Illuminating the Dim Enlightenment

Looking through my archives, I see that I’ve been aware of “The Dark Enlightenment” or the Neoreactionary (“NRx”) movement since at least September 2007, when I slogged through a Mencius Moldbug post and selected some key quotations from it.  I read another post by MM in February 2009 and complained about it.

The September 2007 and February 2009 posts mark the boundaries of a time when I was spending a fair bit of time trying to get a handle on NRx thought. I’d largely lost interest in it by the spring of 2009, though I did bring the movement up again in 2014 in order to mention the snappy nickname for it I’d come up with,”The Dim Enlightenment.” During last year’s US election campaign, the prominence of Peter Thiel in Donald J. Trump’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s decision to give a speech accusing Don John of Astoria of involvement with the “Alt-Right” brought the Neoreactionaries a significant amount of public attention.  The idea that Don John himself is directly influenced by NRx writings is risible, as the Hated Steve Sailer pointed out:

Nonetheless, I have had the vague sense that I ought to take another look at that stuff.

Heaven knows I’m not going to dig my way through another 35,000 words of unedited ramblings by Mencius Moldbug.  Fortunately, I remembered that in 2013 Scott Alexander had written a summary of NRx thought. I hadn’t read it when it was new; the title, “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell,” had turned me away, since “enormous” and “planet-sized” are two things NRx writers consistently do themselves. As it turns out, Dr Alexander’s post is actually rather concise. And it is admirable in its fair-mindedness. Dr Alexander labors mightily to present the best possible case for NRx views, especially those with which he most strenuously disagrees. I chuckled when I saw the point at which his imaginative sympathy finally broke down: “Reactionaries also seem to be really into metaphysics, especially of the scholastic variety, but I have yet to be able to understand this. Blatant racism, attempts to clone long-dead monarchs, and giving a gold-obsessed alien absolute power all seem like they could sort of make sense in the right light, but why anyone would want more metaphysics is honestly completely beyond me.”

Dr Alexander followed this post up with an “Anti-Reactionary FAQ,” which by March of 2014 he was saying he no longer fully endorsed. Still, unless you’re planning to make an academic study of the Neoreactionaries or to engage in an exhaustive public debate with them, I think Dr Alexander’s posts should tell you just about all you really need to know about them.

Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei

 

fawcettthisperfectdaybyiralevin565About a year ago, I was browsing in a used bookstore and saw an old paperback copy of something I’d never before heard of: This Perfect Day, a dystopian novel by Ira Levin. It looked interesting enough that I paid my 85 cents and took it home.

As soon as I finished it, I started writing a blog post about it. I abandoned that post when I realized that the plot is full of so many ingenious twists, and so much of what gives the book its enduring interest, can be explained only by describing events that take place after the most surprising of those twists, that it would be impossible to review it without ruining the story.

Those who have read the novel will recognize the title of this post as the first line of a rhyme that members of the society depicted in the novel habitually recite:

Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei,

       Led us to this perfect day.

Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ,

       All but Wei were sacrificed.

Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx,

       Gave us lovely schools and parks.

Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood,

       Made us humble, made us good.

Recently two bloggers whom I read regularly both reminded me of This Perfect Day. Regular visitors to this blog know that I like to get all points of view; I’m something of a leftie myself, and to check my biases I read, among others, Peter Hitchens, who is on the right regarding matters of sex and sexuality, and Steve Sailer, who is on the right regarding race and nationality. The other day, Mr Hitchens mentioned that he had read This Perfect Day and thought that it was a much-underappreciated book. I offered a comment saying what I said above, that perhaps the reason it is underappreciated is that it is difficult to review it without giving away too many surprises, and so it hasn’t been widely enough recommended. I suspect Mr Hitchens dislikes the pseudonym “Acilius”; he doesn’t seem inclined to approve my comments, so that one has not appeared at the site. I’m Acilius on so many platforms that it would seem wrong to adopt another pseudonym, and for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere I prefer not to use my legal name. So I suppose I won’t be contributing to his combox.

Today Mr Sailer posted an item about a New York Times story in which was hidden an implicit retraction of some reporting that had previously appeared in the Times; his remarks about it included this sentence:

That’s one of the joys of holding the Megaphone: You can redefine your behavior as Not Fake News in that you gave extremely curious and industrious readers a path to the truth without troubling the majority who like their News Fake.

Now, I am about to give away some of the very cleverest plot twists in This Perfect Day, but so as to ruin the story for as few people as possible, I will put it after the jump.  (more…)

Twilight of the Honkies?

I follow a number of right-leaning websites, largely because I like to get all points of view.  A few days ago, I saw a post on Steve Sailer’s blog about a study by Angus Deaton and Ann Case which indicated that death rates among whites aged 45-54 in the USA jumped significantly in the years 1999-2013, a jump which contrasted with steady declines in mortality among other demographic cohorts in the USA and elsewhere.  Mr Sailer has followed this post up herehere, here and here; the significance he finds in the topic can be found in the titles of his first and fifth posts: “#WhiteLivesDon’tMatter” and “Why Wasn’t the Big 1999-2002 Rise in Death Rate Among 45-54 Year Old Whites Noticed Until 2015?”  Other conservative bloggers have found great significance in the conclusions Professors Deaton and Case have drawn; for example, Rod Dreher sees in these figures signs that life is losing its meaning for poor whites in the USA, while Anatoly Karlin sees an ominous parallel to the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman points out a problem with the analysis on which Professors Deaton and Case have based their conclusions. In 1999, the median age within the 45-54 years old subgroup of US whites was a lot closer to 45 than to 54, while in 2013 it was much closer to 54.  The Deaton and Case study does not adjust for this difference in age distribution.  Deaton and Case give us this spectacular graph:

Screen-Shot-2015-11-05-at-7.53.11-PM

Correcting for age distribution alone, Professor Gelman produces this figure:

births4-1024x805

Which accounts for the entire effect illustrated by the bright red line in the Deaton/ Case paper.

Professor Gelman argues that the Deaton/ Case findings are still newsworthy, if not as sensational as their interpretation would suggest.  Why did mortality among US whites aged 45-54 remain steady in years when virtually every comparable demographic experienced a significant decline in mortality?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect it will turn out to be something pretty obvious. My first thought is base rate.  After all, middle-aged white Americans are, on average, one of the most prosperous large groups on earth, and have been so for a great many years.  That isn’t to deny that pockets of deep poverty like those which so concern Mr Dreher do exist among US whites at the left end of the income distribution curve, but the income level at the middle of the white American bell curve is quite high by global standards and has been for many generations. So, any easy measures that could move the needle up on average life expectancy among a population have probably long since been taken with regard to middle-aged white Americans.

The second thing that comes to my mind is obesity.  Americans in general are pretty fat; this animated gif that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a couple of years ago illustrates just how fat we’ve been getting, and whites are certainly not immune to the problem:

If the median white American gained as much weight as this figure suggests in the years leading up to and beyond 1999, it is a sign of extraordinary advances in medical care that the mortality rate among US whites aged 45-54 did not jump by at least as much as the original Deaton/ Case interpretation indicated.  That other groups actually experienced declines in mortality while undergoing equal or greater increases in obesity would support the base rate explanation to which I referred above, that African Americans and nonwhite US Hispanics, having on average lower incomes than US whites, were also on average later in receiving new forms of medical intervention and other benefits of modernity than were their white compatriots.

Chronicles, May 2015

The latest issue of this Old Right journal bears Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ (circa 1465-circa 1495) lovely painting “The Holy Kinship” on its cover.

Last month’s issue featured an article in which Claude Polin traced the intellectual influence of Calvinism in the early USA.  A letter in this month’s issue objects that some of the Calvinist ideas Professor Polin discussed there were not representative of John Calvin’s own thinking.  Professor Polin’s response to this is a succinct and admirable statement of one of the basic tenets of intellectual history:  “Either there never was any true Calvinist besides Calvin, or Calvin generated an attitude that was not his, but was logically derived from his writings.”

Steve Sailer (known to some who read this blog simply as “the hated SAILER”) writes about Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the system of land ownership and property registration in the early USA, a system which Mr Sailer argues has given the USA a crucial advantage in economic development.  Mr Sailer’s argument that the abstract nature of the grid plan along which Jefferson led the USA’s lands to be surveyed made for a far more efficient structure than the more concrete metes-and-bounds system it replaced makes a odd counterpoint to Chronicles‘ editor Thomas Fleming’s column, in which he declares Jefferson’s similarly abstract, anti-historical views on inheritance to be of a piece with the exaltation of the nuclear family that has enabled the destruction of traditional kinship bonds and therefore of traditional community structures and traditional gender roles in today’s world.  Both Mr Sailer and Dr Fleming agree that Jefferson’s ideas have led to the rise of capitalism, but while Mr Sailer’s chief concern is extolling the prosperity that capitalism has brought, Dr Fleming’s emphasis is on capitalism’s destruction of those bonds and identities that have traditionally ennobled human life.

Clyde Wilson, editor of The John Calhoun Papers and an unreconstructed defender of the Old South, may be the last person you would expect to speak up in favor of the view that agents of the US government killed Martin Luther King, Junior, yet that is precisely what he does in his review of John Emison’s The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up.  Professor Wilson seems to believe that the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated the assassination, pointing out that the agency had a file on small-time criminal James Earl Ray, the supposed gunman, and that the two federal judges who were, “years apart,” poised to reopen the case died of sudden heart attacks, which are “a standard tool of the CIA.”  Professor Wilson also refers to two other notorious 1960’s-era activities of the American national security state, Operation Northwoods, a Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to carry out terrorist acts in the USA and blame them on Fidel Castro, and Cointelpro, a Federal Bureau of Investigation project overseen by W. Mark Felt, who was among other things the FBI’s liaison with the Joint Chiefs.  For my part, if there was a high-level conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King, I suspect Mark Felt was its mastermind and the offices of the Joint Chiefs were its nursery.  Professor Wilson closes his review with a lament about all the crimes whose true provenance we will never know because high US officials saw to the destruction of evidence, the intimidation of witnesses, and the railroading of convenient suspects; his first example is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Many documents connected with the assassination of Martin Luther King are sealed until 2029; until they have been opened and examined, I think it is premature to put the King assassination into the same baleful category.

Scott Richert writes about Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which, unlike the federal law and the many state laws of the same name, does not apply only to civil suits to which the government is itself a party, but to a wide variety of lawsuits between private citizens.  Mr Richert, responding to the widespread fear that the law would enable unjust discrimination against sexual minority groups in Indiana and the consensus in favor of legal protection for such groups against discrimination which this fear revealed,* argues that the growth of civil rights protection for sexual minorities is the result of a strategy on the part of big businesses in the USA.  These businesses want the benefits of a reputation for friendliness to sexual minorities, but don’t want competitors to carve out a niche in which they could exploit any costs that such a reputation might entail.  So, big businesses want to advertise their own “gay-friendly” programs, while outlawing or stigmatizing any “unfriendly” programs competitors might come up with.

*I commented on the Indiana law here when it was first passed.

Dim enlightenment

Mold-BUUG!

The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

Games people and avocados play

Hmm, it seems to have been several months since anything has been posted here.  We haven’t disappeared from the internet completely in that time.  One thing we’ve been doing is tweeting links.  Such as:

1. A couple of years ago, there was a thing on Cracked by John Cheese about bad ways to respond to bullies.  It is very hard to read, for three reasons.  First, John Cheese tells stories about how several of these bad ways cost him and his family dearly when he was a boy beset by bullies.  Second, he doesn’t suggest any ways of responding to bullies that would be  more successful.  Third, he raises the terrible thought that “bullying” and “politics” are two names for the same thing.

John Cheese’s “5 Bad Ideas for Dealing With Bullies You Learned in Movies” are: “Tell An Adult- They’ll Teach You to Fight”; “Just Ignore Them- Unless You Can Verbally Slay Them”; “Run!  You’ll Have Your Victory Soon Enough”; “Fight Back- You’ll Always Win!”; “Fight Back- There Are No Consequences.”  A political scientist of my acquaintance is fond of the axiom “No unmixed strategies are valid.”  An opponent who can predict your reactions with a high degree of accuracy is one against whom you have little chance of winning in any sort of contest.  That applies at every level.  So the bullied child, or adult, or nation-state can achieve little by choosing the same response consistently when provoked.  The only hope is in regarding each response as a tactic, a tool to be used in conjunction with other tools, chosen and applied based on a cold-eyed assessment of the situation at the moment.   Sometimes you fight, sometimes you ignore, sometimes you run away, sometimes you report the situation to the authorities, sometimes you organize fellow targets in a coordinated resistance, sometimes you combine these responses with each other or with other techniques.  Whatever you do, make sure you surprise your opponent.

When I had to cope with bullies as a child, I was acutely aware of how little tactical sense I had.  I tried several methods, never in quick succession, never with much success.  If I had been shrewd enough to contain our neighborhood bullies then, maybe I would be rich and powerful now.  In which case you would not be reading this, as rich and powerful people do not maintain WordPress blogs.

2. John Wilkins is trying to figure out “why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman.”  His theory is that we might be able to answer this question if we frame it as a failure to operate in a rule-governed manner, so he calls the post “On knowing the rules.”   I’m skeptical of that approach.  I suspect that the men we see as sensible are those who have persuaded us to see them as sensible, and that to persuade anyone of anything is the result of a successful application of strategy.  Moreover, sexual harassment, like other forms of bullying, is targeted precisely at a person’s ability to seem sensible.  Tell a story about a federal judge interrupting you at lunch to quote movie lines about pubic hair, and people will probably wonder if you’re “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”  Some strategies for establishing oneself as a sensible person hinge on making other people seem not-so-sensible.  So my suspicion is that the question should be, not “why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman,” but how some men secure their reputations for sensible-ness by harassing women.

3. Speaking of tactics and strategy, the avocado has a reproductive strategy developed in response to a situation that ceased to exist 13,000 years ago.  This turns out not to matter, as the avocado has been flourishing all this time.  So maybe there’s hope for those of us who are not dynamic gamesmen.

4. Let’s assume you don’t want to be a bully, and you are having a debate.  You notice that the person you are debating is getting upset.  Leah Libresco suggests you ask what your opponent thinks is at stake in the debate.  She puts it memorably:

I’ve tried using this kind of approach in non-philosophical fights (with varying success) to keep forcing myself to ask “What is this person protecting?” I’ve tried explicitly reframing whatever the other person is saying to me as “Watch out! You’re about to step on a kitten!!” and then working out what the kitten is. This way, intensity in argument isn’t necessarily aggressive or insulting, and it’s not something I need to take personally. It’s just a signal of how passionately my interlocutor loves the thing they think I’m about to blindly trample on, and I’d best figure out what it is sharpish.

5. If the US government sends you a subsidy in the form of a check, you are very likely to think of yourself as a tax recipient and to find yourself on the defensive in political discussion and appropriations battles.  If the US government subsidizes you by means of other instruments, such as tax credits, you are very likely to see yourself as a taxpayer and to take the offensive.  As they say in xkcd, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.”  The difference between a benefit administered through the congressional appropriations process and a benefit administered through the tax code may be purely verbal as far as economists are concerned, but it has tremendous consequences for public policy and the long-term future of the USA.

6. While we’re talking about xkcd, it dealt the other day with one of the big differences between the artificial games we design to play for fun and the games we play to establish our relationships with each other in real life is that the artificial games allow only moves drawn from a single restricted set.  So if you are boxing and you throw a right cross, your opponent is allowed to respond only by guarding against the blow, dodging it, or anticipating it with another punch.  In real life conflicts, however, there is little or no restriction on the sets of possible moves from which a competitor can draw.  So when a legislator defeats a policy initiative with a parliamentary procedure, or an appropriations cut, or a personal attack, it’s as if the winning response to a right cross was a bishop’s gambit.

7. Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has been on a roll lately.  The other day, he posted this epitome of misleading infographics.  He also wondered what it would be like “If Arithmetic Were Debated Like Religion” (or anything else people are passionate about); pointed out that even people who are most cautious about trying to be reasonable “have a huge collection of specific views, the arrangement of which would not be held by anyone who died more than 50 years ago”; and revealed that the Sphinx of Thebes took some time to develop her riddling ability.

8. One of our favorite publications is The American Conservative; one of our favorite Americans is the thoroughly unconservative Alison Bechdel.  If this sounds like a paradox, think again- The American Conservative raves over the musical Fun Home, based on AB’s memoir of the same title.

9. Speaking of The American Conservative, I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s blog there.  Here’s a post of his, drawing on his book about his sister, in which he talks about the pros and cons of small-town life.  A quote:

The epiphany I had, the thing that made it possible for me to move back, is realizing that the bullying and the rejection that helped drive me away came from the same place as did the gorgeous compassion and solidarity with my sister Ruthie as she fought cancer. You can’t have one without the other.

I like this.  In bits 1 and 2 above, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on bullying as a set of moves in games individuals play.  It is that, I believe, but if course it is also more than that.  Bullying is a symptom of broader social structures, some which would be very hard to do without, and Mr Dreher does a good job of bringing that out in this post.

In another post, Mr Dreher thinks hard about Dante and W. H. Auden, ending with Auden’s line that “the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to.”  I suppose this is what “Virtue Epistemology” is getting at, in part, by its examination of ways in which ethical and intellectual qualities interpenetrate each other.

10. While on the topic of The American Conservative, I’ll mention one of its former writers, a person well and truly loathed by most of the people who have been regular readers of this site.  I refer to Steve Sailer, or as some of my acquaintances know him, the hated SAILER.  Mr Sailer has recently posted a series of pieces about how odd a style of thinking utilitarianism presupposes.  He concentrates on the fetish utilitarians make for decontextualization, which in their case usually means taking scenarios and abstracting out everything but the question of cost and benefit.  There are many other criticisms one might level at utilitarianism, of course.  So Virtue Ethicists focus on the incoherence of utilitarian conceptions of “pleasure” and “pain,” which is a bit of a concern in a school of thought that sets out to reduce all of experience to pleasure and pain.  Other thinkers focus on the fact that the hedonistic calculus utilitarians describe presupposes a level of knowledge that no human being can attain.  Since ethics is supposed to be about the standards by which humans evaluate their behavior, utilitarianism is thereby disqualified from the label “ethical philosophy.”  If you believe in a God to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, utilitarianism could be a theodicy, but theodicy is not ethics.

11. I am a fan of Irving Babbitt, and therefore sit up and take notice when Babbitt scholar Claes G. Ryn is mentioned.  A few years ago, Professor Ryn cast Paul Gottfried out of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters, declaring Professor Gottfried to have strayed too far towards opinions that Professor Ryn deemed racist.  Professor Gottfried is still sulking about his banishment, and grouses about it in the course of a column about his and Professor Ryn’s criticism of the followers of Leo Strauss.   The heart of the column is in these three paragraphs:

Also not surprisingly, given their contemporary focus and ambitions, Straussians over the decades have turned increasingly to political journalism. Pure scholarship seems to count less and less significantly in their putative field of study. And the reason is not primarily that they’re battling the “America-hating” Left—it’s that their interpretations are methodologically eccentric and brimful of their own ideological prejudices. They represent neoconservative politics packaged in academic jargon and allied to a peculiar hermeneutic that I earnestly try to make sense of in my work.

Ryn raises the question of why Straussian doctrines have caught on among self-described conservatives. His answers here do not surprise me, since for many years the two of us discussed this puzzling matter and reached similar conclusions.

Conservatism Inc. has been so totally infiltrated from the Left that those ideas that used to define the Left—abstract universalism, the rejection of ethnic differences, the moral imperative to extend equality to all human relations—has spread to the official Right. The political debate in America now centers on Leftist propositions. Accordingly, someone like Bloom, who could barely conceal his animus against what remains of a traditional Western world based on what Ryn rightly calls a “classical and Christian” heritage, could be featured in the late 1980s as an American patriot and cultural traditionalist.

That the “classical and Christian” worldviews could be so utterly submerged by stale leftovers from the anticommunist Left of the mid-twentieth century would rather seem to lead one to doubt that these worldviews had much life left in them at the time this “infiltration” began, but Professors Ryn and Gottfried are among those who would disagree.  I know that the kittens on their floors (to borrow Ms Libresco’s image) include most of the things that a sizable fraction of the people in the world cared most deeply about for a couple of thousand years, so far be it from me to step carelessly in my hobnailed boots of postmodern secularism.

Good editing separates a sage from a provocateur

I’ve seen some good stuff on the internet lately.  There are people who read this blog who won’t like some of it.

1. Kenan Malik writes:

One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.

I don’t presume to know whether God is the source of the Qur’an, but Mr Malik is surely right to argue that these acts of violence spring from efforts by their perpetrators to present themselves as the champions of Islam.  As such, they are symptoms of the internal politics of the countries where they take place, politics which may well be shaped by military and other interventions from outside powers, but which must always be analyzed in terms of the interests and understandings of their actual participants.

2. An article about cartoonist R. Crumb in Vingt Paris Magazine lists many of Mr Crumb’s more unwholesome obsessions, then goes on:

I suppose the uncomfortable truth about Crumb’s reputation as a comic satirist is that he’s no good when he really needs to be. Unlike, say, Dick Gregory or even Randy Newman (whose song Rednecks is also written from a racist’s point of view), Crumb is too happy to wield irony like a sledgehammer when it comes to discussing race.

As a result of Mr Crumb’s lack of subtlety, his irony often collapses and his depictions of racist imagery are left without satiric point, as racism plain and simple.  Likewise, his sadomasochism-inspired sexual imagery rarely has much point beyond the confessional, and is merely disgusting.

Mr Crumb does not attempt to defend his work; last year, faced with the prospect of demonstrations against him, he canceled plans to appear at the Sydney Opera House, saying “‘I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures’, he told the press. ‘I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don’t know.'”  The author of the article mentions that Mr Crumb had given him the identical response when he’d asked him to justify his work some years previously, then remarks “It’s a stock response that’s so polished it shines. It makes you wonder if, one day, he might get bored of saying it and try for an answer instead.”

I would not defend the racial imagery in Mr Crumb’s work.  I still chuckle when I think of the moment in the 1994 documentary Crumb when one of his critics looks at a comic strip depicting the crudest possible African American stereotype and says “This is actually an attack on black people.”  What made me laugh then and now is the word “actually.”  As if it were apparently something else, but a close analysis by the most sophisticated methods available would show that it was actually an attack on black people.  It was so obviously an attack on black people that the existence of a debate about the question of whether it is such an attack is hilarious.

The article summarizes Mr Crumb’s attitude towards his subject matter thus:

Using racial stereotypes in his work is something that Crumb freely admits to, saying that ‘there’s a perverse part of me (that) likes to take the heat for all that stuff’. One of his most famous examples is here in the exhibition – a picture called Jive with Angel Food McSpade. It’s a drawing of a freakish, thick-lipped, bug-eyed woman, who seductively raises her leg and claims she was ‘Attacked in the mud because I was a SEXY TEASE’.

The arguments about drawings like Jive with Angel Food go like so: ‘He’s subverting those images and throwing our own racism back at us’. Or ‘he’s just trying to shock you, Liberal’. Or ‘he’s genuinely a racist. He’s not even being ironic’. And they play out like a game of rock, paper, scissors that nobody knows how to stop.

For his part, Crumb says the controversial stuff pours out of him because it’s wired into his brain, from all the pop-imagery he saw on television and in comics and magazines. He’s certainly not a racist, he says, but he’s even less of a censor – and if this kind of stuff is in there, then who is he to keep it in?

This strikes me as a fair statement, and a sad one.  At his best, as in his illustrated version of Genesis, Mr Crumb shows that the feverish, undigested contents of his psyche are unsettlingly similar to the feverish, undigested ideas at the heart of the most powerful ideologies in the modern world.  It is a shame that Mr Crumb has not been consistently subject to a stringent and demanding editor who fully understands his project and capabilities.  It is unreasonable to expect the same person to serve as author and editor of the same work; in that sense, Mr Crumb is quite right to ask “who is he to keep it in?”

3. Blogger Steve Sailer lists the following as the categories of Americans whose opinions about foreign policy are taken seriously in official Washington:

Today, the acceptable limits of foreign policy discourse in America are set by:
– The good old military-industrial complex
– Saudi bribery
– Liberal Democratic Zionists
– Right 2 Protect liberal crypto-imperialist/busybodies
– Angry Likudniks
– Quasi-CIA “democracy” endowments that organize color-coded revolutions
– Foreign policy thinktanks (who are more important the more activist the foreign policy)
– White guys who need to serve in the military so they can get affirmative action points to become firemen
– Yahoos who should be apprised that when football isn’t on TV, professional wrestling can always be found year-round, so there’s no need to watch the news
– Oil companies (who are left to quietly play the “Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King role)
They are all overseen by a national media that sometimes seems most concerned about the looming threat that an isolationist Father Coughlin could arise again.
So, the only feasible foreign policy alternative to stake out is: “The President’s foreign policy isn’t quite crazed enough!”

When Mr Sailer expresses his right-wing opinions about race or sex or economics, I can usually find good reasons to disagree with him.  I wish I could disagree with him here as well.

4. Via Arts & Letters Daily, here’s a sensational little essay about Ezra Pound by Luciano Mangiafico at Open Letters Monthly.  Mr Mangiafico presents the following as an “excerpt from Canto 81”:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place…
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down…

These lines do appear in Pound’s Canto 81, but Mr Mangiafico has edited them heavily.  Here is how of the ending of the poem looks in the edition of the Cantos I read (New Directions, 1996):

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Whose world, or mine or theirs

or is it of none?

First came the seen, then thus the palpable

Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry,

Pull down thy vanity,

Paquin pull down!

The green casque has outdone your elegance.

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”-

Pull down thy vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst’ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

I say pull down.

But to have done instead of not doing

This is not vanity

To have, with decency, knocked

That a Blunt should open

To have gathered from the air a live tradition

or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame

This is not vanity.

Here error is all in the not done,

all in the diffidence that faltered…

Last night I read Pound’s original aloud to Mrs Acilius; it is undeniably thrilling, but just as undeniably Mr Mangiafico’s redaction, spare and direct, takes on a splendor that fades in Pound’s profusion of images and references.  And the first half of the poem is Pound’s usual, barely tolerable, complete with quotations from Theocritus and John Adams.  I only wonder why he neglected to tattoo it with Chinese characters.

Pound, like Mr Crumb, reminds me of the old story about the town with only two barbers.  One barber is faultlessly shaven, with a perfectly presented head of hair; the other wears stubble on half his face, and a shapeless mop of hair.  The discerning customer goes to the slovenly barber, since he is the one who cut the well-coiffed one’s hair.  Likewise, as an editor of poetry Pound made inestimable contributions to the works of T. S. Eliot and other eminences of the High Modern; it is our great loss that Pound found no one to do for his work what he did for theirs.

The Rodney King Era

The February 2012 issue of The American Conservative includes several pieces that reflect, directly or indirectly, on the presidential campaign currently underway in the USA, and a couple that have a broader interest.

The American Conservative started in 2002 as a forum for right-wingers who did not want the US to invade Iraq.  It continues to give voice to conservative anti-militarism.  Several items in this issue further develop right-wing arguments against warfare, among them: Doug Bandow’s “Attack of the Pork Hawks” (subtitle: “Loving the Pentagon turns conservatives into big-spending liberals”); William S. Lind’s “Clearing the Air Force,” which argues that the only useful functions of the United States Air Force are those that support operations led by the Army and Navy, and therefore that those functions should be transferred to those services while the independent Air Force is dissolved; and Kelly Beaucar Vlahos’ “Gitmo’s Prying Eyes,” about the Defense Department’s attempt to erase attorney-client privilege for the “unlawful combatants” it holds at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.  Noah Millman’s review of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel identifies Mr Gorenberg not by his usual sobriquet of “left-wing Zionist,” but as a “Jewish nationalist” who accepts a deeply conservative conception of nationhood as the maturity of a people, and who opposes Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories because that occupation reduces Israel from achieved nation-state to insurgent revolutionary movement.

The cover story, Scott McConnell’s “Ron Paul and his Enemies,” notes that Dr Paul’s campaign has inspired levels of alarm and anger from various elite groups in official Washington far out of proportion to the modest levels of support the good doctor has attracted.  Mr McConnell’s explanation of this is that those bêtes-noires of The American Conservative, the “neocons,” fear that Dr Paul will trigger a movement that will threaten the prestige they enjoy in policy-making circles in the American government.  The neocons are the neo-conservatives, adherents of an intellectual movement that traces its origins to the anti-Stalinist Left of the 1930s and 1940s and its rise to political salience in the work of a group of activists, academics, and functionaries who attached themselves to the Senator Henry M. Jackson in the 1960s and 1970s.  Like the late Senator Jackson, the neo-conservatives are generally sanguine about the ability of the US government to do good by means of large scale programs intervening in the domestic affairs of both of the United States itself and of other countries.  The group around The American Conservative consists of old-fashioned conservatives and libertarians who are deeply skeptical of Washington’s potential as a doer of good in any sphere.  Mr McConnell’s argument, summed up in his piece’s subtitle– “An effective antiwar candidate is what the neocons fear most”– is that, even though neoconservatives now hold such a stranglehold on respectability in foreign policy discussions in official Washington that the manifest failure of their signature project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could not weaken it, they know that it is in fact very tenuous.  The mobilization of a powerful antiwar constituency within the Republican Party could send the neocons to the sidelines very quickly, he believes.  Therefore, they must move quickly to silence Dr Paul, lest the 29% of Republicans who tell pollsters that they share his antiwar views should crystallize into a force that could shift the national discussion away from the presuppositions of militarism.

One stick with which neoconservative spokesmen and others have beaten Dr Paul is a series of racially charged columns that appeared in newsletters he edited in the early 1990s.  Mr McConnell discusses the controversy over these columns thus:

Here the reprise of the story of the newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name 20 years ago proved critical. The New Republic had made a national story of them early in the 2008 campaign. James Kirchick reported that numerous issues of the “Ron Paul Political Report” and the “Ron Paul Survival Report” contained passages that could be fairly characterized as race-baiting or paranoid conspiracy-mongering. (Few in Texas had cared very much when one of Paul’s congressional opponents tried to make an issue of the newsletters in 1996.). With Paul rising in the polls, the Weekly Standard essentially republished Kirchick’s 2008 piece.

I’ve seen no serious challenge to the reporting done four years ago by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez for Reason: the newsletters were the project of the late Murray Rothbard and Paul’s longtime aide Lew Rockwell, who has denied authorship.* Rothbard, who died in 1995, was a brilliant libertarian author and activist, William F. Buckley’s tutor for the economics passages of Up From Liberalism, and a man who pursued a lifelong mission to spread libertarian ideas beyond a quirky quadrant of the intelligentsia. He had led libertarian overtures to the New Left in the 1960s. In 1990, he argued for outreach to the redneck right, and the Ron Paul newsletters became the chosen vehicle. For his part, Rockwell has moved on from this kind of thing.

Intellectual honesty requires acknowledging that much of the racism in the newsletters would have appeared less over the top in mainstream conservative circles at the time than it does now. No one at the New York Post editorial page (where I worked) would have been offended by the newsletters’ use of welfare stereotypes to mock the Los Angeles rioters, or by their taking note that a gang of black teenagers were sticking white women with needles or pins in the streets of Manhattan. (Contrary to the fears of the time, the pins used in these assaults were not HIV-infected.) But racial tensions and fissures in the early 1990s were far more raw than today. The Rockwell-Rothbard team were, in effect, trying to play Lee Atwater for the libertarians. A generation later, their efforts look pretty ugly.

The resurfacing of the newsletter story in December froze Paul’s upward movement in the polls. For the critical week before the Iowa caucuses, no Ron Paul national TV interview was complete without newsletter questions, deemed more important than the candidate’s opposition to indefinite detention, the Fed, or a new war in Iran. On stage in the New Hampshire debate, Paul forcefully disavowed writing the newsletters or agreeing with their sentiments, as he had on dozens of prior occasions, and changed the subject to a spirited denunciation of the drug laws for their implicit racism. This of course did not explain the newsletters, but the response rang true on an emotional level, if only because no one who had observed Ron Paul in public life over the past 15 years could perceive him as any kind of racist.

If the Weekly Standard editors hoped the flap would stir an anti-Paul storm in the black community, they were sorely disappointed. In one telling Bloggingheads.tv dialogue, two important black intellectuals, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, showed far more interest in Paul’s foreign-policy ideas, and the attempts to stamp them out, than they did in the old documents. Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates likened Paul to Louis Farrakhan. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but the portrait fell well short of total scorn. It was difficult to ignore that the main promoters of the newsletters story, The New Republic and the Weekly Standard, had historically devoted exponentially more energy to promoting neoconservative policies in the Middle East than they had to chastising politicians for racism.

In 2008, Mr McConnell, then The American Conservative‘s editor, had responded to Mr Kirchick’s original piece with stern reproof for Dr Paul.  The magazine then endorsed Dr Paul for president anyway, though Mr McConnell himself would later express his preference for Barack Obama. In the paragraphs above, Mr McConnell seems to be rather straining to downplay the newsletter matter.  For one thing, while Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are by anyone’s standards “important black intellectuals,” each of them is rather conservative and neither of them could be accused of having a low tolerance for white-guy B.S.- rather the opposite, in fact.  It is true that the early 1990s were a time of unusually raw tension between whites and African Americans; indeed, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an extremely strange period in American history, as Dr Paul’s 1988 appearance on The Morton Downey, Jr Show should suffice to demonstrate.  But this does not excuse Dr Paul’s pandering to the racialist right in those years.  Rather, it makes it all the more culpable.  In 1991, many parts of the USA, from Crown Heights in New York City to South Central Los Angeles, were teetering on the brink of race riots.  In that year, a majority of white voters in Louisiana pulled the lever in support of the gubernatorial campaign of Neo-Nazi David Duke.   To peddle racially charged rhetoric at that time was, if anything, more irresponsible, because more dangerous, than it would be today.

An editorial in the same issue discusses Dr Paul from a slightly different perspective.  In a single page, it dismisses the newsletters twice, once as “artifacts of a time- the Andrew Dice Clay era in American politics, when the populist right reacted to political correctness– then a new phenomenon– by sinning in the opposite direction”; then with this line: “The Rodney King era is a distant memory; the wars and economic outrages of our bipartisan establishment are still very much with us.”  If these dismissals leave you unsatisfied, there is still a refuge for you on The American Conservative’s webpage, where blogger Rod Dreher has repeatedly expressed his objections to Dr Paul’s newsletters in very strong terms (see here for one of the strongest of these objections.)

No discussion of “the Rodney King era” would be complete without a reference to The Bell Curve, in which psychologist Richard Herrnstein and historian Charles Murray argued that American society was becoming more stratified by cognitive ability, that cognitive ability is largely inherited, and therefore that America’s class system will likely become more unequal and less fluid as the highly intelligent pull ever further away from the rest of us.  Four chapters of the book dealt with race, analyzing the average IQ scores of various ethnic groups and concluding that African Americans as a group are likely to be among the hardest hit by the adverse consequences of this trend.  Professor Herrnstein and Mr Murray offered chillingly few suggestions as to how this grim scenario could be prevented or ameliorated; Mr Murray’s right-of-center libertarianism led him always to emphasize out the ways in which social programs intended to broaden opportunity sometimes redound to the disadvantage of their intended beneficiaries, an emphasis which, in conjunction with the book’s overall argument, seemed to suggest that there is no escape from the most dystopian version of its predictions.  Published in 1994, The Bell Curve rose to the top of the bestseller lists and garnered enormous attention; today, it would be difficult to imagine a major publisher agreeing to release it.  The nativist theory of IQ which is at its heart, and particularly the explicit development of that theory’s implications in the four chapters on race, makes it such an easy target for anti-racist spokesmen that a publisher who released it nowadays would be risking public infamy.  Yet in those days, The Bell Curve hardly represented the far edge even of acceptable public discourse.  So the far more aggressively anti-black Paved With Good Intentions, by Jared Taylor (a self-styled “white nationalist”,) found a major publisher and considerable sales when it was published in 1992; his recent followups to that book have been self-published.

Mr Murray has returned to the scene with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  By focusing exclusively on whites, Mr Murray need not dwell explicitly on racial differences in average IQ score or any theory as to what causes these differences; by setting 2010 as an ending date, he need not dwell on its grimmest implications for the future.  Reviewer Steve Sailer, himself a tireless advocate of the nativist theory of IQ, reviews this new book and finds some interesting nuggets in it.  For example, Mr Sailer refers to figures, evidently included in the book, which indicate that while 40 percent of affluent American whites are now unaffiliated with any religion (as compared with 27% of their counterparts in the early 1970s,) 59% of less well-off whites are now religiously unaffiliated (as compared with 35% of the same group in the earlier period.)  That leads me to wonder if the very conservative, rather militant forms of Evangelical Christianity that are so popular among the white working class, as well as the right-wing political views that so often accompany that form of Christianity, are a sign that the individuals who profess them identify themselves as cadet members of the  professional classes.  Their militancy, even when presented as a challenge to some relatively liberal subset of the upper middle class such as elite academics or Democratic Party politicians or leaders of mainline Protestant churches, advertises to all that they are church-goers, and thus strivers, not to be confused with the defeated mass who have lost interest in such institutions and faith in the promises they represent.

Timothy Stanley’s “Buchanan’s Revolution” looks back at the last antiwar rightist to make a splash as a US presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan.  Mr Buchanan was one of the founders of The American Conservative, and the magazine still runs his column (including a recent one lauding Ron Paul.)  So it is no surprise that the treatment of him here is respectful.  However, in light of what was going on with race relations in the USA in 1992, it is sobering to see these passages:

Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times. Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.

Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.

But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”

Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.

Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.

Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,

that the dominant authorities in… the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.

Buchanan agreed. He wrote, reflecting on Francis’s words, “We traditionalists who love the culture and country we grew up in are going to have to deal with this question: Do we simply conserve the remnant, or do we try to take the culture back? Are we conservatives, or must we also become counter-revolutionaries and overthrow the dominant culture?”

The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.

Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.

And:

During the primary, (economist Harry) Veryser arranged a meeting between himself, Pat, Francis, and (scholar Russell) Kirk. Buchanan and Francis behaved as if no one else was there, and Pat sat in rapt silence listening to his friend expand upon the coming revolution. It was an intellectual romance, said Veryser. Harry was embarrassed, Kirk was furious that he wasn’t paid the attention he deserved. Both concluded that Buchanan was in love with Francis’s mind, that he truly believed that the two men could remake the world. Francis was a true believer, and his zeal infected Pat. He gave to Buchanan’s peculiar rebellion the theoretical structure of a popular revolution.

I used to read Samuel T. Francis’ column in Chronicles magazine.  It was a microcosm of Chronicles itself; full of one fascinating bit after another, often making the most interesting sort of points, and then, by the way, dropped in the middle someplace, a bizarre remark that could only be attributed to racism.  In one of the last to appear before his death in 2005, he was going on about the things that American children ought to, but don’t, learn in public schools.  He was developing a powerful vision of public education as a vehicle for cultural continuity and the formation of a common national heritage.  It was thrilling stuff, if not entirely convincing, until the middle of the fifth or sixth paragraph when he listed among the things that all Americans should learn in school “why slavery was right, and why the South was right to maintain it as long as it did.”  Then he went back to being interesting, but really, it was hard to focus after that.  And really, all of his columns were like that, brilliant, fascinating, and marred beyond saving by such outlandish remarks.  When The American Conservative started in 2002, Dr Francis wasan occasional contributor, writing three articles for the magazine (one each in 2002, 2003, and 2004.)  The editorial team there evidently took more of an interest than did their counterparts at Chronicles in toning the racialist content of his columns to a minimum, so that there were no true lightning bolts of lunacy.

Dr Francis, to the embarrassment of his more respectable friends, called himself a white nationalist and socialized with David Duke.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr Francis was a figure of some influence.  The “job with the Washington Times” that Mr Stanley mentions was that of editorial page director.  That a man of his views could attain such a position is another marker of how raw the racial resentments of whites were in the Rodney King era. In his obituary of Dr Francis for The American Conservative, Scott McConnell wrote that at Dr Francis’ funeral he found himself talking with none other than Jared Taylor.  Mr Taylor said that the cab driver who took him from the airport to the funeral had asked who Dr Francis was.  In response, Mr Taylor proclaimed “He stood up for white people!”  The cab driver, a white workingman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was visibly shocked and uncomfortable.  I very much doubt that many like him would have been upset by such a remark 14 years before.

One of Ron Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Willard Milton Romney (known familiarly as “Mitt,”) is mentioned by name in a review of economist Bruce Bartlett’s book, The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need It, and What It will TakeMr Bartlett was a staffer for Dr Paul in the 1970s, but has not been associated with him in recent years.  Reviewer Tom Pauken quotes Bartlett as saying that the USA’s corporate income tax exempts money spent on interest payments, but does not give such favorable treatment to money returned to shareholders in dividends.  It is unsurprising, then, that US businesses raise vastly more money by borrowing than by selling equity.  Mr Pauken says that this situation “has been great for private-equity moguls and leveraged buy-out operators like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwarzman, who have made fortunes gaming the system.   But it has been destructive to the long-term health of many US companies and to American workers who have lost jobs as a consequence of tax incentives that encourage companies to pile up debt.”  Mr Bartlett calls for the repeal of the corporate income tax and of several other taxes, and their replacement by a border-adjusted value added tax.  I’ve endorsed similar proposals here, often under Mr Bartlett’s influence, and am glad to see that he is still working the old stand.  As for the connection to Mr Romney, I would mention a link I posted on our tumblr page to a recent column by Paul Rosenberg called “Mitt Romney, ‘Welfare Queen.'”  The caption I gave that link was “In the USA, corporations can write interest payments off their income taxes, while they have to pay taxes on dividends they pay shareholders.  So, shareholders collect almost nothing in dividends, while banks and private equity firms collect trillions of dollars in interest payments.  Those interest payments are an alternative form of taxation, and people like Willard M. Romney are tax recipients, not taxpayers.”  I think is a reasonably fair summary of Mr Rosenberg’s argument, though Mr Bartlett’s views are somewhat more complex.   

A few months ago, I noted here a column about the Revised Common Lectionary that Philip Jenkins had contributed to Chronicles magazine.  Professor Jenkins argued that the committees that produced that selection of Bible readings had left out all of the passages in which God is shown commanding or praising violence, thus creating a false impression of the scriptures.  Professor Jenkins has presented that argument at book length, in a volume called Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  Patrick Allitt’s review of Professor Jenkins’ book in this issue draws out some interesting points.  For example, the books of Joshua and Judges, which include many of the Bible’s most bloodthirsty passages, describe events that supposedly occurred in the late Bronze Age, but in fact were written at least 600 years after that period.  That not only means that the massacres they celebrate are not only unlikely to have taken place (archaeologists have found no residue of such conflicts,) but also that they were written at about the same time as, and very likely as part of a dialogue with the authors of, the passages about social justice and universal benevolence that warm the hearts of those who read the books of Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah.  The thorny passages in Deuteronomy also date from this relatively late period.  So to suppress the Mr Angry Guy passages from the Heptateuch is to misrepresent the Mr Nice Guy passages from the prophets.  I should mention that elsewhere on the magazine’s website, blogger Noah Millman appends a nifty bit of rabbinical logic to the review.

Intellectuals in the traditionalist right often mention the name of philosopher Eric Voegelin.  The late Professor Voegelin’s works are too deep for the likes of me, but an essay by Gene Callahan about his ideas in this issue of the magazine had me thinking of making another attempt at reading one of Professor Voegelin’s book, most likely The New Science of Politics (simply because it’s the one I’ve made the most progress with in my previous attempts.)  Of the many extremely interesting bits in Professor Callahan’s essay, the most interesting to me was his summary of a notion Professor Voegelin labeled the “hieroglyph.”  By this word, Professor Voegelin evidently meant “superficial invocations of a preexisting concept that failed to embody its essence because those  invoking it had not experienced the reality behind the original concept.  As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied.  But as they were being employed without the context from which their original authority arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.”

I think this notion might explain a great deal.  Take for example a term like “national security.”  In such a place as the USA in the early nineteenth century, a poor country with a tiny population, a vast border, a radically decentralized political system, and every empire of Europe occupying territory in the immediate neighborhood, a patriot might very well advocate an aggressive program of territorial expansion, political consolidation, and a military buildup.  Such steps might well have been necessary for the infant USA to maintain its independence.  Today, however, such policies only weaken the United States.  Our international commitments empower our enemies, our national government threatens our liberties, our military expenditures divert capital from productive uses and weigh heavily on the economy as a whole.  To secure the blessings that make the United States of America worth living in and dying for, we must be prepared to revise or discontinue all of the policies customarily justified under the rubric of “national security.”

Likewise with the term “free market.”  As someone like Mr Bartlett has done so much to demonstrate, our current financial and corporate elites by no means owe their preeminence to success in unfettered competition.  Rather, they are the figures who have been most successful at manipulating a system that is defined and sustained by the continual involvement of government in every phase of economic life.  And yet even those among the rich who are most blatantly tax-recipients find defenders who speak of them as if they were so many Robinson Crusoes, in possession of nothing but that which they themselves had wrested single-handed from nature.  Virtually all conservatives and most libertarians are guilty of this form of hieroglyphic use of the term “free market” and its accompanying imagery at least occasionally.  Some libertarians, like the aforementioned Murray Rothbard, acknowledge the fact that the existing economic system is not a free market in any meaningful sense, and so speak not of a “free market” that is to be defended, but of a “freed market” that is to be created when our currently existing economic system is abolished.  The late Professor Rothbard and his followers frankly call the existing system, the one which they find unacceptable, “capitalism.”  For my part, I am perfectly willing to accept and defend the system Rothbardians call capitalism, though I would also call for a recognition that where there is subsidy, there must also be regulation.  And of course I would hope that we would have a lively democratic political culture that would guide our regime of subsidy and regulation to aim at socially desirable ends, rather than simply functioning as a means by which the power elite can entrench its position at the top of the economic and political order.

*I don’t actually agree with Mr McConnell that Llewellyn Rockwell is the likeliest author of the articles in question.  The most obnoxious piece, which in fact contains all of the tropes that drew fire in the other pieces, appeared under the byline “James B. Powell.”  A man by that name did in fact write for the Ron Paul newsletters, and is today a member of the board of directors of the Forbes Corporation.

Where left and right meet

In the October issue of The American Conservative, Ron Unz asks what high levels of immigration from Latin America to the USA mean for the future of the Republican Party.  Mr Unz, the magazine’s publisher,  disagrees with sometime American Conservative columnist Steve Sailer.  Mr Sailer has argued that as whites become a numerical minority in the USA, they will vote more like other minority groups.  That is to say, all but a small percentage of them will vote for a single party.  The Republican Party already enjoys the support of most white voters; indeed, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since 1964.  So if Mr Sailer’s prediction comes true, the Republicans will by midcentury routinely receive 80% or more of the white vote.  To support his prediction, Mr Sailer typically refers to the states of the southeast, where throughout most of American history whites have represented the lowest percentage of the overall population and where today vast majorities of whites vote Republican.  Since in the USA whites are likelier to turn out and vote than are most nonwhite groups, and the regions where whites represent the highest percentage of the population are overrepresented in the electoral system, bloc voting by whites could keep Republicans in power for decades after whites become a minority, even that party makes no inroads with any other ethnic group.  Mr Sailer isn’t particularly happy about this scenario; in a piece about the 2010 elections, he wrote “You’d prefer not to live in a country where whites vote like a minority bloc? Me too! But maybe we should have thought about that before putting whites on the long path to minority status through mass immigration.”

In his response to Mr Sailer, Mr Unz points out that the longstanding racial makeup of the southeastern USA is quite different from the situation emerging in the country today.  The southeast has long been populated by a great many whites, many many African Americans, and a tiny smattering of people of other ethnic groups.  By contrast, neither the people coming to the USA from countries to its south nor their descendants born in the States tend to identify strongly as either white or African American.  So if we want to see what the future might hold for the Republicans, Mr Unz suggests we turn to New Mexico and Hawaii, two states whose demographics are similar to those which are likely to prevail nationally if present trends continue.  The good news is that there isn’t much racial tension in New Mexico or Hawaii.  Whites there do not feel embattled, and do not vote as a minority bloc.  What Mr Unz considers bad news is that the Republicans are definitely the second party in each state.   Mr Unz concludes that the Republicans are likely to fade into irrelevance unless steps are taken to reduce immigration. (Steve Sailer replies to Mr Unz here and here.)

What steps does Mr Unz advise to achieve this result?  He does not suggest fortifying the border, or covering the country with armies of immigration officers, or deporting everyone who speaks Spanish, or requiring everyone in the USA to show that their papers are in order every time a policeman needs a way to pass the time.  He proposes instead a substantial increase in the minimum wage, from the current rate of $7.25 per hour to $10 or $12 per hour.  After all, immigrants come here to work, and those who come from countries where the prevailing wage is significantly lower than the prevailing wage in the USA can improve their standards of living and send substantial cash remittances back to their families by accepting jobs at less than the currently prevailing wage.  So it’s no surprise that in recent decades, as immigration to the USA has increased, median wages in the USA have declined.  Set a floor to wages, and you limit the ability of employers to arbitrage wage differences between the USA and the countries to its south.  Mr Unz writes that “The automatic rejoinder to proposals for hiking the minimum wage is that “jobs will be lost.” But in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones. Eliminating those jobs is a central goal of the plan, a feature not a bug.”

Mr Unz’ proposal is quite intriguing.  Defenders of high levels of immigration often point to the harsh measures by which anti-immigration laws are enforced and posit a choice between open borders and a police state.  Raising the minimum wage doesn’t play into that trap.  Indeed, by raising the minimum wage and limiting public benefit to legal residents, it might be possible to scrap all other restrictions on immigration.  That would do away, not only with compromises to civil liberties and inter-ethnic harmony, but also with a great many perverse incentives.  Nowadays, immigration laws increase employers’ power over their undocumented workers, so that they dare not complain to legal authorities when employers violate their rights, lest they face deportation.  So policies that would enforce the immigration laws with more deportations actually weaken employees vis a vis employers, thereby further depressing wages.  Do away with the immigration police, raise the minimum wage, and enforce the minimum wage with jail time for employers who underpay, and you reverse that power relation.  Employers who tried to pay less than minimum wage would be subject to blackmail from their employees.  Nor would there be any need for a Canadian-style points system to ensure that only people with needed skills migrate to the country.  If employers are paying high wages to immigrants, that is a surer sign that those immigrants have skills the employers need than are the results of any government evaluation.

That the publisher of a magazine called The American Conservative would argue for a substantial increase in the minimum wage as a way of reducing the number of nonwhites immigrating to the USA suggests that the far right has circled around the political spectrum and found itself occupying the same spot as the center left.  Indeed, elsewhere in the issue this idea is developed explicitly.  An article by Michael Tracey (subscribers only, sorry) carries the title “Ralph Nader’s Grand Alliance: Progressives Find Hope– in Ron Paul.”  The dash in the subhed acknowledges the unlikelihood that the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman would inspire anything but dismay in lefties, but no less distinguished a campaigner for a more egalitarian America than Ralph Nader has spoken out forcefully for a left-right alliance as the logical outcome of the movement in which Dr Paul is a leader.  Mr Tracey writes: “‘Look at the latitude,’ Nader says, referring to the potential for collaboration between libertarians and the left.  ‘Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare- for starters.  When you add it all up, that’s a foundational convergence.  Progressives should do so good.'”

I admire Mr Nader.  I’m glad to say I voted for him for president in 2000, and I wish I’d had the guts to vote for him again in 2004.  But I don’t quite agree with him on this point.  Our difference can be summed up in his use of the word “foundational.”  To me, saying that there is a “foundational convergence” between two groups would suggest that they are pursuing the same goals and using the same standards of judgment.  That clearly is not the case here.  Left-wingers and libertarians may oppose many of the same things, but they are not for any of the sane things.  A traditionalist conservative like Mr Unz may be for an increased minimum wage and a less intrusive immigration police, but his goal is to keep America’s racial demography from changing.  That’s hardly a goal any leftist could endorse.  For my own part, I would be quite happy to see an America with a much larger Latino and Asian population, especially if that meant that the confrontational racial politics that have long characterized the states of the southeast and many cities in the northeast would lose their tension and follow the relatively easygoing path of Hawaii and New Mexico, even at the price of continued growth in income inequality.  Of course, I would much prefer to reduce both racial hostility and income inequality, and there is a limit to the amount of one that I would accept as a price for reducing the other.  I would be very reluctant to endorse any politics that forced a choice between those evils, and I think most left-of-center Americans would be equally reluctant to do so.  That isn’t to say that the left and the “Old Right” of libertarians and antiwar traditionalists are so far apart that cooperation between them is impossible, but their goals and ideological premises are so utterly different that a coalition between them would be doomed unless it were very modest in its ambitions.

Speaking of race relations in the southeastern USA, I should mention that at the moment, The American Conservative‘s website carries a rather beautiful blog posting on that topic from Rod Dreher.  Mr Dreher is responding to a short piece that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic‘s website about white people who refer to African American neighbors of theirs as “our blacks.”

In the same issue, Samuel Goldman’s review of Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right praises Professor Eagleton’s exposition and defense of Karl Marx’ philosophical theories.  Mr Goldman is obviously not a Marxist, but commends Professor Eagleton for putting to rest many canards that his lazier critics have flung at Marx over the years.  On the other hand, Mr Goldman takes very sharp exception to Professor Eagleton’s attempts to defend the economic record of Marxist regimes.  Towards the end of his review, Mr Goldman discusses Professor Eagleton’s analysis of Marx’ place as an inheritor of classical political theory, stretching back to Aristotle.  He points out that this discussion is not original, but that it treads a path through territory very well explored by Alasdair MacIntyre.  Professor MacIntyre is one of my favorites; I’m always glad to see his name.  The magazine published Mr Goldman’s review under the title “Baby Boomers Make Their Marx,” and Mr Goldman does make a few remarks here and there disparaging “the post-1968 left.”  The idea of Professor Eagleton’s book as a generational statement is the main theme of another review of Professor Eagleton’s book, one that was linked on Arts and Letters Daily earlier this week.  That review appeared in Quadrant, an Australian journal that shares a number of contributors with The American Conservative.

The contextualization fairy

Recently, John Holbo posted two items (here and here) on Crooked Timber about something odd in American politics.  Right-wing politicians in the USA quite often make public statements that would, if taken at face value, suggest that they are far more extreme in their views than they in fact are.  So, Professor Holbo finds remarks from Texas governor Rick Perry which, taken literally, would imply that Mr Perry thought that Texas should secede from the USA, that all federal programs established since 1900 should be abolished, indeed that there should be no government at all.  Mr Perry obviously does not believe any of those things, so obviously that only his committed opponents try to take him to task for making such extreme remarks.  This is not unique to Mr Perry, but is a usual pattern for right-wing US politicians.

What makes this so odd is that, while it is common for right-wing American politicians to exaggerate the radicalism of their views and for the public to realize that this is what they are doing, Professor Holbo can find no examples of their left-leaning counterparts doing the same thing.  A Democratic or leftist candidate who makes a radical-sounding statement likely means that statement to be taken at face value, and it certainly will be taken at face value by most observers.

Many commentators on American politics explain the right-wingers’ habit of making extreme sounding statements for which they do not expect to be held responsible as an effort to move the “Overton Window.”  The Overton Window, named for the late Joseph P. Overton, is the range of ideas that the people who hold sway in a given political culture hold to be acceptable at a particular time.  Only ideas within the window are likely to be put into effect.  The window shifts back and forth, as some ideas that had once seemed outlandish begin to seem mainstream, while other ideas that had once seemed mainstream begin to seem outlandish.

Key to the Overton Window is the idea of contextualization.  The idea of devolving Medicare, the program that ensures that most Americans over the age of 65 will be able to pay for health care, to the states may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared to the idea of large states seceding from the Union it is quite moderate.  The idea of shifting the revenues of Social Security, the program that provides a guaranteed income to  most Americans over the age of 65, from current benefits to private savings accounts may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared with the idea of abolishing the entire welfare state it is quite moderate.  Other policies favored by powerful interests on the right end of the political spectrum may also seem outlandish, but compared with anarchism they too are quite moderate.  So, within the context of the extreme remarks for which they are not called to account, rightists can gain a hearing for policies which they do seriously advocate.

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