I don’t know how long this strange Vice News video will stay online, but you should enjoy it for a long as it’s available:
So, what’s it about? You have this overweight Vice reporter, the latest in a long string of enthusiastic youth looking to make an impact with one of the worst media organizations you can ever work for. He’s told that insane Internet celebrity Alex Jones taped a video in Bohemian Grove, a secretive place where important rich people and politicians meet to do crazy shit, and he sets out to crack jokes and debunk the whole stupid thing.
What happens next almost certainly wasn’t part of the reporter pitch: it turns out that Bohemian Grove exists, that Alex Jones did manage to tape a crazy ritual in which VIPs burn somebody in effigy, mimicking an ancient human sacrifice, and that Bohemian Grove is not interested in explaining itself to this dumb millennial. What the frustrated reporter does next is very Vice Newsy: he goes on to talk to some young rich people, who show off their cars and stuff so he can wrap up the report.
As journalism, this is terrible, and as propaganda is pretty useless (the takeaway is that insane Internet celebrity Alex Jones is sometimes right? Was that ever the plan, Vice News?) but it’s a fascinating window into strange things that happen in the world of the 21st century for which most serious, middle-of-the-road voting citizens have no real explanation.
In the US, the Jeffrey Epstein case was a great example of one such puzzling thing. This sick person spent three decades or more raping and abusing underage girls that he was provided for people anxious to get some of his money, but also convinced lots and lots of people to join him in his despicable, illegal escapades, including most remarkably former US president Bill Clinton and the UK filthiest prince, Andrew.
Any normal, sane people must be wondering: are there so many pedophiles among the Western elites, that this guys always got more than enough people to invite to his fuck-minors island. Of course not. The most terrifying thing is not that Western elites are crammed with pedophiles to the brim: the most terrifying thing is that lots of people, as they have themselves explained ad nauseam, were not all interested in the pedophilia, but wanted to hang out with powerful people doing pedophilia or at least spending time with Epstein, because they saw that as an opening to become elite, and stay elite.
The pedophilia was just a sort of nasty adornment, an initiation ritual that I’m sure that many conducted only for the sake of acceptance: to be part of a club of well-connected people who traded contacts and business tips and valuable investment advice; I wouldn’t be surprised if many people who actually traveled to Epstein’s sex island actually used every possible excuse to avoid contact with the girls, as they claim.
When you look into this kind of thing, there are examples all over the place. At the most basic, harmless level, golf used to be one of those: at certain social circles, it didn’t matter whether you enjoyed golf or not: you had the play golf if you wanted to hang out with the masters of the universe, or become a master of the universe yourself. Circa 1980, there was no way to be an important CEO and not enjoy, or suffer, a few rounds of golf every week with your pals/business partners. It was just how it went.
The problem with golf is that it’s an esay sacrifice to make, one that is not illegal or embarrasing, just — at worst — boring. Elites, by their nature, are closed to outsiders because they know any elite that becomes overwhelmed with new members rapidly stops being an elite. So you have to make it hard for people to join; and you wanna make sure that you don’t have freeloaders, you don’t want people to join and then mock your elite and its customs and tendencies publicly, because public mockery is the first step towards loss of power.
That’s why every society developed complex initiation rituals for its most important groups, like military or religious elites. That’s why business elites, as soon as they started to gain prominence in the West in the 17th century, became enamored of faux religious understones like those provided by Freemasonry: in order to become a Freemason, you must conduct a number of ridiculous rituals, so if you want to denounce the Freemasons later, you will stand to be mocked just as much as them later on.
Another problem appears at this point: what if people are willing to tolerate mockery for the sake of denunciation? That’s why kompromat was invented. Kompromat, in Soviet jargon, meant compromising evidence that was kept about people, to be used only when they misbehaved, or denounced a secretive elite with ridiculous rituals and accession rules: like the top of the Soviet Communist Party.
There are two ways to get Kompromat: you can spy people until you get evidence of things they’d rather keep concealed; or you can only accepted them in your elite if they are compromised already: if they slept with minors, or took part in disgusting rituals in Bohemian Grove. There are other ways, especially for us civilized Europeans: you may recall absurdly petty resignations in German politics, related to people copying and pasteing stuff in academic papers they wrote in college.
Soon after I stopped being a correspondent, in 2017-2018, an incredible case broke in my native Spain, when the governor of Madrid (equivalent to governor of New York in US politics), a young lady with aspirations in national politics, attacked by her own party when she turned against the party’s nomenklatura and her patron. Cristina Cifuentes was publicly humiliated with leaks about a master’s degree than she received from a party-friendly college, with no need to attend exams or classes; when she wouldn’t resign, there were leaks about some facial cream she once shop-lifted in a mall; and worse: when she still wouldn’t resign, her party leaked the videotape of the day in which she shop-lifted facial cream; and worse: when she was leaning towards resigning, but still hadn’t, they leaked stuff about crazy phone calls she made to her boyfriend, a (married) party stalwart.
This would be run-of-the-mill democratic politics if it had been the opposition that leaked stuff to get rid of an enemy: but it was her friends! Her people! They knew all about her deranged attachment to married men, about her shoplifting, about her fake degree, and they still lifted all the way to a governorship, to the very brink of top political power in Spain. My concern is not that they did it “despite of” since she clearly was no genius: my concern is that they did it “because of.” She was only allowed to rise to high because they had kompromat against her they could use if she wouldn’t behave.
In Chinese history, which is better and wiser than any other country’s, there’s an old story about a corrupt 3rd century BC general from the state of Qin, that illustrates this concept of elite initiation via kompromat.
At that point in history, Qin was the most powerful of the Chinese Warring States, about to complete the country’s reunification under the ruthless reign of King Zheng (later Qinshi Huangdi), but faced allied enemies in a desperate last stand. In Chinese, the story is called “Handing over your (sword’s) handle”, and refers to the noble gesture of surrender of holding a sword in reverse, offering the handle to the enemy.
It’s 225 BC, and there are only two other Warring States left: Chu in the south-center and Qi in the northeast. The decision is made to invade Chu first. When King Zheng calls his best generals, Wang Jian, who had already conquered Zhao in 236 BC, says that he needs 600,000 men to do the job, while Li Xin says that 200,000 will suffice. Li Xin gets the job but fails; so King Zheng talks Wang Jian back from retirement – he had left the court after the earlier rebuff – and gives him the troops. Wang Jian also asks for land, gold, mansions and concubines, and the king accepts his requests.
In fact, while on campaign Wang Jian sends a messenger to the court every single day, reminding the king that he wants lots of land, gold, mansions and concubines. This becomes a point of contention with his officers, so he explains his plan: King Zheng is a suspicious man, who doesn’t trust anyone, but has given him, Wang Jian, control of a huge army, enough to turn against his own king; the court is filled with envious rivals and eunuchs who have the king’s ears, whispering that Wang Jian may become too powerful and ambitious for his own good: so, the way to reassure the king is to openly pronounce, and repeat every day, that Wang Jiang is a vile, corrupt character who only cares about base rewards – that, in fact, is the only way to prove to the king that the general has no higher ambition.
Wang Jian’s Chu campaign was indeed a grueling one. Surviving letters sent home by soldiers in the Qin army depict a long series of marches, counter-marches and battles before the army of Chu gave way. But, in 223 BC, the Qin army captured the last king of Chu, and annexed the country into the soon-to-be Qin Empire. Wang Jian went back home and, in a denouement very unusual for a famous general, died a peaceful death years later, in his land filled with mansions, with his gold and his concubines, all kompromat that the king could use against him if he ever turned too ambitious.
Wang Jian’s son Wang Ben in fact was allowed to become a general in the Qin army as well. His story, as recounted ever since, turned the expression “having a handle” into a common idiom in China – only those who ceded their handles to their superiors were certain to survive, while good, uncorrupted people without dark secrets to protect were to be regarded as undesirable associates, at least in politics.
This may be contrasted with an older, favorite story of Mencius, “the four sprouts.” To show the innate goodness within people, Mencius used the example of a child falling down a well. Witnesses of this event immediately feel alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they fear social consequences if they are not alarmed. But because, Mencius explained, there’s a common feeling of right and wrong that unites all mankind.
Wang Jian, who had to kill hundreds of thousands if not millions, while corrupting himself thoroughly in the process, just to stay alive, probably was amused by this anecdote. Warm feelings of humanity were indeed desirable in all-powerful rulers, instead of a desire to cut down those near and far depending on whim, and in the common people below. They were just an encumbrance for courtly politics; and they still are.
 授人以柄, or “shou ren yi bing”