David Heinemeier Hansson

April 5, 2023

Standing up to golems

Tim Urban's new book What's Our Problem? offers an excellent analysis of the current American political malaise. It breaks down the history of first how the Republican party got overrun by low-rung thinking from the mid-90s forward, then how equally low-rung thinking got the other side in the past decade or so. It's a light, humorous recap of modern American political history. I highly recommend it.

It's central contribution is adding a second dimension to the political spectrum. What we're dealing with is not just far-left, left, center, right, far-right. That spectrum is about contesting "what is" and "what ought to be". Our current problem is not so much disagreeing about those two central elements. All democracies will and should continue to do that. It's how that disagreements manifest themselves in political tactics. Especially the concept of idea supremacy:


Yeah, that about sums it up. Which is what Urban does so well in this book, sums it up. Not just concepts like idea supremacy, high-rung vs low-rung thinking, ideological golems vs intellectual genies, or the Liberal Games vs the Power games. He also sums up the feeling of having been made politically homeless, as a long-term, progressive-leaning individual, once the low-rung thinking of the woke nonsense conquered one important institution after another.

In this effort, Urban shares a lot of his analysis with the likes of John McWhorter, whose book Woke Racism also came from the perspective of a progressive dismayed by what he saw his "own side" turn into. But Urban zooms further out. Trying to analyze not just a particular dysfunction, such as a woke nonsense, but all forms of nonsense that occurs once our baser instincts take over.

So I think it might be easier for progressives sitting on the fence, not sure what to think about the woke nonsense, to consider Urban's analysis. It's less testy out the gate. It starts with an account of "the other side started it". The mood is lighter, at least in the beginning, and the drawings are funny. So by the time you get to the serious critique, your progressive guards might just have been lowered enough to consider the claims with an open mind.

In the end, What's our problem? ends with the same prescription as Woke Racism, though. We have to stand up to the ideological golems in order to rescue our political discourse. To reject the echo chambers and get back to the idea labs, as Urban puts it. Refuse to let idea supremacy cow us into submission.

As someone who's gone through it, I can tell you that it's easier said than done. But I also believe that the tide indeed is turning. It's far easier to stand up to the golems today than it was a couple of years ago. At least in the realm of business. (Things still look pretty rough in academia!). That's progress.

I think we've seen the darkest days of this. Or maybe that's just my optimistic streak wishing that to be true. But I would love to return to the idea lab. Argue positions for the intellectual sport and societal enlightenment again. Without everything turning into this cliché:


Kudos to Urban for his broad, persuasive call for us all to do the same. Buy his book!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.