I had always wanted to meet General Discussion. His mere presence was overwhelming—he’s on practically every Internet forum. At the same time, he has no profile on any of these sites—a mystery. So, when I was granted an interview with the General (I’m sorry, but conditions of the interview precluded sharing specifics), I was understandably elated.
I decided to lead by asking about his path to such influence.
“Well, I’ve been known by many names,” he began. “I started as Private Chat, the identity under which I took Corporeal Form. As Sergeant-at-Arms I was able to Captain-my-Views until I had achieved the rank of Major Misunderstanding. And with a Colonel-of-Truth, I ascended to General Discussion.”
I expressed my reservations about such a questionable rise to power.
“What you don’t understand,” he explained, “is that most people don’t care about reasoning. It’s all about speaking your mind, laboring under the delusion that other people care and will listen. No. You have to FAKE debate.”
“Surely that’s unfair,” I protested. “I regularly see people vociferously debating a host of issues!”
“That’s where you’re mistaken,” he answered, implying via body language that you don’t get to be a General without good reason. “People don’t debate—they REACT.”
“I don’t think I can agree.” Frankly, I was quite taken aback.
“All right,” he answered. He thought for a moment. “Consider your favorite Internet discussion boards.” I considered. “Can you identify a few people who consistently seem the best debaters?” I could.
“Well,” he continued, “Look at their patterns.” I was confused. “They don’t just jump in and respond to any comment.” Now I was really confused. The General looked at me, a combination of bemusement and exasperation, then continued. “They wait,” he explained. I stared at him blankly.
“They wait,” he repeated. “They let people make their points. Then, they respond to the group, addressing the sense and content of all those posts.” I still didn’t get it.
“Look,” he sighed (I could tell he was patronizing me). “Presenting a thoughtful view supported by careful argument is difficult.” I listened, waiting. “So, people don’t bother. They throw out their opinions.”
“But others would just counter with their own opinions,” I interjected.
“EXACTLY!” pounced the General. “So experienced ‘debaters’ wait for other users to post first, and then attack those views in lieu of constructing their own arguments.”
I looked at him, stunned.
“This isn’t something new with the Internet.” He was right, of course—public discourse existed long before online discussion boards, and the General’s career predated such electronic advances. “People avoid presenting specific arguments. Doing so would leave them vulnerable.”
“Consider politics,” he continued. “People continually complain that politicians only speak in generalities. Know why? Ever heard of James Buchanan?”
“The 15th U.S. President?”
“No, the Nobel Prize winning economist.” I settled in for the lecture.
“He proposed the Theory of Public Choice. Essentially, he noticed that if a candidate for office presented specifics, opponents would then attack the details of those plans. Hence, savvy politicians avoid divulging such policy, preserving their standings in the polls—and the electorate.”
“But wouldn’t such a generalist approach just mean that voters would dismiss the candidate as superficial?”
I looked at the ground, thinking, my head spinning.
“Look at what happens even in the primaries,” offered the General. “What happens to the front runner? Shot at from every side—within the same party! Often, someone else becomes the eventual nominee.”
I thought for a long rime before replying. “It doesn’t seem right,” was all I could offer.
The General looked at me kindly. After a while, he asked, “Do you know the story of Lieutenant Kijé?”
As a musician, I knew Prokofiev’s suite from the 1934 Aleksandr Fajntsimmer film, along with the basic plot, but not the 1927 Yury Tynyanov novella, the basis for the movie. I listened.
“Contradicting the Tsar was a crime, so when Paul I of Russia misunderstood an incorrectly copied military report, misreading it as ‘Lieutenant Kijé,’ his officers simply created the fictitious officer. The deceit expanded to include Kijé’s courtship, marriage, regular promotion—and when the Tsar finally asked to meet this man, his death and funeral with full military honors.”
I didn’t yet see his point.
“Your country,” he continued, “is based on rule by the people, is it not?” I nodded. “Well, your leader, the people, doesn’t like to hear views other than its own. So, your subordinates tell what the leader wants to hear. Recognizing that is how I rose through the ranks so quickly.”
I stared at him blankly.
"I'm your Lieutenant Kijé," he explained.
The General had pressing business elsewhere, so that had to be the end of our discussion. However, I encourage my countrymen to support this man in his bid for higher office. He has a plan to help build our nation.