“Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label. This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. . . In political terms, liberals are citizens of anywhere and therefore citizens of nowhere. They are the Ishmaels of political life, the wandering spirits, an influence in all tribes but a dominant force in none.”Philip Collins, How did the word “liberal” become a political insult?
I previously criticized Zach Goldberg’s article on white liberals. He wanted to make them out to seem like not only extremist ideologues but also psychologically abnormal. At times, it comes across as a soft-pedalled conservative diatribe, but some of his analysis brings up some good points.
It’s even more interesting when we ignore his conclusion and, instead, acknowledge that the average American is in general agreement with white liberals. White liberals may be a minority in the strict sense, particularly limiting ourselves to self-identified liberals, but “white liberalism” apparently has become the majority position. We are all white liberals now or most of us are, including an increasing number of non-whites and non-liberals. Embrace your inner white liberal!
Anyway, the relevant takeway is that a real change is happening. I don’t know that white liberals are the canary in the coal mine or otherwise deserving of special treatment. But because the mainstream is so obsessed with them, they get all the credit and blame for so much that is happening. So, looking at this one demographic might tell us something about Americans in general and where American society is heading.
Considering most Americans are further left than the mainstream would like to admit, this really isn’t fundamentally an issue of white liberalism at all, of course. It’s just a way of distracting from the decades-long leftward lurch of public opinion and a shifting psychological profile of personality traits and moral values. That is all the more reason to look at what is happening among white liberals, if we take them as representative of something far broader. For all the condemnation they get, and some of it deserved, they are fascinating creatures.
Supposedly, for the first time in history, there is a demographic that has a pro-outgroup bias. White liberals state a more positive view of those not like them than those like them. What is not mentioned are other demographics like non-white liberals and leftists who might show this tendency even more strongly. There isn’t necessarily anything special about white liberals. It’s simply liberal-mindedness taking ever stronger hold in the American psyche and this showing up clearly first in particular demographics.
Goldberg speculates that the cause is the internet. White liberals are leading the way in embracing the new media, although that is probably true of social liberals in general (black liberals, Asian-American libertarians, Latinx social democrats, etc). Social liberals tend to be the most liberal-minded in being open to new experiences (FFM Openness, MBTI Intuition, etc). That openness, in this age of media proliferation, contributes to greater exposure to different views and ideas. For all our fear that social media feeds into echo chambers of disinfo and extremism, so far the internet has also been a powerful force of liberalization.
It’s easy to forget how radically liberal our society has become. Most American conservatives today are more liberal or even leftist than the average liberal was maybe only a century ago. So much of what we’ve come to regularly question, doubt, and challenge was simply accepted as normal reality and undeniable truth not that long ago. The American majority, white and non-white, is now far to the left of John Locke, the prototype of Anglo-American white liberalism. In place of that earliest and most respectable expression of Enlightenment thought, we are ever more embracing the radical and rabblerousing liberal vision of Thomas Paine, the most important American founder now forgotten.
We can be transformed by this revolutionary liberal-mindedness or we can be shaped in reaction to it. But in either case, it has come to define our entire society. Indeed, we have all become white liberals, whatever that means. The white liberal is the symbolic force and totemic spirit of American society. Let us not forget, though, that the underlying moral potency of this white liberalism was always built around the radical other, slowly but surely brought into the fold in redefining not only what it means to be American but, more importantly, what it means to be human.
The threat and promise of a more inclusive empathy and more expansive identity was always the seed of irritation around which the pearl of idealism grew, from the Axial Age to the modern revolutionary era. In the egalitarian conviction of Thomas Paine, maybe we are coming closer to the time when we can all declare that we are citizens of the world. Imagine a global society where nearly everyone had a pro-outgroup bias, where a compassionate sense of the other was the moral mirror that we held up to ourselves, where we finally lived up to Jesus’ radical teaching that we are judged by the treatment of the least among us. Imagine…
* * *
America’s White Saviors
by Zach Goldberg
The Moral Foundations of the Modern White Liberal
A large body of work in this field consistently finds that liberals score significantly higher than conservatives on the personality trait “agreeableness” and more specifically on its sub-dimension of “compassion.” In social science studies like these, agreeableness represents the tendency to be altruistic, tender-minded, cooperative, trusting, forgiving, warm, helpful, and sympathetic. The trait is closely linked with empathy and compassion toward the suffering of others. […]
A substantial line of research reveals that, out of these moral considerations, liberals generally attach the most importance to the foundations of harm/care and fairness. While conservatives also tend to rate these foundations as important, their moral compass is broader and includes a greater concern for violations of purity (e.g., “whether or not someone was able to control his or her desires”), loyalty (e.g., “whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group”), and authority (e.g., “whether or not someone respected the traditions of society”). As with empathy, the liberal concern for harm/care and fairness relates to a larger set of targets (e.g., animals, the needy in other countries) than it does for conservatives, who are generally more concerned with threats to the in-group. The liberal conception of ‘harm’ is also far broader, which lowers the threshold at which their moral alarms are triggered.
[…] white liberals—especially the self-identified “very liberal”—are significantly more likely to report intense or extremely frequent feelings of tenderheartedness, protectiveness, and sensitivity when considering the circumstances of racial and ethnic out-group members. A related graph below displays the average differences in feelings of warmth (measured along a 0-100 scale) toward whites vs. nonwhites (i.e., Asians, Hispanics, and blacks) across different subgroups.
Remarkably, white liberals were the only subgroup exhibiting a pro-outgroup bias—meaning white liberals were more favorable toward nonwhites and are the only group to show this preference for group other than their own. Indeed, on average, white liberals rated ethnic and racial minority groups 13 points (or half a standard deviation) warmer than whites. As is depicted in the graph below, this disparity in feelings of warmth toward ingroup vs. outgroup is even more pronounced among whites who consider themselves “very liberal” where it widens to just under 20 points. Notably, while white liberals have consistently evinced weaker pro-ingroup biases than conservatives across time, the emergence and growth of a pro-outgroup bias is actually a very recent, and unprecedented, phenomenon.
Not surprisingly, data from the American National Elections Studies (ANES) shows white liberals scoring significantly higher on measures of ‘white privilege awareness’ (e.g., ‘how much does being white grant you unearned privileges in today’s society?’) and ‘white guilt’ (e.g., ‘how guilty do you feel about the privileges and benefits you receive as a white American?’). Both of these variables are strongly correlated with measures of liberal racial sympathy (or what is more traditionally referred to as ‘low racial resentment’)–the white liberal scores on which reached an ANES-high in 2016. Previous research has shown that these collective moral emotions, triggered by historical wrongdoing and perceptions that an in-group’s advantages and privileges are illegitimate, can can increase support for reparative and humanitarian social policies. That is exactly what has happened in recent years as white liberals have become increasingly supportive of affirmative action, reparations, and increased immigration.
The Social Media Accelerant
[…] Data from the General Social Survey reveals a roughly 170% increase in the number of weekly hours, from 5 to 13.6, that people reported spending on the internet between 2000-2018. Between 2006 and 2018, the percentage of respondents listing the internet as their primary news source jumped roughly 33 percentage points from 14.2% to 47.6%. Turning to social media, data I pooled from the Pew Research Center shows a similar increase in the percentage of people reporting social media use between 2008-2016, from 34.8% to 73%. These increases have occurred among all whites, regardless of political affiliation, but not to the same degree. White liberals place ahead of conservatives on every one of these measures of internet use and social media exposure. They spend significantly more weekly hours on the internet; are significantly more likely to list the internet as their primary news source; and significantly more likely to consume news from and be politically active on social media. A 2016 Pew Racial Attitudes survey further shows that of the 74% of white liberals (vs. 55% of white conservatives) reporting social media use, roughly 44% (vs. 30% of white conservatives) say that at least some of the posts are about race or race relations. And, more generally, 70% of white liberals (vs. 51% of white conservatives) report discussing race relations or racial inequality with others either “sometimes” (39%) or “often” (31%).
An analysis of GoogleTrends data, graphed below, shows that the frequency of searches for race-related and “woke” terms has grown substantially since the beginning of the decade—a period that happens to coincide with the social media boom and the emergence of so-called hashtag activism (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter). This period also saw the rise of the Huffington Post—an online progressive blog and news site that prolifically opines on race-related issues. Whereas just 13% of white liberals reported regularly visiting the site in 2012, over 30% did in 2016. A similar pattern is observed for digital readership of The New York Times (NYT), which grew from 16% to 31% among white liberals between 2012 and 2016—during this same period, according to a recent content analysis I conducted—the percentage of Times articles mentioning race-related and woke terms saw unprecedented growth. For instance, whereas just 0.4% (or 334) of articles referred to racism in 2012, this figure had doubled by 2015 (to 0.87% or 813) and reached over 2% (or 2,353) by 2018. Interestingly, the number of monthly NYT articles mentioning racism also closely tracks Google search interest in the term.
28 thoughts on “We Are All White Liberals Now”
So its Wakanda for all time, or just to replace the statues torn down over the summer?
I hope you’ll read some movie reviews:
It took a while to read that lengthy movie review. It’s quite detailed and the position is argued well. But I’m curious about what all of this means for most Americans, as opposed to those who presume to speak on behalf of the public.
What does the majority think about privileged rhetoric of racial politics and Hollywood narratives upholding oppressive capitalist realism? Beyond the chattering class, I honestly don’t know what ‘Wakanda’ and such might represent in the public mind.
It does get one thinking, though.
I think the danger is losing the public, the left behind majority, who probably aren’t as uneducable or uninterested in historical verity as many academic departments.
I’ve noticed some BLM activists using Bernie’s talking points in ad campaigns, which is good, but it seems like another reprise of the race first narratives of the late 19th-early 20th century. Its quite odd how the rhetoric of exclusion for immigrants and nativism from the right was mirroring this era, which you and a few commentators noticed. Its stranger to see it on the left, which is why my support of BLM grew more wary over the summer.
But I’ll qualify my attacks with the observation that they do focus on changing the power structure. While breaking into the board room isn’t a mass unity tactic, but does address the corporate laundering of privelige in elite circles that took form in that same time period. It was also a time of mass participation and charismatic leaders on the left, with the labor rights struggle and opposition to WWI. At least more people are nostalgic for a cultural moment besides a few years in the 60’s. But what it means for us in the years ahead is dim and shadowy.
I think my biggest problem with the movie narrative is that it implied that such a futuristic city would have to exist in a dream world inaccessible to the rest of the planet.
Media narratives (from news reporting, political rhetoric, & entertainment) can be powerful. That cannot be doubted in the slightest. But I also know that something else is maybe more powerfully shaping socal identity and the public mind. If the media and politcal elite were the key factor, we should expect the shift left to be first found among the most powerful thought leaders. That isn’t what we find, though. Those thought leaders, instead, appear to be following behind a larger social shift. I don’t know that I have an explanation for that, other than it having to do with changing conditions of media technology, social media, etc.
That is always on my mind as I look at something like that movie review. There is something happening and few are paying attention. It’s easier to focus on an elite. This response is far from being dismissive of that elite focus. Even if they aren’t the primary cause of changes, looking to the elite could still tell us much as they also are being impacted by the changes. There was a particular detail from that movie review that caught my attention, but I’m not sure it’s greater relevance. The author was talking about racial essentialism as authentic group identity and the “mysticism of organic black community” with a presumed universal experience of Platonic blackness that is accessible to all black individuals by default of membership. As the movie review concludes:
“Nevertheless, we continue to indulge the politically wrong-headed, counterproductive, and even reactionary features of the “representative black voice” industry in whatever remains of our contemporary public sphere. And we never reckon with the truly disturbing presumption that any black person who can gain access to the public microphone and performs familiar rituals of “blackness” should be recognized as expressing significant racial truths and deserves our attention. This presumption rests on the unexamined premise that blacks share a common, singular mind that is at once radically unknowable to non-blacks and readily downloaded by any random individual setting up shop as a racial voice. And despite what all of our age’s many heroic narratives of individualist race-first triumph may suggest to the casual viewer, that premise is the essence of racism.”
The author also writes that, “The leading platforms of respectable black discourse—including the various internet platforms that encourage freelance chatter—reinforce the sense that those purporting to express the black point of view arise naturally from within the quasi-mythic “black community.”” It’s kind of amusing, if it weren’t such powerful rhetoric. Whether or not the elite are creating it, I do see how it’s taken hold and the evidence can be found in media. I came across an example of this in the most recent episode of Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist. A black character chastises a white character in proclaiming the black experience is unique to such a degree as to entirely exclude any possibility of understanding. Besides an implied race realist worldiview, it’s a complete denial of the idea of a universal humanity involving a common experience suffering and compassion that was advocated by Axial Age prophets, Enlightenment thinkers, and leftist radicals.
I’ve inherited a lot of Norman Mailer esque ideas that probably stick out like a tie dye crawdad whenever I attempt to deal with race in this country. But as I did say and write a good amount of garbage over the last 2 years, I’ll try and address my own miseducation.
I used to identify real strong with my idea of “black music” until I hit the live blues scene and had my bullshit checked in 2 min flat. I had ideas about the primal simplicity of rural black music being the true, pure authentic jazz. But that has nothing to do with playing the changes and soloing in a group ensemble. I was expecting dudes to be on drugs and living large, but they were studying French composers and talking about physics as most of the cats were educated on some level.
Here’s the thing I’ve noticed– I make no end of blunders around race in America, but I’ve never been in danger or threatened for being ignorant. At most I’ve heard, “that’s kinda prejudiced” when I once outlined my delusional idea of racial origins in music to a black girl. So the microaggression crusade that the right yaps on about just hasn’t touched me yet, I’m still waiting.
We just got back from a visit with our brothers and so we stopped back in at the blog here. By the way, what “Norman Mailer esque” ideas are you referring to? We aren’t familiar enough with his writings to guess what you might mean.
In case you’re interested, here is a discussion of cognitive differences between the left and right. What makes it interesting is that it’s written sympathetically by someone who went from far right to far left.
Well I wouldn’t want to claim the association too closely. I’m coming at this from a place of agreeing more with Mailer’s critics– and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous by refering to, a famous writer who stabbed his wife and managed to unite both Kerouac and Ginsberg in rejecting his ideas. I meant to write this looking back, as in now I can place and satirize my own ridiculous notions about culture– that we don’t have seperate cultures based on race, that black culture is woven inextricably with what we know as American culture, so my stance of slumming it or seeking out excoticism was actually a hipster behavior with a long lineage, and as a result I think the place given to the use of addictive drugs in creative life by pop culture is a mistaken one. And I’d have support among the Beat writers for that.
The only addictive drugs I’ve experimented with are sugar, caffeine, and nicotine. Back in more serious drug experimentation days, it only involved pot, LSD, and psilocybin. But I can’t say I ever thought about slumming or exoticism-seeking. My druggy days, limited as they were, were mostly a thing of chilling out with Deadheads. It was very much Northern white culture. There wasn’t much pretense involved. I never even went to a Grateful Dead concert. The drugs were simply my form of depressive self-medication. Beyond that, I had no intention in mind for doing drugs. It was just other people around me were doing. I barely gave it any thought the first time I did LSD. It hadn’t been part of my worldview until I moved out on my own. Growing up, I was so straight that I hadn’t smoked a cigarette or drink alcohol until maybe around age 19. My main addiction always was sugar, a not very sexy addiction.
Sorry, I sent the last reply before I’d completed what I wanted to write. I’d hope you’d be used to my habit of bringing up literary figures to represent large complexes of ideas and history. My attitude toward seeking out culture was a misguided one, like Mailer’s, but with far less drastic consequence, and I’m using my own experience in a spirit of humor here. And where would you see me coming from on that political spectrum? Because in most of our interactions, it seems you have me pegged pretty far to the right. Is it because I questioned some of Rousseau’s foundational ideas? But this is well supported by scholarship on the subject. When I write on him now, after doing more research, I can’t condemn or totally support him, he’s a complex figure with an immense influence on European history, and his writings let in much evil as well as immense good into the world. That’s about all I can say with confidence, and you’ll notice that while I came at the subject shaped by a fairly conservative view, after reading Morley’s biography I’m much closer to the scholar’s view that a simple story won’t do justice to the man or his work. This is a far cry from “hating the French Revolution is the beginning of wisdom” as one reviewer put it on Amazon. But all that aside, don’t these studies on brain differences assume that the place to begin studying political differences lies in the physical structure of the brain? It seems this kind of research runs into the same problems that harry those scientists who tried to prove that doses of the drug Ecstasy cause holes in the brain. One is that some consciousness, the scientist’s presumably, is able to step back and know definitely that the drug is what caused those observable brain differences. I think these studies would have a similar issue, that of showing a sequence from the belief to the observed brain difference. I can discuss this further if you’d like. I will read the paper all the way through, but I want to hone in on the two questions the writer asked. Can brain structures determine beliefs? I’m not saying they can’t, but I would suggest that the second question, how do political beliefs change, needs a different kind of answer. For example, I could know so much about Shakespeare’s brain that I could simulate the man himself in robot form, and have him typing and voice acting in my basement, but this wouldn’t answer my question, of why he wrote the character of Talbot in “Henry the II” to be so luckless and almost inept as a leader. I could be considered a luddite about modern social science, but I don’t think so. But what does my writing have to do with the left and the right when I’m discussing how I embarassed myself in front of a crowd of black musicians? The main reason I post about race on this blog isn’t politics, although I try to include politics as part of the wider world I want to write about. The joke is on me in that story, that’s all I’m gonna say.
To be honest, we haven’t thought much about your ideology. You’ve talked about your past views, but you never much talk about your present views, at least not in a way that would indicate a clear ideology. Our knowledge of you, your life, your thoughts, and your values is extremely superficial. We only could discern some vague outlines of a worldview according to your reading interests, not that we could exactly interpret much from that limited info.
There might be a slight reactionary edge to what you focus on; but then again it’s hard for anyone, ourselves included, to not be a bit reactionary in these reactionary times. At the very least, you don’t come across as a strongly radical, revolutionary, idealistic, optimistic, progressive, and/or egalitarian left-liberal activist; whatever that might or might not make you in contrast. Beyond that, I mostly plead ignorance.
We might guess, though, that you have some general attitude of social liberalism, but that doesn’t say much either. Social liberalism is as much a part of the fabric of American culture as is the reactionary. Basic cultural norms of social liberalism, at this point, have become common even on the political right. Nonetheless, you don’t seem to be a standard conservative, fundy, or right-libertarian. You don’t even talk like an neo-reactionary alt-righter.
So, we could go on in detailing what you appear not to be and then define you in the negative. That probably wouldn’t be helpful, though. Even your opinions on the likes of Rousseau doesn’t tell us much. Besides, we don’t really have any opinion on Rousseau, as we never read his writings or studied his life. You know more about him than we do.
The French Left and the Anglo-American Left have different origins and trajectories. As an Anglo-American left-liberal, we couldn’t say what relevance Rousseau does or does not have to do with us. We tend to see the Anglo-American leftist tradition as having more to do with the religious hereticism of the English Civil War and the English Peasants’ Revolt.
More than the French, it’s probably the Dutch who have had greater influence on the American Left in particular, because of so many Englishmen like John Locke who lived for a time in the Netherlands, not to mention the classical liberalism of the Dutch colony that became New York City. To demonstrate how much French and Anglo-American leftism diverged, consider radically democratic Thomas Paine’s experience in revolutionary France where he sat with the moderates on the ‘right’ side.
Now onto the brain stuff. You asked, “don’t these studies on brain differences assume that the place to begin studying political differences lies in the physical structure of the brain?” And: “Can brain structures determine beliefs?” Politics is not the same thing as ideology. And ideology is not mere beliefs. I’d refer you back to the post on the enclosure of the mind, in relation to Louis Althusser’s interpellation as being hailed into an authorizing worldview. Anyway, brain structures is less about ideology itself than about the motivations underlying ideology. Your questions are jumping too far ahead.
Then you asked, “But what does my writing have to do with the left and the right when I’m discussing how I embarassed myself in front of a crowd of black musicians?” Our original train of thought probably came from a prior comment where we stated, “Those thought leaders, instead, appear to be following behind a larger social shift. I don’t know that I have an explanation for that, other than it having to do with changing conditions of media technology, social media, etc.” Before we can get to the question of what brain structures cause, we might need to ascertain what causes those brain structure differences.
What increases the size of the neocortex, prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex is a healthy, unstressful, safe, stimulating, and supportive environment: good nutrition, low toxicity exposure, reduction of inflammatories, low inequality, few traumatic events, parental engagement, early access to challenging text, high quality education, high quality healthcare, cultural diversity, etc. And what these larger brain structures make possible is greater cognitive ability, specifically fluid intelligence, cognitive complexity, and cognitive empathy.
These are necessary, if not sufficient, for the possibility of liberal-mindedness. This is probably why as IQ and cognitive ability have gone up in the general population so has liberalism. It’s an ideological moral Flynn effect similar to the moral Flynn effect. But such things can lead to varying results depending on the total picture. So, in the US, even though some factors like literacy have improved, other factors like inequality have worsened. This is the mix of the liberal and reactionary as dual forces. It’s not anyone thing but how all of those factors work together. We are far form living under optimal conditions, even as conditions are in many ways far more optimal than they were in the past.
There is another point we should add. It’s not really about individuals. Measures of such things as brain structure size, IQ, cognitive ability, literacy, etc is mostly meaningful at the level of changes in averages and rates. And where the significance is seen is over generations or even decades, in the impact on sociocultural development.
Consider the Flynn effect of rising average IQ. It is mostly explained by increasing fluid intelligence that is linked to those brain structures specific to humans. Anyway, fluid intelligence is about pattern-seeking and problem-solving, closely related to abstract thought. Oral cultures with more concrete thought are extremely different.
This is a difference that makes a difference. In this context, the difference is that, as fluid intelligence increases, so does liberal-mindedness. That is because both are dependent on improvement in the same brain structures. For example, what makes possible greater cognitive complexity also makes possible greater cognitive empathy.
This is useful information for many reasons. A well-functioning and successful social democracy is simply impossible without high levels of cognitive ability and liberal-mindedness in most of the population. It’s related to why Adam Smith thought a free society was not possible without low inequality and widespread education, both being liberalizing forces.
But, of course, not everyone wants a free liberal society, social democratic or otherwise. That is the real conflict. Even conservatives openly admit that education causes people to become more liberal. The difference is in explanation, as conservatives think it’s cultural Marxism or some other conspiracy theory of left-wing elites. The political left, however, argues that it is inherent to a liberal education and hence the name.
I can be a little hot headed about reputed ideology. I’ve spent more time in the ego driven world of art and music at a small level, so I’m out of practice when it comes to discussing “higher things” like science and politics. I can begin to write like I’m doing politics, instead of just being a guy who read some stuff and is posting about it. Like most Americans I don’t have a clear worked out political identity. Some of my worst writing happens when I try to write like I do have a clear idea of society and politics, when its more honest to try and put a finger to the broken fragments of identity and thoughts which we’re all grabbing at to live in a meaningful way.
The thing that bothers me when discussing ideas that sound like advocacy of a totally scientific politics is that by de-emphasizing human choice and will, they also diminish the means, according to the data of recorded and observed experience, by which a person actually develops ethical will and the means to live a fully human life. When I use thinkers like Kirk and Babbitt, I’m mainly trying to figure out a way to live in this American society. But it’s going to be a personal kind of writing. What I’m reacting to is probably my experience of watching Occupy lose its effective power at a crucial historical moment.
When Adam Curtis focused on how the Occupy leaders, by effectively throwing out any concept of leadership, to embrace a consensus-only and process-oriented way of managing large groups of people, but without a positive vision of the society they wanted to create or a moving story to bring people on board, he’s explaining something to me that was overlooked by most news coverage and takes from policy elites.
I saw the camps after they’d fallen prey to meth and disillusion, and it seemed to follow a well-worn path of the counterculture. So having seen the collapse of that way of managing people, where effort is made to avoid any organization, rank or delegated power, made me sensitive to questions I hadn’t considered much before.
I wonder, is it even possible to use Burke’s ideas in another context, like American society in the 20th century, without distorting them beyond recognition? It also occurs to me that regardless of what I or anyone thinks of Burke as a writer, as a statesman, he didn’t write or think anything that wasn’t related to the experience of living under the Penal Laws in Ireland. His interest in tradition and prescription worked out by societies over a long period is most concerned with Ireland as the nation that in many ways civilized England and the continent through its Christianity and education during the Dark Ages.
The history might be written by the victors, but through the efforts of Irish scholars like P.W. Joyce the more official English story, that of Irish savages being brought to civilization by their “betters”, has been challenged as one that doesn’t fit the record of what actually happened as it’s come down to us. A similar obfuscation is found in Church records of the early crusades in Southern France, where Pope Innocent the III went to every pain to assure his court audiences that he was fighting heresy, when he (as he later admitted, the Cathar crusade was one of his deepest regrets) was enabling Northern nobles to commit a naked land grab.
Ralph Ellison makes the point in criticizing some of Richard Wright’s ideas about the bleakness of American life that a person can’t be expected to live fully in Western civilization when they are kept away from it by formal and informal barriers of law, and by a training that discourages them from aspiring to anything to do with the broader European (instead of provincial American culture in the south of his time) in the first place. This rejection of learning and culture, becomes a self-imposed and malign self-discipline which Ellison calls the southern pattern, and he hails Wright as one of the first American writers to reject that pattern within himself by authoring his memoirs.
I’ve experienced neglect and indifference from the authorities in my life in regard to education, and so I was sensitized to these issues without having the larger and more threatening experience of being a double outsider by way of race that Wright lays bare. And this sensitivity was mostly an accident.
But at the risk of jumping past my intellectual fluency, I think Ellison is saying that Wright, in growing up under the pressure of the southern pattern, escaping it as he did under duress, this pressure also closed off his writing from a complete vision of the contemporary black culture(and in Ellison’s view, American culture is too interwoven from the beginning to be neatly separated into black and white, without denying the reality of different histories of the peoples that make up the American populace) life, so he missed in his prose those aspects that reflect both a concern with the realities of as Ellison puts it, drink food weather season, sex, love birth and death, in a lyrical phrase of Baldwinian severe economy, and the cultural figures and patterns that can be found throughout Western culture. Wright’s description of watching the June bugs and seasonal change along with sailing homemade boats in a sewer outside his boyhood home reminds me of Rousseau’s early memories and later disilluson, and he himself was following the routes of the troubadours from France to the feet of the Alps, although in a probably unconscious way.
To connect this back to Theodore Dalrymple’s dreary ideas about social responsibility, I would ask how much of civilized life are people expected to value and cherish under conditions where they are denied access to the example and means to live it in the world around them? This isn’t to say that working class people who steal to supplement their income are savages. I think that’s a common belief among some segments of the social science elite, and I wanted to draw a bead on the most cruel and self-defeating parts of that view.
Now this stuff has to be talked about in a situation where the right is offering a consistent view , which can be boiled down to “having public health at all is bad, private health is the only way”. Well I think we both agree that this is completely out to lunch. What to do about it may well involve massive displays of public goods, a revival of “sewer socialism”. But how do you get people to feel enthusiastic about it, to support it? Or maybe I’m out of my depth here. But I have noticed that while AOC can text me in breathless tones about how much money is being raised, how many people are turning out to support X issue, she’s not giving me a compelling story about what all this activity is for, other than to defeat the Republicans who’ve taken a deep plunge into the irrational, which we agree is bad. But I don’t see the left-liberal side doing the work of weaving these lists of facts into a story that could move people, as previous generations of left leaders have done. And sometimes I bemoan this, and I think Adam Curtis in particular has done good journalistic work on how the belief in electronic networks replacing old politics, the role of the consumer and the decline of ideas about politics that value positive liberties ( in Isiah Berlin’s terms) have led to the dreary state we are in now. But I can’t claim to have the answers as maybe I used to, the best I can do is ask questions.
That is a lot to process. You write that, “The thing that bothers me when discussing ideas that sound like advocacy of a totally scientific politics is that by de-emphasizing human choice and will, they also diminish the means, according to the data of recorded and observed experience, by which a person actually develops ethical will and the means to live a fully human life.” We understand and sympathize with your complaint, as we try to avoid falling into political scientism that claims to trump all other evidence and understandings. It’s true that we have a fondness for science to the degree it can be useful, if used wisely and cautiously such as in interrogating our rationalizing biases and narratizing defenses, but it can only take us so far and, of course, requires balance.
Our view also draws upon the relational aspects of traditional societies, as seen in historical and anthropological records, in combination with the collectivist, environmentalist, and systems thinking among leftists, left-liberals, and those like integral theorists (the latter often with a spiritual bent). As with egalitarianism, the originary impetus of this worldview is pre-rational and pre-scientific, even as it is supported and elucidated by post-Enlightenment research and scholarship. In our blogging, we are comfortable in using both scientific and religious language. When speaking of the present, we often tend toward a more intellectual approach in referencing scientific and other academic evidence. But in writings where we take a more long view of history, we are more likely to be pulled into the long shadow of the Axial Age with its reverberations in religion, particularly when we get riled up about egalitarianism. And then, at other times, we will make use of such things as bicameral mind theory which is informed by both science and religion, along with philosophy, philology, history, and cultural studies. We like to mix it up, depending on mood.
We should point out that we feel strongly uncertain about the egoic claims of free-will, as we are wary of the entire ego theory of mind. Based on such work as that of the Jaynesian and similar scholars, we have strong doubts that ‘will’-power — as a magical force wielded by an egoic god in the gaps — can actually act outside of the environmental conditions that influence, shape, and construct behavioral motivations. In all of our decades of introspection and meditation, we’ve never discovered an autonomous egoic agent of self-willed choice and action. Any such self-identity, in our experience, evaporates like smoke upon the slightest scrutiny of self-awareness. This is how we’ve come to adhere to a bundled theory of mind, a tenet of Buddhism. The self is an aggregate with no essentialist core, as far as we can tell, but we certainly despise determinism as well. It’s just that we seek freedom elsewhere, such as our etymological thoughts on ‘freedom’ and ‘friendship’.
From a combination of leftist and traditionalist perspectives (what, in Spiral Dynamics, is green vmeme and blue vmeme), the human species is assumed to be social and communal through and through (as opposed to individualistic orange vmeme). We never act as mere individuals. But that isn’t to say that ‘we’ don’t have an influence through other means, such as negation. Social science research shows that our actions are initiated prior to consciousness, but where consciousness might play a role is in choosing to affirm or deny the actions already initiated. So, we might be able weed out what we don’t want to do, to some degree, which determines what grows. In this light, claims of free will aside, there might be a relatively ‘free’ won’t (see: Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size). Yet even that leaves us with questions of what enacts the negation. Aspects of this view are informed by a more Eastern perspective: Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
You go on to say, “When I use thinkers like Kirk and Babbitt, I’m mainly trying to figure out a way to live in this American society. But it’s going to be a personal kind of writing. What I’m reacting to is probably my experience of watching Occupy lose its effective power at a crucial historical moment.” We don’t know exactly what that means for you, but many Americans are attempting the same. American society, at present, doesn’t offer easy solutions to the problems it poses. The very structure of American society, with its high inequality ruled over by social dominators, is incommensurate with egalitarian aspirations. The failure of Occupy is that it was not a revolution that overthrew or otherwise replaced the the established system, as did the American Revolution in freeing the colonists from British colonial rule. That is the short answer, but the longer answer is that a revolution of mind is required first, as John Adams noted; and revolutions of minds are difficult things to suss out. Major changes (political, social, and economic) are mostly a result, not a cause — there probably is no single cause.
Even more interesting to us is your following commentary, as it gets us thinking. You ask, “I wonder, is it even possible to use Burke’s ideas in another context, like American society in the 20th century, without distorting them beyond recognition?” Your question there is a good one, but the answer isn’t clear. Burke was primarily a politician, not a systematic philosopher. Following that, you give your take on Burke’s significance: “It also occurs to me that regardless of what I or anyone thinks of Burke as a writer, as a statesman, he didn’t write or think anything that wasn’t related to the experience of living under the Penal Laws in Ireland. His interest in tradition and prescription worked out by societies over a long period is most concerned with Ireland as the nation that in many ways civilized England and the continent through its Christianity and education during the Dark Ages.” We’d be curious to hear more about these penal laws and what they had to do with the development of British culture.
You might be familiar with our own opinions on Burke. We’ve previously argued that the likes of Thomas Paine, in having been raised as a laborer in an old feudal village, understood better at least some of what was being lost with the communitarian social order and economy of the Ancien Regime. In having been introduced to Burke by Corey Robin’s use of him as an example of the reactionary mind, we’ve been skeptical about the validity of Burke’s nostalgic small platoons in relation to the capitalist individualism artificially constructed with Parliamentary laws and policies that intentionally dismantled the feudal peasantry, villages, and commons (see my post on the enclosure of the mind). To play on the words of Paine, one could argue that Burke wanted to dress up his moral imagination in the plucked plumage of a dying bird without any clearly stated concern for the bird itself, what kind it was and what was killing it. Is this portrayal fair or unfair?
As for the influence Ireland may have had on England, we shall remain silent because of ignorance, as it’s not something to which we’ve given any thought and study. That could be a more fruitful line of inquiry, and maybe it would offer historical context to appreciate what Burke believed to be so important. Interestingly, he disavowed the natural law theology of his Catholic upbringing, possibly as influenced by his early education by Quakers who disbelieved in natural law; and remember, in the century prior, Quakers had been among the leading radical revolutionaries of the regicidal English Civil War. That is another thing that has its origins in Axial Age thought, but with a long and mixed history. The resistance some moderates and conservatives had is that, although natural law could be used to defend claims of normative authority as ideological realism, it had increasingly become a tool of radical challenge. Natural law, even back in the ancient world, held the promise of non-human authority that stood above and potentially in defiance of human authority (e.g., the martyrdom practice that Christians inherited from Stoics, if for early Christians it was more of a narrative than a reality).
In one of your later points, you write, “that a person can’t be expected to live fully in Western civilization when they are kept away from it by formal and informal barriers of law, and by a training that discourages them from aspiring to anything to do with the broader European (instead of provincial American culture in the south of his time) in the first place.” You mention what “Ellison calls the southern pattern,” as part of a historical amnesia of the “cultural figures and patterns that can be found throughout Western culture.” Although many a year of our youth was spent in the South, we aren’t entirely sure what is meant by the “southern pattern”. But we get your connection of Wright’s experience to that of Rousseau who “was following the routes of the troubadours from France to the feet of the Alps, although in a probably unconscious way.” An intriguing line of thought, as one can often trace influences and resonances back in time. With another guy who used to comment here, we often talked about how so many thinkers repeat what had been said before over the centuries with seeming unawareness.
Culturally insular Americans, in particular, are known for being historically ignorant; and one could add this is true to some degree at all levels of socioeconomic status. That brings us to your point: “To connect this back to Theodore Dalrymple’s dreary ideas about social responsibility, I would ask how much of civilized life are people expected to value and cherish under conditions where they are denied access to the example and means to live it in the world around them? This isn’t to say that working class people who steal to supplement their income are savages.” We have a basic liberal education that does liberalize the American mind to a greater extent than was the case prior to mandated universal public education, but that educational system is constrained within, structured by, and forced to serve illiberal forces. The results are, of course, mixed and less than optimal; but even simply the act of creating mass literacy is no small achievement in the historical context. And, according to Joseph Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World, literacy alters the the development of brain structures and neurocognition.
Okay, now to the last bit. You get to the relevance to our present moment. “What to do about it may well involve massive displays of public goods, a revival of “sewer socialism”. But how do you get people to feel enthusiastic about it, to support it?” That is another good question. The fact of the matter, as emphasized many times before here, is that the supermajority of Americans are basically already on board with something along the lines of social democracy, democratic socialism, and municipal socialism. Yet the moral majority of public opinion is being silenced and suppressed, and what most Americans want is being actively denied. The lack of enthusiasm goes with a sense of frustration and futility. Added to this is the fact that no where in the corporate media and rarely even in the alternative media does the average American ever hear about the fact that they are a left-liberal supermajority. What would happen if they ever did find out? One might suspect that would be the revolution of the mind that would presage the revolution of society and governance.
Getting from here to there is the tricky part, but that has always been true. Surely, American colonists and French peasants were apathetic until suddenly enthusiasm overtook the population. Where is the equivalent of Thomas Paine with compelling rhetoric to explain and motivate change? As you point out, “I don’t see the left-liberal side doing the work of weaving these lists of facts into a story that could move people, as previous generations of left leaders have done.” We’ve come across many people who do exactly this, albeit not generally in the Democratic Party. Then again, a number of the recent Democratic candidates (Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson) did attempt to promote a progressive narrative of reform, but they were predictably trashed by the DNC elite and the DNC-aligned corporate media. The question is why have the social dominators and Machiavellians, the gatekeepers and perception managers been so successful, in spite of the open availability of info and views on the internet. For whatever reason, most Americans continue to get most of their news and political commentary from corporate media.
One might take this as a failure of curiosity. So many people don’t fully grasp what is going on because maybe they don’t want to know or they are too stressed out, overworked, and tired to bother. There is also the problem of information overload. As part of the failure of education, most people never learn media literacy and the critical thinking skills needed to deal with such immensely diverse info as we are awash in these days. Once you tread off the mainstream path, it is easy to get lost in the underbrush and briars. You go on to say that, “sometimes I bemoan this, and I think Adam Curtis in particular has done good journalistic work on how the belief in electronic networks replacing old politics, the role of the consumer and the decline of ideas about politics that value positive liberties (in Isiah Berlin’s terms) have led to the dreary state we are in now.” There might be something to that. One could look to an endless slew of possible factors. But we’ve come to the conclusion that the primary cause is simply chronic stress in a traumatized and sickly population. People just feel crappy. They are anxious, fearful, and tired. That doesn’t make one feel enthusiastic.
I should preface this by saying that I’ve been reading up on the trans controversy, first by reading the Federalist, and then some research compiled by a trans individual, and this does support most of what you’ve said about conservative reaction as reflecting an attitude more than an idea. The conservatives today who are up in arms about a supposed mass increase in trans acceptance are attacking a change in people’s attitudes, while lacking the understanding of chromosomes that would give weight to any of their arguments. So I’m with the liberal left on that score.
But when it comes to celebrating the 18th and 19th idea of revolution in the 20th, it just sounds like an urging for people to charge the cops with a headful of speed.
And I’m just saying that though I’m not even a shift manager at the bottle return, much less a general, my study of military history ( to support my fiction writing! ) , leaves me with more questions about these admonitions to revolt. I think the American economy is closer to the late Soviet one, and will collapse in a similar manner– that demands something closer to the Velvet Revolution ( if I’m to follow the record of actual events ) than sans-culottes clicking their heels in the street.
I want to mention that the idea of will being discussed here needs defining as something totally different from ordinary willpower, which you mentioned– everyone who’s sat through an AA meeting has heard about the inadequcy of willpower to fight a drink habit, and I’m sure you have the studies that measure the lack of this willpower to do so. From what little I know of Buddha’s teaching, it counters and deepens the Hindu principles of the Gita, so that Arjuna has no escape from the ethical law that the Buddha adheres to with a saint’s gravity, which explains why the existence of gods is never denied, only their importance and command over the human law which the Buddhist develops along with the ethical will to follow in his religious path. This discussion of the Dhammapada puts to shame anything I’d have to say, I’ll refer to the guy who translated the Dhammapada https://www.gutenberg.org/files/50235/50235-h/50235-h.htm#CHAPTER_IV
In particular, sections 152-153
The importance of focusing on individuals concerns leaders, including artists, who bring along many other individuals and often weld them into a larger dream that can change society. It won’t be the first or last time I use the words of the Tempter from Mann’s Faustus to discuss an idea about art: “The young men today will feast on your madness and grow whole through it. By growing mad you will help them break through the impotence of the age etc.” — Of course, Mann is raising grave questions about the place of enthusiasm at the height of human consciousness, instead of reason, grace, mercy , loyalty or spiritual will. As a true novelist he creates an ambiguous world, but not one where art is separated from ethics. Napoleon also spent his youth writing aesthetic essays (Morley says this was true of his entire generation in I believe the preface of his biography of Rousseau) , so this isn’t at all irrelevant.
I was mostly playing devil’s advocate when I condemned the Peasant Revolts, but could you say more about this Götz von Berlichingen character, who I understand was at least slightly important in that period of early modern European history?
At the risk of paraphrasing again, I think Babbitt develops this line of argument into a social and moral vision that places the factor of self-control, or as the psychology research you cited, a free won’t, as the highest factor and qualification of leadership. Compare this to conservatives today who put property ownership or a fairly abstract quality of “Mad Men manhood” as their ideal of theology and geometry.
So, you changed your name. You are now Huburk. May we call you Huey for short? Just kidding. That is an interesting comment about your personal experience. We love hearing about that kind of thing. It’s understandable how you picked up such a view of “black music”. Such ideas are floating around in the culture. And we’re not surprised that the social reality did not quite match your expectations. Such is life, ever more complex than stereotypes.
As for ourselves, we’ve often thought back to our younger self. It’s hard to re-enter the headspace of the person one used to be. We have no doubt we were unconsciously carrying around all kinds of racist and racialist thinking, as we spent so much of our youth in the Deep South. And probably others could’ve pointed it out to us at the time. But we don’t recall anyone ever telling us we were prejudiced. So, the supposed “micro-aggression crusade” hasn’t gotten to us yet either and we’re not worried about it.
The thing is that is what a segregated society does. That was obvious in South Carolina. The lives of ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ did not overlap much, other than public schools and grocery stores. For all the years we went to schools that were half black, we couldn’t for the life of us tell in any detail what was the “black experience” of our peers back then. To be honest, we were socially oblivious in many ways, such as about class as well, closely related to the racial order.
It is a strange thing. In South Carolina, people of different races generally remained in their separate neighborhoods. And, even if one was free to befriend those of the opposite race at school, those friendships rarely extended outside of school. There was a strange unwritten rule that the races generally did not mix outside of specific contexts and we internalized that without any thought. We just knew that was the social norm and we mindlessly conformed — that is a shame. We no doubt missed out on getting a better understanding of humanity by not having expanded the horizons of our early life experience.
If more muted, a similar kind of segregation is true even in this liberal Northern town and without a doubt the spell of racism holds its sway. It’s rather funny in a way. Everyone mostly sticks to their “own kind”, including the Asians. Not entirely, though. It is amusing that our only close black friend is an African refugee — someone, by the way, who has unfortunately internalized some anti-black racism of the Fox News variety. Immigrants have a special status in American culture, in being more free to cross social divides. Our African friend identifies more with “white culture”, actually; and he is critical of Black Lives Matter protests because of a lack of contact with blacks who could it explain it to him in a way that would be more compelling. We’ve tried to challenge him on this level, but he probably doesn’t take our white liberalism all that seriously.
To return to our point, for all the years we lived in South Carolina surrounded by blacks, we never had a close black friend. The odd part is how many of our school friends were black. When in class, we often would talk to black kids and play cards with them; and, to be honest, we never had a bad experience with any black person in our entire life, such that the only time we’ve been in a fight or been mugged was involving white guys. Our best friend in high school was a somewhat stereotypical redneck and he was genuinely a nice guy, not racist at all. He did have a black friend that he occasionally hung out with outside of school. But his mother would call that kid the ‘N’ word when he wasn’t around, although she otherwise didn’t obviously demonstrate any racism and, on a personal level, she wouldn’t have been mean to blacks. That was just how older working class whites talked at the time.
Anyway, one time we went to pick up his black friend at the ‘Projects’ where he lived. As we waited for him to come out, a black lady approached my friend’s vehicle and told us that she knew we were undercover police. Such paranoia made perfect sense in that kind of society. If we were her, we might’ve thought the same thing. White people generally did not go to poor black neighborhoods. And, if they did, it likely meant they were up to no good. The segregation of housing creates a segregation of the mind where everyone is supposed to remain in their proper placement within the order.
Then, without regular contact with the social world others live in, the vacuum of experience is filled with prejudicial fantasies. That is simply how the human mind works in trying to make sense of the world when in a state of mutual ignorance across social divides. That is the whole point of a racial order to maintain the racial moral imagination so that no one will think outside of the confines of social norms. Ideological structures are built both in the world and in the mind, a point we made in the post Enclosure of the Mind. Segregation is yet another form of enclosure, but so is racialist thinking of the “mysticism of organic black community” or “black music”.
Talking of what the right yaps about, we feel a need to sympathize with the plight of right-wingers. We understand how people get lost in dark fantasies. Racialist and similar thinking does create a mind-fuck all around. And it doesn’t lead to wise and compassionate relating.
That is what we ran into when we tried to get more involved in local organizing. So many of the most vocal activists on the ‘left’ were rabidly deranged, if it is likewise understandable in considering what they’re up against. It’s just the role of ‘ally’ that they wanted to box us into with was something we had no interest in.
Here is the kind of radical left-liberal we are. Yes, demographically, we are a cisgender straight white male and, worse of all, we were born into middle class privilege, although not exactly of the ‘liberal elite’. But, in our perceived white liberal pro-outgroup bias, we don’t identify that as ‘our group’. We prefer to think of ourselves as a mere human — is that a privilege?
Even in our clueless youth, we never were attracted to most of the readymade identities offered to us. We had no desire to be a macho male, a racist white, a respectable Democrat, a successful middle class professional, or whatever else. It’s not that we were a courageous individual either. We weren’t trying to be unique. In autistic fashion, we just didn’t fit in with social norms.
That is where our anti-racism comes from on a visceral level. It just all feels like bullshit. It simply makes no sense in our own personal experience and so it grates against our very being. It tires us out. But what is most irritating of all is that neither can we pretend to be separate from it and immune to it. All of the bullshit leaves its traces in our own psyche — it gets on everything. That is what we mean when we say we don’t know how to not be ‘white’, even as intellectually we know it’s a social construct.
We’d gladly be an activist or partisan fighting the good fight, if we thought it made a difference. We’ve tried that and found no traction, much less inspiration. We’ve come to a conclusion that it isn’t the main way change typically happens at a larger scale. New ways of thinking tend to filter out into society in an indirect fashion — it can’t be sped up by force or demand. Rather, it slowly and almost imperceptibly shifts across generations, until it erupts as if out of nowhere.
That isn’t to say we can’t positively influence the direction of events, but it’s about playing the long game with a heroic sense of patience. People like us, in having new experiences, come to new understandings and identities. When that happens to enough people, societal change naturally follows. But, sadly, there is a large segment of the population that won’t change and for such people it’s a matter of them dying off in large enough numbers.
We’ve still been entertaining the basic idea of this post, as encapsulated in the beginning quote. In a very real sense, pretty much everyone in the Western world is a ‘liberal’ at this point. That is because we’ve all been born into a liberal order and culture that is impossible not to internalize. Along with everyone else, the reactionary right (even in its most bigoted form) is likewise defined by the liberalism they are reacting against for their reaction ends up being yet another form of liberalism, however distorted.
That is what is seen among so many right-wingers, such as the alt-right, who claim to be ‘classical liberals’ (e.g., Jordan Peterson) and, in a sense, they are correct; even if their perception of classical liberalism is historically ignorant, illiterate, amnesiac, revisionist, and nostalgic. There is a reason no one on the right defends classical conservatism or even acknowledges its existence because that ideology was some dark crazy shit. It’s not only that no one today is really a conservative, as no one would want to be. It’s a demented and unhappy worldview.
Even on the far right, that old school proud imperialism and violent bigotry is politically incorrect. The few who still find it attractive to some degree know that they shouldn’t speak it out loud or maybe acknowledge it in their own consciousness, and even those people probably don’t actually support such a worldview so much as they feel nostalgia for a time when the social order could rule society without fearing much challenge, could rule the mind without need for a conscious defense — they just don’t want to think about it. They want what Edmund Burke wanted, a return to a moral imagination that operated unconsciously because consciousness is uncomfortable and difficult.
Yet those like Burke also were quite liberal and progressive. He was known to criticize imperialism and demand reforms, both political and economic; and initially he supported the American revolutionaries. The closest one gets to the original full-throated classical conservatism is not Burke but the all out authoritarian and imperialist Joseph de Maistre. The closest example of that in the early modern period of Anglo-American society was Alexander Hamilton, but he too had internalized much of the newfangled modern liberalism.
That partly took form through the liberalizing force of early laissez-faire capitalism at a time when most businesses were not corporations. In fact, early US law restricted giving corporate charters to private for-profit businesses, as most founders feared privatized corporate power and so it should be limited to the public good. That was a very different kind of capitalism that was inseparable from liberalism, even for those early generations of reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries. The strongest critics of free markets came from the early political right, not the political left. Classical liberalism was most strongly voiced by radicals like Thomas Paine who who were all about the ideal of free markets that promoted freedom, fairness, equality, and justice — crazy as that may sound today amidst authoritarian capitalist realism.
That demonstrates how the reactionary right, from the beginning, had no choice but to co-opt liberalism as it was the only game in town. The ancien regime was in shambles, largely because the reactionaries themselves had dismantled it in their attempt to seize power from the old guard that was perceived as a failure, as according to the historical analysis of Corey Robin. They had no actual interest in traditionalism as they were seeking to build something entirely new. Conservatism has never been traditionalism because the two were in opposition. The radicalism of conservatism inevitably was inseparable from liberalism, albeit reactionaries wanted to contort liberalism into their own likeness.
Even so, reactionary conservatives couldn’t help but be influenced by the liberal dream, as the reformulation of the much older Axial Age dream with its ancient impulse of egalitarianism and universalism, freedom and liberty. For centuries now, every single generation of Westerners is more liberal than the one before it, such that the average conservative today is more liberal than the average liberal was a century ago; and the same being true of the average conservative of a century ago being more liberal than the average liberal a century before that; on and on back to the shifts emerging during the Middle Ages (Peasants’ Revolts, Protestant Reformation, Renaissance, etc).
The whole world continues to shift further and further left, to the point that conservatives conveniently no longer recognize the ugly conservatism of the past. Conservatism, as such, is constantly disappearing or rather, in a sense, it never really existed. There is no substance to conservatism. Since the fall of pre-modern traditionalism, liberalism is all that was left remaining. That is why all modern right-wing authoritarians, from Stalin to Hitler, have always been forced to use left-liberal rhetoric to gain support. However problematic it may be, Germany and Russia are both more liberal today than they were before the Nazis and Soviets took power.
Liberalization is a messy process that slowly lurches forward, even when temporarily co-opted. Such co-optation is also part of that liberalization. Consider how we left-liberals managed to get the reactionary right to embrace the message that, “All Lives Matter”, in reaction to the leftist mantra that, “Black Lives Matter”. Just a decade ago, the reactionary right wouldn’t have taken on such an egalitarian message. If the reactionary right repeats often enough that “All Lives Matter”, they will start to believe it and increasingly act accordingly. Unconsciously, they will be further liberalized, as has happened with other issues such as how right-wing homophobia has become politically incorrect among conservatives. Heck, the alt-right has identified as being openly accepting to homosexuals to the degree that one of the alt-right thought leaders was openly gay.
Isn’t that fascinating? With conservatism, there is no there there. It is a mirage that seems real from a distance but disappears as one approaches it. All that conservatism is is the leftover liberalism of the past that has been cast off by new generations of left-liberals. Let us move onto some politically incorrect thinking, not only on the right but also among the respectable left. We’ve come to the conclusion that conservatism as the reactionary mind is literally a mental illness and one closely linked to physical disease. It’s not an ideology in the political sense, as it has no fundamental substance. What if Lionel Trilling was not merely making a biased attack on conservatism but had correctly pegged it?
“In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
So, what would it mean to say that conservatism is a mental aberration, a condition of disease, of being ill at ease? Sure, one could take this as merely a not-so-clever reversal of reactionaries calling liberalism a disease, but we aren’t seeking exaggeration for rhetorical effect. We honestly wonder about the implications of what scientific research shows about ideology as cognitive behavior and attitude. Social conservatism has been correlated with right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), with social conservatism playing a mediating role for the expression of RWA; as has economic conservatism with social dominance orientation (SDO). High RWA and high SDO have been strongly linked to hierarchy, inequality, and prejudice; with Double Highs (measuring high in both) being the worst of both and to a greater degree.
It doesn’t end there. A lot of research shows that, on average, conservatives have lower IQs than liberals and other liberal-minded groups (e.g., atheists). Conservatives also have, on average, a smaller neocortex; the part of the brain where originates critical thinking, problem-solving, executive control, cognitive empathy, and much else that is perceived as being part of ‘higher thought’ and ‘refined emotion’. This is so well established across numerous studies that it is not under debate. But it’s not simply an issue of conservatives being stupid. Research also shows that, even when conservatives have the capacity to use critical thinking, they often choose not to use it as they are more prone to motivated reasoning, at least when it comes to politics (i.e., issues of real-world power and ideological realism).
There is a more important aspect. As we’ve often noted, we are all vulnerable to the reactionary mind. That is because the reactionary is the shadow of a liberal society. As such, we all can fall into the dumbing effect of conservative thought. What defines conservatism is relatively lower neurocognitive ability of a particular kind. That can come about because something (nutritional deficiencies, parasite load, heavy metal toxicity, lack of high quality education, lack of intellectual stimulation, etc) permanently stunted brain and intellectual development (e.g., smaller neocortex) or because an external factor temporarily caused cognitive overload (stress, difficult task, alcohol consumption, etc).
The latter is how higher IQ liberals can be influenced into conservative-style stereotypic thinking. Everyone has a limit of cognitive load, but the more developed is one’s cognitive ability the greater cognitive load one can handle before falling back on simpler thought patterns. This is a necessary survival mode for the human species. Under moments of stress, we have to be able to deal with uncertain and/or overwhelming threats with limited mental capacity. That was fine in our evolutionary past when such stressors were usually short term.
If a bear is attacking you, intellectually analyzing the situation or feeling greater cognitive empathy probably won’t help you. The same has been true for humans in the past when dealing with immediate dangers of disease epidemics, parasite contagion, and inter-social conflict when an immediate threat had to be dealt with quickly and absolutely. One didn’t need to understand why a certain water source made people sick, for the reactionary impulse of social conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism would enforce social norms of staying far away from it. That is why the conservative mind is more prone to strong reactions of disgust and fear, as correlated to their on average larger amygdala, the mammalian brain that deals with emotional regulation and emotional behavior (i.e., fight, flight, freeze, or fuck).
The modern world, however, creates the overwhelming and debilitating conditions of pervasive and persistent stress that can’t be solved, limited, isolated, or escaped. As studies show, such chronic stress (e.g., high inequality) is more traumatizing than the more severe acute stress of a more obvious event of trauma (e.g., rape). This is where our speculations have brought us to a conclusion. The reactionary mind, as conservatism in the form of RWA and SDO, is nothing other than unresolved and unhealed trauma; specifically in terms of mass trauma and intergenerational trauma, probably etched into epigenetic changes. It’s simply the suppression of higher cognitive ability, in order to prioritize basic emotional capacity of behavioral reaction for the purpose of immediate survival.
Turning such a temporary survival mode into a permanent ideology is problematic, to say the least. This is why conservatism can never be the ruling ideology, as can liberalism. A fully conservative society would be so reactionary that it would destroy itself, as is what happens when authoritarianism and dominance takes over. But we must emphasize how this development is recent in terms of both evolution and civilization. Authoritarian domination, as we know it, only fully took form and widely took hold in recent centuries; although the first signs of it appeared right before the Bronze Age collapse, before which there is no evidence that such authoritarian domination existed in human society — no large centralized governments, high inequality social hierarchies, written laws, sexual Puritanism, police forces, standing armies, large-scale warfare, mass brutality toward the conquered and prisoners of war, slave-based economies, etc.
Something changed. We’ve speculated that it had to do not only with the rise of literary culture of a literate elite and later mass literacy, although that is not to be underestimated as researchers have found that reading alters brain structure and brain functioning. On that level, one might note that the most liberal tend to not only be the highest IQ but also the most educated and hence the most impacted by literacy and literary culture. This is the WEIRD demographic with its highly abstract and often idealistic mentality, just another way of speaking of the liberal mind. This is in contrast to the more concrete thinking and lower IQ of the illiterate, as studied by Alexander Luria in testing early 20th century Russian peasants. The increasing average IQ of the Flynn Effect and the decreasing violence of the Moral Flynn Effect have to do with the increase of literacy, education, and fluid intelligence (i.e., cognitive ability of the neocortex).
That brings us to the health angle. We’ve suspected that authoritarianism is partly a response to addictive substances (uppers, downers, grains, carbs, etc) ever more replacing non-addictive and anti-addictive psychedelics. This has gone hand in hand with the rise of the so-called “diseases of civilization”, including both physical disease and mental illness — as Stanislas Tanchou (1843) put it, “Cancer, like insanity, seems to increase with the progress of civilization” (see: The Crisis of Identity). At the same time, authoritarian domination has also increased. Yet this all happened during liberal modernity.
That is because there were multiple factors. While health was worsening in some ways, it was improving in others. We have lessened many of the causes of ill health with antibiotics, fortified foods, etc that, in combination with mandatory public education and popularization of reading, has had the side effect of improving neurocognitive development. It’s all relative, including what we call ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. Despite the fact that the average conservative has a smaller neocortex, they probably have a larger neocortex than the average liberal of past generations. The rise of liberal-mindedness and a liberal worldview is part and parcel to this rise in brain functioning. All of humanity, left and right, across the world has experienced the Flynn Effect over this past century or so.
Based on all of this knowledge, we can make predictions about the future. As conservatism never existed, it will likely return to irrelevance sometime in the future, that is assuming progress continues as it has over previous centuries. So, barring civilizational collapse or a falling back into a new dark age, neurocognitive development and IQ is likely to keep on going up and up with no end in sight. Accordingly, the high levels of cognitive empathy underlying egalitarian ideology will ever more become potent and central to identity and society. In this light, one might conjecture that social democracy will become the social norm that will be defended by whatever is the equivalent of present conservatism, leaving open space for leftists to continue pushing left. Such possible future humans won’t question social democracy any more than do we presently question the clean water that is piped into our homes, an achievement that although now normalized was only first established by the Milwaukee sewer socialists a century ago.
This is why so much debate is meaningless. It misses the point entirely. First off, we all are already liberals, including the reactionaries. There is no way of getting around that. That liberalization has been going on for centuries or maybe millennia. It doesn’t appear to be ready to stop, as the cumulative effects become magnified over time. Even a temporary dark age could be followed by yet another era of enlightenment age. What if all of this really just comes down to a public health issue? This might be why, based on an intuitive understanding, the left continues to fight so hard for healthcare reform, welfare programs, and full sex education, as in the past they fought for the poor having access to clean water and nutritious food. And that would explain why conservatives have fought equally hard to prevent these improvements of public health, as the reactionary mind cannot function under conditions of optimal health.
The stress of high inequality has particularly helped promote reactionary politics. Most Americans seem to grasp this problem. The majority opposes high inequality, as they support higher taxes on the wealthy, but they are kept ignorant. The American public doesn’t realize the extent of the disparities, even as studies show that they would like inequality levels much lower than exist right now. Of course, it’s far from only inequality of wealth. Like there was inequality of clean water in the past, there are still inequalities of healthcare, nutritious food, and such. Heck, even clean water remains an inequality issue, considering the lead toxicity from old pipes that affect those living in old housing, mostly harming the poor and minorities.
That is how liberalism remains suppressed, in neurocognitive functioning being suppressed. People under stress, malnutrition, disease, and dysfunction tend to be more conservative, reactionary, and authoritarian. That is why for every rise of IQ point we move closer to the possibility of social democracy. It’s no accident that the only well functioning social democracies in the world have heavily funded public health, social welfare, public education, paid maternity and paternity leave, child support, childcare, and similar policies and programs; not to mention economic systems and tax structures that decrease inequality. Also, interestingly, social democratic Switzerland is the first country that has government dietary guidelines that promote a healthy low-carb, high-fat diet.
This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, the link between social order, cultural mindset, political ideology, and public health. I’ve had a couple posts I’ve been working on, but I never seem to get around to publishing anything. Maybe it’s because I feel reluctant in not knowing how to make a compelling argument, as the topic is politically incorrect in mainstream thought, not merely politically incorrect on the right. It feels mean-spirited to call conservatives ‘dumb’, even or especially if it is true that they are relatively less smart.
As an interesting side note, contemporary conservatives are more prone to concrete thinking, just like Luria’s illiterate peasants. It’s almost guaranteed that conservatives have lower rates of literacy, reading comprehension, and book-reading; as related to lower rates of college education and lower rates of employment as scientists, professors, and teachers. They aren’t part of literary culture, much less the literary elite. Even the average working class liberal likely reads more books and at a higher level than many conservatives. There is immense power to literacy and much of that has to do with how it increases abstract thought. We have another theory about abstract thought as supported by more complex literary recursion.
Here is some data that emphasizes ideology as a gradation of intelligence. The further left one goes the higher the IQ and the further right the lower. According to Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent, Americans identifying as ‘very liberal’ have an average IQ of 106, ‘liberal’ 104, ‘conservative’ 99 and ‘very conservative’ 95. IQ is not only a measure of cognitive ability but also, as I’m arguing, a measure of cognitive health and general health. In our high inequality society, that also falls along lines of economic division. Liberals and the liberal-minded (e.g., libertarians) tend to be wealthier with more access to clean air and water, nutritious organic food, supplements, healthcare, etc. So, IQ and ideology is partly but not entirely just measuring socioeconomic status.
“Liberals tended to group objects by their abstract category, putting the panda and the monkey together, as they are both animals. “Animals” is not one physical (concrete) thing, it is a non-physical idea or generalization. Conservatives tended to group together items by their use, their “functional relation,” for example putting the monkey and the banana together. Conservatives employed a method of thinking that focused on concrete objects and their functionality. Do not think this somehow means conservatives simply think like children or have failed to advanced past an adolescent way of thinking; sheer nonsense — conservatives understand perfectly what concepts like animals or transportation mean. What this indicates is there may be something about being liberal that makes one more easily or automatically engage in abstract thinking — or that engaging in abstract thinking may tend to lead to liberalism.”
“More than half of the scientists surveyed (55%) say they are Democrats, compared with 35% of the public. Fully 52% of the scientists call themselves liberals; among the public, just 20% describe themselves as liberals [whereas only 9% of scientists identify as conservative and 35% as moderate]. […] For its part, the public does not perceive scientists as a particularly liberal group. When asked whether they think of scientists as liberal, conservative or neither in particular, nearly two-thirds (64%) choose the latter option. Just 20% say they think of scientists as politically liberal. However, a majority of scientists (56%) do see members of their profession as liberal.”
I found De Maistre remarkable as a thinker because even though he loved the Borbon line and the gardens of Versailles over all others ( though I think he was from Savoy, a distant neighbor to Jean-Jaques perhaps? ) he believed the Revolution expressed a divine judgement on the unequal French society that Rousseau brought such fire to attacking.
I don’t have the language ability to defend any take on his work, just trying to be sure I’ve got the man’s thinking nailed down. A person could view the Terror and Danton’s death especially as an event weighted with tragedy, and still support an egalitarian social democracy if asked about their views. I know De Maistre himself definitely didn’t support any kind of democracy, but that hasn’t stopped generations of French social scientists from claiming him as a founding figure. Sometimes the mill of history sifts out useful thought from ignoble prejudice perhaps.
I mean it;s fictions that unite people across the 150 person rule, so I try to pay attention as an aspiring writer. I like both Excalibur and Monty Python’s Holy Grail, but I’ll be the first to attest that anyone attempt to set themselves up as a modern monarch will end up more like the main character in Nightmare Alley than anything desirable. People drop words like “king” on social media, but in real life the ending of Scarface is closer to what observed experience supports as truth. It’s probably this idea of power and the temptation to expand one’s own power with no limit that explains why I do express a political idea, it tends left. I’ve been in many situations where power was concentrated among a few people and I’ve sought to escape those places as much as I can. But I’ve often had to fight back as an individual, and in those moments I’ve found more use for the tradition handed down to me from English literature than taking to social media or asking for my rights to be respected. I often think about how my experience in certain workplaces would have been different if I’d made a common cause with other low waged workers, since the solidarity and camraderie were stronger in the team that works in a grocery deli than it ever is in the school world, at least in America. I think the conclusion to draw from Lasch’s writings on education is that American schooling is intended to produce equal access to knowledge and a successful adult life in the West, but it often achieves its opposite, and this outcome Lasch traces to the structures and founding ideas of the American education system itself in his writings on how the reforms of Dewey were carried out in actual practice in the industrial towns like Gary.
It wasn’t so much an attempt to side with or embrace Burke on prejudice, as to understand what he meant, and how he shaped the history of thought on politics and society– and I did give a one sided presentation of what I thought. I don’t want to defend all inequality, I was coming to terms with the unshakeable reality that to be an artist or to try means entering a world where democracy doesn’t exist, where no one can help me and I’m often thrown back on my own resources. Maybe this explains in a distant way the eternal attraction of rustic frontier style to Bohemian types. But that’s little to do with the actual question of what the government should be, I’m sorry for running the two questions together in a confusing way.
Its a limited project, since I probably wasn’t born to be any kind of statesman. But writing is a kind of leadership, and one I try to take seriously. Even writing fantasy fiction with a street sense that isn’t usually applied to that genre.
My familiarity with de Maistre is limited, but every so often I come across discussion of him. If Burke is the classical liberalism that some conservatives idealize, then maybe de Maistre is more akin to post-feudal classical conservatism. My sense is that he possibly was more interested in conserving something of the ancien regime than a semi-progressive reformer like Burke who initially supported the American Revolution.
My first introduction to de Maistre was his observation that conservatism proper only appeared on the shore of modernity following the shipwrecked ruins of the traditionalist Ancien Regime. Few on the political right have since admitted that conservatism and traditionalism are two different creatures separated by mutual antagonism. Classical conservatives, like classical liberals, recognized something had gone terribly wrong and something new would need to be constructed to replace what was lost.
That’s my understanding, at present. But it’s only mildly informed in terms of de Maistre. As I gain more knowledge, I might revise my views. I have not yet come across a detailed analysis or exploration of de Maistre’s place in the ideological history of the West. And I haven’t been motivated to read de Maistre’s writings for my self in any great detail. As I’ve said, my bias is mostly Anglo-American and I’m not sure how much earlier French thinkers can tell us about present American society.
About your personal and visceral response to inequality of power, that is where I come down on things. Deep in my gut and in my soul, I feel utter repulsion toward any direct experience of concentrated, hierarchical, and authoritarian power. It’s why I can respond badly when a customer, if rare, attempts to wield their status to put me into my place. As a unionized government worker and bureaucratic functionary, I have a tendency to not back down.
My sense of egalitarianism is not rational, as I’ve often explained, nor is the history of egalitarianism with its roots in Axial Age religious and philosophical teachings. Centuries of revolutionaries and rabblerousers, from the English Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War to the American Revolution, were certainly not acting rationally when they put their lives on the line without any clear goal in mind other than to defy anti-egalitarian authoritarianism. It simply came down to an ancient moral impulse that such oppression is wrong.