James, let's continue our discussion on Taleb's antifragility, see part 1, and part 2.
LL: I think you have applied this idea of antifragility in your own life quite extensively, especially the way that any aggression displayed against you is material for your writing. I often wonder what the learning process must have been like for you, much earlier in your life, as you developed your approach to managing the constant aggression in your environment. Can you comment on that?
JL: At 11, after five years of being beaten and tormented by older children and teenagers, I talked my father into a punching bag and weight set and stayed inside until I could hit hard enough to make the floor above shake. The first ingredient a person needs to deal with aggression is the ability to apply aggression. You have to make at least one example before you can begin the nuanced threat negotiation that has typified most of my life. The sports comparison would be that you have to attain a certain baseline conditioning to engage in the sport in a learning way. By age 15 I had an aura of menace that kept almost everyone away. After nearly killing a man at 18 and narrowly avoiding prison time, I unlearned this, and had to learn it again on the job and on the way to work. By age 31, when I walked into a strip club—all 143 pounds of me—bouncers wanted to be my friend, businessmen would ask me to take their seat and the strippers would compete for my attention. This had only to do with the fact that I had become used to dealing with mobs of black youth and crews of gangbangers six nights a week and carried myself on a constant combat footing—was flat-out suicidal for most of my 30s. I had a D& D Charisma rating of 6 out of 18—just a bad actor who never initiated. The negroes could smell this, that I was like a coiled snake. I was really a creepy person who was utterly callous with everyone but my sons. My wife suffered greatly from this studied neglect of the softer parts of the world.
LL: Taleb has noted that he avoids anything or anyone that is "middle brow." He associates with only the most elite in any academic field, or taxi drivers, doormen, (and maybe grocers?). Back in 2008 he was getting death threats for his comments on the banks and markets and took up deadlifting to deter attacks. Now his deadlift is over 300 lbs (he is in his late 50s with no previous athletic history). He loves hanging in the gym with the meatheads. He doesn't care for extensive proofreading of his writing, which is something he has in common with you. You specialize in mining the dregs of Baltimore for both your fiction and non-fiction. You have also been memorializing the lives of so many who served in unacknowledged slavery during the "colonial" era. Is it a coincidence that our elites wish to erase these classes of people who possess a type of understanding that has been effectively brainwashed out of the more compliant, educated classes?
JL: Okay, Lynn, you know how you continually take umbrage over my assertion that I’m a dumbass? Well, I am. I won’t get into the years of crying as a child as I tried and failed to learn basic math, even with a tutor and remained unable to read two years after my younger brother was reading toy assembly instruction. Yet, the people in the middle of our society—you and most of my readers, who are college educated or brilliant laymen—are continually dumbfounded at how I can make deductions and observations that astound men such as Ulric Kerensky—who is a flat-out genius, I mean a dude who could have been a Tesla in another age, before the regimentation that drives minds like his underground. He calls it wisdom, what I have, and he is right. How did I get all of this insight that the big brains and beautiful minds gawk at and misunderstand?
I aspired to learn, to read, and finally did. Made certain to read what others generally did not, history, anthropology, religion as well as the wars all boys read about. I did this so I could feel smart, not having the confidence to compete with others mentally in any way. Then, knowing myself unsuited for middle management, I stayed at the bottom of the bottom of the working class economy, a simple clerk in grocery stores for decades, refusing 13 offers of promotion as I slowly learned, and then finally learned that I was seeing that business from a perspective that no management person sees it from, as managers start on their track early and never gain deep experience at the low level. I had lower class perspective. When I finally agreed to a management job I held out for the top spot and got it, doing things that smarter, more experienced mangers—who could actually count money, for instance—could not do. I understood the engine that drove 60% of supermarket volume like no one else. I built a 7-man crew that carried a 110 person store out of failure and into profit.
Lynn, the people in the middle always suffer from lack of perspective—they are the meat, the grist of the social mill, the dupes and the fools. In early modern Britain, as the poor were being driven to the cities by the rural rich, where they were preyed upon my the Dickensian middle class, they formed an alliance with the urban old money, the heirs of fading fortunes and formed what was called “The Fancy” and came to be known as “the sporting set,” in America. The men at the social apogee and at the social knee saw the world in like and ancient ways, where the herd, the flock, the fold of the merchant class and those aspiring to a place on its lower rung, clung to the merchant values that amounted to the worship of property and shunned all things spiritual, such as honor. The Fancy birthed prizefighting as the sport it is today, gangs of poor thugs and sets of dandy’s working as pug and sponsor, attendant and spectator to the fighters, their living mythic heroes, a thumb in the eye to the depraved middle class who campaigned for an end to prizefighting for over a century and failed. The middle class even fell like ducklings into the cult of celebrity born by boxing—with John L. Sullivan being the very first modern celebrity.
Men low and high saw that materialism was ultimately the death of humanity and gloried in risking health and fortune in a brutal imitation of the ancient heroes that had returned to the human imagination with the translation of Greek and Latin literature from the ancient world. Boxing literature from 200 years ago is chock full of ancient comparisons. The poor men played the hero to their fellows and betters as the smartest of the rich men read to them or wrote for them of the ancient heroes.
In short, Taleb figured out what I only learned through gross repetition and long years in the social depths he somehow framed in his imagination.
LL: Taleb has also introduced another concept -- skin in the game. This is probably the most important. He says you cannot trust anyone who does not take risks in their field. I can think of quite a few ways you exhibit this quality, and have therefore earned high credibility. For one thing, you write under your own name, in topics that are highly taboo, both to the ruling class and to some of the dissident groups. You are a pedestrian in possibly the most dangerous city in the US. You gave up your lucrative day job to write. I don't think there is a better example of skin in the game than your work on ancient weapons through Modern Agonistics. How can anyone believe a Ph.D. sitting in his office, when James LaFond has sacrificed blood and bone to learn the use of these weapons, in addition to your extensive reading?
JL: He re-introduced the oldest masculine aspect of tribal life into our sick world of liches, wraiths and zombies. Lynn, now you know why I resist pleas to scamper to safety out of Baltimore, because skin in the game is all I really have that most literate humans lack, the source of my only real value as a non-fiction writer.
Now, the Ph.D. in his office cult that we have has real roots. Amongst the large brained creatures that make up my leadership [a Freudian typo I’m keeping since you people have pretty much led me around by the literary nose—I don’t even decide what I read anymore. I’m like a crib-note generator for busy minds.], I probably fall on the short end of the scale in terms of brain power, but am swimming in a wealth of experience. Think of a more primitive society—like Big Ron’s Baltimore—where the average knucklehead is nearly retarded and a fellow of mine and Ron’s good but not great intelligence, becomes a sage or the guy with the right read on a situation while others get run over by a chain of events they may have initiated. When everybody has the same experience, then being the Ph.D. is a big deal. This is the position of the coach in athletics. The intelligence of coaches over athletes is usually a larger spread than you’d see between management and labor. This, again, encourages high levels of adaptability in sports, with pro athletics outpacing most sciences in terms of adaptation of application, because you have brilliant coaches with a gut knowledge of the activity, communicating with the meatheads getting hit. Very few high-level athletes show any aptitude for coaching. So, where does the Ph.D. cult fit?
It fits in barrooms, in locker rooms, in a kick-ass Colonel’s command center, that’s why sports and war and beating the shit out of people, evolve and a democracy—a thing all about the collective center, about meat herders making the herd feel like they are serving it—has not changed since Athens.
Thanks for making me think this morning.
(c) 2017 James LaFond & Lynn Lockhart