If Books Could Kill

The 48 Laws of Power

November 02, 2023
If Books Could Kill
The 48 Laws of Power
Show Notes Transcript

Michael: God, the sirens in Park Slope. This is going to be a fucking problem all episode, isn't it?

Peter: Welcome to New York.

Michael: The Big Apple.

Peter: Keep in something about you being in New York for this episode. That way we get weirdos in our mentions being like, “But you're still doing it on Zoom.” 

Michael: This is what is so fucking fascinating to me is, I started, God, there's like a starter's pistol going on inside.

Peter: There's construction near you. I'm like two blocks from apartment building going up. That is some construction site Flintstones horn. 

Michael: Within limits, of course. Wait, sorry. There's a siren outside. There're sirens a lot in New York. Has anyone talked about this? 

Peter: No one has. 

Michael: They do not know if there's noises in New York. 

Peter: This is why every Brooklyn-based podcast just has sirens. And sometimes you're like, “Oh, they should have waited for the fire truck to pass.” No, you can't. 

Michael: There's no--.

Peter: There is no way to do it. 

Michael: So, there's a fucking helicopter.

Peter: [laughs] I love Michael Hobbes can do this-

Michael: Can’t do this.

Peter: -New York in real time. 

Michael: I can't. I'm never coming back.

[If Books Could Kill theme]

Michael: So, I have noticed that most of our episodes only get good when we start talking about the book. [Peter laughs] So, I'm going to dive pretty quickly into this book. Peter, do you know anything about The 48 Laws of Power?

Peter: I've heard of the book, but I don't really know anything about it. My high-level memory of this is that this is like lessons that this author learned from observing powerful people about how to acquire power or something like that.

Michael: I think you're basing that on the title. I think you know the title and you're extrapolating.

Peter: That is possible.

Michael: You're like, I think there's 48. [Peter laughs] How many are there? 

Peter: Early in this podcast, I used to at least look up the Wikipedia of the books you were doing. 

Michael: [Laughs] And then I was like, “No, you have to be fresh. This is my whole thing, Peter.” [Peter laughs] And now you do nothing. 

Peter: And now I do nothing. And now I do nothing. And this is what you get. 

Michael: So, The 48 Laws of Power is by a guy named Robert Greene, who we will talk about later. It is published in 1998. As usual, it's basically impossible to get decent numbers on how many copies this book actually sold, but the number you usually hear is between one and 2 million copies.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: It seems to have spread mostly through word of mouth among CEO types, but then it made its way to hip hop. So, there are lyrics in Jay-Z & Kanye West songs referring specifically to this book.

Peter: Oh, hell yeah. And you are going to rap them for us right now? 

Michael: Yeah, that's the rest of the episode. It's just a series of couplets. It also says on the Wikipedia entry that Drake is developing a series called, The 48 Laws of Power. But it also says that he's developing it for Quibi. So, [Peter laughs] I don't know if that Wikipedia just hasn't been updated in a while. And then, according to the author, it's now been read by Fidel Castro, among other heads of state.

Peter: Okay, 

Michael: This book doesn't really show up on the best business books ever, most influential self-help books. It doesn't really show up on those lists, but it does show up on a lot of lists about the best self-help advice for men.

Peter: Ooh, okay, 

Michael: So, this really bounces around the polite version of the men's rights activist world. This is seen as a bible for how to be a man in the world.

Peter: That's an interesting framing because now I'm picturing, 70-year-old Fidel Castro being like, how do I be a man in this world?

Michael: Wearing a Fedora, doing magic tricks at the other end of a bar in LA [Peter laughs]. Okay, so this is the first paragraph of the book. 

Peter: The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us. When we feel helpless, we feel miserable. No one wants less power. Everyone wants more. In the world today, however, it is dangerous to seem too power hungry to be overt with your power moves. We have to seem fair and decent. So, we need to be subtle, congenial yet cunning, democratic yet devious.

Michael: It's a real problem.

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: We all want power, but we can't just be telling people, “Hello, I would like more power.” 

Peter: I immediately don't relate. I have to say-

Michael: Yeah, I struggled. 

Peter: -there are many situations where I want less power. I also am a little concerned that he seems to be portraying power as he defines it as somehow conflicting with fairness and decency. He says we have to seem fair and decent right off the bat. [Peter laughs] He's like, “You know how we're all big pieces of shit?” 

Michael: Yeah. I think one of the tensions that showed up for me literally within words of starting this book was like, where in modern life are people engaged in power struggles like this.

Peter: Right.

Michael: Yes, there's office politics. We all exist within hierarchies that on some level you have to do a little bit of strategery. There are various other things of maybe you want to be the president of the PTA or you want to coach your kid's Little League team and somebody else wants to as well and you got a lobby a little bit.

But he makes explicit reference throughout the book and especially in the intro to the French court, how there were all these people around the king and you had to suck up to the king, but you couldn't make it obvious that you were sucking up and you had to beat the other courtiers and scheme and backstab and do all this stuff, the Game of Thrones conception of human societies and I just don't see it.

Peter: This was immediately conjuring up Game of Thrones to me. So, I'm glad you said it because there's something weird about a framing where our everyday lives are a struggle for power. If you read that paragraph and it resonates with you, you're probably conceptualizing your life as like this elaborate real politique and you're actually living out a fantasy just by reading this.

Michael: Right. This reminds me of a lot of the watch marketing and things that are pitched at men.

Peter: Okay, so we're going straight into personal attacks.

Michael: [laughs] Chosen deliberately Peter. It's like you're hiking mountains and you're out in the elements and you're like on a sailboat in the middle of the night trying to survive and whatever. You need this watch because you're such an extreme person. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Maybe I should have said Patagonia or something. But it's like it's selling you this fantasy of your life as much more exciting than it is. Most of the people who drive SUVs are not like busting sand dunes in the middle of nowhere and going over streams. 

Peter: Man, you keep preempting. [laughs] As soon as you were talking about this, I was thinking about those commercials of SUVs out in the desert. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: An authentic SUV commercial is like you pulling into a Texaco. 

Michael: This book could have been called “Think Like a Straight Man” and now I do. [Peter laughs] That's what you're picking up on.

Peter: When you said think like a straight man? Now I have a made me think of that Steve Harvey book and now I have “Act Like a Gay Boy, Think Like A Straight Man.” 


Michael: That's going to be the title of our book when we finally do one, Peter, with [Peter laughs] our powers combined. Okay, so here is the end of the intro. He is laying out what the book offers and how it is going to work. What this book is going to contain. 

Peter: Consider The 48 Laws of Power a handbook on the arts of indirection. The laws are based on the writings of men and women who have studied and mastered the game of power. These writings span a period of more than 3000 years and were created in civilizations as disparate as ancient China and Renaissance Italy. Yet they share common threads and themes together hinting at an essence of power that has yet to be fully articulated.

Michael: 3000 years. 

Peter: The 48 Laws of Power are the distillation of this accumulated wisdom gathered from the writings of the most illustrious strategists, statesmen, courtiers, seducers and con artists in history. [laughs]

Michael: Who would you listen to? [Peter laughs]. You were trying to figure out how to coach the little league team. 

Peter: Oh my God, the con artist thing.

Michael: I know.

Peter: Right away he's like, I've learned these things from con artists and now I'm teaching them to you. 

Michael: I should also mention this is a spoiler, but when he says statesmen, he exclusively means dictators. He never refers to like Winston Churchill or anybody in this. It's like Mao, like over and over again and, like, Julius Caesar and shit. 

Peter: Right. We're not talking about the secretary of the treasury here. 

Michael: No, exactly. But then I think this is an important thing to know about this book is that this book, the copy that I have is 478 pages long. 

Peter: Oh, my God.

Michael: It is the opposite of filler. I've never seen this. The actual chapters are very dense, historical anecdotes that's most of the book is these long historical anecdotes. But then also the margins are also filled with Swahili fable quotes from philosophers and shits with just, this black brick of words shining in your face for a month on end. This was the experience of reading the book for me. 

Peter: God, that is hellish. I will say the one thing that's great about the books that we do is that they have so much filler that you can mentally skip over.

Michael: I know, I know. 

Peter: How many times have we said this that these books so often present themselves as the inheritors of this ancient wisdom?

Micheal: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: How Alexander the Great's conquest can teach you how to get that promotion instead of Josh.

Michael: Before we get into the patterns that the book is doing, I want to talk about how this book works. So, one thing that I will say for him is that he's a very structured thinker. These aren't just like a series of random rants. Every law is broken up into very clear sections. For example, law one is never outshine the master. And after each law, he gives a basic premise of this law. So, he calls it the judgment. So, he says, always make those above you feel comfortably superior in your desire to please and impress them. Do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite, inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters look more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power. So, that's what he's about to lay out.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: And then, he has these historical sections which he calls observance of the law or transgression of the law. So, for this one, he uses Galileo, who didn't quite invent, but massively modified and improved the telescope. When he looks up at the sky, he finds four moons of Jupiter. No one had ever seen these before. It was like a whole big fucking deal because people thought that everything rotated around the Earth. But here are these things rotating around Jupiter and it's like a massive deal. And his patrons are the Medici. 

Peter: I didn't even know Patreon was around back then. 

Micheal: [laughs] They're at the $10 tier, so they get the bonus moons. So, he decides to name the four moons after his four Medici backers. He goes out of his way to basically imply that the very heavens are recognizing the brilliance of the Medici it's like, “Well, there's four of you and there's four of them,” and it's a much longer anecdote. So, you've done this show before, Peter. You know how these books work. I've just told you a historical example. What am I going to tell you now, Peter? 

Peter: Presumably that some of the facts contained within that example are incorrect in important ways. That's what I'm anticipating. Perhaps, I'm going to say the funniest outcome is that's not who the moons are named after. 

Michael: [laughs] I feel like there's a clever Hans thing going on. I feel like you're picking up on the fact that by far the biggest twist of the episode is that this story about Galileo is roughly true. Basically, all of the anecdotes in this book are true. I fact checked them. I was like, “Okay, here's the part where I googling around about Galileo and then I find out that it's bullshit.” No, they're real. 

Peter: I mean, as a researcher for this podcast, that is the worst. 

Michael: Yeah, I know. I'm like, now what do I do?

Peter: You're like, “One of these has to be fucking been made up.” 

Michael: This is my whole career you're destroying. 

Peter: Now, we just have to talk about the content of the book. 

Michael: [laughs] I'm just going to learn things about historical figures, Jesus Christ. 

Peter: I love that this is the only author we've done so far that has integrity. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: Clearly a sociopath, but he has integrity. 

Micheal: After all of the historical examples, he then gets to something called “The Keys to Power,” where he lays out the little lesson, what are themes we're pulling out of this? And I'm not going to read it, but in this one, it's basically Galileo was good at sucking up to people who were essentially his bosses. And so be good at sucking up to your bosses, which ultimately is fairly good advice, I think, if you're going to do office politics and shit. Like figuring out, “Okay, what does my boss want? What does he want from his boss? And how can I help give that to him?” That's kind of reasonable. 

Peter: No, it's totally reasonable. It's just that the framing of it is like, “Here's what Galileo did.”

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: What he's really talking about is the head of regional sales, get him coffee sometimes, or whatever. That's how it translates to a normal human being's life. 

Michael: So, then he also does a weird thing. So, at the end of every chapter, after he's laid out the lesson, he then has a section called reversal, where it's like, “Well, sometimes this law doesn't apply.” So, in this one, he says, “You can't worry about upsetting every person you come across, but you must be selectively cruel. If your superior is a falling star, there is nothing to fear from outshining them. Do not be merciful. Your master has no such scruples in his own cold-blooded climb to the top.”

Peter: Okay.

Michael: So, I mean, I guess you could say that there's a kernel of decent advice in here. If your boss is unfavored within the organization that you work for? Yeah. Maybe don't be like, “Oh, I'm Jeff's guy.” When you think of Jeff, think of me. 

Peter: It seems so far, like, you could rewrite this book with all of the same lessons, tone down the language and framing and it would just be called, “How to get a 15% raise at your job.” 

Michael: But then also, one of our central critiques of these self-help books is that they give these overall rules of, “You should do this,” but then obviously there're numerous situations where they don't apply. You can't actually give people meaningful advice unless you know the specifics of their situation. “Should I break up with my boyfriend?” Sometimes you should, sometimes you shouldn't, it depends on what your boyfriend is like. There's no generalized advice about this stuff, but it's so amazing to me that he just seems to realize that. He's always suck up to your boss, but sometimes you shouldn't suck up to your boss. 

Peter: Yeah. I'm still impressed though that he's so rigorous. All the anecdotes appear to be more or less correct. He's hedging so that he doesn't get too aggressive in his prescriptions.

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: I can't wait for this to get weirdly sexist or whatever's about to happen.

Michael: Oh, Peter, I set you up so perfectly. I was like, “I'm going to make Peter think that this is chill.”

Peter: We're going to cover the next 46 laws of power in parts two through 24, [Michael laughs] in the next two years of If Books Cold Kill [laughs].

Michael: So, we're not obviously going to read all of the fucking 48 Laws to this extent. I just wanted to get the structure of the book down. From now on, what we're just going to talk about is the patterns of the book. 

Peter: Okay.

Michael: All of these books, it's unbelievably repetitive. So, at a certain point, you're just like, “Ah, okay, that goes in this bucket.” I was just basically Dewey Decimaling the rest of the book.

Peter: Shocking that he did not identify 48 distinct nonoverlapping laws of power [laughs].

Michael: They're either repetitive or contradictory. The first pattern that we are going to dive into is utterly sociopathic advice backed by irrelevant anecdotes.

Peter: Hell yeah.

Michael: So, I'm going to send you the first couple paragraphs of law two, Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends; Learn How to Use Enemies.

Peter: You often do not know your friends as well as you imagine. Friends often agree on things in order to avoid an argument. They cover up their unpleasant qualities so as not to offend each other. They laugh extra hard at each other's jokes. 

Michael: Don't trust it. 

Peter: Since honesty rarely strengthens friendship, you may never know how a friend truly feels. 

Michael: No honesty. 

Peter: He's never had a friend. Right [crosstalk]. 

Michael: [laughs] This man lives in John Gray's cave with him. He's just never come out. 

Peter: I'm very upset by this. [Michael laughs] “Sir, you need therapy so bad, dude.”

Michael: We're already at “you need therapy.” [unintelligible [00:16:19] not to, Peter--

Peter: So fast.

Michael: [laughs] Not to. 

Peter: Oh, God. Be wary of friends, but hire a former enemy, and he will be more loyal than a friend because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies. If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.

Michael: Go make enemies Peter.

Peter: You can just write that first paragraph about your friends and then show them that. Then they'll be your enemies. [Michael laughs] I'm sorry, I don't mean to circle back to the friend stuff, but I'm just so upset that he doesn't seem to understand that these are all nice elements of a friendship.

Michael: People who know you, people who like you. 

Peter: Right. Friends often agree on things in order to avoid an argument. First of all, I don't even know that that's true. But your friends being like, “Well, I don't really agree with what Michael just said, but I know Michael, we don't need to fight about this.” That's like, a normal and good quality of a friendship. Also, to say that, “Honesty rarely strengthens friendship.”

Michael: Don't tell people stuff. 

Peter: It's not just like, “Oh, does this guy have friends?” It's also like, has he read a book where there are friends.

Michael: [laughs] Just as a sociological phenomenon as he googled.

Peter: Have you seen a movie where two people have a friendship? [Michael laughs] 

Michael: If you watch Good Will Hunting, there's actually a speech that Ben Affleck gives. [Peter laughs] What's funny about this chapter is that the actual advice that he gives is just like, if you need to do business stuff, don't hire your friends. 

Peter: That's good advice.

Michael: Not terrible advice.

Peter: Not because your friends are evil and scheming. 

Michael: I know, but it's like he expresses it in the most sociopathic way possible. But what we're diving into, Peter, you're seeing this general rule of friends are bad. And you're like, “Okay,” what example is he going to give? Because every law has these fucking anecdotes in it. And they have these fables and shit on the margins.

Peter: Is this just going to be like Caesar? 

Michael: No, he illustrates this with a fable. Okay, it's a little bit long, but to me, it's important to really revel in this story and get the full picture. Actually, why don't I send it to you? So, he says, African proverb or something. I don't know where he's pulling this from. 

Peter: Africa, a snake chased by hunters asked a farmer to save its life. To hide it from its pursuers, the farmer squatted and let the snake crawl into his belly. But when the danger had passed and the farmer asked the snake to come out, the snake refused. It was warm and safe inside. On his way home, the man saw a heron and whispered what had happened. The heron told him to squat and strain to eject the snake. When the snake stuck its head out, the heron caught it, pulled it out and killed it. 

Michael: Got the snake.

Peter: The farmer was worried that the snake's poison might still be inside him and the heron told him that the cure for snake poison was to cook and eat six white fowl. You're a white fowl, said the farmer. He grabbed the heron, put it in a bag and carried it home, where he hung it up while he told his wife what had happened. “I'm surprised at you,” said the wife. The bird does you a kindness, rids you of the evil in your belly, saves your life, yet you catch it and talk of killing it. She immediately released the heron and it flew away. But on its way, it gouged out her eyes. 

Michael: Oh.

Peter: What is the lesson here? I don't even understand the ostensible theoretical reason for the [Michael laughs] bird gouging out the wife's eyes.

Michael: Exactly. She's the good one in the story. 

Peter: It's literally like if you try to be nice, it will backfire, because the person you were nice to will take advantage of you, possibly attack and try to kill you. 

Michael: What the fuck is this? 

Peter: Also, what was this snake's plan [Michael laughs] for the next several days? 

Michael: Then, we're going to do one more of these, Peter.

Peter: Okay.

Michael: In law three, conceal your intentions. He says most people are open books. They say what they feel, blurt out their opinions at every opportunity, and constantly reveal their plans and intentions. Many believe that by being honest and open, they are winning people's hearts and showing their good nature. They are greatly deluded. Honesty is actually a blunt instrument which bloodies more than it cuts. Your honesty is likely to offend people. It is much more prudent to tailor your words, telling people what they want to hear, rather than the coarse and ugly truth of what you feel or think. During the War of the Spanish Succession in 1711, the Duke of Marlborough, head of the English Army, wanted to destroy a key French fort because it protected a vital thoroughfare.

Yet he knew that if he destroyed it, the French would realize what he wanted. Instead, he merely captured the fort and garrisoned it with some of his troops, making it appear as if he wanted it for some purpose of his own. The French attacked the fort and the Duke let them recapture it. Once they had it back, though, they destroyed it, figuring that the Duke had wanted it for some important reason. Now that the fort was gone, the road was unprotected, and Marlborough could easily march into France.

Peter: What the fuck is he.

Michael: What?

Peter: That’s not like-- conceal your intentions is really, really good advice if you are in the midst of medieval warfare. [Michael laughs] The ability of that to translate to my everyday life, where most of my interactions are with the kebab guy, I just don't see it. What does this even get me in the workplace context.

Michael: This is what is so fascinating to me is after a while, the anecdotes get very repetitive. It's like ancient China, the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece, he has a bunch of stories of Nikola Tesla, ton of stories about Nikola Tesla. He has a bunch of Louis XIV French court prerevolution France things. 

Peter: Sure. 

Michael: He does not have, I'm not exaggerating, a single anecdote in this entire book from an office. [Peter laughs] Will give you this little aphorism, like, [crosstalk]  your intentions or something. And then the next paragraph will be like in 252 the emperor so and so of China wanted to conquer the general something, something. And you're like, “Why am I hearing this?” 

Peter: I'm just picturing Jay-Z reading this shit. 


Michael: That's why he has so many lyrics about the Duke of Marlborough. A huge percentage of this book is basically just like unbelievably sociopathic advice. Law seven, let others do the work for you, but always take the credit. 

Peter: No doubt. 

Michael: Law 12, use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim. He uses the word victim throughout, which I think is weird [Peter laughs].

Peter: In that law, victim is like your friend.

Micheal: Or like my coworker who didn't get the promotion and I did. In law 14, pose as a friend, work as a spy. He has this whole thing about crush your enemies completely. And again, you're just like, “Robert, I work at Quiznos, I don't have enemies.”

Peter: I'm trying to think of where this would apply the most. And maybe it's like, if you're like a cabinet member or something.

Michael: He actually uses a ton of examples from Henry Kissinger.

Peter: Yeah. 

Micheal: And like, yeah, if you're the Secretary of State and you're dealing with weird conniving other heads of state and you are in some way engaged in some of these power battles, then yeah, some of this stuff is useful conceal your intentions.

Peter: You've literally dedicated your life to the pursuit of power. You're not coming into contact day to day with people who you're just trying to build fulfilling relationships with. If you're living Henry Kissinger's life, you are a sociopath and you have chosen the life of a sociopath.

Michael: Before we get to the other categories of information that this book contains, I just want to talk a little bit about the specific kind of sociopathy that he's promoting here. So, in the intro he says, “Genuinely innocent people may still be playing for power and are often horribly effective at the game since they are not hindered by reflection. Once again, those who make a show or display of innocence are the least innocent of all. You can recognize these supposed nonplayers by the way they flaunt their moral qualities, their piety, their exquisite sense of justice. But since all of us hunger for power and almost all of our actions are aimed acquiring it, the nonplayers are merely throwing dust in our eyes, distracting us from their power plays with their air of moral superiority.” 

Peter: This is just what Republicans believe. You see it all the time in the language they use when they talk about virtue signaling, for example, which I think you can say is a real thing. But they are obsessed with the idea that progressives who talk about morality and doing the right thing, etc., are faking it. And in fact, they have these devious plans and that's because they accept this framing of the world where everyone is scheming out for power, out for themselves. You read a paragraph like this and the conclusion might as well be like and this is why we need more police on the street.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like either play the Game of Thrones or get little finger blasted. This is what he's laying out. 

Peter: I like how you did your own spin on an already perfectly sufficient line from Game of Thrones. [Michael laughs] When you play the Game of Thrones, you live or you die. Okay, you could have just said that, but no.

Michael: You said finger blasted on a blue sky the other day and I was like, I don't know when I have heard that term other than like, 8th grade and right now [Peter laughs]. It’s such a disgusting term. This is what I get for doing a podcast with a straight man. 

Peter: It is. Because the last time I heard it was like a month ago. [Michael laughs] Okay, me and the boys talking.


Michael: I did actually look this up because I was really struck by this, too, of like, this is a worldview that I do not recognize at all. Everything is this battle for power. And even people who are acting kind, that's evidence that they're trying to manipulate me. I started looking around and there is an actual concept in psychology called zero-sum ideology. This is basically the idea that every single interaction between two people has to have a winner and a loser, which is actually relatively widespread in the population. You can read people these scenarios of, like, “Dave put his car on Craigslist” and then, “Jessica bought the car.” And then you ask people like, “Okay, who won the interaction?” And they'll be like, “Oh, Dave won the interaction.” [Peter laughs] 

There's no reason to think of this as like, one person won and the other person got cucked in that exchange. It's just like two people engaging in mutually beneficial activity. But there's obviously a spectrum. So, on the extreme cuck end where I am of this, there are people who have what's called zero-sum aversion, where people will actively avoid situations that are just objectively zero-sum. If I win a tennis game, you lose a tennis game. So, people like me, who are super conflict diverse, just don't really like playing tennis or doing those competitive activities with friends. But then on the other end of the spectrum, there're people who have what's called social dominance orientation.

Peter: That's me. 

Micheal: Physically cannot see situations as win-win.

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: You can explain to them in very clear terms both people benefited from this interaction and they'll be like, “No, he won.” So, it's like this idea that you can't look for win-win scenarios because you don't think that they exist.

Peter: Well, a little peek behind the curtain for listeners, but you were recently at my wedding, and I just want to ask you, who do you think won. 

Michael: [laughs] The world because there's one fewer single straight man in the world walking around [Peter laughs]. Everybody won. 

Peter: Look, I told my wife right afterwards, I was like, “I think I won this one.” 

Michael: [laughs] This entire episode is a subtweet of you, Peter. This is an intervention. This is why I do any of the books. 

Peter: I think that everyone knows people like this to some degree or like that have some version of this.

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: I don't mind competitive stuff with my friends, but there are people who in the workplace, in personal relationships, etc., just cannot tolerate the idea of someone else doing well. And just to give an example of where this stuff might lead, I think that a lot of these mindsets feed into things like incel culture-

Michael: Yeah, yeah, [crosstalk]

Peter: -where these guys create an adversarial relationship with women in their minds. They can't help but view women as their enemies even though they are fundamentally trying to connect with them.

Michael: This is actually where I was going with this, because they've measured this in various countries and across time periods, etc. And typically, what you find in society is that zero-sum thinking is more common among majority groups. So, like, white people, men, depending on the country, Christians are more likely to engage in zero-sum thinking. Basically, this is one of the major things that prevents policies that would increase equality because people physically cannot process the idea of more equality as not taking something away from them.

Peter: Right 

Michael: So, there's actual studies on this where they give people scenarios. They're like, “Okay, Latinos are less likely to get home loans than white people.” So, the mayor is going to pass a policy that promotes home loans for Latinos. This will not affect white people. And then the survey question is like, “Will this affect white people?” And survey respondents are like, “Oh, yeah.”

Peter: Big time. 

Michael: [laughs] Even in black and white you're like, this is a fake scenario I have defined. This will not affect the in group and be like, “Oh, yeah, I'm going to get fucked by this.” So much political debate takes place on the implementation of policies or these specifics. But it's like when your understanding of society at this most basic level is just that no one can get anything without me losing something, it's very difficult to argue with somebody like that because it's like such a base belief and something that I think people are relatively reluctant to articulate or even know that that's their belief. 

Peter: Right. I don’t think that there are a lot of people that would frame their politics as being driven by that. It's just something that is behind the scenes in their brain, which is why I always circle back to a lot of conservative thinking being brain chemistry as much as it is a coherent ideology and this is part of that. They won't let you say it on TV, but what Republicans have is a case of the bad brain. [Michael laughs] Their brains work no good and the PC police won't let me say it on the radio, but that's true. 

Michael: But your podcast cohost will. 

Peter: This is the importance of independent media. You can't hear this anywhere else. 

Michael: So, we're now going to go back into the book. So, we've talked about how most of it is sociopathic advice and these weird, irrelevant anecdotes. The other main pattern like we're now down to the remaining like 25% of the book. [Peter laughs] Most of it is just sociopathy and weird anecdotes. The rest of it is just like straight up bad advice. So, I'm going to send you the opening anecdote of law six, court attention at all cost. 

Peter: Oh my God. Thank you. 

Michael:  It is a story of P.T. Barnum opening his first museum where people could come and he was basically trying to get them to attend his new museum through marketing efforts. 

Peter: Got it. 

Michael: So, here's this. 

Peter: Barnum would put a band of musicians on a balcony overlooking the street beneath a huge banner proclaiming, “Free Music for the Millions.” What generosity New Yorkers thought and they flocked to hear the free concerts. But Barnum took pains to hire the worst musicians he could find. And soon after the band struck up, people would hurry to buy tickets to the museum where they would be out of earshot of the band's noise and of the booing of the crowd.

Michael: [laughs] So, like, you should be obnoxious to people so they go to your museum, I guess. 

Peter: Who would flee into a museum.

Michael: By the same guy who's providing the music.

Peter: By the guy who just proved to you that he cannot entertain you. 

Michael: That's why our main feed episodes are just 2 hours of the sound of a baby crying, so that [Peter laughs] people seek refuge in our bonus episodes. 

Peter: What I often do is go to the hip parts of Brooklyn and just blast an air horn, thus driving people to podcasts where they will eventually find If Books Could Kill. 

Michael: [laughs] So, then after this deranged funny but not clearly relevant anecdote, he then says-- this is the advice that we're pulling from this. He says, “At the beginning of your rise to the top, spend all your energy on attracting attention. Most importantly, the quality of the attention is irrelevant.”

Peter: What? 

Michael: No, I think if you're, like an intern at a company and you want to get a promotion, you do need positive attention.

Peter: Running into the board of directors meeting and doing a hear ye, hear ye. [Michael laughs] I don't even understand what quality of attention means, actually, but all right, never mind. This is stupid. [Michael laughs] This is making me mad.

Michael: We are already spinning our wheels. [laughs]

Peter: This is making me mad. It's making me mad. 

Michael: So that was law six. In law 14, pose as a friend, work as a spy. He's talking about how elder statesmen, he loves this political advisor to Napoleon named Talleyrand. He has 29 anecdotes featuring this Talleyrand guy. And apparently in these cocktail party diplomatic conversations, he would constantly be like spying on people to try to get intel on them, which, honestly is a thing that people do in the diplomatic world to find whatever, but also not what you should be doing at work happy hours.

Peter: Yeah. 

Micheal: He says, “A trick to try in spying comes from Roche Foucault, who wrote, sincerity is found in very few men and is often the cleverest of ruses. One is sincere in order to draw out the confidence and secrets of the other. By pretending to bear your heart to another person, you make them more likely to reveal their own secrets. Give them a false confession and they will give you a real one. Another trick was identified by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who suggested vehemently contradicting people you're in conversation with as a way of irritating them, stirring them up so they lose some of the control over their words. In their emotional reaction, they will reveal all kinds of truths about themselves, truths you can later use against them.”

Peter: What?

Micheal: So, make up shit to confess to people? Like, “I'm addicted to Coke.” “Oh, you're also addicted to coke? Ha, ha. Now I know you're addicted to coke.” 

Peter: Yeah, well, that one at least has an internal coherence, but the other one is just like, get someone mad, and they will start confessing things somehow.

Michael: Be super fucking irritating to the point where someone blows up at you and they're like, “Ha, ha, now I know what makes you blow up.”

Peter: In the course of blowing up, they're like, “You piece of shit. I'm addicted to cocaine.” “Oh, no.”


Michael: Oh, God, I can't keep doing this, Peter. But there's one more. This is the perfect tryptic of anecdotes. This is from law 20, do not commit to anyone. 

Peter: Oh fuck.

Michael: He has a bunch of weird quasi-dating advice.

Peter: Just after I got married. 

Michael: He says, “When Picasso, after early years of poverty, had become the most successful artist in the world, he did not commit himself to this dealer or that dealer. Instead, he appeared to have no interest in their services. This technique drove them wild, and as they fought over him, his prices only rose. So, Picasso. When Henry Kissinger, a US Secretary of State, wanted to reach detente with the Soviet Union, he made no concessions or conciliatory gestures, but courted China instead.” So, use the rules on the Soviet Union [Peter laughs]. 

He then refers to the author of this Talleyrand biography that he uses a million episodes from. He says, “This tactic has a parallel in seduction. When you want to seduce a woman, Stendhal advises court her sister first.” 

Peter: Rule number 46, bring a blacklight to parties.

Michael: [laughs] This goes to your one book theory, Peter. 

Peter: It's all one book baby.

Micheal:  Because it's ultimately fucking dating advice. 

Peter: You can't get a straight guy writing 500 pages about the laws of power without him being like, “Here're some tips for getting [unintelligible 00:36:28] too FYI.”

Michael: Don't text back. Also, fucking someone's sister is not a great way to fuck them, even if you don't think it's morally repugnant. It's just like, this is bad advice.

Peter: If it works. You have successfully seduced a very unwell person who needs therapy so badly. [Michael laughs] If someone is that vulnerable to insecurity, then they're definitely the person where you can just do the lint trick too. [Micheal laughs] You don't have to go the whole sister route. 

Michael: This after all this shit, I'm halfway through the book now, and I'm like, “Okay, who is this fucking guy?” Like, “Who's this author?” His name is Robert Greene. He hasn't really done anything else. If you google him, it's like he's one of these people that sort of roll this book to a bunch of other books.

Peter: That's weird. I thought he would have risen to the top of the global order by now, using [Michael laughs] these sick laws of power. 

Michael: I do want to say there are two very interesting things about the author of this book. The first, and this is, I think, unique on this show, is that he's an actual subject matter expert.

Peter: Okay.

Michael: He grows up in LA. He grows up in like a seemingly middle-class family, and then he goes to the University of Wisconsin Madison and graduates with a classics degree. He speaks five languages.

Peter: What the fuck?

Michael: He actually knows all this Greek mythology and shit. And when he speaks about the Roman Empire and stuff, he does actually seem to be drawing on some legitimate expertise.

Peter: I'm sorry, but what a waste of a life. You learn five languages and you're like, “I'm going to write a book about power for the boys.”

Michael: There's also something really funny about how this book comes about. No one ever talks about these books as basically as artifacts of marketing. You're coming up with a title and a cover, and that's why 95% of people buy it. It's not really the text of the book. So, he basically graduates with this classics degree in 1980, and then he bounces around. He says, he has 80 jobs over the course of the next 10 or 12 years. He eventually moves to Hollywood and tries to make it as a screenwriter and he has zero IMDb credits other than the Quibi series. So, it doesn't seem that hit for him.

Peter: This is the Ben Shapiro arc. 

Michael: He somehow gets this fellowship in Italy. I think Italian is one of the languages that he speaks. He basically meets a book marketer. This guy that does coffee table books named Joost Elfers, who was actually listed in some printings as a coauthor of this book. And then he says that the genesis of this book was that. He's, like, telling this book marketer guy he's like, “I've been trying to write a biography of Julius Caesar for the last five years, but I just can't really, I don't know if it's a motivation thing or he can't really get the framing or whatever, but that just isn't working, this Julius Caesar biography. And then my theory is between the lines. This guy who's like a book marketer is like, “Why don't you just put together all your Greek and Roman shit into a fake ass self-help book?”

Peter: Your Julius Caesar biography isn't coming together. What if I proposed to you doing something much dumber? [Michael laughs] Would you like that? 

Michael: So, the second interesting thing about Robert Greene I cannot fucking believe this is that he actually has good politics. So, I'm going to send you an excerpt from an interview that he gave to The Guardian in 2012. 

Peter: He is now working with labor organizers in Latin America, and his liberal politics disappoints some of his fans in the business world who expect him to be a champion of the ruthless go-getter. “I'm a huge Obama supporter. He says Romney is Satan to me. The great thing about America is that you can come from the worst circumstances and become something remarkable. It's Jay-Z and 50 Cent and Obama and my Jewish ancestors. That's the America we want to celebrate, not the vulture capitalist. These morons like Mitt Romney. They produce nothing. Republicans are feeding off fairy tales and that's what did them in this year. And hopefully we'll keep doing them in forever because there are a lot of scoundrels.”

Michael: I forgive him. You know what? 

Peter: It's basically impossible to square this with the book. 

Michael: It's fascinating. 

Peter: Is it the same guy I would like to- [crosstalk] 

Michaeal: like I Googled? Like I forgot to put in his birth date and is the wrong Robert Greene?

Peter: No, but you know it's the right one because he's talking about Jay-Z and 50 Cent, who presumably he knows of their existence because they talked about his book. Right? 

Michael: No, he cowrote a book with 50 Cent called The 50th Law

Peter: You're really making me wonder what the 49th law is. 

Michael: But then what is interesting to me is he also has the same blind spot that we see in so many of the authors where he doesn't seem to think that he's doing anything to promote this worldview. So, in The Guardian interview, it says, “Greene states that he doesn't try to follow all of his advice. Anybody who did, he says, would be a horrible, ugly person to be around.”

Peter: Why do these authors keep doing this shit? 

Michael: I do genuinely find this fascinating. I listened to a bunch of podcast interviews with him where he talks about, he believes in climate change. After 2016, he started going on TV to talk about Trump and be like, “This guy is not applying my rules.” Even though he kind of [onomatopoeia] [Peter laughs] 

Peter: I'm sorry, but is there anyone who's doing this better?

Michael: Seriously.

Peter: Is there anyone who's more tightly adhering to the 48 laws of power than Donald Trump? Come on. 

Michael: But then to me, the core of his blind spot is this thing where he says, “Oh, I'm not telling you to do anything, I'm just telling you how the world works. If you look back at what he said in the intro of, “Oh, the lessons from three thousand years of history, it's like he mentions great statesmen and also seducers and con artists. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: What he means by power is manipulation. He doesn't think that there's any power in being honest or in being right. He never uses anecdotes from I mean, these are cliched examples, but Martin Luther King, Gandhi, I don't know, Florence Nightingale. He does have a couple of anecdotes about FDR, but only the anecdotes where FDR had to lie and scheme to get his way. He's not interested in the power that comes from just honesty and charisma.

Peter: I don't get this. I assume that the reason we see this from these authors is basically their inability to admit to themselves that their primary output into this world, the thing that they're known the most for is evil.

Michael: Oh yeah. 

Peter: So instead, they have to imagine that it wasn't quite as bad as people are saying that it was. 

Michael: I also think another very important element of his blind spot is he's never actually had power.

Peter: Okay. 

Michael: One of the interesting things that he says in various interviews is that one of the inspirations for the book was trying to be a Hollywood screenwriter. And some of the laws that he's coming up with are the way that he was treated by Hollywood executives. This thing is blaming people when something goes wrong, never letting people know your intentions. What he's doing is he's looking at the ways that he was treated when he didn't have any power and he is projecting this necessity onto them. You must behave like this, but that's not actually true. What he's basically doing is playing out his bitterness and resentment and hurt at the way that he was treated when he was at the bottom of the ladder.

Peter: I really like how his arc is just like a great himbofication. He's like this brilliant historian, knows multiple languages, and then he's like, “No, I'm going to write a self-help book, get rich and dumb.”

Michael: Yeah. [laughs]

Peter: He wanted to be on a beach just trying to get laid or something. He had never done that. He was too much of a nerd. So, I'm proud of him.

Michael: His next book is called The Art of Seduction

Peter: Oh, fuck yes, dude. Okay, why does this keep happening? Because remember the Tim Ferriss book? His next book also had long digressions about seduction.

Michael: It's so fucking weird. 

Peter: These guys are just getting book tour pussy after their first book [crosstalk]. [Michael laughs] And then they're like, “You know what? You know what? I'm going to write a whole book about this.” 

Michael: Yeah, it's like they go on these book tours and every journalist like, “But have you had sex?” And they're like, “Actually,”

Peter: “Actually yes.”

Michael: So, to get back to the book, the third pattern in the 48 laws that I want to talk about is these weird flashes of insight that are immediately used for evil. So, law 27 is play on people's need to believe to create a cult like following. 

Peter: Okay? 

Michael: And he gives all these steps of how to create a cult. So, here's the opening.

Peter: To create a cult, you must first attract attention. This you should do, not through actions which are too clear and readable, but through words which are hazy and deceptive. Your initial speeches, conversations, and interviews must include two elements. On the one hand, the promise of something great and transformative, and on the other, a total vagueness. To make your vagueness attractive, use words of great resonance, but cloudy, meaning, words full of heat and enthusiasm. Fancy titles for simple things are helpful, as are the use of numbers and the creation of new words for vague concepts. All of these create the impression of specialized knowledge, giving you a veneer of profundity.

Michael: He's telling you how to write an airport book. 

Peter: Yeah. This is like the new trend in our latest books where they just explain how to do the scam that they're doing to you right now.

Michael: Fancy titles for simple things. The use of numbers. It's like, he's doing ten thousand hours. He's doing victimology. He's doing our show. 

Peter: I do feel like reading him and Tim Ferriss has made me realize that a lot of these guys are in fact doing this hyper-consciously, and I think that they don't perceive it like that entirely. I think that when he's giving this advice, he's like, “Yeah, here's cool tips on building a cult like following.” He doesn't really realize that what he's doing is confessing. 

Michael: I also want to talk about the way that this book is specifically pitched to men. I did some interesting reading on the self-help marketplace and how most self-help advice for women is about interpersonal relationships. And a lot of it is about health and wellness-type stuff, whereas self-help advice to men is almost exclusively along these lines. It's like how to amass power or how to make money. Basically, they're both doing the thing of, here's how to attain status in the society that we have. But men and women are judged differently on what status is. So, there's a super fascinating law in this book that is law 33, discover each man's thumb screw, the basic idea is that you should always be looking around yourself at the weaknesses people have. Like, what are their deepest desires? What are their impulses they can't control?

Peter: Okay.

Michael: So, they have little titles. He says, find the helpless child. Most weaknesses begin in childhood before the self builds up compensatory defenses. Perhaps the child was pampered or indulged in a particular area, or perhaps a certain emotional need went unfulfilled. As he or she grows older. the indulgence or the deficiency may be buried but never disappears. He then says, “Fill the void.” The two main emotional voids to fill are insecurity and unhappiness. The insecure are suckers for any social validation. As for the chronically unhappy, look for the roots of their unhappiness. 

Peter: So, Jeff, the head of sales in the Northeast, returns home for Thanksgiving, but there I am having coffee with his mother, asking about his childhood. [Michael laughs] What were his weaknesses as a child? 

Michael: There is a point in all of these books where I start to become sad, and I think this was the point for me because a lot of what he's describing are the skills of friendship. You ask somebody about their childhood, what challenges they face throughout their life, what are the relationships that are important to them? What are their impulses and their habits? Like, what are the things that make them laugh and make them sad? Which kinds of desires do they struggle to control? I keep thinking of how straight men need advice like this really bad of just the importance of intimate relationships. And a lot of it is this stuff. Ask people about their values. Spend time with people. And he's giving you all these skills, but he's giving them to you in this sociopathic fucking way of you should form a little file folder on everybody. 

Peter: Learn about your friend's childhood so that you can leverage it against him.

Michael: Exactly. You're just like be interested in people. One of the only other laws in this book that is actually useful is number law five, I think it's like, “Your reputation matters. Guard it with your life.” And it's like the easiest way to have a good reputation is just to be nice to people and work hard. 

Peter: Yeah. What does that even mean? Like, sue people who say mean shit.

Michael: The anecdote that he uses there is about how P.T. Barnum destroyed somebody else's reputation because he didn't have one. So, he's like, if you don't have a good reputation, destroy somebody else's because they'll have to defend themselves so vociferously that people will be like, “Why is he defending himself so much?”

Peter: This book is so sociopathic. It feels that I don't think it could turn anyone into a sociopath so much as only a sociopath could benefit from it.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And those people aren't reading it anyway, so it's this weird like it exists in this weird nether place. 

Peter: Those are the CEOs that were upset that he's a democrat.

Michael: I feel like you can tell that I've been reading this book by how I've manipulated you into saying exactly what I need you to transition into my next little sections, Peter. 

Peter: To be fair, it's not the hardest thing to do. 


Michael: Feeding you little crumbs and Peter make it political, then I cannot talk about political stuff. [Peter laughs] The final thing that I want to talk about in this book because the whole time I was reading it, I was just like, “Look, this advice is so deranged that I don't think anybody can do this.” Maybe this is my own inherent optimism about the world, but I don't think people have the wherewithal to run their lives like this. Never showing their emotions, constantly scheming, gathering intel on the people around them. I think people like to think that they're doing this. Especially men like to be told that they're playing this complicated chess game all the time. But underneath it all, people want to be loved. People want to love other people. People want to form community. I don't actually think that the advice here is all that corrosive, because people aren't capable of doing it. But I do think what is corrosive about this is the worldview underneath it.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: So, the example that I want to talk about, this is one of the most interesting examples in the book. Have you ever heard, Peter, of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell? 

Peter: No.

Michael: So, this is a story that he tells in law 46, never appear too perfect. These are two men who meet in a London acting school in the early 1950s. They eventually start dating. They become lovers. They move in with each other. They're both in acting school, but they decide relatively early that, like, we're not that good at acting. So, they start writing plays together and they get a couple things in London West End things. But they're equivalent of off, off, off, off Broadway, like nothing is really happening. And for a while, they're living on Kenneth's trust fund. But eventually that dries up. They start doing this weird thing where they start defacing library books as a performance art thing. Eventually, they get caught and they're sent away to prison for six months.

As they're imprisoned apart, Joe starts writing plays by himself. And once they get out of jail, they move back in together. Joe's plays start becoming really popular. As this is happening, Kenneth starts to feel envious and sad. He feels like most people at parties are going up to Joe and wanting to hear what Joe thinks about things. He just feels like an also-ran. Joe also starts cheating on him. He's like, going to parks, cottaging Kevin Spacey type stuff.

So, this is the final paragraph of this anecdote in Robert Greene's book. He says, “Kenneth outwardly seemed as happy as Joe. Inwardly, though, he was seething. Two months later, in the early morning of August 10, 1967, Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned Joe Orton to death with repeated blows of a hammer to the head.” He then took 21 sleeping pills and died himself, leaving behind a note that said, if you read Orton's diary, all will be explained.

This is a really fucking sad story. There're so many lessons that you could take out of this. Robert Greene's lesson is only a minority can succeed at the game of life and that minority inevitably arouses the envy of those around them. Once success happens your way, however, the people to fear the most are those in your own circle, the friends and acquaintances you have left behind. Feelings of inferiority gnaw at them. The thought of your success only heightens their feelings of stagnation. Envy, which the philosopher Kierkegaard called unhappy admiration takes hold.

Peter: Miserable.

Michael: And like, I wanted to fucking cry reading this. It's like a really sad story. That is true. I mean, he lays out the facts accurately and then he pulls the most fucking psychopathic lesson from it, don't be successful.

Peter: You can be successful, but don't be in love with someone at the same time. 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: One of the obvious truths of being a human being is that you end up being hurt the most by the people closest to you. Some people think that the lesson of that is not to trust the people closest to you-

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: -as opposed to like you know when you bring someone into your life, those are the wages. You get the highs and the lows. And it's very weird to look at a situation like that, which is basically like an extreme version of that lesson and think that the real problem there is that they were too close. He let them get too close.

Michael: [laughs] Yeah. 

Peter: So stupid.

Michael: He specifically says, people will give you words of affirmation as a way of twisting the knife, as a way of declaring their envy for you.

Peter: It's just so stupid. 

Michael: I do pardon an episode of some earnestness on our shitposting little podcast, but we've spoken on most of the episodes about the experience of reading these books. Reading this book sucked. Like, it sucked. I've had a rough couple of months. I have my hand stuff. I've had some personal stuff going on. And reading this worldview like this just cancerous way of looking at the world just made me feel bad. Like, spending time with this guy felt bad.

Peter: Yeah. 

Michael: It was very weird to be reading this at the same time that I was reading this really lovely collection of Kelly Link short stories, which are these modern-day fables and they're all about kind of like love transcending time. They're all very childlike and lovely. She has this really beautiful story in there about a guy going to hell to rescue his lover from the queen of the damned. It's really good. One of the phrases that he keeps coming back to is, our love will build a paradise. It's just such a lovely way to think about the world, the way that emotional states can create societies and can create communities. Love can build a paradise and this stuff can just build a fucking trash can.

Peter: And this is why the criticism of more like, hippie dippy progressive types as naive always rings hollow to me because what kind of life are you trying to live? Are you trying to live one that is built around love and trust and sometimes you don't quite succeed? Are you trying to build one that is based around mistrust, hatred, an adversarial stance towards everyone and everything in your life? If you try to do that, you will succeed. But what are you going to find at the end of it?

Michael: Exactly. And it's very important to me in all of the books that we cover, but especially in this one, that even as a philosophical matter, I don't like to think like this, but also as an empirical matter, it's not fucking true that the world is like this. So, for this, I read a really good book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, which is all about disaster sociology. People study large scale disasters and the kinds of human networks that form when basically all of the structures of society fall away, there's no power, there's no water. What happens? 

The vision of the world that this book lays out is that we live in this Hobbesian world where without all of the structures of society, we're all just immediately going to start clawing at each other and trampling and murdering each other. And it's like there's this wave of cruelty. I don't like the word Hobbesian because that's my dad. So, I'm thinking about like a hungry, hungry Hippo’s world, where there's just a finite number of little marbles and we're all banging at our little hippo. 

Peter: I mean, Lord of the flies is right there, but Hungry Hungry Hippos, okay,

Michael: Mine is better. 

Peter: And so, what you find in actual disasters in the world when something terrible happens is, a lot of kindness. We've all seen this in blackouts. Even in the dreaded New York City where crime runs rampant or whatever, as soon as there's a blackout, people are checking on their neighbors. They're going to older folks. They're checking on their disabled neighbors. People are checking in on each other. We just saw this in COVID. I mean, it's all been totally wiped away now. But the early days of COVID it's like we knew that the fatality rate of COVID is not super-duper high, but it attacks the old and the vulnerable. And our entire society was totally willing to shut down to save those people. And you remember after 9/11, the whole fucking country was donating blood. 

Peter: Not the best example to use with an Iranian American, but I hear you, I hear you. 

Michael: [laughs] Okay. Fair. [Peter laughs] In the disaster sociology work, there is this kind of trajectory where early in disasters, when you let humans form networks, they mostly create networks of kindness. Like they're bringing things to people, they're checking in on each other. But then what happens after a couple of days, a couple of weeks is something that the sociologists called elite panic, where basically the fear among elites and people in power that there is going to be unrest, ends up causing unrest. The most obvious example of this is Katrina, where in the early days after Katrina, everybody was watching on the news. Hundreds of people drove down to try to get water and supplies to people. People brought their boats. There's this huge display of solidarity. 

And then after a couple days go by, you start getting these reports of the Superdome shit, there was this rumor that babies were being raped in the Superdome, which is just obvious bullshit, and all this footage of looters and stuff. And then what you had is elites losing their fucking minds. And after a couple days, the National Guard was pulled off of search and rescue and onto looting prevention. They were protecting stores when people were still stranded in their houses. I'm going to send you a little excerpt from the book about Katrina, specifically.

Peter: On September 3, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd summed up the popular viewpoint that New Orleans was, “A snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding, thugs, suffering innocence, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels, and criminally negligent government planning.” By that time, there were supposed to be hundreds of murder victims’ corpses in the Superdome, stories of child rape were rampant, and armed gangs were allegedly marauding through the streets of the city. There were even rumors of cannibalism. The rumors were right about one thing. There were gangs in the Superdome. If gang is the right word for inner city men who grew up together and hang out together.

Denise Moore, whose home literally collapsed around her and ended up at the Superdome, said that the gang members, “Got together, figured out who had guns, and decided that they were going to make sure that no women were getting raped and that nobody was hurting babies.” They started looting on St. Charles and Napoleon. There was a Rite Aid there, and you would think they would be stealing stuff, fun stuff or whatever, because it's a free city according to them. But they were taking juice for the babies, water and beer for the older people, food, raincoat, so they could all be seen by each other. She compared them to Robin Hood. We were trapped like animals, but I saw the greatest humanity I'd ever seen from the most unlikely places. 

Michael: And like, you don't want to be naïve. 

Peter: Yeah. 

Michael: People take advantage of chaos like humans are humans. But empirically, those actions are really isolated. We've seen this over and over again and yet these myths persist. To this day, there's never been a confirmed murder or rape in the Superdome. So those rumors were just fully rumors. What's amazing now looking back, is that those rumors were spread by FEMA officials. FEMA officials were the ones saying there're 200 bodies. Turns out there were only six bodies and all of them died of natural causes. We also had-- there were 11 police shootings during the aftermath of Katrina. There were cities outside of New Orleans where people essentially formed militias and they were so afraid of this loosed horde of rioters coming that they murdered a bunch of people. There's this town where 11 black people were killed-

Peter: Jesus Christ. 

Michael: -by mostly white residents, like just carrying around their own guns.

Peter: Jesus Christ.

Michael: The thing to realize about this worldview and these myths is that they're self-fulfilling prophecies. If people in power start to be worried about these animalistic hordes, they're going to treat people like animalistic hordes and you're going to get these kinds of clashes. The kinds of myths that he is promoting in this book also create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think everybody is a fucking schemer, you're going to treat them all like schemers. It's the opposite of our love will build a paradise. You're creating this ugly world by thinking it's already ugly. 

Peter: Yeah. I think that this mindset fosters this almost like uniquely American phenomenon, which is that a lot of people view the world so adversarially that they are willing to forego helping people as long as that ensures that they can't be taken advantage of in some way. You see this with stuff as simple as student loan forgiveness, Like, sure, it'll help a lot of people who have student loan debt and need the help. But what about the people who don't need the help, who are financially doing fine and could pay it off? People talk about it in the welfare context. Yes, of course there are a lot of people who need financial assistance, but there are also a lot of people who might take advantage of that system who don't need it. So, let's hold off lest we allow those people to take advantage of us. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: If you imagine that those people are a large chunk of the population, that there are tons of people who are out there with this kill or be killed mindset, then you might think that that's a good argument against welfare payments. It's just a bleak way to view the world. And the only upside that I can see is that if Jay Z never read this book, we might not have ever gotten lemonade.

Michael: [laughs] The Domino meme with this fucking Robert Greene going to Italy in 1996. [Peter laughs] [crosstalk] lemonade--

Peter: And was it worth it? 

Michael: I do want to end with, these aren't quite the last three paragraphs of the book, but they're close. This is from law 48 assume formlessness, which by the end of the book, he's just, like, saying stuff. This is something about never let people know what you think. Whatever, whatever. So, he says, learning to adapt to each new circumstance means seeing events through your own eyes and often ignoring the advice that people constantly pedal your way. It means that ultimately, you must throw out the laws that others preach and the books they write to tell you what to do. [Peter laughs] Rely too much on other people's ideas and you end up taking a form not of your own making. Be brutal with the past, especially your own, and have no respect for the philosophies that are foisted on you from outside. This is within a book that's giving me fucking 48 little tips for how to be powerful at Quiznos. So ultimately, don't read this fucking book and don't listen to me.

Peter: Yeah, I'm glad he ends on a strong note. 

Michael: I can't disagree. 

Peter: If you criticize the book, it's just proof you didn't read the [crosstalk]

Michael: Yeah.


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