Wisdom I’ve pointed to where journalism and media have been increasingly failing in the job of truth-seeking, often replacing it with performativity and signalling. However I increasingly feel we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and in our new alternative/decentralised media ecosystem, we have no standards, no checks and balances whatsoever, and I’m increasingly skeptical that we’re likely to evolve towards them without some serious work.
One thing I was surprised to learn through my time in newsrooms at Channel 4 News, the BBC and elsewhere was that editorial decisions are almost always contextual. Aside from the statutory regulations, via Ofcom, difficult editorial decisions are made through weighing different values, and as conversations between experienced journalists and editors. The journalistic values of a story are always weighed with other factors, such as, will putting this story out cause severe consequences for our local producer. Even among professional journalists with decades of experience, there was a recognition that none of us had the answer alone, and that there could be intense disagreement about the right way to tell a story, or what stories to tell.
Another huge concern in the atomised and decentralised world of alternative media, and the loss of experienced journalists to solo platforms like Substack, is that this conversation, and institutional expertise is being lost, and is hard to see how we replace it.
The dying legacy media are still trying to play the old gatekeeping game. See the recent article (hitpiece) by the NYT about Slate Star Codex, where they attempted to shame him for tackling subjects they have decided are beyond the pale and reassert themselves as the suitable gatekeepers.
To be able to talk to people with ideas outside the mainstream, even ones that appear ‘reprehensible’ to many, and especially the algorithms, is essential, maybe existential for our future.
However, we have to take the responsibility onto ourselves on how, why, and how they are challenged and presented. If we don’t do that, and find a way to do it reliably, then it will be done for us by the heavy handed censorship of the big tech companies.
Thumbing the eye of Sauron for its own sake is likely to have a much shorter life expectancy than developing a strategy to counter it. One solution could be to come up with an open sourced protocol for ‘difficult conversation’ that could be signed up to by multiple different platforms and people. With that in place, we should feel brave enough to have these conversations. And if they are still shut down, to have a righteous cause that we can get behind.
The rules of engagement for this new media world have yet to be written, and likely none of us have the full solution, so the only way to find out what they are is to engage in good faith dialogue with each other. Knowing who we can and cannot include in that fragile conversation is going to be crucial.