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.

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Miscellaneous Christmas Gleanings

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain routinely gives little gifts to their fans at Christmastime in the form of particularly generous postings on their (already very generous) website; this year they’ve posted a series of videos under the title “Christmas Playalong.”  Here’s one of them:

Also, our old friend Al Wood has posted his usual excellent Christmas things at Ukulele Hunt, including the Christmas UkeToob.

I remember Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fondly, or perhaps I should say I am of the age of people who remember that show fondly. I didn’t have a TV when it was on. Anyway, I don’t think I’d ever heard this one before.

Here‘s a holiday favorite:

And a great classic from the 1980s:

Thanks to theologian Alastair Roberts, I found a new favorite Christmas song just this morning, as I said on Twitter:

This has been making the rounds today:

Psychologist James Thompson engages in one of the most venerable of all Anglican religious traditions, publicly declaring that Anglicanism is doomed and wondering whether it deserves to die. I can’t explain why we do that, I can only say that it’s our way.

Jacobin magazine has a brief summary of how the Christian Left in the USA tends to think of Christmas, which picks up where James Brown left off a few decades ago:

I allowed myself a little scholarly musing on Twitter this morning, in response to a remark by Tom Holland:

As to who should do what with which holiday at this many-festivalled time of the year, here‘s a view from Mya Gosling:

Asked on tumblr whether it’s okay for Gentiles to celebrate Hanukkah, Scott Alexander writes:

To stick with stuff on tumblr for a minute, here’s a cartoon in which Gahan Wilson expresses irritation that various holidays, including Christmas and Halloween, run together in the USA:

This is kind of neat:

The Comics Curmudgeon has taken a vacation over the holiday, and it looks like Rebecca Watson is missing him as much as I am:

Ross Pearsall has put together a nice concept cover for a Christmas comic book that ought to exist:

calvin-and-snoopy

So, Merry Christmas, everybody.   And:

Frying Pan versus Fire

The other day, Scott Alexander called on voters in the USA to cast ballots for presidential candidates who are not Donald Trump. Scott Alexander himself will apparently be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, though the title of his post is “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, or Stein.”

I agree that Mr Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, is not suited to the presidency.  I do have a number of demurrers to Scott Alexander’s piece, however.  Let me share one of these.

Scott Alexander writes:

[O]ne of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.

“Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out” is “one of the central principles behind my philosophy,” as well. That’s precisely why I won’t be voting for HRC.  On the one hand, the hyper-warlike approach to foreign affairs that informed her support for US-led wars in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, and now for the Saudi-led war in Yemen represents a strong tendency to destroy all existing systems in and hoping that some mysterious force replaces them with something good. For that matter, the economic policies of the Bill Clinton administration- for example, deregulation of the financial sector, gutting of the “welfare as we knew it,” and the erection of an industrial policy that subjects all other economic interests to the transnational mobility of capital and the defense of intellectual property- whatever may be said in their favor, have been all about destroying previously existing systems, with very little specified as to what was supposed to replace them. For that matter, measures such as warrantless wiretapping and the presidential “kill list” represent a disruption of the system of judicial oversight called for in the Bill of Rights and codified in centuries of legislation and court rulings, a system that has long guaranteed civil liberties in the USA. HRC has been deeply involved in all of these acts of destruction, continues to support them, and does not propose anything that might bring an end to the age of destruction.

On the other hand, when systems that directly benefit the world’s ruling elite face a crisis, that elite has consistently tried to defuse those crises before they could force any change in the way those systems operate.  It hasn’t always been this way; 95 years ago, when President Warren Harding faced a financial crisis that would put many major concerns out of business, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon spoke for his fellow financial titans when he advised against bailouts, arguing that “the recession will find what the auditors miss,” purging bad practice from business and leaving the economy stronger in its aftermath.  The sharp downturn and even more dramatic recovery during the Harding administration would seem to be a clear example of a system strengthened by crisis.  Compare that with the Wall Street bailouts of 2008 and 2009, with the fear that financial concerns had become “too big too fail”- and with the fact that those same concerns have now been allowed to grow even bigger. By 2012, the US Justice Department was openly admitting that it was afraid that the financial system had grown so fragile that HSBC would have to go unpunished for its crimes, lest a prosecution bring the whole house of cards crashing down.  Thus the fear of the fragility of the financial system, leading as it has to bailouts, acts of impunity, etc, has served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vacillating between reckless interventions to destroy systems with little thought of what will follow and equally reckless interventions to prop systems up by stripping them of the parameters that regulate them, the Bushes and Clintons and their colleagues have, these last 30 years, created a political moment  in which it is very likely that Don John of Astoria will receive between 220 and 280 electoral votes for the US presidency. If, as seems likely, that number is below 270, then HRC will become president, accompanied by a Republican Congress. They will together continue the policies which have brought us to this pass. Electing Don John to the presidency this year would precipitate a catastrophe; protracting our current political arrangements for another four years might precipitate a still greater catastrophe.

I can understand why people would vote for HRC, hoping perhaps that things will somehow improve sufficiently between now and 2020 that in that election the country will not face another choice between apocalypse now and apocalypse later. That hope would be an example of hoping that the “build a better one” step will “happen on its own,” however. Such a vote, however defensible it might seem in the eyes of the one casting it, would certainly not be a sufficient response to this situation. Voting for the Green Party isn’t a sufficient response either, but at least it is a step towards building a set of movements to adjust the relationship between mass and elite to a more sustainable balance and enable a new departure in our political life. Failing such a new departure, the next few years are likely to be very dark indeed.

A links post, like in the olden days

Biswapriya Purkayastha, alias “Bill the Butcher,” creator of Raghead the Fiendly Neighborhood Terrorist, posted this ravishingly beautiful prose poem on his blog last week. Maybe the opening will hook you into following the link and reading the whole thing:

I was lost in the forest at night, alone, and I called to my ghost; and at last, my ghost came to me.

I asked my ghost, “Why, when I was lost and I was calling, did you take so long to come? I have been wandering alone and blind through the dark, and I could have harmed this body beyond repair.”

And my ghost settled before me like mist on the ground, and reached out to touch me.

“I was gone far,” it said, “looking along the paths of the forest, and the things that dwell therein.”

“And what did you see?” I asked my ghost, and saw that it still hung away from me, as though reluctant to come home to my body.

“I saw pain and hunger,” the ghost said. “I felt death and the terror of many small scuttling things. And I saw on the fringes of the forest, villages; but the villages lay empty, burned by fire and disease until the living fled and the ghosts of the dead, unable to bear the loneliness, fled after them.”

“What else?” I asked, for I knew the ghost had more to tell; it was my ghost, and it had dwelt within me since the moment I was born.

“And I saw on this path, before us, five images in the shape of women; but women they were not.” The ghost paused, and I could feel it look away into the jungle with its eyeless eyes. “They had skulls for faces, and were clad in robes made of the night. And the first of them had a flame in her hand, for she was the spirit of passion and the heat of vengeance, and she would burn you to ashes if she found you; not because she would want to, but because it is her nature.”

“And the second?” asked I.

It just gets better from there, it really is a gorgeous bit of writing.

It’s certainly at the opposite extreme from the sort of thing I encounter that sometimes makes my daily habit of looking at things on the internet feel like this:

2016-04-04-PLTM300

I am very fond of this installment of The Periodic Table of Videos. My favorite moment comes when the Prof says, “I’ve no idea how this sample got to London. It was brought to me in London, in Max’s bag.”

At The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs worries about the extent to which Americans have taken up, as a favored hobby, hatred for those whose political views differ from theirs.  He recommends pieces in this topic by blogger Scott Alexander (an essay that made its way into the DNA of Weird Sun Twitter,) journalist Lynn Vavreck, and scholars Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood.

The “Archdruid,” alias John Michael Greer, is occasionally brilliant; this essay about “The End of Ordinary Politics” builds on his theory that the distinction between hourly wages and salaried employment marks a class division that explains much of American social life, and that the US political elite has little comprehension of or curiosity about the economic interests of wage laborers. The Archdruid holds that the kind of partisan hostility that Alan Jacobs, Scott Alexander, and others lament is largely explicable as the result of tactics representatives of the salaried classes deploy to keep wage laborers off the political radar:

I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.

It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.

To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.

The Archdruid isn’t a Trump supporter and does not deny that Mr Trump’s appeal is at least partly racial, but he focuses on the questions of economic status that have drawn so many white wage-earners to that particular loudmouthed landlord when they might have chosen to throw their lot in with any of a number of other race-baiting demagogues.

Speaking of Scott Alexander, here’s a bit of speculation from him about where religions come from. These paragraphs are from the middle of it:

If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.

People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.

Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.

So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.

Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.

I have a weakness for maps that purport to describe what people are like in various locales, such as this one, which I saw here and which comes from this article: