Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

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Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals

“Capitalism is boring. Devoting your life to it, as conservatives do, is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”
~William F. Buckley Jr., in an interview with Corey Robin

The last thing in the world a reactionary wants is to be bored, as happened with the ending of the ideological battles of the Cold War. They need a worthy enemy or else to invent one. Otherwise, there is nothing to react to and so nothing to get excited about, followed by a total loss of meaning and purpose, resulting in dreaded apathy and ennui. This leads reactionaries to become provocative, in the hope of provoking an opponent into a fight. Another strategy is simply to portray the whole world as a battleground, such that everything is interpreted as a potential attack, working oneself or one’s followers into a froth.

There are demagogues like Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump. The former has made numerous stated or implied threats of violence over the years, and others including his ex-wife have accused him of actual violence. As for the latter, his invoking violence is well known, going so far as to brag he could shoot someone in the street and get away with it. Of course, both also speak of violence in broader terms of culture war and dog whistles, racism and xenophobia, paranoia and conspiracy. But whatever form it takes, it tends to be rather blatant and blunt in going for maximum effect.

There is another kind of reactionary as well. They often present themselves as respectable intellectuals and often liberals will treat them as such. Once dead and gone, through rose-colored nostalgia, they are remembered as representing some high point of worthy conservatism. A great example of this is William F. Buckley Jr. who had a combative attitude, occasionally erupting into threats. Yet, upon his passing, liberals praised him as the leader of a golden age of conservatism. That isn’t how liberals saw him at the time, of course. He was no soft-spoken, fair-minded public intellectual. There was a reactionary edge back then that essentially is no different than today.

More recently, there is Jordan B. Peterson who has taken on the defense of masculinity and has done so with an increasingly confrontational attitude, aggressively so at times. Some might argue that he has followed a predictable path of reactionary decline. Or rather that his reactionary mind is showing its true nature. One suspects there is often a threat behind the rhetoric of reactionary ideology, even if not always explicit, but give it enough time and it can become explicit. Is that true of Peterson?

He began as an academic talking about a Jungian archetypal masculinity (i.e., patriarchy as mythology and mysticism) enforcing order on feminine chaos (one wonders if he read Carl Jung’s Answer to Job where the patriarchal Yahweh is portrayed as a chaotic force of  unconscious nature) — by implication, this is a Manichaean fight against the effeminizing forces on the political left that are psychologically and socially neutering boys. But for all the semi-religiosity of his language, his ideas were always presented in rather boring academic terms and with a meandering pedantic style. Now some perceive the academic veneer to be wearing thin, as he has slipped further into the archetypal role of paternalistic father figure, in becoming yet another right-wing pundit and self-help guru.

The difference for the reactionary intellectual, as Corey Robin explained, is that they approach the Burkean moral imagination of the horrific and sublime (with its sociopolitical framing of purity) by way of abstraction while usually keeping a safe distance from the concrete. They are inspired, excited, and enthralled by the fear-ridden imaginary with its fantasized violence — that is until it gets too close, too real. In an actual fight, Buckley or Peterson would likely get the shit beat out of them. The pose of intellectual brawlers and alpha males is just that, a pose not to be taken too literally, and yet there is always an underlying hint of authoritarian authority. They do see themselves in an existential crisis, a near cosmic fight that must be won or else that all of Western civilization will be lost, and they don’t think of this as mere hyperbole.

This is why, when cornered, they will lash out with the language of violence, sometimes with stated threats of hitting their opponents. Peterson did this recently in using a tweet to threaten someone with mild-mannered violence, a rather unmanly ‘slap’ (maybe his opponent was deemed unworthy of the full manly force of fisticuffs). Of course, this ‘threat’ is silly taken at face value. We Americans aren’t exactly worried about the importation of the Canadian “slap culture”. The point of concern is that he would even say such a thing, considering how common this aggressive machismo is on the reactionary right. This kind of verbal threat could be dismissed, if it didn’t ever lead to action but sadly there is a long history of it doing just that. Take for example Bill O’Reilly repeatedly having called Dr. George Tiller a “baby killer” until one of O’Reilly’s viewers took the implicit threat and made it explicit by assassinating Dr. Tiller. Or consider the Pizzagate fake news pushed by right-wing media that also led to a real world shooting. Violence is a desired result, not an unintended consequence, the enacting and enforcement of the moral imagination.

It’s not that there is any reason to worry about one of Peterson’s fanboys going out on a slapping rampage. What is worrisome is the pattern of talk that becomes increasingly extreme over time, not just by any single person but across an entire society, specifically here in the United States, that is already so obsessed with violence and authoritarianism. This might be taken less seriously were we not in the middle of this era of rule by Donald Trump, a man who came to power through violent rhetoric, a man now as president who has shown fascist tendencies toward authoritarian display, from a declared desire for a military march with tanks to sending the military to the border.

I don’t see Jordan Peterson as a fascist, much less a Nazi. And I would be wary of too broadly painting the canvas of fascist mysticism, such as how Carl Jung is often dismissed out of hand. But I do take seriously the dark moral imagination that forms a swift and powerful undercurrent. And as such I do have valid fear about how Peterson’s words, no matter his intentions, could so easily be misused and so quickly lead to harmful ends.

Though I don’t agree with all criticisms of Peterson, I do wonder if some are on target in pointing to a fascist tendency in Western modernity (a reactionary defense of hierarchical authority given persuasive force through neo-romantic mythologizing, often as folk religiosity and volk nationalism). There is a powerful current of thought that gets tapped, even by those who don’t realize what they are tapping into — to put it in a Jungian frame, there are unconscious archetypal forces that can possess us. I’m not sure it matters whether or not someone means well. If anything, my greatest concern is often about those who hide behind personas built on claims of good intentions.

Peterson is invoking moral imagination. It is a powerful tool. And potentially it is a dangerous weapon. I’m not entirely convinced he realizes the fire he is playing with. There is a short distance from nostalgic fantasies to reactionary radicalization. And that distance can be covered in no time at all when a resonance develops between public mood and political power. It has happened before and could happen again. Peterson should heed his own warnings about totalitarian thought and authoritarian politics.

Criticisms of left-wingers, feminists, etc hasn’t tended to end well in the Western world — interestingly, considering Jordan Peterson’s fear-mongering, the ruling elites of both the Nazis and the Soviets attacked, imprisoned, and killed left-wingers: feminists, social liberals, social democrats, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, labor organizers, radical intellectuals, experimental artists, etc. This puts Peteson as a self-proclaimed anti-authoritarian in strange company when he too attacks these same left-wingers. I’d rather we, including Peterson and his followers, learned from history than having to repeat it again and again.

I’ll let Canadians worry about Canada. But as an American, I’ll worry about the United States. Let us not forget what kind of country this is. The U.S. isn’t only a country founded on genocide and slavery. You remember that little thing about Nazi eugenics. Guess where they got eugenics from? Right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A..

Let me explain how close this hits to home. There were many Americans who originated eugenicist thought and practice, helping to set an example that inspired Nazis. One of those Americans was an Iowan school teacher, Harry H. Laughlin, who lived near my home — Adolf Hitler personally praised this Iowan eugenicist: “The Reichstag of Nazi Germany passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, closely based on Laughlin’s model. Between 35,000 and 80,000 persons were sterilized in the first full year alone. (It is now known that over 350,000 persons were sterilized). Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work behalf of the “science of racial cleansing.” (Five other Americans received honorary degrees the same year).” Eugenics never became as powerful in American society, but the impulse behind it fed into Social Darwinism, the Second Klan, Jim Crow, sundown towns, ethnic internment camps, violently enforced assimilation, etc.

Around the same time in Western history, mass urbanization was underway. As women gained more freedom in cities, feminism and other women’s movements gained new force and influence. So, with the destruction of rural communities and loss of the agrarian lifestyle, a moral panic arose about boys being turned effeminate and weak, not just by womanly culture but also by a supposed soft city living along with the temptations of alcohol and such. This fear-mongering about a lost generation of boys was a major impulse behind fascism and it took hold in the United States. There were large fascist marches in the U.S. at the time. But we are fortunate, I guess, that anti-German and anti-Italian xenophobic bigotry took much of the force out of American fascism. Instead, all we got was a patriarchal movement that created Boy Scouts and a National Park system. We might not be so lucky next time.

Someone like Peterson may be less problematic for Canada, as Canadians don’t have the same cultural history of reactionary extremism. What is problematic for Americans is that Peterson doesn’t seem to understand what kind of influence he might have south of the Canadian border. His words and ideas might speak to American reactionaries in an entirely different way than he intends. And that could have real world consequences. He isn’t helping matters by suggesting the way to deal with ideological opponents is through physical force, not that interpreting his words as idle threats is any better. Furthermore, his projecting his violent fantasies of a postmodern Marxist death cult (the equivalent of cultural Marxism or cultural Bolshevism) and feminist totalitarianism onto his opponents is just as, if not more, troubling.

Rather than defusing conflict, Jordan Peterson is fueling the fire. He is itching for a fight, playing out some script of antagonism that he is fantasizing about. What brought him to fame was a political issue involving gender pronouns that turned out have been fake news he helped gin up by way of misinterpreting a proposed law. But having been proven so severely wrong didn’t chasten him for he is getting more aggressive as time goes on. His rhetoric plays directly into reactionary paranoia and alt-right fear. We are far from the end of history for we are smack dab in the middle of it. The stage set long ago, the third act of a tragic play might begin soon. If so, it will be the denouement of yet one more cycle of conflict, first imagined and then acted upon. I fear it won’t be boring.

* * *

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered…”
~William F. Buckley Jr. to Gore Vidal

“Maybe not tonight, because as you would, I’d smash you in the goddamn face.”
~William F. Buckley Jr. to Noam Chomsky

“Here’s the problem, I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women and so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. I really don’t believe it.”
~Jordan B. Peterson to Camille Paglia

“And you call me a fascist? You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”
~Jordan B. Peterson to Pankaj Mishra

Jordan Peterson joins the club of macho writers who have thrown a fit over a bad review.
by Jeet Heer

Since Peterson loves to categorize the world into Jungian archetypes (the devouring mother, the dragon-slaying hero), it’s worth noting that this tweet fits an age-old pattern: the hyper-masculine writer who is unhinged by critical words.

In 1933, Max Eastman wrote a scathing review in The New Republic of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, accusing the bullfight-loving author of “wearing false hair on his chest.” Four years later, the two met in the New York offices of their shared publisher, Scribner. “What do you mean accusing me of impotence?” Hemingway asked, before trying to beat up Eastman. The two men had to be separated by editorial staff. The same year, Hemingway assaulted the poet Wallace Stevens, twenty years his senior, for saying that Hemingway was “not a man.”

In 1971, Gore Vidal wrote a scathing essay on Norman Mailer for TheNew York Review of Books. “The Patriarchalists have been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons, at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated and killed,” Vidal wrote. “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.” Enraged, Mailer slammed his head into Vidal’s face in the dressing room of The Dick Cavett Show. Five years later, Mailer was still looking for revenge. At a dinner party, he threw a drink at Vidal before tackling him to the ground. “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer,” Vidal quipped, while still on the floor.

In 2000, the critic Dale Peck went after Stanley Crouch in The New Republic, writing that Crouch’s novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome“is a terrible novel, badly conceived, badly executed, and put forward in bad faith; reviewing it is like shooting fish in a barrel.” In 2004, still stinging from the review, Crouch confronted Peck at Tartine, a Manhattan restaurant, and slapped him.

* * *

Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism
by Pankaj Mishra

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts. […]

Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars. […]

Peterson rails today against “softness,” arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize.” In his bestselling book Degeneration (1892), the Zionist critic Max Nordau amplified, more than a century before Peterson, the fear that the empires and nations of the West are populated by the weak-willed, the effeminate, and the degenerate. The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. An intellectual inspiration to fascists across Europe, Sorel was particularly nostalgic about the patriarchal systems of ancient Israel and Greece.

Like Peterson, many of these hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable.

It was against this (eerily familiar) background—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealized traditional realm of myth and ritual.

In the end, deskbound pedants and fantasists helped bring about, in Thomas Mann’s words in 1936, an extensive “moral devastation” with their “worship of the unconscious”—that “knows no values, no good or evil, no morality.” Nothing less than the foundations for knowledge and ethics, politics and science, collapsed, ultimately triggering the cataclysms of the twentieth century: two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust. It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a similar intellectual and moral breakdown, one that seems to presage a great calamity. Peterson calls it, correctly, “psychological and social dissolution.” But he is a disturbing symptom of the malaise to which he promises a cure.

 

The Resolution of Jordan Peterson
by Brent Cooper

This of course obscures the broader context of longer interviews, and distorts Peterson’s message at the expense of his critics, so nobody wins. Peterson is not cryptofascist, but a great portion of his audience is. (What does one do when they finally discover a dark truth behind their popularity?)

“So is Jordan Peterson preparing his base for the coming race war? I do not think so. My read of him is that he is actually terrified of what he started. Nobody is more surprised than he is by his fame… he’s on sabbatical after basically declaring war on his own institution. You can’t go home after that. He needs his Patreon now… He has cast his lot with his mob.” — The CANADALAND Guide to Jordan B. Peterson

[…] An aside: In my article on systemic-conspiracy, I argued that the concept provides a useful explanation of how totalitarianism occurs, and how to avoid it. What I am theorizing complements Peterson’s message, but his denial of systemic (sociological) approaches prevents any of those ideas even getting on his radar.

“This is relevant and convergent with Jordan Peterson’s oft-repeated warning that we all have the potential for totalitarian fascism in us; to participate in systems of violence. Systemic-conspiracy is sociologically latent, which is arguably the major lesson of the 20th century.” — Systemic Conspiracy and Social Pathology

Peterson is so hellbent on avoiding totalitarianism, that he ironically has a totalizing worldview about “the left” to the point of scapegoating them just like Jews were. Cultural-marxism is the new cultural bolshevism and its stupidly obvious, and glaringly wrong, but conservatives love it because it’s their last resort: blame the people trying to fix the problem conservatives started. Peterson’s stock is artificially inflated because of support for these beliefs. Come for the supreme mythological wisdom, stay for the crypto-fascism. Or is it the other way around? Peterson is ironic — he’s not post-ironic, because he’s not metamodern. He doesn’t get it, and if his fans and critics don’t get it either, then this will remain a stalemate.

These sentiments are perhaps better articulated by Noah Berlatsky than myself (below). Again, no one is attacking Peterson here, but rather just logically pointing out the hypocrisy. Peterson gets highjacked by the right, so this information should help him reform rather than retaliate. The term “useful idiot” doesn’t really fit, since Peterson is incredibly smart, but he is nonetheless being used for that very intelligence to spread bullshit.

“But how does Peterson suggest an alternate path to fascism when his philosophy is suffused with barely hidden fascist talking points and conspiracy theories?… And, moreover, why is a supposed anti-totalitarian literally calling for educators who disagree with him to be subject to McCarthyite purges and tried for treason?”

“People who put Leninist posters on their walls to remind themselves to hate communists all day, every day, are leaving a door open to other kinds of hate too. Peterson does not want to be a member of the alt-right. But he shares their hatred of the left, and, as a result, he makes their arguments for them.”

— How Anti-Leftism Has Made Jordan Peterson a Mark for Fascist Propaganda, Berlatsky

Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?
by Tabatha Southey

“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s nemesis, and the best way to explain what postmodern neo-Marxism is, is to explain what it is not—that is, it is entirely distinct from the concept of “cultural Marxism.”

“Cultural Marxism” is a conspiracy theory holding that an international cabal of Marxist academics, realizing that traditional Marxism is unlikely to triumph any time soon, is out to destroy Western civilization by undermining its cultural values. “Postmodern neo-Marxism,” on the other hand, is a conspiracy theory holding that an international cabal of Marxist academics, realizing that traditional Marxism is unlikely to triumph any time soon, is out to destroy Western civilization by undermining its cultural values with “cultural” taken out of the name so it doesn’t sound quite so similar to the literal Nazi conspiracy theory of “cultural Bolshevism.”

To be clear, Jordan Peterson is not a neo-Nazi, but there’s a reason he’s as popular as he is on the alt-right. You’ll never hear him use the phrase “We must secure a future for our white children”; what you will hear him say is that, while there does appear to be a causal relationship between empowering women and economic growth, we have to consider whether this is good for society, “‘’cause the birth rate is plummeting.” He doesn’t call for a “white ethnostate,” but he does retweet Daily Caller articles with opening lines like: “Yet again an American city is being torn apart by black rioters.” He has dedicated two-and-a-half-hour-long YouTube videos to “identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege.” […]

What he’s telling you is that certain people—most of them women and minorities—are trying to destroy not only our freedom to spite nonbinary university students for kicks, but all of Western civilization and the idea of objective truth itself. He’s telling you that when someone tells you racism is still a problem and that something should be done about it, they are, at best, a dupe and, at worst, part of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy your way of life.

Peterson says he only thinks of it as a “non-violent war.” But when you insist the stakes are that high, the opposition that pernicious, who’s to say where the chips will fall?

Some of My Beef With Jordan Peterson
by son1dow

In terms of postmodernism, it has been well covered that he has no idea what is going on, he is yet another bullshit about postmodernism dealer online. Just read wokeupabug’s comments in that thread M1zzu recently linked, as well as so many others – it explains how his main source is not at all one you should trust. The forum there is askphilosophy, the user linked has a PhD in philosophy. I wish I could link famous philosophers for this kind of stuff, but they don’t like giving these youtube intellectuals and renegade scholars recognition too much. The more I hear of Peterson, the more I wonder if he read anything of postmodernist philosophy, since the only views he seems to espouse perfectly match bullshit dealers like Hicks, and he NEVER EVER seems to properly engage Derrida, Lyotard etc. For all I know, he could be reading neofeudalist conspiracy nuts like Dugin as well. For all of his love of debate and challenge, I would be interested to see him discuss postmodernism with someone who has read the actual books, yet I cannot find that. The worst thing about these people is that there is no way anyone with even the most cursory understanding of postmodernism would mistake Hicks or Peterson as knowledgeable about it; yet it spreads like wildfire. Some of the most dumb misunderstanding of it is perfectly incapsulated in this comic – note the explanation below the comic. The comic itself satirizes the fact that postmodernism is literally the opposite of feminism or marxism, it is as sceptical of metanarratives like them as it is of scientism or judaism. So blaming it for marxism is the dumbest thing you can do. I’ve personally had this conversation with Peterson’s disciples like 50 times; none of them know the first thing about postmodernism and are stumped by these basic questions. This is concerning a school of thought that many of them are sure is trying to bring the downfall of western civilization, mind you – and few if any of them know the most basic things about it.

Cultural marxism is more of the same, it’s a repeat of an old nazi conspiracy theory called cultural bolshevism that has to do with a real term… Only the term is about an obscure school of thought that is not even related to any of the claims people make about cultural marxism. It’s just another nonsense term to throw around and talk about as much as you want, with no basis. Once again you have to wonder how many of these youtube intellectuals boil down to reading conspriacy theorists to get this stuff. However by now it is a real industry of people repeating the same shit and explaining it as the cause of feminism or transgenderism or whatever they like, with their viewers gobbling it up without any regard for going to the sources which couldn’t possibly show anything like it. Makes you wonder how they can doublethink their way into doing that while still considerig themselves intellectuals. Very few people repeating this nonsense even know what critical theory is, yet they’re sure as it is bringing the downfall of western civilization. Talk about drinking the kool-aid.

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Why Conservatives Love War
by Corey Robin

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn’t read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative “wants peace and is content only with peace.” The true conservative’s endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It’s philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: War is life, peace is death. […]

Far from challenging the conservative tradition’s infatuation with violence, however, this indifference to the realities of war is merely the flip side of the Burkean coin. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, Burke was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”—should they become real threats, “conversant about the present destruction of the person”—their sublimity would disappear. Burke’s point was not that nobody, in the end, really wants to die, or that nobody enjoys excruciating pain. It was that sublimity depends upon obscurity: Get too close to anything, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience is “an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses the thrill you got when it was just an idea.

Since 9/11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives—or their sons and daughters—to fight the war on terror themselves. For many, that failure is symptomatic of the inequality of contemporary America, and it is. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea—a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24—it is sublime. As soon as it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV.

Redefining the Right Wing
Corey Robin interviewed by Daniel Larison

Last, the question of sublimity and violence. I think this is one of the most interesting elements of the right because it shows just how extraordinarily rich and sophisticated its vision of human nature is. I don’t think the right has by any means a monopoly on the discourse of violence; the left has its own long tradition of reflection on violence. But where the left’s discourse is primarily influenced by Machiavelli — that is, an awareness of what Sheldon Wolin calls “the economy of violence,” or the necessity of instrumentalizing violence, of making a very little go a long, long way — the right’s attitude is reflected in Burke’s moral psychology, particularly his theory of the sublime.

You had asked previously how representative the account in the book is. You suggested that my strongest cases are Teddy Roosevelt and Georges Sorel, neither of whom is an unproblematic representative of the right. But I mention a great many other cases throughout history of voices that virtually every anthology of the right would include: not just Burke but also Maistre, Tocqueville, Churchill, and of course many of the neocons. Now I know, Daniel, that you’ve spent the better part of your career fighting the good fight against neocon imperialism and that part of your argument against the neocons is that they are not conservative. But their position has deep roots on the right. My sense that it’s too easy to dismiss the neocons as innovators from afar.

I think what’s distinctive about the discourse of violence on the right is that whereas the audience for violence on the left is the victim of violence — the leftist (whether a revolutionary, guerrilla fighter, terrorist, what have you) seeks to impress upon enemies the power of what threatens them if they do not accede to the left’s demands — I think that the primary audience for violence on the right is the perpetrator and/or his/her allies. In other words, the right sees violence as primarily a source of rejuvenation among a ruling class that has gone soft. That’s what is so interesting to me, in part because it completely inverts the standard stereotype we have of the conservative being more hard-headed and realistic than the progressive. If anything — and I really assign no normative weight to this; it’s more interesting to me as an intellectual problem — it is the left, as I’ve suggested, that has been more influenced by realist modes of thinking when it comes to violence. Lenin read Clausewitz, Gramsci read Machiavelli, and so on. And that’s not because the left is more humanitarian or anything like that; it’s mostly because of necessity. Revolutionaries, by definition, don’t have a monopoly on the means of violence; they operate at a major deficit, so economy is essentially forced upon them. The right by contrast suffers from a surfeit of power, so it looks to violence to address a quite different set of concerns.

Politics and Vision
by Sheldon S. Wolin
(as quoted by Don MacDonald)

In evaluating Machiavelli’s economy of violence it is easy to criticize it as being the product of a technician’s admiration for efficient means. A century like ours, which has witnessed the unparalleled efficiency displayed by totalitarian regimes in the use of terror and coercion, experiences difficulty in being tolerant on the subject. Yet to see Machiavelli as the philosopher of Himmlerism would be quite misleading; and the basic reason is not alone that Machiavelli regarded the science of violence as the means for reducing the amount of suffering in the political condition, but that he was clearly aware of the dangers of entrusting its use to the morally obtuse. What he hoped to further by his economy of violence was the “pure” use of power, undefiled by pride, ambition, or motives of petty revenge.

A more meaningful contrast to Machiavelli would be the great modern theoretician of violence, Georges Sorel. Here is a true example of the irresponsible political individual, fired by romantic notions of heroism, preaching the use of violence for ends which are deliberately and proudly clothed in the vague outline of the irrational “myth,” contemptuous of the cost, blinded by a vision of virile proletarian barbarians who would revitalize the decadent West. In contrast, there was no hint of child-like delight when Machiavelli contemplated the barbarous and savage destructiveness of the new prince, sweeping away the settled arrangements of society and “leaving nothing intact.” There was, however, the laconic remark that it was better to be a private citizen than to embark on a career which involved the ruin of men. This suggest that the theorist like Machiavelli, who was aware of the limited efficacy of force and who devoted himself to showing how its technique could be used more efficiently, was far more sensitive to the moral dilemmas of politics and far more committed to the preservation of man than those theorists who, saturated with moral indignation and eager for heroic regeneration, preach purification by the holy flame of violence.

The Poverty of Conservatism
The ideology of power, privilege and plutocracy

by Johnny Reb

A Little History

“Hatred of the left in all its guises, from the most tepid to the most outré, is thus not incidental to fascism; it is at its core.The fascist route to power has always been passed through cooperation with conservative elites; without the acquiescence or even active assent of the traditional elites could never have attained power” – Robert O Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

Historian and political scientist Robert O Paxton informs us that hatred and fear of the left is not just a key characteristic of fascism, but of conservatism as well. For conservatives it’s the trepidation that the majority underclass will rise up and demand real democracy and social justice as they did in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917. This hatred and fear is the locus of the conservatives reactionary response to democratic movements that challenge their traditional entitlements and privileges. Violence is, and always has been, an open option for conservatives, but one of their less dramatic and vicious responses to left wing movements is propaganda, cooption or minor concessions to the working classes that don’t meaningfully change their supremacy within the socio-political order.

It’s generally agreed by political philosophers that the monarchist Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who, in his ponderous uncompromising diatribe on the French Revolution*, was the first express and define conservatism as a discrete political ideology of moderation and prudence. But the history of the past 200 years has been anything but moderate or prudent when one considers the fanatical anti-democratic invectives against the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, the defense of racism, slavery and Jim Crow, the genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the vicious attacks on trade unionism, the red baiting and persecution of ordinary working people, social democracy and the welfare state, the ongoing hostility to the New Deal of FDR, the Great Society of LBJ, civil rights, humanism, feminism, gay rights and endless imperialistic wars**. Whereas the predecessors of today’s conservatives (and the transmogrified new beta version, the neo-conservative) in the old regime thought of inequality as a naturally occurring phenomenon ordained by God, an inheritance passed on from generation to generation, their encounter with many people’s revolutions such as in the Russian and Cuban revolutions and the Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrates that the revolutionaries were right after all: inequality is a distinctly human creation. No book on conservatism since Burke’s magnum opus comes close to improving on his contempt and condescension of working classes, which he described as the “swinish multitude”, and the pompous celebration of his “natural aristocracy.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections of the Revolution in France, 1790. Every major political tradition without exception lays claims to liberty and the tradition of freedom. None have so far delivered for the masses the freedom from constraint or coercion that these claims entail. Anarchism is, in my view, really the only genuine political philosophy of freedom and egalitarianism. But it’s never been provided with an opportunity with the exception of many indigenous cultures in North America, the short period of the Spanish Civil War and the Kronstadt Mutiny during the Bolshevik Revolution. Burke, whose opinions are not so uplifting as some of his grandiose prose, advised William Pitt that his government ought not concern itself with helping to feed starving citizens by any other means than for sale through profit and not be concerned with actions that would alleviate the suffering and death by famine. This expresses the essence of Conservatism (blame the victim) and Burke’s resolute opposition to democracy and obsession with private property rights that has been carried on by his successors. In fact it was conservatives who consistently blocked the vote for those who did not own property. And only those who are well-heeled, entrepreneurial or efficiently acquisitive are of any value to society and who have the right to lay any claim to liberty. These were the values of the white slave and land owning white aristocratic conservatives who were the framers of the US Constitution.

**Conservatives, it can be evidenced, love war. The historical record confirms that, far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been energized by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many conservatives have expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however; it’s a philosophical; it’s a “war is life and peace is death” philosophical commitment. Power and its partner violence, the conservative maintains, are the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life exhilarating, full of risk and worth living.

One possibility explanation for the conservatives love for war is its embrace of authoritarianism and hierarchy, with their twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice. Consistent with Edmund Burke’s argument, however, the conservative often favours the latter over the former. Once we are assured of our power over another being, says Burke, it loses its capacity to harm or threaten us. Make a creature useful and obedient, and “you spoil it of everything sublime.” It becomes an object of contempt, contempt being “the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious.” At least one-half, then, of the experience of hierarchy—the experience of ruling another—is incompatible with, and indeed weakens, the sublime. Confirmed of our power, we are lulled into the same ease and comfort, undergo the same inward melting, that we experience while in the throes of pleasure.

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Rebirth of a Nation
by Jackson Lears
pp. 18-19

The organic imagery embodied in “the national tree” reflected a new strain of romantic nationalism, which melded the individual with the collective by likening the nation to a natural organism. According to Edward Everett Hale’s popular didactic tale, The Man Without a Country (1863), one’s personal identity—indeed one’s very life—was dependent on immersion in a larger national identity. While Lincoln used the language of “the people” to elevate democracy as well as nationhood, more typical orators deployed the same idiom in the service of organic nationalism, wrapping the government and the citizenry in the sacred garment of the nation.

The sanctity of the nation justified its demands for blood. Redefining unspeakable losses as religious sacrifice, Northerners forged a powerful link between war and regeneration. In some formulations, personal rebirth seemed to arise simply from the decision to risk combat—to plunge into action as an end in itself, heedless of the consequences. (This would be the version that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would eventually celebrate, as he recalled his own war experience, and that Theodore Roosevelt would unwittingly parody.) More commonly, the revitalization was explicitly moral. For generations, republican moralists had been haunted by visions of a citizenry grown soft through indulgence in luxury and other vices of commerce. The many forms of sacrifice demanded by the war provided a perfect opportunity for Americans to redeem themselves from commercial corruption, to transcend private gain in pursuit of a larger public good. So moralists said.

Sacrifice was most appealing when imagined from a distance. As usual in such cases, the loudest yelps for blood often came from those farthest from the battlefield. Charles Eliot Norton, a well-connected young Brahmin intellectual, waxed eloquent over “the Advantages of Defeat” after the Union Army was routed at the first battle of Manassas. The humiliation might have the salutary effect of sobering us, soldiers and civilians—of reminding us that this “religious war” would require a mass blood sacrifice. “But there must be no shrinking from the prospect of the death of our soldiers,” the young man warned. “Better than that we should fail that a million men should die on the battlefield.” Victory would eventually come; and meanwhile Northern character—so long sunk in selfishness and softness—would be purified by protracted struggle. Years later, Norton would repudiate these youthful fatuities and become an outspoken anti-imperialist. But during the Civil War, his breathtaking arrogance was commonplace. Men routinely praised the cleansing power of war from a comfortable distance.

Some turned in therapeutic directions. The Albany Argus predicted that “A vigorous war would tone up the public mind, and impart to it qualities that would last after the calamities of war had passed.” And the historian Benson Lossing wrote to Sue Wallace (the wife of General Lew Wallace) in 1862: “I have felt profoundly impressed with the conviction that out of all this tribulation would come health, and strength, and purification for the nation.” From the perspective of the people who actually fought it, or were swept up in it, one could attribute few more bizarre effects to the war than “health, strength, and purification.” Here as elsewhere, one can glimpse the connections between millennial dreams of collective rebirth and the sort of organic nationalism that could eventually mutate into fascism.

pp. 27-29

But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:

“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”

This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.

pp. 203-204

American politicians were capable of this sort of sentimentality, too. In public, at least, they could insist that their apparently imperial aims were uniquely leavened with moral concerns—in particular a commitment to the spread of freedom and democracy. But in private, their sentiments were less exalted. Writing to Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt reviled “the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.” Most “dark-hued” peoples lacked the crucial character trait, he noted elsewhere: “There must be control. There must be mastery, somewhere, and if there is no self-control and self-mastery, the control and the mastery will ultimately be imposed from without.”

Roosevelt’s obsession with “mastery” revealed the trigger of empire. Behind all the economic calculations and all the lofty rhetoric about civilization and progress was a primal emotion—a yearning to reassert control, a masculine will to power amid the drifting slack waters of the fin de siècle. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan invoked the cautionary example of ancient Rome, after it had abandoned its “strong masculine impulse” and “degenerated into that worship of comfort, wealth, and general softness, which is the ideal of the peace prophets of to-day.” Mahan was the leading big-navy imperialist, and imperialism was the most important political form of late-nineteenth-century longings for regeneration. Those desires flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, taking shapes peculiar to their surroundings. In the United States, the quest for regeneration through empire reworked ancient Protestant dreams of rebirth into a secular militarist agenda. Yearnings to recapture the heights of Civil War heroism combined with Anglo-Saxon racism, fears of overcivilized decadence, and a providentialist faith in American mission.

The result was an ideological witches’ brew. In Europe similar mixtures fostered fascism; in the United States imperial ideology had more benign consequences—for U.S. citizens themselves, if not for their subject populations. The reasons for this divergence are many and complex, but perhaps the most important was the genius of the Constitution’s framers in creating the checks and balances that prevented executive tyranny. Still, American imperialist rhetoric, including Roosevelt’s, often sounded remarkably proto-fascist. Like the ministerial ranting of the Civil War, fin de siècle militarism celebrated blood sacrifice in combat, but with new and more secular emphases on sheer physical courage and the inherently revitalizing effects of conflict.

Popular misunderstandings of Darwinism equated evolution with inevitable progress, and assumed that progress could be achieved only through death-dealing struggle. “Antagonism,” the Popular Science Monthly announced in 1888, is “a necessity of existence, and of the organism of the universe so far as we can understand it; [it is apparent] that motion and life cannot go on without it; that it is not a mere casual adjunct of nature, but that without it there would be no nature.” A struggle for existence was at the heart of all life, among men as well as wolves, in commerce as in war, “as necessary to good as to evil.” Without it life would be boring to the point of ennui, or nonbeing.

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The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
The Haunted Moral Imagination
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
Reconstruction Era Race Relations
Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males
The Right-Wing New Age

Fearful Cops and Gun Culture

What should I absolutely not do when visiting the USA?
Quora

Don’t get out of your car if you get pulled over by police.
by Charlie Knoles
(I have lived in 5 countries and am an Aussie expat in the USA.)

I was pulled over by a police officer while driving in Iowa. It was one week after I had arrived in the USA for the first time. I had accidentally made a minor mistake disobeying a traffic sign. Back home in Australia it’s considered polite to get out of your car and walk over to the police officer’s car and hand him your license* so he doesn’t have to get out of his seat. I wanted to be extra polite so I immediately jumped out of my car and walked towards his car while reaching into my back pocket.

I’m lucky to be alive.

If you come from a gun-free country like the UK or Australia you don’t have any natural instinct for gun culture. You don’t realize that police assume that everyone is armed.

Things got immediately serious. The police officer’s hand went to his weapon and I responded by dropping to my knees with my hands up. He yelled a bunch of things at me but my memory is vague because my heartbeat was suddenly pulsing in my ears blotting out all sound. I don’t know if he drew his weapon or not. I was staring intently at the ground, shaking and trying to project non-threatening vibes. My next memory is that there were three police cars around me and a bunch of cops who’d been called for backup. They were all keeping their hands close to their guns. After some time passed (a minute? 30 minutes? I have no idea) the tensions de-escalated and they told me to get up. I gave the officer my license and tried to explain why I’d approached him. It was completely incomprehensible to him that there was a place where people don’t fear cops and vice versa at traffic stops. It was as though I was trying to tell him that I came from Narnia and our cops were all talking animals.

I’ve spoken to several British people, New Zealanders, and Australians who have shared almost identical stories. They really need to put signs up in all major US airports.

Don’t get out of your car if stopped by police. They will assume you are armed and they might shoot you.

Comment
by Bill Null

As the country has gotten safer the police have become more aggressive. It’s now at the point where you are far more likely to die by interacting with a police officer than they are to die by interacting with you.

In 2015, out of the 980,000 police employed nation wide, there were 26 recorded cases of homicide against a police officer, 4 of which occurred during a traffic stop. By contrast, 1093 people were killed in the same year; more than half of which didn’t have a firearm, and 170 were completely unarmed at the time.

Policing in the US has never really been a dangerous job, at least not in comparison to other outdoor occupations. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the job of police and sheriff’s deputy as the 16th most dangerous job, right below grounds maintenance workers. That figure however, includes all officer related fatalities, including traffic and health related incidents. If you compare on-the-job injury rates, the numbers aren’t much higher.

Nature, Nurture, Torture

Over at Ribbon Farm, Venkatesh Rao has a key theory of human development. Three factors are needed: nature, nurture, and torture. The key, notched and grooved, is the end result. After all of that, you are a real individual, a unique snowflake.

It sounds like another way of telling the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. He is a made object (nature) that is loved by a boy (nurture) until he is worn threadbare and then thrown out to be burned (torture) which leads a magical fairy to turn him into a real rabbit (key). The end.

A similar story is told with Pinocchio or the movie AI, both involving a blue fairy that makes them into real boys. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly also follows this narrative pattern, but instead involves a blue flower that symbolizes what has been sought.

It’s quite a process to become real, if you survive the torture.

* * *

The Key to Act Two
by Venkatesh Rao

Nature, Nurture, Torture

The thing about becoming a key, unless you have a father who can curse you into one at birth, is that you can’t skip the tortures. Nor can industrial processes like cold-forging inflict the necessary kinds of pain. Not all tortures are equally horrendous of course. The truly horrendous ones don’t just carve a unique pattern of notches into you, they destroy you.

But what doesn’t destroy you only makes you uniquer.

Like that kid in Slumdog Millionaire who, through a series of horrifying ooga boogas, acquires exactly the set of answers required to unlock the million-dollar game show prize before he was out of his teens. Like I said, most people take till 40 or so, but some people get lucky, and become keys in nondeterministic polynomial time, which for a human life is anything less than 19 years.

This by the way, suggests, but does not prove, that becoming a key is a human-complete problem.

Here’s a mnemonic to remember this. You’ve heard of nature and nurture, right? Nature and nurture get you to the end of Act I and to the bathroom line in the lobby, but if that’s all you have, you aren’t a key.

Becoming a key is all about nature, nurture, and torture.

Nature is genes. It creates a space of life-script possibilities.

Nurture is some genes liking where they find themselves and choosing to express themselves through epic protein poetry, and other genes going, “fuck this shit, I’m not talking” and retreating into sullen, inexpressive silence. This is a narrowing of life script possibilities from 100% to say 7.8%.

It’s still a large class of behaviors rather than a specific path, because nurture only conditions you to produce behavior patterns, it doesn’t pick out a specific circumstantial path. Nature and nurture together only produce characters waiting for stories to happen to them.

If you understand that much, then my key-lock script can be understood as nature-nurture-torture. The last bit is what turns a character arc into a full-blown plot.

Torture is life experiences breaking you irreversibly in 8 ways, narrowing possibilities further, turning you into a unique key with exactly one life to live. Not a clod, which is what cold forging produces by erasing identity sufficiently to serve interchangeable-parts purposes, but a hardened stand-alone snowflake who doesn’t need a clod to protect them from the world.

Torture narrows life down to one possibility. Becoming a key means you have a shot at actually getting to that one possibility and making it your mission. A life lived with full intentionality, complete insufferability (which you earn through your tortures), and with no angsty what-ifs distracting you.

Harry Potter, for instance, was a 1/8 Chosen One because of that lightning-shaped scar he acquired at birth. The other key notches he had to earn through the first 6 books. Voldemort on the other hand, deliberately forged himself into the antikey with all that horcrux stuff. All that stuff was neither nature, nor nurture. It was key-forming torture.

See, the reason all this scarring and horcruxing is necessary is that nature and nurture are not enough. They leave life in what mathematicians call an under-determined state. And since most people instinctively address under-determination by creating symmetric variable bindings for the unused variables (it’s what you perceive as “beauty”), they foreclose on the option of becoming a key.

Yeah, becoming a key is an ugly business.

* * *

4/3/18 – Some additional thoughts.

Talk of torture reminds me of the oddity of modern civilization, specifically WEIRD societies. Other societies are less obsessed with individuality and some don’t seem to have any kind of identity that exactly equates to the individual self. Western society has required torture as part of the process in creating individuals. Sebastian Junger talks about this in his book Tribe, although I don’t recall him ever referring to ‘torture’ as a way of framing his view. The context is a bit different, but essentially he is contrasting individualism and tribalism, the latter once having been the normal experience of all humans. Rather than torture, he does discuss to great extent the issue of trauma, including in childhood and the consequences it has in adulthood.

Some of the practices that have taken hold in Western societies such as mothers ignoring crying babies is highly abnormal and forms a warped psychology. Instead, babies are given pacifiers, blankets, and stuffed animals (what Donald Woods Winnicot referred to as transitional objects) to teach them to soothe and entertain themselves — and other kinds of objects play a similar role: “Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.” This extreme form of torturous childrearing isn’t seen in traditional societies.

As I said in a comment elsewhere, “I see how the pacifier could be traumatizing to the developing psyche. Self-soothing is like empty calories causing you to eat more and more while never getting what you really need, the end result being obesity and disease. The baby isn’t seeking self-soothing. What the baby wants is nourishment along with maternal love and protection. The pacifier stunts human development by not allowing normal human bonding.” So, torture maybe a necessary component to the individuation of the modern self, but it comes at a high cost for each person and for society. Johann Hari in his recent books (Chasing the Scream & Lost Connections) goes into great detail about the problems caused by the disconnection and isolation of hyper-individualism. The key theory of nature-nurture-torture does explain how to create a modern individual, whether or not that is a desirable result.

Here is my second thought. There is different angle to consider, one that roots the key theory (or elements of it) in the premodern past. Another way of thinking about ‘torture’ is to look to stories, specifically fairytales and mythologies.

The story of Pinocchio is obviously rooted in European paganism and his torturous individuation has much mythological resonance. This is made clear with the blue fairy (the girl/maiden/goat with azure or turquoise hair), a tripartite child-maiden-crone goddess of death-and-rebirth. It’s similar to Isis as sister and consort to Osiris and then later mother to Osiris reborn as Horus. Pinocchio hung on a tree is an ancient portrayal of crucifixion which typically involved tree imagery (nailed to, tied to, pierced by an arrow below, or hung from).

Blue/azure/turquoise was a sacred color in the ancient world because of its rarity in nature. It is one of the last colors that is given a name in diverse languages, often originally being mixed up with black. It has been theorized that ancient people (e.g., Homer) didn’t even perceive blue as a separate color, not until blue dyes became common. Young children, even when taught the word for blue, will still sometimes mix it up with black.

Pinocchio’s blue fairy is related to the púca, fairies of Celtic religion typically described as black or dark. Fairies often are known as trickster/shapeshifters and sometimes in fairytales get portrayed as witches living alone in a house in the woods. Some goddesses, such as Saraswati, use shapeshifting in the myths about how they gave birth to the beings of the world.

Tricksters have the power of transformation, both within themselves and their effect on others, such as transforming a puppet into a boy or replacing a child with a changeling. They are powerful deities/spirits who are capable of good and evil, often making unclear such distinctions as they precede humanity and human notions of morality. But many tricksters take on roles of cultural heroes and salvific figures. Or else they become examples of moral consequences, as is the case with Pinocchio’s trickster behavior getting him into trouble.

Pinocchio, of course, has some elements of a resurrection figure. This goes beyond his crucifixion and rebirth as a real boy. Like Jesus’ father Joseph, Pinocchio’s father Geppetto is a woodcarver (this is related to the mythological motif of creator/father as a builder). It is Geppetto who calls for the blue fairy and so these two stand in as parents (the father of form and the mother of spirit) to the creation of this new being, Pinocchio.

This is rather fascinating. Let me break down the death aspect in more detail.

The blue fairy is first shown as a young girl and claims to already be dead, waiting for her coffin in a house of the dead. As a spirit-being or goddess of death, she removes Pinocchio from his crucified state on a tree. They become like brother and sister (reminiscent of Isis and Osiris). Later, after her own death and burial with her house having been torn down to become a tombstone, she reappears older and takes on the role of mother to Pinocchio (in the way Isis does in relation to her consort Osiris being reborn as the child Horus) and in that maternal role she offers forgiveness.

The blue fairy ends up dying multiple times in the story, defying death each time with mysterious and unexplained reappearances as being alive again. Her final (or seemingly final) death brings a boon to Pinocchio, in reward for his changed behavior and his growing maturity. He is a real boy becoming a responsible adult, on his way to individuation. But he had to go through extensive torture involving all kinds of suffering and harm along the way. Individuation by way of death and rebirth isn’t for the faint of heart.

Speaking of resurrection, the Christian holy day of Easter was yesterday. That has its origins in paganism. I just wrote about this, but I didn’t specifically mention the Germanic goddess from which comes the name of Easter. I was more talking about the other resurrection mythologies in the Mediterranean world before and during early Christianity. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some crossover or shared influences between Northern Europe and further south. The Scandinavians had trade routes that connected with Egypt in the millennia before the Axial Age — by the way, this included trade of blue glass that was only made in Egypt.

In thinking about Easter, I can’t help noticing the similarity of the name Isis, a virgin mother goddess related to spring and resurrection (her tears for Osiris’ death cause the spring flooding of the Nile and of course that brings back life). Isis was also known as Meri and, as her worship was extremely popular in the Roman Empire, probably was the inspiration for Mother Mary worship, considering many of the early European statues of Mary were originally Isis statues.

Many have talked about the Jesus myth in terms of individuation. That is definitely a story about nature, nurture, and torture. Then Jesus as Christ, following crucifixion and resurrection, is taken by his believers to literally be the key to God’s Kingdom. As Pinocchio the marionette becomes a boy, Jesus the man becomes God. That takes the key theory to a whole new level. It’s not just about the reality of identity but of the world itself. For those who have eyes to see, the Kingdom of God is all around us. We each are made into keys to the Kingdom by partaking of Jesus’ sacrifice through his body and blood, in the form of bread and wine. We take in and internalize that suffering which then magically transforms us and connects us to a greater reality.

Such is Christian belief, anyway. The notion of torture as fulfillment of becoming is an ancient motif. That is true at least since the Axial Age. Similar mythological patterns can be found earlier, but it’s not certain what they might have meant. Prior to the Axial Age focus on individualism, what could development of self involved and toward what kind of self.

Evil Empire

“The U.S. state is a key point of condensation for pressures from dominant groups around the world to resolve problems of global capitalism and to secure the legitimacy of the system overall. In this regard, “U.S.” imperialism refers to the use by transnational elites of the U.S. state apparatus to continue to attempt to expand, defend, and stabilize the global capitalist system. We are witness less to a “U.S.” imperialism per se than to a global capitalist imperialism. We face an empire of global capital, headquartered, for evident historical reasons, in Washington.”
~ William I. Robinson, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, p. 122

“We can boil down the problem of terrorism to its purest expression: [we] kill them, so they try to kill us. Since World War Two, the United States is said to have had a direct hand in the death of millions of people worldwide, either through direct intervention or clandestine activities. William Blum’s Rogue State and James Lucas’s thoroughgoing look at interventions and death tolls in 37 countries are both instructive references. And yet at least two factors prevent Americans from recognizing the bloody global footprint of its government. One is the most sophisticated propaganda system in history. Another may be the fact that our crimes are not the work of a single, deranged despot, a Hitler or a Stalin, but rather the collective accomplishment of many men within a system of imperial capitalism that often disguises its brutality. We have a pantheon of iniquities enacted by men that better resemble Adolf Eichmann than Adolf Hitler. We might heed Hannah Arendt’s warning of the “banality of evil.” Empire, too, seen from within, appears banal.”
~ Jason Hirthler, Paris and the Soldiers of the Caliphate

“If this was earlier last century and I was describing Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy, few Americans would pause for a second to call such a government an evil empire or at least an authoritarian regime.”
~ Benjamin D. Steele, The Sun Never Sets On The American Empire

2014 Gallup International poll: US #1 threat to world peace
by Carl Herman, Washington’s Blog

Gallup International’s poll of 68 countries for 2014 found the US as the greatest threat to peace in the world, voted three times more dangerous to world peace than the next country.

Among Americans, we overall voted our own nation as the 4th most dangerous to peace, and with demographics of students and 18-24 year-olds also concluding the US as the world’s greatest threat.

Opinion aside, we can objectively evaluate the US threat to peace, as younger Americans seem to be doing:

* * *

Seeing Our Wars for the First Time
by Tom Engelhardt

The Costs of War Project has produced not just a map of the war on terror, 2015-2017 (released at TomDispatch with this article), but the first map of its kind ever. It offers an astounding vision of Washington’s counterterror wars across the globe: their spread, the deployment of U.S. forces, the expanding missions to train foreign counterterror forces, the American bases that make them possible, the drone and other air strikes that are essential to them, and the U.S. combat troops helping to fight them. (Terror groups have, of course, morphed and expanded riotously as part and parcel of the same process.)

A glance at the map tells you that the war on terror, an increasingly complex set of intertwined conflicts, is now a remarkably global phenomenon. It stretches from the Philippines (with its own ISIS-branded group that just fought an almost five-month-long campaign that devastated Marawi, a city of 300,000) through South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and deep into West Africa where, only recently, four Green Berets died in an ambush in Niger.

No less stunning are the number of countries Washington’s war on terror has touched in some fashion. Once, of course, there was only one (or, if you want to include the United States, two). Now, the Costs of War Project identifies no less than 76 countries, 39% of those on the planet, as involved in that global conflict. That means places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya where U.S. drone or other air strikes are the norm and U.S. ground troops (often Special Operations forces) have been either directly or indirectly engaged in combat. It also means countries where U.S. advisers are training local militaries or even militias in counterterror tactics and those with bases crucial to this expanding set of conflicts. As the map makes clear, these categories often overlap.

Who could be surprised that such a “war” has been eating American taxpayer dollars at a rate that should stagger the imagination in a country whose infrastructure is now visibly crumbling? In a separate study, released in November, the Costs of War Project estimated that the price tag on the war on terror (with some future expenses included) had already reached an astronomical $5.6 trillion. Only recently, however, President Trump, now escalating those conflicts, tweeted an even more staggering figure: “After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!” (This figure, too, seems to have come in some fashion from the Costs of War estimate that “future interest payments on borrowing for the wars will likely add more than $7.9 trillion to the national debt” by mid-century.) […]

Let me repeat this mantra: once, almost seventeen years ago, there was one; now, the count is 76 and rising. Meanwhile, great cities have been turned into rubble; tens of millions of human beings have been displaced from their homes; refugees by the millions continue to cross borders, unsettling ever more lands; terror groups have become brand names across significant parts of the planet; and our American world continues to be militarized. […]

We are now in an era in which the U.S. military is the leading edge — often the only edge — of what used to be called American “foreign policy” and the State Department is being radically downsized. American Special Operations forces were deployed to 149 countries in 2017 alone and the U.S. has so many troops on so many bases in so many places on Earth that the Pentagon can’t even account for the whereabouts of 44,000 of them. There may, in fact, be no way to truly map all of this, though the Costs of War Project’s illustration is a triumph of what can be seen.

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US Has Killed More Than 20 Million In 37 Nations Since WWII
By James A. Lucas, Popular Resistance

The causes of wars are complex. In some instances nations other than the U.S. may have been responsible for more deaths, but if the involvement of our nation appeared to have been a necessary cause of a war or conflict it was considered responsible for the deaths in it. In other words they probably would not have taken place if the U.S. had not used the heavy hand of its power. The military and economic power of the United States was crucial.

This study reveals that U.S. military forces were directly responsible for about 10 to 15 million deaths during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the two Iraq Wars. The Korean War also includes Chinese deaths while the Vietnam War also includes fatalities in Cambodia and Laos.

The American public probably is not aware of these numbers and knows even less about the proxy wars for which the United States is also responsible. In the latter wars there were between nine and 14 million deaths in Afghanistan, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Guatemala, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sudan.

But the victims are not just from big nations or one part of the world. The remaining deaths were in smaller ones which constitute over half the total number of nations. Virtually all parts of the world have been the target of U.S. intervention.

The overall conclusion reached is that the United States most likely has been responsible since WWII for the deaths of between 20 and 30 million people in wars and conflicts scattered over the world.

To the families and friends of these victims it makes little difference whether the causes were U.S. military action, proxy military forces, the provision of U.S. military supplies or advisors, or other ways, such as economic pressures applied by our nation. They had to make decisions about other things such as finding lost loved ones, whether to become refugees, and how to survive.

And the pain and anger is spread even further. Some authorities estimate that there are as many as 10 wounded for each person who dies in wars. Their visible, continued suffering is a continuing reminder to their fellow countrymen.

It is essential that Americans learn more about this topic so that they can begin to understand the pain that others feel. Someone once observed that the Germans during WWII “chose not to know.” We cannot allow history to say this about our country. The question posed above was “How many September 11ths has the United States caused in other nations since WWII?” The answer is: possibly 10,000.

Comment by Maxwell (from comments section):

This is an excellent piece and an excellent starting point for such an undertaking. I would suggest that the initial figure presented, 20 million, is a gross underestimation of the actual total. The reasons the figure is low in my opinion is that arriving at an accurate figure is an impossible task due to the nature of US foreign policy over the last several decades, the nature of weaponry in recent times and many other factors that are difficult to precisely quantify. I will cite a few examples of what I mean and I’m sure others could and will add to the list.

Examples:

1) How do you measure the number of deaths that go on the tab of the US when it arms various groups that are purportedly fighting a “civil war”- many examples of this abound through Africa and the Middle East in particular;

2) How do you measure the number of people killed by non-military US foreign policy, one example would be the case of Haiti- certainly through the years many thousands of Haitians have perished as a direct result of US foreign policy- the list of countries that would fall into this category is very long;

3) How do you accurately measure the legacy of US warring and weaponry even after the “fighting” has ended. The dislocation and social upheaval is massive and it takes decades for recovery during which the premature deaths go into the thousands. Add to this the toxic legacy of various munitions such as Napalm, Depleted Uranium and so forth and we can safely say many thousands more must be added to this macabre list.

There are many more examples like those I listed and certainly an attempt to include these things could be done. Suffice it to say when all of the death and destruction that has come at the hands of the US National Security State over the last 100 years is accurately totaled the figure is staggering. Go back further and include the Slave Trade and genocide of the original inhabitants and one must conclude the the founding ideals of “America” are that of a Death Star.

* * *

Horrors Wrought On The World Since 9/11
by Nicolas Davies, Popular Resistance

To briefly take stock of 14 years of war, which our leaders launched and continue to justify as a response to terrorism:

-The U.S. and its allies have conducted over 120,000 air strikes against seven countries, exploding fundamentalist jihadism from its original base in Afghanistan to an active presence in all seven countries and beyond.

-We have invaded and occupied Afghanistan for 14 years, Iraq for over 8 years, and destroyed Libya, Syria and Yemen for good measure.

-By conservative estimates, U.S.-led wars have killed about 1.6 million people, mostly civilians. That is 500 times the number of people killed by the original crimes in the U.S. Disproportionate use of force and geographic expansion of the conflict by our side has ensured an endless proliferation of violence on all sides.

War, occupation and human rights abuses have driven 59.5 million people from their homes, more than at any time since the Second World War.

-Since 2001, the U.S. has borrowed and spent $3.3 trillion in additional military spending to pay for the largest unilateral military build-up in history, but less than half the extra funding has been spent on current wars. (See Carl Conetta’s 2010 paper, “An Undisciplined Defense”, for more analysis of the Pentagon’s “spending surge.”)

When U.S. support for Muslim fundamentalist jihadis in Afghanistan led to the most catastrophic blowback in our history on September 11th 2001, our government declared a “global war on terror” against them. But less than a decade later, it once again began recruiting, training and arming Muslim fundamentalists to fight in Libya and Syria. The U.S. also made the largest arms sale in history to Saudi Arabia, which is already ruled by a dynasty of Muslim fundamentalists and whose role in the crimes of September 11th remains a closely guarded secret. It was only when IS invaded Iraq in 2014 that the U.S. government was finally forced to rethink its covert support for such groups in Syria. It has yet to seriously reconsider its alliances with their state sponsors: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other Arab monarchies.

Throughout the past 14 years, whenever the fear of terrorism has temporarily receded, our government has quickly redirected its threats and uses of military force, covert operations and propaganda to a completely different purpose: destabilizing and overthrowing a laundry-list of internationally recognized governments, in Venezuela, Iraq, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and around the world. In these operations, our government has never balked at allying with violent groups whom it would be quick to condemn as “terrorists” if they were on the other side. We are being treated to a new version of President Reagan’s comical division of violent groups into “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” based on their relationship to U.S. policy, with patriotic Iraqis resisting the illegal invasion of their country as “terrorists” and armed neo-Nazis in Ukraine as “protesters” and now part of a new “National Guard.

* * *

90% of All Deaths In War Are CIVILIANS
by WashingtonsBlog

The June 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health  notes (free PDF here; hat tip David Swanson):

  • Around 90% of all deaths in war are civilians:

“The proportion of civilian deaths and the methods for classifying deaths as civilian are debated, but civilian war deaths constitute 85% to 90% of casualties caused by war, with about 10 civilians dying for every combatant killed in battle.”

  • Swanson notes: “A top defense of war is that it must be used to prevent something worse, called genocide. Not only does militarism generate genocide rather than preventing it, but the distinction between war and genocide is a very fine one at best.”
  • The U.S. launched 201 out of the 248 armed conflicts since the end of WWII:

“Since the end of World War II, there have been 248 armed conflicts in 153 locations around the world. The United States launched 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and 2001, and since then, others, including Afghanistan and Iraq ….”

  • U.S. military spending dwarfs all other countries:

“The United States is responsible for 41% of the world’s total military spending. The next largest in spending are China, accounting for 8.2%; Russia, 4.1%; and the United Kingdom and France, both 3.6%. . . . If all military . . . costs are included, annual [US] spending amounts to $1 trillion . . . . According to the DOD fiscal year 2012 base structure report, ‘The DOD manages global property of more than 555,000 facilities at more than 5,000 sites, covering more than 28 million acres.’ The United States maintains 700 to 1000 military bases or sites in more than 100 countries. . . .”

* * *

“We’re at War!” — And We Have Been Since 1776: 214 Years of American War-Making
by Danios, Loon Watch

The U.S., in the name of fighting terror, is waging seemingly Endless War in the Muslim world.   The “We are at War” mentality defines a generation of Americans, with many young adults having lived their entire lives while the country has been “at war.”  For them, war is the norm.

But if the future of America promises Endless War, be rest assured that this is no different than her past.  Below, I have reproduced a year-by-year timeline of America’s wars, which reveals something quite interesting: since the United States was founded in 1776, she has been at war during 214 out of her 235 calendar years of existence.  In other words, there were only 21 calendar years in which the U.S. did not wage any wars.

To put this in perspective:

  • Pick any year since 1776 and there is about a 91% chance that America was involved in some war during that calendar year.
  • No U.S. president truly qualifies as a peacetime president.  Instead, all U.S. presidents can technically be considered “war presidents.”
  • The U.S. has never gone a decade without war.
  • The only time the U.S. went five years without war (1935-40) was during the isolationist period of the Great Depression.

[…] The U.S. was born out of ethnic cleansing, a violent process that had started long before 1776 and would not be complete until 1900. In other words, more than half of America’s existence (about 53%) has been marked by the active process of ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, which was ultimately all but destroyed. […]

As Indian land was gobbled up by the use of force and fraud, the U.S. border expanded to the periphery of Mexico (which at that time consisted of most of the West Coast and Southwest of the modern United States). Hungry for this land too, the U.S. invaded Mexico, and “Mexicans were portrayed as violent and treacherous bandits who terrorized” the people [4]. American belligerence towards Mexico heated up in the 1800’s, culminated in the U.S. annexation of half of Mexico’s land (leaving right-wingers today to wonder “why so many Mexicans are in our country?”), and seamlessly transitioned into the Banana Wars of the early 1900’s.

Once the Americans had successfully implemented Manifest Destiny by conquering the land from sea to shining sea, the Monroe Doctrine was used to expand American influence in the Caribbean and Central America. Thus began the Banana Wars, a series of military interventions from 1898 all the way to 1934, which attempted to expand American hegemony to the south of its borders. America’s brutality in this part of the world is not well-known to most Americans, but it is well-documented. […]

It should be noted that American plans to dominate the Middle East date back to at least the end of World War II, when it was decided that the region was of critical strategic value. Now that the U.S. has followed through on this plan, do you think “radical Islam” is really “an existential threat” just as American Indians were “fierce savages” waging “an exterminating war” against the “peaceful inhabitants” of the United States; or how Mexicans were “violent” and “terrorized” people; or how Central Americans were “dangerous bandits”? The rampant Islamophobia that abounds today is part of a long tradition of vilifying, Other-izing, and dehumanizing the indigenous populations of lands that need to controlled.

The objects of American aggression have certainly changed with time, but the primary motivating factor behind U.S. wars of aggression have always been the same: expansion of U.S. hegemony. The Muslim world is being bombed, invaded, and occupied by the United States not because of radical Islam or any inherent flaw in themselves. Rather, it is being so attacked because it is in the path of the American juggernaut, which is always in need of war. […]

To put this into greater perspective, Iran has not invaded a country since 1795, which was 216 years ago.

Remembering Resurrection

On occasion, I’m reminded of how conventional corporate media can be. The New York Times is supposedly the liberal stronghold of liberal bias and liberal elitism, whatever that is supposed to mean. But obviously what it doesn’t mean is any deep and probing questions about the ideological foundations of our society.

The article that brought this back to my attention was what amounted to a Christian puff piece by John Meacham, some empty filler for the Easter weekend. He is a respectable author and historian within the mainstream establishment and popular media, but this particular article seems to be a throwaway that he quickly jotted down in between more important activities. Obviously, no serious scholarly research was involved, beyond some passing references.

The article is about resurrection and Meacham should know better. He has often written about religion in terms of history, including one book on the American founders. In my accusation, what exactly is it about which he should know better? In NYT, he writes that, “To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.” Well, that part is simply misleading. Homer was writing long before the Roman Empire and all religious thought was far different, as human civilization was just emerging from the collapse of the Bronze Age (what Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral societies) and the Axial Age with its radically new religious ideas hadn’t yet taken hold.

So, it depends on which era of the ancient world one is talking about. But even in the pre-Axial period, the notion of resurrection was not an unknown concept, as many gods and godmen were brought back to life. This religious motif goes back to some early civilizations. What changed was how the relation between human and divine was imagined and experienced. Resurrection didn’t appear out of nowhere with the myth of Jesus Christ, although at that point it was being reinterpreted. Obviously, personal salvation (or gnosis, nirvana, enlightenment, transformation, etc) couldn’t be conceived until Axial Age individualism had been formulated and established. But centuries into the Axial Age, it was common for various religions to make claims of personal salvation, such as burial inscriptions declaring that as Osiris died and rose so would the buried worshipper.

Meacham pretends otherwise, though. “So singular was the proposition,” he writes, “that a particular person had been resurrected from the dead and that belief in him would lead to eternal salvation; it would hardly have been the early Christians’ first choice of narratives to share. Why argue something so improbable, and so unexpected, unless they believed it had actually happened the way they told the story?” I have a hard time taking him seriously. None of this was original to Christianity.

Belief in such things became well established over the preceding centuries, that is belief in personal salvation by way of resurrection gods and godmen — as Robert M. Price stated in no uncertain terms, “The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. […] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons” (Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 86 & 88). Sure, gnostic Christians and later heresiologists put their own spin on this mytheme, but it was far from having never been seen before. This type of theology emerged out of the meeting point of Alexandrian Jewish Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Hellenism, Virgin Isis-Meri worship, Osiris/Horus rituals, Dionysus tradition, etc. For example, the Catholic Church not only incorporated Mithraic elements for the Vatican was literally built on top of a Mithraic ritual cave.

None of this should be unknown to Meacham. In his book about the American founders, there are numerous references to Thomas Paine who wrote about the mythicist origins of Christianity which was well documented at the time. And Thomas Paine was one among many others during that era. Going back to early Christianity, there was much debate on all of this, even to the point that a major Christian Father defended the faith by admitting that there were pagan precursors to Christianity but that this was because the Devil implanted these ideas in earlier false religions in order to deceive humanity. But at least this apologetic defense is more honest in its admission than those who simply pretend the evidence doesn’t exist.

I don’t personally care about other people’s personal beliefs about Christian theology and traditions, rituals and practices. The heretical Unity Church I was raised in didn’t place any priority on such matters. If as a kid I had argued that Christianity borrowed from other religions, most of the people in my church wouldn’t have cared and some of them likely would already have been familiar with the evidence. There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about having knowledge of Christian origins. Nor is it dismissive of Christianity and disrespectful of Christians to admit basic historical facts and mythological precedents, no matter how challenging to our received dogma. Any worthy faith shouldn’t require a leap of ignorance.

Besides, in acknowledging what Christians inherited, it remains fair to argue that Jesus and his early followers helped form an original belief system, as would be true of any mature religion as it developed its own unique tradition. Christian theology about resurrection should be understood on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother understanding it in terms of the ancient world out of which Christianity emerged. This doesn’t lessen the value of Christianity in any way. Rather, this broadens our potential insight about what it means to have a personal relation to the divine and to be personally saved (or, for atheists and agnostics, to offer context and allow for perspective). These are ancient concerns that extend far beyond Christianity proper. We are inheritors not only of Christianity but of the entire ancient world.

For some Christians such as Robert M. Price, learning the truth causes them to lose faith. But for still others like Tom Harpur, the truth strengthened their faith even further. On that note, no matter what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection: Happy Easter! And in remembrance of resurrection’s ancient agricultural inspiration, after this past long lingering Winter, I welcome the  return of Spring. That is a resurrection of the world that includes us all, even the dead in taking on new forms. Life emerging from the empty tomb of the cold soil is no small miracle.

Collective Amnesia About Collective Amnesia

At Harper’s, Corey Robin has a piece on collective amnesia, specifically among liberals. It comes down to the incessant march of lesser evilism that inevitably leads to greater and greater evil, until nothing is left remaining but evil’s total dominance.

Each shock of evil normalizes the evil of the past, such that we frogs are slowly boiled alive. Don’t worry, the liberal suggests relaxing in his warm bath, we will revolt later when it finally gets bad enough. But this attitude never allows for self-awareness of complicity, the denial of which makes inevitable further complicity for it is never the right moment to admit guilt, no matter how often in the past it was stated, Never again!

“Strong stuff, suggesting the kind of experience you don’t easily recover from. If such feelings of betrayal don’t overwhelm you with a corrosive cynicism, inducing you to withdraw from politics, they provoke an incipient realism or an irrepressible radicalism… You get to lose your innocence only once… But… American liberalism is also a party of the born-again.

“The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned. And while it’s tempting to chalk up these rituals to a native simplicity or a preternatural naïveté — a parody of a Henry James novel, in which you get soiled by crossing the Potomac rather than the Atlantic — even our most knowing observers perform them. . . .

“Donald Trump is making America great again — not by his own hand but through the labor of his critics, who posit a more perfect union less as an aspiration for the future than as the accomplished fact of a reimagined past.

“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.

“Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.

“We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.

“Or so we believe.

“The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing… [T]he rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” “

I noticed this scathing critique earlier and was glad to see it. It came to my attention again because he mentioned it in his blog in connection to an interview with Brooke Gladstone. That interview is part of several others (with Max Fischer, Deb Amos, and Sinan Antoon) in response to the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.

Maybe no new insight is offered, but at the very least it is an important reminder. Not only is there collective amnesia for, as a society, we keep forgetting how often our collective amnesia has repeated in the past. We don’t know what we don’t know partly because we keep forgetting what we forgot.

Corey Robin also writes at Crooked Timer. And John Holbo at that site wrote about the Harper’s piece. In the comments section, there is debate about whether Trump is exceptional and, if so, for what reason. Should we be surprised or shocked? And about what exactly? Beyond that, what is the right context for understanding?

The comments section is filled with people who, for all their disagreement, know political and economic history. But even with the above average commentary and debate, it felt dissatisfying. There was little discussion of the fundamental causes of human behavior, of what makes the human mind tick, of the social sciences and related fields. The focus was almost entirely on externals, except for a few comments.

To some extent, that is even my complaint of Corey Robin. It is common on the political left, that is to say almost as common as on the political right. It’s easier to focus on externals and, with politics, the distraction of externals is endless. But for this reason, we rarely touch upon root causes. Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind goes a long way to explain conservatism and the modern mind in general, including amnesia among liberals (not that Robin talks about the reactionary in quite so expansive terms). Yet this analysis can only go so far because it never extends beyond the history of politics and economics.

A few comments by the same person, Lee A. Arnold, comes the closest to stepping outside of this intellectual blindspot:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation chapter 20 characterizes fascism as a spontaneous emotional “move” arising from within individuals, and uses the political conditions only to discard them. It is not a movement that requires a vanguard or imperial aspirations. The ONLY thing characterizing the rise of fascism, in the dozen or more countries in which it arose, was the sudden failure of the market system…”

Fascism is a socio-emotional disease that is ever-latent but suddenly arises within individuals and overcomes enough of them to make political control possible. Elites do not stop it, because it the disease overcomes them too. It is a paradoxical move: it offers an “escape from an institutional deadlock… yet… it would everywhere produce sickness unto death.” (Polanyi). Whether there is an external threat or an internal threat or both, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same.”

The very recent spate of commentators (here, and elsewhere) writing that fascism has been avoided in the US (or even go so far as to write that it cannot happen) rely upon a misunderstanding of what fascism was, or take too large a comfort in a narrow diversion from it. That may not be good enough, next time. Far from being silly, I see this as Corey Robin’s basic point, too.”

I imagine that the intellectual confusion and dismissal was similar in the 1920’s-30’s. It’s interesting that today so many intellectuals think that fascism originated from outside the individual, as some sort of organized imposition of structure by a vanguard. So today, we will see it coming: “It can’t happen here.” (Or else they think that our current democratic institutions and media culture are strong enough and varietal enough to withstand it.)

“But the evidence is that fascism arose spontaneously within individuals. It’s almost a pure emotion in the anger & hatred quadrant. It suddenly swept up a lot of people into supporting “doing something”, to cut through the confusion and deadlock. Yet it emotionally disregards facts, logic, science, humane values. It’s not a political-economic form in the same category with liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, socialism.”

That is related to what Robin gets at. Fascism is simply one extreme variety of the reactionary mind. The reactionary is never constrained to the mainstream conventions of ideological rhetoric and political forms. That is because the reactionary, by definition, is the result of the failure (or perceived failure) of the mainstream project of social order.

Still, even this doesn’t dig deep enough. I end up getting more insight about what motivates politics and economics from those studying philology, linguistic relativism, social psychology, anthropology, cultural history, and consciousness studies. The failure of our society is better explained by the likes of Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary), Lewis Hyde (Trickster Makes This World), James Gilligan (Preventing Violence), Keith Payne (The Broken Ladder), Johann Hari (Lost Connections), Sebastian Junger (Tribe), etc.

These other viewpoints are more likely to offer insight about collective amnesia. The typical political and economic analysis might, in some cases, be part of the problem. Karl Marx who, in emphasizing material conditions, gets portrayed as a reductionist by his critics and yet he went beyond most on the political left by presenting what is called ‘species-being’ — as I described it:

“The basic idea is that what we produce creates a particular kind of society and shapes human nature. We produce the kind of person that is needed for the world we bring into existence. And so the kind of person that is produced is incapable of seeing beyond the social and material world that produced him. We build our own prisons, even as there is hope for us to build new worlds to inhabit and new ways of being.”

So what produces a social identity that is prone to such extremes of collective amnesia? I’m specifically referring to what manifests in our society at the seeming peak or breaking point of this post-Enlightenment liberal age (or, if you prefer, this late stage of capitalism). If we could make sense of that, then much else would become easier to disentangle.

“Historical consciousness can be a conservative force, lessening the sting of urgency, deflating the demands of the now, leaving us adrift in a sea of relativism. But it need not be,” concludes Corey Robin in Harper’s.

“Telling a story of how present trespass derives from past crime or even original sin can inspire a more strenuous refusal, a more profound assault on the now. It can fuel a desire to be rid of not just the moment but the moments that made this moment, to ensure that we never have to face this moment again. But only if we acknowledge what we’re seldom prepared to admit: that the monster has been with us all along.”

That is no doubt true. But stories are a tricky business. The challenge is, in order to understand the present, we need to understand the origins of modern civilization and the modern mind. Most commentary, even on the alternative left, isn’t up to the task. The same old debate continues, as does the collective amnesia. We are stuck in a loop, until something forces us out.

This is not only a lack of understanding but a lack of motivation toward understanding. A revolution of the mind must come first before a revolution of society can follow. That isn’t something we collectively are capable of consciously choosing. What will happen at some point is that our old mindset will entirely fail us and every answer and response we used in the past will prove futile and impotent. Then and only then will we, out of desperation, turn toward the unknown in seeking the radically new. That is how change has always happened, as one would know from studying the deep past.

Until that point of total breakdown, we will go on forgetting and we will go on forgetting what we’ve forgotten. Our entire social order is dependent on it. And at the edge of breakdown, the reactionary mind takes hold and comes into power. The liberal too comes under its sway. It is a sign of the times. But is it the Kali Yuga of the liberal world or the dawning of the next Enlightenment leading to a new revolutionary era? Is there a difference?

* * *

4/1/18 – Let me take a different approach. We are all born into this collective amnesia. And for most of us, our upbringing fails us and our education is inadequate. That was true for me.

As I became more serious in dealing with my own state of ignorance, I became ever more acutely sensitive to the pervasive ignorance that is the foundation of America in particular. Even if that is true of all societies to some degree, I suspect there is something unique about what has been referred to as America’s Fantasyland. The US, in being an extreme expression, potentially can help us understand what plagues most of humanity at this late hour in the liberal age.

It is my love of liberalism that makes me so harsh in my criticisms. I long for a liberalism worthy of the name. But first that requires us to look at what the reactionary mind reflects back to us. It does no good to simply dismiss those others as ‘deplorables’. What gets repressed and projected doesn’t really go away, related to how externalized costs eventually come due.

Corey Robin’s take on liberal amnesia, despite my concerns of certain limitations, resonates with something going on right now. Few seem to be paying attention, specifically not those who have their hands on the wheel or are in a position to take hold of the wheel. Some are asleep, others are texting, and still others are imbibing intoxicants… but I’m suggesting that someone needs to be at the wheel with their eyes on the road. I’m one of those crazy radicals who would rather prevent an accident than deal with the aftermath.

So, first we should all look up and look forward. Where are we heading? And is that where we want to go? If not, why don’t we change direction?

We see a monster in the rearview mirror and, not realizing we are seeing our own reflection, we keep our foot on the gas pedal. Off we speed toward disaster, driven by fear and forgetting that we are the driver. As a society, we never stop going — expressed in the quote used by Robin: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.”

On we go. No one can doubt that we are going somewhere and getting there fast. The wind in our hair and adrenaline in our veins can feel almost like progress, as if we really will outrun our monsters this time. Meanwhile, Trump the egotistic man-child is sitting in the backseat tweeting and asking, Are we there yet?

Writing a post like this is less about in-depth analysis than it is about capturing a mood. I’ve written plenty of in-depth analyses and they have their value. But studying a medical textbook on cardiology is not the same as feeling the beating pulse under your fingertips. In reading Robin’s piece and the responses to it, I could sense the flow of blood at the heart of the issue.

Right there, something can be felt. It’s like the tug of the undertow when you’re standing a few feet out in the ocean water. Viscerally, in that moment, you know the power of the ocean and how easy it is to be swept away. The whole dynamic of the debate is caught in that push and pull. So maybe the debate itself (as framed) can’t avoid that sphere of influence, that narrative attractor. Much of the commentary on the problem is caught up in the problem itself, related to how the reactionary is the other side of the liberal.

This is why the amnesiac can’t escape the condition of amnesia. It’s not something external, like a pair of clothes that can be taken off or a wall that can be knocked down. It is a loss of some part of the self but not really lost, just hidden and forgotten. But anamnesis, remembering of what was forgotten, remains possible… if we could only remember that there was something we forgot and why it mattered so much that maybe we shouldn’t have forgotten it in the first place.

Thinking too much about that, though, makes us feel uncomfortable and we’re not quite sure why. We convince ourselves, once again, that maybe things unknown are best left that way. In a moment of crisis, the memory of something touches the edge of our awareness and yet quickly slips away again. We busy ourselves with other things, the preoccupation of the present eclipsing what came before. That is what responsible adults do, deal with the issues at hand, right?

I like the ocean metaphor. The beach, where land meets water, is our society. The progressive and reactionary is the tide going in and out. This liberal age is the storm wall we built to protect our home. But that storm wall has the unintended consequence of slowly eroding away the sand that forms the beach.

I saw a real world example of this form of erosion. And it was stark.

There is this wealthy estate my grandfather grew up on, as the son of the head gardener. When he was a child, there was a beautiful beach that was part of the estate. And next to the estate is a public beach. The estate owners had a storm wall built which caused their beach to entirely disappear, while the public beach is still there. Only a few feet separate the private property from the public space, but the erosion stops right at the boundary line.

This form of privatization is very much of this liberal age. Before this era, feudalism had its commons. Some speak of the tragedy of the commons, but that is a lie. There was no tragedy of the commons as they were heavily regulated. Those regulations of the commons only disappeared when the commons disappeared. And what followed was the tragedy of privatization, as seen with private developers building storm walls.

It is as pointless to blame the tide coming in, the progressive, as it is to blame the tide going out, the reactionary. It is the storm wall, the liberal paradigm, that frames the action of the tide and determines the consequences. Building the wall higher and stronger to protect us from the worsening effects of storms won’t really save us or our home. Maybe it is time to consider the possibility that the storm wall is the problem and not the natural flow of the tides that get defined by that modern construction.

The erosion of the beach is our collective amnesia. But to make the metaphor more apt, most people would never have a public beach next to them. There would be nothing to be compared against to remind people about what has been lost. And the loss would be gradual, the beach slowly shrinking as the storm wall grew larger. There simply is the loss of the beach along with loss even of the memory of the beach.

The very concept of a beach might disappear from public memory and public debate. Or people might assume that ‘beach’ was always a word referring to that threatening space just beyond the storm wall. Instead of discussing how to save or bring back beaches, political conflict would obsess over blaming the other side and arguing over the increasingly advanced techniques of building storm walls.

Eventually those storm walls would entirely block the view of the ocean, that is to say the view of the world outside of the system we’ve collectively built over the generations. The walls that protect us then would imprison us and enclose our minds, shut down our imaginations. But what fine and impressive walls they are, among the greatest advancements of modern civilization.

Here is the point, the moral of the metaphor.

It’s not that we should stop building great things, as expressions of what we value and envision. And it’s not even that we should specifically stop building walls for they too have their place when built with wisdom and understanding. But that requires us to realize the effect we have on the world around us in what we build and how that affects us in turn. The liberal project needs to be reinterpreted, reimagined, and reinvented. Or failing that, we need a new societal project that would inspire us as once did the liberal dream.

* * *

4/2/18 – On a related thought, Richard Eskow asks, Is the ‘liberal world order’ worth saving? That is a question I’ve often asked myelf and I’ve done so from the perspective of someone who has spent much of his life identified with the liberal world order. To be plainly honest, I like the liberal dream. It’s a beautiful dream.

So, a ‘liberal’ such as myself is implicated in this line of questioning, and the deepest implication is about what this change would mean on a personal level. Is my liberal identity worth saving? And in the long term, can it be saved? Or must we liberals become something new in seeking something new?

Eskow states that, “The “liberal world order” must own up to its mistakes. They were errors of commission, as well as omission. Today’s chaos – from Brexit to Trump – is fallout from a global system that works for the benefit of a privileged few and has failed to offer democratic alternatives to inequality and oligarchy.” That is to say liberals must own up to their mistakes. And in this liberal age, we are all liberals.

So, “Is the “liberal world order” worth saving?” That is a tough question. “Not in its present form,” suggests Eskow. “Yes, it has provided some semblance of order. But order without justice is both unfair and unstable. The unfairness has been apparent for many decades. Now we’re seeing the instability.”

Up to this point, we as a society have been unable to ask this question, much less take it seriously enough to attempt an answer. That is where ignorance and amnesia have left us. But maybe the coming storm, when it blows in our windows and knocks down our walls, will wake us up to the reality that was always there. What was hidden in plain sight will become impossible to ignore, as the costs finally come due.

From Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is some oft quoted dialogue. One character asks another, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways,” was the response. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That is how we will emerge from our state of unconsciousness and obliviousness. The experience of anamnesis will be a hammer to our skull. The gradual process has been building up for a long time. And soon the sudden result will finally arrive, appearing as if out of nowhere.

Will the liberal order survive? I guess we’ll find out. Let the awakening begin!

 

 

 

A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning

Storytelling is a way to embody and express meaning. But there is also no better way to hide and obscure meaning than behind a story.

The most powerful stories are those so compelling or so enforced that they take on the aura of reality, even if only for a moment of imagination. When someone doesn’t tell you the meaning of a story, it might be because they can’t but then again it might be because they won’t. The greatest storytellers don’t want you to consciously know what they are telling you for any meaning seen out in the open loses its power to control our minds, direct our perception, and shape our identity.

That is the entire history of religion and rhetoric, politics and propaganda, media and advertising. One way or another, a story is always being told. And with a dominant narrative, the audience is held in thrall. This is why stories can be as inescapable as they are dangerous. Also, this is why no one ever likes to have the meaning of their own story brought out into the harsh light. We grow attached to our stories, as individuals and societies. We couldn’t function without them, our strength as it is our Achilles’ heel.

So when a story threatens or terrorizes, imprisons or hobbles, the only way to fight it is by making its message explicit, to defuse the bomb. And that can only be done by telling an even better story, more powerful and compelling, at least in that moment of narrative crisis. But in the process of replacing one story with another, we once again get lost in meanings we can’t discern with consequences we can’t foresee.

All of that is beyond the task of the successful storyteller. As Flannery O’Connor made clear, her purpose is simply to give expression to “experienced meaning,” not to explain to others or even to herself. As a con man has to first con himself, if a storyteller didn’t get lost in her own stories, neither would her audience. The fisherman gets tangled up in his own net and sometimes drowns — that is a cost of the job, demonstrating how highly effective is the net. As such, a storyteller lives and dies by the stories told.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories”
from Mystery and Manners (as quoted in Biblioklept)

Noble or savage?

From about a decade ago, in the last year of the Bush era, The Economist published the article “Noble or savage?” It is a typical piece, a rather simplistic and uninformed view, as expected. Rhetoric like this gets spun on a daily basis, but this particular example hit a nerve.

“two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year.”

That is plain fricking idiotic. Modern hunter-gatherers are under social, political, military, and environmental pressure that didn’t exist to the same degree until the modern era. Plus, they would be experiencing greater levels of pollution and introduction of new diseases that has been causing further stress and instability.

“Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two species.”

Like modern hunter-gatherers, modern chimpanzees are living under unnatural conditions. The territory of chimpanzees has been severely impacted by human encroachment, environmental destruction, poaching, and violent conflict. Why would any halfway intelligent person expect anything other than dysfunctional behavior from populations of two closely related species experiencing the same dysfunctional conditions?

“Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one person per square mile.”

Not necessarily. Hunter-gatherers have a lower birthrate, partly because of later puberty. Plus, they have higher infant mortality. Overpopulation is simply not much of a problem for most hunter-gatherers. They are usually able to maintain a stable population without needing warfare to decrease excess numbers. During boon times, population stress might become a problem, but that isn’t the norm.

“Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak were dead.”

Maybe to some degree. But this would have to be proven, not claimed as empty speculation. Once past early childhood, hunter-gatherers have lifespans that are as long as and health that is superior to modern Westerners. Adult hunter-gatherers have low mortality rates, regularly living into old age with few if any of the stress-related illnesses common among WEIRD societies (low or non-existent rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, psychosis, trauma, etc).

“Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth.”

Along with being ignorant of anthropology and social science, the author is likewise ignorant of history.

Most rural peasants didn’t freely choose to leave their villages. They were evicted from their homes and communities. The commons they had rights to and depended on became privatized during the enclosure movement of early capitalism. Oftentimes, their villages were razed to the ground and the then landless peasants were forced into a refugee crisis with their only option being to head to the cities where they found overcrowding, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and starvation.

In comparison, their rural life had been a quite secure and pleasant. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses this in Dancing in the Streets. During much of feudalism, specifically earlier on, as much or more time was spent in socializing and public events (celebrations, holy days, carnival, etc) than in labor. The loss of that relatively easygoing and healthy rural life was devastating and traumatizing. This set the stage for the Peasants’ Revolt, English Civil War, and the revolutionary era. Thomas Paine saw firsthand the results of this societal and economic shift when he lived in London. It was a time of near continuous food riots, public hangings, and forced labor (either as convicts or indentured servants).

“Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless pursuit by endurance runners.”

That probably had as much to do with environmental changes. There is still scholarly debate about how much of those extinctions were caused by over-hunting versus environmental stress on species. It was probably a combination of factors. After all, it was large-scale climate shifts that even made possible the migration of humans into new areas. When such climate shifts happened, ecosystems were dramatically altered and not all species were equally adaptable as their former niches disappeared. For example, neanderthals probably died because they couldn’t handle the warmer temperatures, not because they were massacred by invading homo sapiens.

“Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change.”

That is rhetoric being used to justify an ideology. All societies and species experience change, as they are forced to adapt to changing conditions or failing that to die out. That is the natural state of earthly existence for all species. But the narrative of ‘progress’ is a particular view of change. All of evolution has not been heading toward Western Civilization, as an inevitable march of history as foreordained by God’s plan for the dominance of the white race over the beasts and savages.

“It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated another species—the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.”

How shockingly simpleminded! Nothing is predestined. That sounds like the old Whiggish history of Manifest Destiny. This entire article is a long argument for Western imperialism in its genocide of the natives and the stealing of their land. No one is arguing that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is or was perfect, but let’s at least acknowledge the aspects of that lifestyle that were relatively better, such as low levels of social stress and mental illness. Do we really need yet another apologia for neoliberal hegemony and modern globalization? No, we don’t.

“There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too.”

There might be a modern moral in this story. But it might not be the one promoted by the ruthless dominators who have willfully destroyed all alternatives. The royal ‘we’ that supposedly have been solving these problems just so happens to be the same ‘we’ that has eliminated the natives and their lifestyle, often by way of one form of death or another, from war to disease. These hunter-gatherers, as representing an alternative, may seem problematic to the ruling class of capitalist nation-states. And no doubt that problem has been solved for the endless march of capitalist ‘progress’, such as it is.

“Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.”

So, the vision offered by the ruling elite is endless creative destruction that pulverizes everyone and everything that gets in the way. One problem ever leading to another, an ongoing Social Darwinism that implicitly presumes Westerners will continue to be the winners and survivors. They shall consume the entire earth until there is nothing left and then they will isolate themselves in post-apocalyptic biodomes or escape to the stars following their tech-utopian fantasies.

As for the rest of us, are we supposed to be apathetically submit to their power-hungry demands and world-weary pessimism threatening that resistance is futile, that no other options remain? Are we expected to unquestioningly accept how ideological realism denies moral and radical imagination, denies our freedom to choose anything else?

* * *

Noble or Savage? Both. (Part 1) And (Part 2)
by Jason Godesky

Romantic primitivism
by Evfit

Individualism and Isolation

“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

“The Indians, their old masters, gave them their choice and, without requiring any consideration, told them that they had been long as free as themselves. They chose to remain, and the reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us… all these and many more motives which I have forgot made them prefer that life of which we entertain such dreadful opinions. It cannot be, therefore, so bad as we generally conceive it to be; there must be in their social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something more congenial to our native dispositions than the fictitious society in which we live, or else why should children, and even grown persons, become in a short time so invincibly attached to it? There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he will secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot, and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind all you have given him and return with inexpressible joy to lie on the mats of his fathers…

“Let us say what will of them, of their inferior organs, of their want of bread, etc., they are as stout and well made as the Europeans. Without temples, without priests, without kings and without laws, they are in many instances superior to us, and the proofs of what I advance are that they live without care, sleep without inquietude, take life as it comes, bearing all its asperities with unparalleled patience, and die without any kind of apprehension for what they have done or for what they expect to meet with hereafter. What system of philosophy can give us so many necessary qualifications for happiness? They most certainly are much more closely connected to nature than we are; they are her immediate children…”
~ J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Such societies, as the acronym goes, are WEIRD. But what exactly makes them weird?

This occurred to me because of reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. Much of what gets attributed to these WEIRD descriptors has been around for more than a half millennia, at least since the colonial imperialism began in Europe. From the moment Europeans settled in the Americas, a significant number of colonists were choosing to live among the natives because in many ways that lifestyle was a happier and healthier way of living with less stress and work, less poverty and inequality, not only lacking in arbitrary political power but also allowing far more personal freedom, especially for women.

Today, when we bother to think much about the problems we face, we mostly blame them on the side effects of modernity. But colonial imperialism began when Europe was still under the sway of of monarchies, state churches, and feudalism. There was nothing WEIRD about Western civilization at the time.

Those earlier Europeans hadn’t yet started to think of themselves in terms of a broad collective identity such as ‘Westerners’. They weren’t particularly well educated, not even the upper classes. Industrialization was centuries away. As for being rich, there was some wealth back then but it was limited to a few and even for those few it was rather unimpressive by modern standards. And Europeans back then were extremely anti-democratic.

Since European colonists were generally no more WEIRD than various native populations, we must look for other differences between them. Why did so many Europeans choose to live among the natives? Why did so many captured Europeans who were adopted into tribes refuse or resist being ‘saved’? And why did the colonial governments have to create laws and enforce harsh punishments in their having tried to stop people from ‘going native’?

European society, on both sides of the ocean, was severely oppressive and violent. That was particularly true in Virginia that was built on the labor of indentured servitude, at a time when most were worked to death before getting the opportunity for release from bondage. They had plenty of reason to seek the good life among the natives. But life was less than pleasant in the other colonies as well. A similar pattern repeated itself.

Thomas Morton went off with some men into the wilderness to start their own community where they commingled with the natives. This set an intolerable example that threatened Puritan social control and so the Puritans destroyed their community of the free. Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, took on the mission to convert the natives but found himself converted instead. He fled Puritan oppression because, as he put, the natives were more civilized than the colonists. Much later on, Thomas Paine living near some still free Indian tribes observed that their communities demonstrated greater freedom, self-governance, and natural rights than the colonies. He hoped Americans could take that lesson to heart. Other founders, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, looked admiringly to the example of their Indian neighbors.

The point is that whatever is problematic about Western society has been that way for a long time. Modernity has worsened this condition of unhappiness and dysfunction. There is no doubt that becoming more WEIRD has made us ever more weird, but Westerners were plenty weird from early on before they became WEIRD. Maybe the turning point for the Western world was the loss of our own traditional cultures and tribal lifestyles, as the Roman model of authoritarianism spread across Europe and became dominant. We have yet to shake off these chains of the past and instead have forced them upon everyone else.

It is what some call the Wetiko, one of the most infectious and deadly of mind viruses. “The New World fell not to a sword but to a meme,” as Daniel Quinn stated it (Beyond Civilization, p. 50). But it is a mind virus that can only take hold after immunity is destroyed. As long as there were societies of the free, the contagion was contained because the sick could be healed. But the power of the contagion is that the rabidly infected feel an uncontrollable compulsion to attack and kill the uninfected, the very people who would offer healing. Then the remaining survivors become infected and spread it further. A plague of victimization until no one is left untouched, until there is nowhere else to escape. Once all alternatives are eliminated, once a demiurgic monoculture comes to power, we are trapped in what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison. Sickness becomes all we know.

The usefulness of taking note of contemporary WEIRD societies isn’t that WEIRDness is the disease but that it shows the full blown set of symptoms of the disease. But the onset of the symptoms comes long after the infection, like a slow-growing malignant tumor in the brain. Still, symptoms are important, specifically when there is a comparison to a healthy population. That is what the New World offered the European mind, a comparison. The earliest accounts of native societies in the Americas helped Europeans to diagnose their own disease and helped motivate them to begin looking for a cure, although the initial attempts were fumbling and inept. The first thing that some Europeans did was simply to imagine what a healthy community might look like. That is what Thomas More attempted to do six centuries ago with his book Utopia.

Maybe the key is that of social concerns. Utopian visions have always focused on the social aspect, typically describing how people would ideally live together in communities. That was also the focus of the founders when they sought out alternative possibilities of organizing society. The change with colonialism, as feudalism was breaking down, was loss of belonging, of community and kinship. Modern individualism began not as an ideal but as a side effect of social breakdown, a condition of isolation and disconnection forced upon entire populations rather than having been freely chosen. And it was traumatizing to the Western psyche, and still is traumatizing, as seen with the high rates of mental illnesses in WEIRD societies, especially in the hyper-individualistic United States. That began before the defining factors of the WEIRD took hold. It was that trauma that made the WEIRD possible.

The colonists, upon meeting natives, discovered what had been lost. And for many colonists, that loss had happened within living memory. The hunger for what was lost was undeniable. To have seen a traditional communities that still functioned would have been like taking a breath of fresh air after having spent months in the stench of a ship’s hull. Not only did these native communities demonstrate what was recently lost but also what had been lost so much earlier. As many Indian tribes had more democratic practices, so did many European tribes prior to feudalism. But colonists had spent their entire lives being told democracy was impossible, that personal freedom was dangerous or even sinful.

The difference today is that none of this is within living memory for most of us, specifically Americans, unless one was raised Amish or in some similar community. The closest a typical American comes to this experience is by joining the military during war time. That is one of the few opportunities for a modern equivalent to a tribe, at least within WEIRD societies. And maybe a large part of the trauma soldiers struggle with isn’t merely the physical violence of war but the psychological violence of returning to the state of alienation, the loss of a bond that was closer than that of their own families.

Sebastian Junger notes that veterans who return to strong social support experience low rates of long-term PTSD, similar to Johann Hari’s argument about addiction in Chasing the Scream and his argument about depression in Lost Connections. Trauma, depression, addiction, etc — these are consequences of or worsened by isolation. These responses are how humans cope under stressful and unnatural conditions.

* * *

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
by Sebastian Junger
pp. 16-25

The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing. On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world. But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom. One study in the 1960s found that nomadic !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert needed to work as little as twelve hours a week in order to survive—roughly one-quarter the hours of the average urban executive at the time. “The ‘camp’ is an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day,” anthropologist Richard Lee noted with clear admiration in 1968. “The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share… Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and the frequency of movement, surplus accumulation… is kept to a minimum.”

The Kalahari is one of the harshest environments in the world, and the !Kung were able to continue living a Stone-Age existence well into the 1970s precisely because no one else wanted to live there. The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life—even during times of adversity—challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control. […]

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

Suicide is difficult to study among unacculturated tribal peoples because the early explorers who first encountered them rarely conducted rigorous ethnographic research. That said, there is remarkably little evidence of depression-based suicide in tribal societies. Among the American Indians, for example, suicide was understood to apply in very narrow circumstances: in old age to avoid burdening the tribe, in the ritual paroxysms of grief following the death of a spouse, in a hopeless but heroic battle with an enemy, and in an attempt to avoid the agony of torture. Among tribes that were ravaged by smallpox, it was also understood that a person whose face had been hideously disfigured by lesions might kill themselves. According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources , early chroniclers of the American Indians couldn’t find any other examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni, among many others, experienced no suicide at all.

This stands in stark contrast to many modern societies, where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. (In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.) According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. A 2006 study comparing depression rates in Nigeria to depression rates in North America found that across the board, women in rural areas were less likely to get depressed than their urban counterparts. And urban North American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to experience depression.

The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses—and certainly isn’t the American ideal—but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is. […]

The alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience start virtually at birth and never let up. Infants in hunter-gatherer societies are carried by their mothers as much as 90 percent of the time, which roughly corresponds to carrying rates among other primates. One can get an idea of how important this kind of touch is to primates from an infamous experiment conducted in the 1950s by a primatologist and psychologist named Harry Harlow. Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans.

In America during the 1970s, mothers maintained skin-to-skin contact with babies as little as 16 percent of the time, which is a level that traditional societies would probably consider a form of child abuse. Also unthinkable would be the modern practice of making young children sleep by themselves. In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone in their own room—a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

The point of making children sleep alone, according to Western psychologists, is to make them “self-soothing,” but that clearly runs contrary to our evolution. Humans are primates—we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees—and primates almost never leave infants unattended, because they would be extremely vulnerable to predators. Infants seem to know this instinctively, so being left alone in a dark room is terrifying to them. Compare the self-soothing approach to that of a traditional Mayan community in Guatemala: “Infants and children simply fall asleep when sleepy, do not wear specific sleep clothes or use traditional transitional objects, room share and cosleep with parents or siblings, and nurse on demand during the night.” Another study notes about Bali: “Babies are encouraged to acquire quickly the capacity to sleep under any circumstances, including situations of high stimulation, musical performances, and other noisy observances which reflect their more complete integration into adult social activities.”

As modern society reduced the role of community, it simultaneously elevated the role of authority. The two are uneasy companions, and as one goes up, the other tends to go down. In 2007, anthropologist Christopher Boehm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past, and one of their most common traits was the absence of major wealth disparities between individuals. Another was the absence of arbitrary authority. “Social life is politically egalitarian in that there is always a low tolerance by a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing, or denigrating the others,” Boehm observed. “The human conscience evolved in the Middle to Late Pleistocene as a result of… the hunting of large game. This required… cooperative band-level sharing of meat.”

Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group—or of the food supply—are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for. In his survey of ancestral-type societies, Boehm found that—in addition to murder and theft—one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share.” Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning, and, finally, “assassination of the culprit by the entire group.” […]

Most tribal and subsistence-level societies would inflict severe punishments on anyone who caused that kind of damage. Cowardice is another form of community betrayal, and most Indian tribes punished it with immediate death. (If that seems harsh, consider that the British military took “cowards” off the battlefield and executed them by firing squad as late as World War I.) It can be assumed that hunter-gatherers would treat their version of a welfare cheat or a dishonest banker as decisively as they would a coward. They may not kill him, but he would certainly be banished from the community. The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses—roughly one-quarter of that year’s gross domestic product—and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely de-tribalized the country has become.

Dishonest bankers and welfare or insurance cheats are the modern equivalent of tribe members who quietly steal more than their fair share of meat or other resources. That is very different from alpha males who bully others and openly steal resources. Among hunter-gatherers, bullying males are often faced down by coalitions of other senior males, but that rarely happens in modern society. For years, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission has been trying to force senior corporate executives to disclose the ratio of their pay to that of their median employees. During the 1960s, senior executives in America typically made around twenty dollars for every dollar earned by a rank-and-file worker. Since then, that figure has climbed to 300-to-1 among S&P 500 companies, and in some cases it goes far higher than that. The US Chamber of Commerce managed to block all attempts to force disclosure of corporate pay ratios until 2015, when a weakened version of the rule was finally passed by the SEC in a strict party-line vote of three Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed.

In hunter-gatherer terms, these senior executives are claiming a disproportionate amount of food simply because they have the power to do so. A tribe like the !Kung would not permit that because it would represent a serious threat to group cohesion and survival, but that is not true for a wealthy country like the United States. There have been occasional demonstrations against economic disparity, like the Occupy Wall Street protest camp of 2011, but they were generally peaceful and ineffective. (The riots and demonstrations against racial discrimination that later took place in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, led to changes in part because they attained a level of violence that threatened the civil order.) A deep and enduring economic crisis like the Great Depression of the 1930s, or a natural disaster that kills tens of thousands of people, might change America’s fundamental calculus about economic justice. Until then, the American public will probably continue to refrain from broadly challenging both male and female corporate leaders who compensate themselves far in excess of their value to society.

That is ironic, because the political origins of the United States lay in confronting precisely this kind of resource seizure by people in power. King George III of England caused the English colonies in America to rebel by trying to tax them without allowing them a voice in government. In this sense, democratic revolutions are just a formalized version of the sort of group action that coalitions of senior males have used throughout the ages to confront greed and abuse. Thomas Paine, one of the principal architects of American democracy, wrote a formal denunciation of civilization in a tract called Agrarian Justice : “Whether… civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested,” he wrote in 1795. “[Both] the most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.”

When Paine wrote his tract, Shawnee and Delaware warriors were still attacking settlements just a few hundred miles from downtown Philadelphia. They held scores of white captives, many of whom had been adopted into the tribe and had no desire to return to colonial society. There is no way to know the effect on Paine’s thought process of living next door to a communal Stone-Age society, but it might have been crucial. Paine acknowledged that these tribes lacked the advantages of the arts and science and manufacturing, and yet they lived in a society where personal poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man were actively promoted.

In that sense, Paine claimed, the American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life.

* * *

Dark Triad Domination
Urban Weirdness
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
How Universal Is The Mind?
Bias About Bias
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”