A Manifesto of Meaninglessness

Yet another righteous declaration from the self-proclaimed moral middle, Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto. It’s written by Bo Winegard over at Quillette.

It doesn’t seem particularly coherent, except maybe on an emotional level. It comes across as uninformed and inapplicable platitudes, along with some moralistic patronizing. More of a description of a personality type or a psychological attitude than a political position. The author is basically saying he wants to be a good person and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Ya know, why can’t everyone just get along?

I’m not going to argue against that sentiment. But there needs to be some meat on the bone, if we are to make a meal out of it.

“The centrist, like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order.”

Many people are worried about radical utopian proposals. The minor detail is that those such as myself see the rhetoric of the status quo as radically utopian.

Capitalist realism with its ideals of free markets freeing the world, meritocracy freeing human potential, and creative destruction freeing innovation. Geopolitical neoconservatism proclaiming to spread democracy around the world by force of superior moral example and moral righteousness, in the form of a Whiggish Holy War of Manifest Destiny. Paternalistic Technocracy of learned professionals, wise leaders, and maybe even an enlightened aristocracy.

Is this what such centrists are in the center of? If so, such centrists are radical utopians because the reality on the ground doesn’t match this ungrounded ideological optimism (or rather dogmatic arrogance). Besides, our country is rare in the world for having been founded on soaring idealism, even though it has become co-opted by the reactionaries and authoritarians in power.

I’m not clear what claims of being realistic mean in all of this. Realism always necessitates an ideology by which to judge reality. Almost everyone perceives reality as being on their side. So, whose realism are we talking about? Does this supposed centrist see himself at the center of reality itself?

“So far, so conservative. This sounds like a modern version of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.”

It does have much in common with Burke’s views. More than the author realizes. Even the supposed differences mentioned don’t apply, which is why it is important to be well informed.

Burke was in the progressive party, the Whigs. He often supported political reform. He was a conservative only in Corey Robin’s sense of the reactionary mind. He was seeking reform in response to a failed traditional order. Burke did not loathe change. In fact, he supported change so far as to support the American Revolution, up to the point that Independence was declared (as he remained loyal to the British Empire, even as he wanted the status quo improved).

On the second point, Burke didn’t believe in a transcendental (religious) moral order. He wasn’t a believer in natural law, although interestingly many early leftists were (and many still are, such as progressive Evangelicals, New Thought Christians, and New Agers). Rather, Burke was a critic of natural law, specifically as a basis of social order and a political system.

“The great conservatives of the past–Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Klemens von Metternich, John Calhoun, T.S. Eliot, et cetera–often evinced a peculiarly fervid attachment to the current social order”

It depends on which individual in relation to which aspect of which then current social order.

Because of his Whiggish progressiveness and reform-mindedness, many arguments have been made for Burke as a liberal, in the way that Locke was a liberal (both having a reactionary aspect that would show up in certain areas, but that is true of many liberals today in the Democratic Party). Remember that Burke was for revolution before he was against it, as initially no one knew what revolution would mean, and obviously Burke didn’t immediately see it as threatening.

Even Calhoun has been categorized as a liberal by Domenico Losurdo, from his European left-wing perspective, and he makes an interesting argument. Calhoun talked of the necessity of divided power and the protection of minorities, even as he defended slavery (many liberals back then weren’t abolitionists).

The centrism being described in the article sounds like what one person called melancholy liberalism:

“Part of the strength of that liberalism has been its power of self-criticism. […] what differentiates liberalism from socialism and premodern conservatism is its conviction that there is no permanent solution to the problems of politics […] as we come up against environmental and economic limits to progress. The conclusion is premature. Much of the globe still lacks the freedom that the West takes for granted; and it is precisely at moments of discouragement that liberalism itself is most vulnerable to attacks from more confident and simplistic ideologies. The beleaguered tradition needs, and deserves, not just critics but celebrants.”

I’m sympathetic with this attitude and worldview. During a transitional period of my life, I was drawn to this melancholy liberalism and drawn to the appeals of moderation and centrism. My present leftism has been an attempt to shake myself free from this narrow thinking.

To return to the Quillette article:

“The conservative is correct that the past is full of wisdom for the future; but the progressive is correct that the past is also full of errors, dogmas, and barbarism. Perhaps one could put it this way: The past is like an old, unused, and rotting library; the books are full of wisdom, but the building is ruined by insects and decay. The conservative wants to keep the library; the centrist wants to keep the books; and the progressive wants to burn the whole thing down and start over.”

Liberalism was founded on an Enlightenment worldview that looked to the past. Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionary leaders were constantly referencing the ancient Greco-Roman world along with the early history of Europe and the British Isles. It related to why they were prone to invoke natural law, a Greek philosophy that had been used by Stoics (and, following their example, early Christians) to challenge imperial authority.

What kind of demented person sees progressives as wanting to burn the whole thing down and start over? The author here shows his reactionary side, a fear of even mild leftism as a danger to the existing social order.

“Centrism, then, is defined by a number of assumptions and tendencies; it is not defined by policy dogmas. Below is an undoubtedly incomplete but useful list of these assumptions and attitudes: (1) Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions.”

That is true of many people. Only a minority of people anywhere on the political spectrum would embrace extreme proposals and actions. But it always depends on who is defining extreme.

Those on the political left often see the political right as extreme. And as extremist neoliberals and neocons control our society, many outside of the center of power see centrists as extreme, specifically in that the center of power contradicts and subverts the center of majority public opinion. I’ve often noted, on many important issues, how far right self-proclaimed centrists are in comparison to most Americans.

With this in mind, I’ve asked: Is there a balance point in a society of extremes? What can centrism and moderation mean?

Now to the second defining assumption and tendency of ‘centrism’:

“(2) Mistrust of grand political theories or systems.”

That’s fine. Few ascribe to grand political theories or systems. That isn’t how most people think. But there are always grand political theories and systems playing in the background.

Being a ‘centrist’ doesn’t save one from this fate, considering that the status quo itself is built on grand political theories and systems, one of the grandest (i.e., largest and most encompassing) in all of world history. The status quo that dominates is also quite absolutist in its claims on reality, which is the ground upon which centrists base their moral authority to judge others.

“(3) Skepticism about the goodness of human nature.”

Skepticism in general is found among a wide variety of people. Leftists and left-liberals have a strong skeptical tradition. It’s the reason many of them prefer to focus on systems and environmental conditions, rather than placing their faith in an inherently good human nature that will win out against oppressive evil.

Most people across the political spectrum, including conservatives and right-wingers, think of human goodness as more of a potential than anything else. That isn’t meant to dismiss the genuine disagreements about that human potential.

“(4) Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions.”

Anyone who knows history knows that compromise and large coalitions have been found among diverse ideological groups and movements. This was particularly true of the political left. The early European workers movement included Marxists, communists, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, libertarians, etc. And similar to Martin Luther King jr, the Black Panthers early on sought alliances with a wide variety of others: feminists, Native American activists, and poor white groups.

What we see of the left is splintered and beleaguered by generations of oppression and persecution. Cold War witch-hunts, COINTELPRO, and union-busting have had a devastating effect. The once large and diverse leftist coalitions in the US are now but a memory, although there are many on the left who have continuously fought to rebuild them.

“(5) Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth.”

What does this have to do with centrism? Scientists and other professionals dealing with evidence (and truth) hold different ideologies, including on the far left and far right. And a wide variety, specifically on the political left, support scientists in this endeavor.

Among those who celebrated the hope and sought the pragmatic application of science included: Nazis, Soviets, and Maoists; New Dealers, eugenicists, and race realists; Progressives, Objectivists, and Libertarians; left-wingers, right-wingers, and centrists; et cetera. Only those like anarchist environmentalists and extreme New Agers along with the most reactionary of right-wingers have consistently and entirely dismissed the dominant scientific paradigm.

This past century has been ruled by science and it required a contrarian attitude to oppose it.

“(6) A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics.”

Patriotism is a form of identity politics. People hold many identities. In the 19th century, it was common for Americans to identify with their state or their region, not with the country as a whole and certainly not with the federal government. Many others have identified with their ethnic group or religion. The average person has always had multiple identities that overlap and sometimes contradict.

Identity politics isn’t a new invention. Our country was founded on identity politics, specifically that of an institutionalized and legally-enforced racial order that dominated every aspect of life, economy, and politics. Even feminism was a growing political movement prior to the American Revolution, although suppressed for a while following that. If present identity politics gets your panties in a wad, the identity politics of the early twentieth century would have scared you shitless.

“(7) A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles.”

Few are absolutely against rule of law and constitutional principles. It depends on the political order.

Every major society that ever existed had rule of laws and many had constitutional principles. Saudi Arabia has theocratic rule of law and the Islamic centrists living there have steadfast dedication to rule of law. The Soviet Union and Maoist China were constitutional republics where fidelity to constitutional principles was considered the social norm.

So, what point is the author trying to make?

“For the centrist, one of the more disturbing trends of the past 15 years is the radical moralization of policy preferences.”

Radical and moralization are the kind of words that means many things to many people. To me, radical just means going to the roots (of human nature, an ideological worldview, a belief system, a social order, a country’s founding, or a civilizational project). What one does after getting to the root is another matter — root it out like a weed, pick out the grubs, replant it elsewhere, or whatever else.

“There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.”

Many? Is the author implying that there are more on the left that denounce those not on the left than those on the right who denounce those not on the right? And why does the author as a self-proclaimed ‘centrist’ pretend to stand above the fray in denouncing others?

“That thought should chasten us and cause us to be as tolerant of the failings of our fellow citizens as we wish our descendants to be of us. Perhaps this is what centrism really is: a tolerant smile at the recognition that we are human, all too human.”

That really says nothing at all. That we are human, all too human is no grand insight of rare wisdom. It’s a fairly standard view.

The crux of the matter is what kind of tolerance toward which humans in which context. Is the author tolerant even of those who are intolerant of tolerance, those who would seek to undermine and destroy it? Should the American Revolutionaries have tolerated the British Empire and British East India Company? Should the slaves in the South tolerated their violent oppressors? Should the Jewish freedom fighters have tolerated the Nazis? Should Native Americans have tolerated those killing them and taking their land? Should workers have tolerated the abusive and corrupt Robber Barons?

What is the alternative? Would peaceful protests, petitions, and hunger strikes have stopped such evil? And what about the present evil of a two party system that promotes vast inequality, a permanent underclass, mass incarceration, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, a military industrial complex, CIA covert operations used to oppress populations and overthrow governments, near continuous wars of aggression around the world, invasion and occupation of numerous countries, the terrorizing and dislocating and killing of millions of people year after year, and on and on?

What morally sane person would want to claim a centrist position amidst such horrifying suffering and oppression?

* * *

Some helpful views from the comment section:

Speaker To Animals
September 1, 2017
“In most of the United States, for example, sex cannot be bought and sold legally. There are, of course, reasonable arguments for the legalization of prostitution, but it is not immediately obvious that society would be better if all potential market transactions were allowed.”
This raises the question of which ‘centre’ centrism is based on – the centre of the sates in which prostitution, for instance, is illegal or the centre where it is not?
Here in the U.K. prostitution is not illegal. Most people think it is, but it isn’t; practices associated with prostitution, such as soliciting and running a brothel are illegal, but not the sale of sex itself. Elsewhere in Europe there are countries where selling sex is legal but purchasing sex is not. In much of the rest of the world it is illegal for a woman to show her hair in public.
What you call centerism is just your own societies status quo. Defending the status quo is fine if you live in a liberal society but not when you live elsewhere. Why not just defend liberalism and call it liberalism?

Keith Ammann
September 1, 2017
   The author mischaracterizes progressivism. It’s not looking to burn down the library or anything in it. It wants to build a library that’s capable of accommodating new books. If the old library can be repaired and expanded, great. If not, demolishing and rebuilding it is simply common sense.
Also, the author condemns the left’s “radical moralization of policy preferences.” I would point out that many of these “preferences” are actively undermining the 20th-century international human rights consensus. Given the atrocities that led to the establishment of this consensus (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”), how can we consider attacks on this consensus to be anything BUT a moral issue, perhaps the most important one of our era? Should we excuse policies that overtly and aggressively assault people’s rights and dignity, that dismiss equal justice, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and economic security and opportunity, as mere differences of opinion about which people can disagree and still get along? If “Philando is a human being, as deserving of life as I am” is a radical moral position, then I have no use for any centrism that shies away from it.

stephencataldo
September 1, 2017
At least at the start with broad strokes, I feel very comfortable calling myself a centrist by that definition: not a Republican, not a utopian calling on us to trust our neighbors unaware of human instincts or game theory.

Here however is the bs that gets moderates correctly mocked:
“the centrist has no sympathy for crowds shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” But it is crucial to remain committed to the rule of law and to protect free speech.”
If you want to represent moderates, if you want moderation to rebuild the center of American politics, then when people fly swastikas you need to be there. You need a plan, you need to do organizing. When you say “no sympathy,” that is the same as the centrists who had no sympathy for the original Nazis, closing the shutters on their windows and leaving it to someone else to do the work.
Moderation doesn’t need the defense given here. I think most people — certainly most of the left out to the Sanders or Chomsky edge — have an idea of human nature, have an idea of the value of the democratic movements that came mostly out of part of Europe (though I would rather be more specific.) Moderation needs to have politically crushed the Birthers and now the Alt-Right, ok, choose the methods, but you have to do the work to get to the end result.
The broad strokes ring true: No wild Communist revolutions. Instead, breaking up monopolies, national healthcare, making sure that everyone has job opportunities with dignity, and you’re going to come up with a real plan for getting the Nazis to be again unacceptable, rather than complain about the people trying something, right? The problem with moderation in America is not that it lacks respect from left or right — it’s not a philosophical problem — but that it is too apathetic and doesn’t do the organizing work. You can see something similar on the left: you talk about Antifa, which is a microscopic organization that liberals all the way out to Chomsky (well past Sanders) think is counter-productive. They organize.
The extremes are out-organizing the middle. To me the middle is single-payer health care; to you it might be something else. But screw the philosophy, almost everyone wants to be a moderate, almost no one wants to work. But 10,000 moderates on the street next time the Nazis have a rally, instead of having only thousands of liberals and dozens or a 100 or so Antifa show up.

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Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward

Moderation is the issue at the moment, specifically now that politicians have been the target of violence. That is always a surefire way of getting the attention of the political class and the corporate media that obsesses over them.

A single politician shot is more concerning to the mainstream than millions of poor people harmed by the policies of politicians. Worse still is multiple politicians attacked simultaneously — it is a national tragedy, worse than decades of hate crimes and generations of institutional racism, worse than overthrowing numerous democratic governments and committing state terrorism.

Such is the way of the world, at least in a society like this. But it would be nice if some worthy public debate were made possible, even if only briefly. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the next act of mass violence before dealing with issues of substance. The politics of spectacle is great for campaigns and corporate media profits. It’s not so great for democracy, though. Citizens shooting politicians could be seen as an indicator of failed democracy. Other indicators to be considered are politicians sending citizens off to fight immoral wars of aggression to kill innocent foreigners for reasons of geopolitics and police officers violently targeting innocent citizens for reasons of authoritarian social control.

When the government seeks to solve its problems through violence, it sets the example for its citizens that problems are solved through violence. Some might argue that is not the most optimal of results for a civil society.

* * *

Despite the shallow concerns of the comfortable classes temporarily made to feel uncomfortable, no one doubts that the problems of extremism are very much real. At the Eat Pray Vote blog, Lauren Wynn writes about political moderation (Fear and Loathing in American Politics: the Future of the Sane Center). She states that,

“It occurred to me that many of his assertions could be equally applied to both sides of the aisle — right and left, Republican and Democrat were interchangeable. Crazy concept, huh? If everyone is being this reactionary – which conversations with and observations of both sides indicate might be true – then is a middle ground even possible?”

Many Americans would agree with her, myself included. I’ve seen a number of articles like this, from diverse perspectives and yet with similar questions. I would point out that an increasing proportion of the public dislikes both parties, as there are now more independents than partisans in either major party. After all, we just had a presidential election where the two main candidates were the least popular of any major presidential candidates since polling data has been kept. And following the election, both of them continue their decline into unpopularity, demonstrating that voters still despise the choice that the ruling establishment forced upon them.

Wynn does briefly and partly get to this issue. In discussing fear, she quotes from a NYT article by Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi (How We Became Bitter Political Enemies):

“Independents, who outnumber members of either party and yet often lean toward one or the other, are just as guided by fear. More than half who lean toward either party say a major reason for their preference is the damage the other party could cause. Only about a third reported being attracted by the good that could come from the policies of the party toward which they lean.”

Fear. That is the most troubling part. To live in fear is not a happy state, especially when it forms the ground of society and the background of daily experience. Such a culture of fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’d argue that fear is more of a symptom than a cause, a symptom of a sick society. Speaking of a “Sane Center,” what is supposedly ‘sane’ in a society like this? I wouldn’t consider the majority of politicians, plutocrats, and pundits who dominate our society to be paragons of sanity, not in terms of either mental health or moral decency.

I noticed that the NYT article quoted Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist: “If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence… But in the modern era, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ — partisan animus is at an all-time high.” That is an odd claim. American history is full of near endless “rancor and violence.” The late 19th to early 20th century was so full of conflict that there were violent labor conflicts and military-style race wars in the streets, while the government feared being overthrown such as by the Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn. I find myself in a near constant state of amazement at the historical amnesia of Americans, even among the the well-educated. No matter how bad problems are right now, they don’t compare even slightly to numerous other periods in US history.

Anyway, being critical of the culture of fear, I’m strongly supportive of a “Sane Center.” But it depends on what is meant by that. If sanity means being well-adjusted, then what is being adjusted to? Such things are always relative, specifically in terms of left vs right. Context is everything.

We should consider the origins of the left-right divide. The right side has for millennia been associated with power and authority, tradition and the status quo. That is why Jesus was described as sitting to the right of God. And that is why, under the French monarchy, aristocrats and clergy supporting the monarchy sat on the right side of the assembly. Even once the king was deposed, the French assembly maintained this seating with the most radical revolutionaries sitting to the left.

About the French Revolution, it’s interesting to compare it to the American Revolution. Some of the American founders gave primary credit to Thomas Paine for the American Revolution or at least in lending much inspiration toward its success. Paine was as radical as they come, in many ways far to the left of present Democrats (e.g., basic income).

Yet guess where he was seated as an honorary member of the French assembly. He sat on the right side with his moderate allies, as under that context he was a moderate who argued for not beheading the king and for passing a democratic constitution, the whole issue of a democratic rule of law and democratic procedure. He was more radically liberal than were the radical revolutionaries, but this radical liberalism is precisely what made him moderate. It was those radical or rather reactionary revolutionaries, when they gained control, who sentenced Paine to death and he narrowly escaped that fate.

As always, the issues is to the right or left of what? Paine was trying to hold the “Sane Center” in an insane world. Even the American Revolution was far more violent and bloody than is typically acknowledged,. It was a time when wealth and power ruled brutally and it was no easy task for the oppressed to stand up to that injustice, both on the right and the left. Interestingly, during such revolutions, aristocrats and plutocrats are found on both sides of the fight. The French Revolution was initiated with the help of many aristocrats and clergy who were tired of oppressive monarchy. And the same was true of the American Revolution.

Paine was an Anti-Federalist, the ideological group that supported democracy as opposed to centralized power. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real Federalists because they actually wanted a Confederation of states, as was agreed upon under the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (the second constitution, ironically, was unconstitutional and passed unconstitutionally according to the first constitution). Because of the second constitution, most US citizens lost power and representation with only a few percentage having the right to either vote or run for office. When the revolution continued under the new government by those demanding the democracy they had fought for, the aristocrat Washington put an army together and violently put down those dreams of democracy.

The US isn’t a country that was founded on a “Sane Center.” That isn’t the kind of country it is. But it is a country that was inspired by democracy and genuine democracy is as radical today as it was in Paine’s lifetime. As Jimmy Carter has observed, the US is a banana republic and was that way before Trump came to power. Research has confirmed this in showing that we don’t have a functioning representative government, as politicians most of the time do what the wealthy want them to do and not what the middle-to-lower classes want them to do (this was analyzed in comparing public policy and public opinion). Still, we are an aspiring democracy and such aspirations shouldn’t be dismissed.

That is the context. And that leads me to the specifics of this article. It was written that,

“During the 2016 Presidential election, deep fissures appeared in both the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrats were divided between a far-left candidate in Bernie Sanders and a more traditional Democrat in Hillary Clinton. Likewise, Republicans were divided among far-right candidates, traditional Republicans and a complete outlier — Donald Trump.”

Let me first question the claim about what is traditional. What is the comparison being made? Bernie Sanders positions are well within the range of standard policies of FDR’s New Deal. Some consider FDR to be a traditional Democrat and, if so, it should be noted that Clinton’s positions make it clear that she is to the right of FDR.

We also know that the majority of Americans presently agree with many of Sanders’ positions, as polling and surveys show that most Americans are to the left of both main political parties. So, in what sense is Sanders a “far-left candidate?” Sure, he is to the left of the political center in Washington and in corporate media. But the political center in Washington and in corporate media is to the right of the American public. If we are to use the American public as the measure of the center, then that would mean Sanders is a centrist and all the major candidates are to the right of that center.

There is more than one ‘center’ to choose from. It depends on which part of society one identifies with. As someone who agrees with majority public opinion on many issues, I personally prefer to use the known data about public opinion as the defining standard of the political center. But I realize others would prefer a different center, as they don’t want a “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” I do want such a government, as did Paine, but also as did Republicans once upon a time as those words were spoken by the first Republican president.

That gets us to confusion of what goes for traditional in the GOP. As one scholar made clear, the Republican Party has from the beginning swung between the extremes of populism and plutocracy, somehow melding the two poles at the moment with Trump. At present, it’s hard to imagine Republicans doing something as radical as abolishing slavery like Lincoln, breaking up monopolies like Roosevelt, calling out the Military-Industrial Complex like Eisenhower, or simply creating the EPA like Nixon (it’s amazing how liberal Nixon looks these days, more liberal than many Democrats right now).

It hasn’t just been the GOP pushing right for decades. The Clinton New Democrats sought to triangulate by also pushing right. This is how both parties became uncentered or rather created their own center, quite contrary to the silenced majority. Where is the sanity in this? Why do we allow corporatist parties and big biz media tell us what is the Sane Center? They aren’t in the moral position to be telling anyone much of anything. Rather, those in the so-called ‘mainstream’ are the problem.

“Moderatism seemed to have all but disappeared over the past several decades with progressivism’s constant march to the left and conservatism’s to the right, but following the election, people from both sides began discussing a path forward that would help heal the gaping wound of division in our country.”

In that light, what is moderation as an ideological goal, this so-called moderatism? That is to say, what is being moderated between and to what end? Obviously, what goes for moderation in ‘mainstream’ politics isn’t moderating toward the center of public opinion of citizens and eligible voters. When both parties are immoderate, when the corporate media is immoderate, when public intellectuals are immoderate, how is the disempowered and sometimes overtly disenfranchised public supposed to seek out moderation? Does ‘moderate’ have any meaning when the most publicly centrist and most popular candidate in the country, Bernie Sanders, is called a radical left-winger by the minority in the comfortable classes?

This has a way of making many average Americans start feeling a bit radical. Maybe at times like these radicalism is the last refuge of the “Sane Center.”

* * *

One of the similar articles I’ve come across is by Peggy Noonan, a WSJ piece (Rage Is All the Rage, and It’s Dangerous).

For a mainstream media hack, her writing is more tolerable than that of many others, but this particular one didn’t do much for me. It’s more false equivalence. As I regularly make clear, I’m no fan of Democrats. Still, we should be honest enough to admit that the GOP and its supporters, especially pundits on talk radio and Fox News, have been inciting violence for decades (e.g., repeatedly calling Dr. Tiller a “baby killer” on one of the most popular right-wing shows until an audience member murdered him).

That said, the entire country at the moment is feeling pressure and the situation isn’t primarily ideological in nature. Even a moderate mainstream politician and former president like Jimmy Carter openly states that the US is a banana republic, which is to say that partisan animosity is the least of our worries. This is at a time after decades of worsening inequality (a defining feature of banana republics), something that research has proven worsens social problems in general and violence most of all. Republicans have been pushing the gospel of inequality for as long as they’ve been pushing violent rhetoric, and it has been a useful political strategy. For that reason, those in the Democratic Party seeking greater power within this banana republic have copied GOP strategies and also pushed right.

Nonetheless, we live in a far more peaceful era, compared to the past. The 1960s to 1980s was extremely violent, across the political spectrum (economic and political problems did contribute, although the worsening rates of lead toxicity of post-war industrialization and mass car culture played a larger role). And the first several decades of last century were even more violent, that having been the era of bomb-throwing anarchists, the terrorist Klan, and large-scale organized crime.

Ideology, at times, has been a more central concern. And it does help us understand how we got to this point. There is research that shows that violence always gets worse under Republican administrations, at least for as long as data has been kept. Right-wing and reactionary ideology worsens social conditions because of what it promotes. But once a society gets pushed toward instability, ideology itself is no longer the motivating factor. Ideology simply creates the conditions for violence to play out for other reasons, typically more personal motivations.

The guy who shot those Republicans probably didn’t do so for ideology, no more than the increasing hate crimes from the political right are intended as a political strategy. Most people aren’t overtly ideological in having clear and consistent ideological principles, even as they get caught up in the ideological rhetoric fanning the flames. Many Americans are simply feeling desperate, distressed, outraged, and much else. As research shows, high inequality doesn’t increase the probability of either kind behavior or intelligent choices. Only after bad conditions and bad feelings hit a breaking point does ideology typically follow as a way of ranting or rationalizing.

Ideology might offer an outlet for one’s feelings and give form to one’s voice, but ideology plays more of a role on the societal level than on the individual level. That is true until social conditions get so bad that people start organizing terrorist groups that regularly blow up buildings, assassinate people, etc. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. Even then, few if any join a terrorist group because of ideology, although there is no doubt that ideology helps to create and cement a new social identity, including social identities people are willing to die for.

Our concern about ideology, first and foremost, should be the neoliberalism and neoconservatism that forms the harmful social conditions and so makes violent consequences inevitable. Once we are at the point of people committing mass violence, talk about ideology is largely moot. We need to push it back a step to see where it originated.

* * *

Related to those articles, I was reading Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. It was published this year. Although far from perfect, I hope it gets a wide reading by the public and gains some traction in the media.

It is a useful book because his analysis of inequality is primarily through a lens of social science, rather than economics or politics. The author explains in great detail the real world impact inequality has on people in all aspects of their lives. The basic point was made many years ago in The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, but Payne takes it a step further in showing the immense amount of research that has accumulated and showing how all the research connects to form a larger understanding.

The case against inequality goes far beyond a mere moral plea for justice and fairness. Inequality makes everything more dysfunctional. This is seen most clearly in diverse social problems, but there are larger consequences starkly shown in the political sphere. If a divided country is what is wanted, there are few more effective ways to divide a population than through inequality (pp. 110-111):

“Political scientist Nolan McCarty and his colleagues have also traced political divisions over the last century in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, formulating a measure of polarization based on how lawmakers vote, similar to the data used for Andris’s graphs. The polarization index is at its highest when all Democrats vote one way and all Republicans vote the other. Using this index, they calculated how polarized American politics has been in every Congress since 1947. Figure 4.5 shows that polarization in the House of Representatives and the Gini index of inequality have followed strikingly similar trajectories. Results for the Senate are similar. Both inequality and polarization were relatively low through the 1950s and 1960s. They then began rising in tandem in the mid-1970s and have remained on par ever since.”

There is one point that has long stood out to me, as seen with inequality research. It isn’t limited to the problems affecting the lower classes. Even the plutocrats become divided in conflict. That is what results when inequality becomes so entrenched that it forms into a widespread culture of mistrust, anxiety, and fear. This is seen in comparing countries which many earlier books on the topic have discussed. Even the wealthiest are worse off in a high inequality society than they are in a low inequality society. Inequality increases stress-related illnesses, violent crime, and political corruption. To live amidst inequality is to constantly feel on edge. No amount of wealth, power, and privilege can protect one from that sad state of affairs. No gated community can entirely isolate one from problems that tear apart the very social fabric that society depends upon.

Inequality is self-destructive. It has to be remedied if the worst possible consequences are to be avoided: economic collapse, government failure, inability to defend against foreign invasion, terrorism, military coup, civil war, revolution, or some combination of these. Simply devolving into an authoritarian police state and banana republic isn’t much of a better fate. But the point is that the experience of shittiness becomes pervasive even while the outward forms of civil society are maintained. It happens in ways that are hard to see from within a society because the problems become normalized according to the status quo and the ensuing epistemic closure shuts down our ability to imagine anything else. All that is experienced by most people is a general sense of worsening. They simply feel bad which leads to some combination of apathetic resignation and fearful scapegoating. This does not help to build a shared attitude of common good and cooperation, much less compassion and tolerance.

As inequality becomes a chasm dividing the public, the center literally disappears while the once large middle class shrinks. That center is what holds civil society together, what creates a sense of a shared social order (something explained by Aristotle more than a couple of millennia ago and also explained by Adam Smith more than a couple of centuries ago). Inequality turns people against one another. This can be seen in different areas of society, such as on an airplane where people are forced into close proximity. The socioeconomic status of passengers, real or perceived, represents a microcosm of the larger society (pp. 2-4):

“As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

“To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

“This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flight. Since an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

“But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

“Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

“What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

* * *

For some historical context, Noam Chomsky is useful (“The Common Good”, The Sun magazine, November 1997):

“Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy would be fully participatory — with the notable exception of women and slaves — and would aim to promote the common good. But he argued that, in order to achieve its goal, the democracy would have to ensure “lasting prosperity to the poor” and “moderate and sufficient property” for everyone. If there were extremes of poor and rich, or if you didn’t have lasting prosperity for everyone, Aristotle thought, then you couldn’t talk seriously about having democracy.

“Another point Aristotle made was that if you have a perfect democracy, yet have big differences of wealth — a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor — then the poor will use their democratic muscle to take away the property of the rich. He regarded this as unjust and offered two possible solutions. One was to reduce poverty. The other was to reduce democracy.

“A couple of thousand years later, when our Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, James Madison noticed the same problem, but whereas Aristotle’s preferred solution had been to reduce poverty, Madison’s was to reduce democracy. He said quite explicitly in the Constitutional Convention that, if we had a true democracy, then the poor majority would use its power to demand what nowadays we would call agrarian reform, and that couldn’t be tolerated. The primary goal of government, in Madison’s words, is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He also pointed out that, as time went on, this problem was going to get worse, because a growing part of the population would suffer serious inequities and “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of blessings.” He therefore designed a system that would ensure democracy didn’t function. As he put it, power would be in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who held “the wealth of the nation,” and the rest would be factionalized and marginalized in various ways.”

* * *

Here are some concluding thoughts. In this post, I resisted linking to any of my old posts. I’ve written about this kind of thing many times before, but I didn’t feel like dredging up prior commentary.

For the longest time, I identified as a liberal and it is still hard for me to shake that identity, even as I’ve seen the problems with it as a specifically American ideological category enmeshed in class politics, class privilege, and class warfare. The specific problem is that the liberal class which, because middle class professionals are found in academia and media, has come to dominate the rhetoric of liberalism within public debate.

My tendency is toward moderation. And I wish I lived in a moderate society. But I don’t. The reality is that the rhetoric of moderation is too often used in mainstream/corporatist politics to defend what is immoderate to the extreme, just as liberal rhetoric is wielded to prop up illiberal power structures. My concern, as always, is more about the reality than the rhetoric. Yet to deal with the reality requires understanding the rhetoric and how it is used. That further requires immense context to gain that understanding, context that few Americans are ever taught.

Inequality and class division makes for a stupid society. I mean that quite literally. It simply is not good for the highest levels of neurocognitive development and hence intellectual capacity. Inequality, similar to poverty, stunts normal development and this can be seen in brain scans. Long-term social and psychological stress accumulates into high rates of what essentially is trauma. An entire national population traumatized isn’t so talented at achieving a moderate civil society. People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.

This is why it is so heart-rending to speak of an idealized “Sane Center.” A common attribute of high inequality societies, specifically those dominated by the WEIRD demographic (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), is that they have high rates of mental illness. It’s not just the poor having their brains fucked up from lead toxicity, although that is a major component with the combined effects of economic segregation and environmental racism. In the US, even the wealthy have higher rates of mental illness. There are poor communities around the world that, despite lacking healthcare and all the niceties of modernity, have very low or even seemingly non-existent rates of mental illness. The primary difference isn’t between poverty and wealth but between high inequality and low inequality. Of course, combining poverty with high inequality creates an even greater shit storm.

This is what gets me. Those demanding moderation are often the most privileged. They are people who too often think they are above it all and so look down upon all those other crazy people, such as the poor whites who are falsely blamed for Trump’s election. It is the comfortable classes, in their privilege and authority, who get to define what (and who) is ‘sane’ and ‘insane’, along with what is ‘centrist’ vs ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ vs ‘radical’. This even sometimes goes along with forms of gaslighting that make people feel insane — such as hearing politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals speak about the world in a way that doesn’t match the lived reality of most people in the world.

We don’t live in a sane and moderate country. Acknowledging that fact should be the starting point of any public discussion. The ‘center’ of a society gone mad is not where we should move toward, if the public good and functioning democracy is our aspiration.

* * *

6/26/17 – I originally wanted to avoid linking to old posts. But then I got in a debate. That person kept demanding evidence. I find that tiresome because, if someone wants info, they can find it. It’s not hard to find.

I guess I’ll make it even easier to find by offering some of that info gathered on my blog. Besides the following posts, I also shared a bunch of poling data and such down in the comments section. I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to pretend this info doesn’t exist. Here it is:

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
Environmentalist Majority
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Who Supported the Vietnam War?
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties

To Unfurl the Flag of Liberalism

I have a conjecture about liberalism and conservatism. My speculation is about the psychological side of things, moreso than the political.

As I’ve often pointed out, liberals are prone to conservative-mindedness when under conditions of social stress or cognitive overload (here is the most recent post on the topic). But not all liberals seem to be prone to this and maybe under normal conditions most liberals aren’t prone to it.

I’m not sure. I just know there is something in liberal psychology that makes this a very real possibility. The examples of it in politics can be seen all the time, especially during times like these when conditions are far from perfect for the liberal predisposition. Then again, when are conditions ever perfect for or much in the way of being conducive to the liberal predisposition?

Liberals rarely if ever get the opportunity to fully be themselves, to let their liberal flag wave fully unfurled.

My thoughts relate to the issue of fear. Some studies have shown conservatives have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. What I was wondering is if there are different kinds of fear, not all kinds being labeled fear as such. Some of these kinds of ‘fear’ might be more relevant to the liberal mindset.

Let me use an example to clarify one possibility. There is often an inverse relationship between homicide and suicide. It has been theorized that this is based on whether anger and aggression is turned outward or inward. Similarly, maybe there is a difference between fear turned outward or inward, the latter experienced as anxiety or in other ways.

I suffer from social anxiety, though the emphasis is more on the anxiety part. There is a lot of fear involved, but it is very internalized. I don’t project my fears onto outside factors or people so much, at least not in any specific way. I don’t fear other countries, cultures, ethnicities, religions, etc. I’m a typical liberal in that sense. At the same time, I have tons of internalized fears that express as anxieties, doubts and guilt.

When I look at conservative-minded liberals, what I see is liberalism turning on itself. Such people seem to let their doubts of liberalism get the better of themselves. That is one of the things that liberals seem really good at: doubt. It can be quite undermining and self-destructive, especially in movement politics and party politics, but also on a personal level.

Liberals don’t have the kind of righteous certainty and proud confidence that is more common among conservatives. Liberals not only have endless doubts, but we’re talented at rationalizing our doubts. We have as many good reasons to doubt as conservatives have to believe. Liberals tend to approach things more indirectly, like a fox circling around and around then backtracking and then circling around some more. This hedging-your-bets mentality has its benefits in that it moderates extremes and allows for a carefulness that dampens arrogance and zeal. Also, it is a stumbling block.

Many liberals seem afraid of being caught up in radicalism or even getting called radical. Liberals are sensitive. We don’t want our feelings hurt and we don’t want to hurt the feelings of others. We just want everyone to get along. Direct confrontation seems dangerous, and maybe for good reason. Conservatives do seem better at winning that game. So, why should liberals play into their own weakness?

I’m wondering about this because I want a liberalism that can win, not simply not lose. I want a fighting liberalism of the variety seen expressed by Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King jr, a liberalism not afraid of a few bruises or hurt feelings. Liberalism can express strongly at times for certain liberals, but it sure is rare.

Why is that? Is it just fear? Or is there something else going on here?

Cryptonomicon: Democracy & Moderation, Conflict & Violence

I’m not going to do a full review, much less a fair and neutral analysis, of Cryptonomicon. The book is large with multiple storylines, one of which involves World War II. The passage that caught my attention, however, comes from the storyline set in the late 1990s when the book was written. Before I get to that passage, let me make note of the worldview of the novel and of the author’s other novels.

I’m going to take a partly critical view on Neal Stephenson’s work or at least aspects therein, but I’m not trying to dismiss his work. I enjoyed Snow Crash, in particular. It felt like a very plausible future in many ways. Stephenson can be a fun writer to read. He is imaginative. So, my purpose here isn’t to do a review of Cryptonomicon or literary criticism of his ouevre. I simply want to use his writing as a way of offering cultural criticism since Stephenson very much seems like a product of our culture. So, I will be narrowly focused in this sense.

I haven’t read all of Stephenson’s books (nor do I want to try). From what others have written, it seems that all of his fiction involves conflict and typically fighting, often outright war. As Al Dimond explains:

Conflict is a theme that runs through every Stephenson novel that I’ve read. That’s a pretty vague theme, you might say. Well, how about this: they’ve all ended in the middle of violent struggle. The corporate wars and virtual swordfights of Snow Crash, global factional fighting in The Diamond Age, small-scale jungle combat in CryptonomiconCryptonomicon‘s story of World War II, its central thesis made explicit in Enoch Root and Randy’s conversations in jail, is the clearest statement that Stephenson basically believes in conflict. He believes that the right side (the progressive side) will eventually win if there is conflict. That without conflict societies lose their sense of what they believe in the first place and can’t progress. Whether or not you believe that what I’m calling progress here is good, this is something that rings true to me: in a world of competitive civilizations, the progressive ones wipe out the others. We always worry that they (we) may wipe out themselves, too, just for the sake of completeness (ha, not really, actually just because we know no other way, or because there’s still enough inequity and thus conflict to keep us fighting and thus progressing). This is a subject that I’ve got to do some reading on, because I’m sure Great Books have been written on the subject.

One could easily conclude that Neal Stephenson, going by his fiction, seems to have little faith in the ideal of social democracy working out its problems without recourse to violence and revolution. There seems to be no overarching socio-political worldview that can encompass the diverse opinions and viewpoints of his characters. Some group apparently has to win and everyone else lose… or else there will be endless fighting and competition between forces. One might say that it is a bit of a Social Darwinian vision. Unsurprisingly, there is a libertarian bent to many of the narratives and characters.

The following is by David Axel Kurtz. This is from the beginning of his post which is a celebration and apologia of this worldview:

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, there is nothing more derided than irony. It is seen as the enemy of the artist, an obstacle to creativity, and the antithesis of true production.

If there is a protagonist to Crypto it is Randall Lawrence Waterhouse. He is comparable in many ways to the author of the story. They both came from the American heartland. They both ended up in the Pacific Northwest. They both came of age at the time of the computer’s introduction. They are both highly educated. They are both “white male technocrats.” They are both nerds.

The nerd as hero. I have nothing against that in principle. It is better than Rambo, but Cryptonomicon has both types: the nerd-hero and the soldier-hero. The greatest enemy of all is not taking one’s mission deadly seriously (i.e., irony is bad). No matter which type of hero you are in this world, you have to fight for what you believe in. There is no pacifist-hero of slow, gradual democratic change… for I guess that would make a boring story (and some would say make for a boring ideology)… very few stories, ideologies or products are sold without some drama involved, even if the only drama is the conflict of not having the beautiful woman in the advertisement.

Kurtz identifies the character Randy (Randall) with the author Stephenson. That is something I wondered when I came across the passage where Randy takes on the smug humanities professor G. E. B. Kivistik, a truly pathetic caricature in the tradition of right-wing fear-mongering about the academic liberal elite. What I wanted to know is: Why was the author setting up a straw man for his antagonist to knock down, unless that caricature is genuinely how the author perceives such people? The scenario was a libertarian wet dream. This immediately put my defenses up and made me start to pay closer attention to the story. I’m still not entirely sure where the author comes down on this.

Randy sees himself as self-accomplished and hardworking. He doesn’t see the privilege he has had a white guy born and raised in America. Nor do those inspired by this passage see this. It has become a manifesto of white male victimhood.

Dominic Fox explains this worldview in terms of a “tribal sociology”:

The point to understand here is that Randy is right for a small, local value of “this society”: if you are in a position to participate in the social customs and network of the Dwarves, the path to advancement is indeed to “work hard, educate yourself, and keep your wits about you”. If you are amongst Hobbits, you need to practice quite different virtues. Tribes such as these act as force-multipliers for personal effort (working one’s ass off, something Kivistik has also presumably done in his own way), provided it is directed towards goals that the tribe esteems and is in a position to reward. What is “entrenched” is of course not Randy’s personal position within the tribe to which he is affiliated, but the position of the tribe itself, with its considerable resources of knowledge and power.

The ideological move common to Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age is to displace class analysis (which would have something to say about hierarchy and exploitation, as fundamental operators of the division of the social world) into a “pagan” compartmentalisation of the world into competing tribes, a flat ecology of value-systems whose historical development is governed by something like an evolutionary fitness landscape. This is apparent from Cryptonomicon’s opening metaphor of the “first self-replicating gizmo” as a “stupendous badass”, and progenitor of a tremendous and varied proliferation of badassery throughout the natural and, by metaphorical extension, social world. This compartmentalisation enables Stephenson to range across wildly varied social and moral environments, and gives the Baroque Cycle its bewildering sweep and scope as well as its synoptic power. But it leaves Randy Waterhouse essentially mystified as to the nature of the opportunities available to him, and unable to grasp the Hobbits’ point, rendered as it is in language that seems offensively fatuous and vapid to him, about “false consciousness”.

An even more scathing criticism came from an unknown author of an essay, Retronomicon:

[W]hat’s most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there’s a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

This critic is speaking of that same passage. Further on, s/he gets into the meat of the issue:

Let’s set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it’s patently transparent. Look at Kivistik’s original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he’s asking is “who’s going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?” This isn’t some far-fetched academic pretense: it’s a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik’s point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he’s writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story.

This gives voice to my intuitive response when I initially read the passage in question. It seems the author expects us to take fully seriously this portrayal of academia and its takedown by the idealized nerd-hero outsider. Nonetheless, I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

In the passage, Randy defends himself against the accusation of being a technocrat… worse still, a privileged technocrat. I haven’t done a thorough search about the author’s views on such things, but I did come across an interview where he discusses a technocratic society:

The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions.

[ . . . ] for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we’re coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it’s going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be “worse.” If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we’ll get lucky again. In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less compelling than they might have in 1955.

That seems to offer a clue.

In Cryptonomicon, Randy denies being a technocrat, denies even knowing what that means. The author in this interview, on the other hand, offers a loving portrayal of the technocratic society he was born into. Growing up, Stephenson saw strife and bickering take over our country. Little of the optimism that brought us to the moon was left by the time he was an adult.

Stephenson states that, “It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works”. That is pretty much the opinion of Randy and how he sees the humanities professor. Following this statement, Stephenson also makes a similar statement about the “cultural right”. He is speaking of the culture wars and so the “cultural right” he speaks of is the religious right. However, he separates out the technical class out of this culture war. That is precisely the view of Randy as he sees himself as the outsider. This so-called “technical class” is stereotypically known for its libertarianism and I doubt Stephenson is unaware of this when he makes such statements. He is speaking about a specific group with a specific ideological tendency.

Stephenson seems to have sympathies for the libertarian-minded, but at the same time he sees a broader view:

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

As he further explains, “Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes.” Despite all the conflict and violence in his fiction, he apparently hasn’t embraced this as normative. Still, the fictional worldview being presented is certainly not one of moderation or even any obvious hope for moderation. Stephenson’s stories offer some particular conflict resolved or semi-resolved in a world of conflict, maybe never to be resolved.

Like me, Neal Stephenson was a child of the Cold War. He is of a slightly older generation, a young Boomer. So, he is even more of the Cold War era than I am. That “triangular system” of stability is very much a product of the twentieth century, but when Stephenson spoke in that interview it was several years after the 9/11 terrorist attack and in an entirely new decade following Cryptonomicon. In this new century, conflict and violence has become a lot more personal to Americans. It isn’t about oppressive foreign countries or dystopic futures. We have come to a point where statism, terrorism and libertarianism are being brought to their extremes.

Stephenson explores the world where great heroes go on quests and great men fight for what they seek. Most of us on this teeming planet aren’t great heroes or great men. We are just people trying to get by and hoping for a better world for the next generation. What is everyone else supposed to do while all the great things are happening? Is there any room for democracy to emerge, for grassroots change that doesn’t require conflict and violence?

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

As the Heartland, what is in the heart of America? What was planted here? What has grown? What has come to fruition?

The Midwest is Middle America. Without a middle, there is no whole. The periphery, America’s coasts and borders, receives all the attention like the sweet juicy flesh surrounding the seed, but it is the seed that is the purpose of the fruit. Out of the seed grows what was in the seed to grow. The seed grows upward where the fruit is to be had, but the roots surrounding what was the seed holds it all in place. The center, like the roots, must hold for if it doesn’t nothing will remain to be held; a weakly rooted tree will topple. The center is what is at the core, the middle that defines the whole, the circumference measured outward from that point of reference, that point of stability.

In America, the middle has always been the Midlands and the former Middle Colonies, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest that extends into the interior. It is the cultural middling point where cultures meet, clash, merge, and even out. It is the linguistic middle of Standard American English. It is the median and mean center of the United States population.

Right now, the Emerald Ash Borer is slowly making its way across the Midwest. A couple of years ago it finally made it to Iowa and all the Ash trees I see in this Iowa town may soon be gone. The Norse World Tree Yggdrasil is considered to have been an Ash tree, out of which the first man was formed and the sugary sap from which was made the Mead of Inspiration. The Ash tree has long been rooted in Western society. It is a hardwood tree and so has been highly prized, including for use in shipbuilding. Consider how many immigrants came to America afloat upon ships built out of Ash wood. Yet now we are watching possibly a mass extinction of Ash trees, not just a single variety of Ash trees but all Ash trees.

How does the Emerald Ash Borer kill a tree? It does so by cutting off the flow of nutrients from roots to the crown. Where did this pest come from? It is an invasive species from Eastern Russia and Asia.

It is thought that the Emerald Ash Borer was brought to America along with a shipment of parts. This is one of those inevitable unintended results of globalization. The entire United States is itself an unintended result of globalization. The Atlantic colonies were part of the first major era of globalization. Many of the earliest colonies, especially Virginia and New Netherland, were simply intended as capitalist investments and not to develop into full-fledged societies, much less an independent united country. One of the earliest unintended consequences back then was slavery. Another unintended consequence was multiculturalism.

Many Americans today worry about the consequences of mass immigration, even though multiple waves of mass immigration have occurred every century since the colonies were founded. America is mass migration. It is the heart and soul of this crazy experiment.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on a plaque at the feet of the Statue of Liberty)

In these words is the only moral justification to be found for our having become an empire or what in doublespeak is these days called a global superpower. Call it what you will, but the US acts like an empire: colonial territories such as Hawaii and Philippines; regularly starting wars of aggression along with regularly invading and occupying countries; military bases in countries all over the world and naval presence in international waters all over the world; et cetera. The US is the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

(See the following: Manifesting America by Mark Rifkin, The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, A Turn to Empire by Jennifer Pitts, and Among the Powers of the Earth by Eliga H. Gould)

I’m personally not in favor of my country being an empire (I say ‘my’ with some reservation for a subject doesn’t possess but is possessed by an empire, yet I must take some responsibility for it as I’m a direct beneficiary of its power). Nonetheless, if the metaphorical ‘we’ are going to be imperialists, we at least ought to stick to our moral justifications for doing so. We are an immigrant nation. This is our role in the world. Other countries accept us as big brother because every country has immigrants and descendants living in America. This is seen as everyone’s country. This is why the citizens of other countries mourned with US citizens after the 9/11 attack, and indeed the people who died in that attack were of diverse nationalities and citizenship. Without this moral justification for our empire-building, we are simply yet another big bully. Too many Americans want the benefits of being an empire with none of the responsibilities.

Multiculturalism is the tap root of the Tree of Liberty, whether for good or ill. In the 18th century, South Carolina had a African majority and Pennsylvania had a German majority. Further back in the 17th century, New Netherland had a Dutch majority, New Sweden a Swedish majority, the Spanish territories such as Florida with a Spanish majority and the French territories with a French majority. Even after being taken over by the British, New Netherland/New York still had a large Dutch population. Also, today much of the former Spanish territories that became the United States have continuously maintained a hispanic majority. Of course, the Native American territories had their native majority and once were the majority of the entire continent. These are the roots of the United States. This region of North America has never had a majority population that was of English descent.

One of the conflicts colonists had with the British government was over the rights of Englishmen. I wonder if the reason the British government was so uncertain about the colonies was the fact that there were so many colonists who weren’t Englishmen. I could understand as the ethnocentric ruling elite of an empire that they were wary of equally offering the rights of Englishmen to people who weren’t Englishmen. Those are the kinds of problems that come from empire-building. Nonetheless, the ruling elite in the colonies were also mostly Englishmen. So, they took quite seriously their supposed rights as Englishmen and took offense at their being denied.

Still, I wonder if it ever occurred to the mostly English-descended founding fathers, as they convened congress in Philadelphia, that they were surrounded by fellow colonists who weren’t Englishmen. Even back then, Pennsylvania was the Keystone. The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been. There was well-founded fears of despotic power arising after the defeat of the British military, and quite prescient considering what this country has become.

It is interesting how this colonial region of multiculturalism was also the region with some of the strongest advocates for British loyalty and political moderation. It was the keystone not just for political and military reasons but also for cultural reasons. The Quakers as well believed in the rights of Englishmen. However, the Quakers were different in their understanding of English constitutionalism. They saw their rights directly rooted in the British constitution. They believed in popular sovereignty and that reform must be sought through the constitutional process. Englishmen didn’t lack a constitution and so didn’t need to create one. They simply needed to improve the very constitution that had given them the rights of Englishmen in the first place. (It is sadly ironic that this is precisely what is now claimed of the US constitution that violently replaced the British constitution. Americans prize their constitution and speak of the democratic process of creating amendments. Yet the US constitution was created by a process no more democratic than the process that created the British constitution.)

The Middle Colonies were the swing colonies for the issue of revolution just as today the Midwestern states are the swing states for presidential elections. It is partly because this has always been where the mass of the population has been centered. The reason it is centered here is because the Mid-Atlantic is where most immigrants arrived and the Midwest is where most immigrants settled. This wasn’t accidental but quite intentional. They were multicultural havens right from the start. To the North and to the South, the other colonial governments were more wary about letting just anyone to settle in their area or even merely to dock their ship full of immigrant strangers. In the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania, a more tolerant attitude prevailed. This is the source of the Midwestern moderate sensibility.

During the revolutionary era, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Delaware embodied this the most clearly. He was born of parents of multi-generational Quaker descent. He married a woman of multi-generational Quaker descent. He lived among Quakers and associated with Quakers. However, he came to believe in wars of defense which the Quakers didn’t support and so he wasn’t a Quaker. This single point aside, his worldview was thoroughly Quaker. But even in this point of disagreement, his taking a moderate support of war only in cases of defense was very fitting for the Quaker attitude of moderation. Dickinson was in this way semi-pacifist. He believed violence should be avoided at all costs when possible. His understanding of defense was very narrow and strict.

Dickinson was a principled man. Oddly, as a reform-minded moderate, he was a key player in helping to make the revolution possible. He was the most popular pamphleteer until Thomas Paine (the latter also having had Quaker values instilled in him by his father). Without what Dickinson helped start and what Paine helped finish, the American Revolution may never have gotten very far, quite likely not succeeding at all. These Quaker-descended righteous men (with, at least in the case of Paine, Quaker-taught plain speech) knew how to articulate a collective vision of freedom that unified what was otherwise just a bunch of disparate gripes about government. Many have misunderstand Paine as a mere revolutionary. Paine also sought moderation in his own way, but he sought a moderation of power that would benefit the commoner rather the established elite. To the established elite, this didn’t seem moderate at all. For example, Paine was a deist which he saw as a middleground position where the divine was envisioned as a moderating force between morally unrooted radical atheism/secularism and authoritarian theocratic tendencies such as established churches. Both Dickinson and Paine sought moderation while remaining principled. Neither changed with the times, but the world around them shifted over their lifetimes. They found themselves criticized and forgotten by those less moderate and less principled.

My point is to show the power of this vision of moderation. Like Quaker pacifism and tolerance, it need not be a position of weakness for it holds the potential of immense strength, both strength of conviction and strength of influence. Not all moderates are neutral and passive. The greatest wisdom of moderation, however, is easily forgotten even by moderates. When moderation loses its moral center, it merely becomes a defense of the status quo. The center is what holds, but what is being maintained and for what purpose?

The proponents of moderateness are what hold this diverse country together. An empire wouldn’t be possible without them. That is the rub. Modern empire-building has necessitated this kind of conservative-minded liberalism, the latter thus becoming complicit with the former. Why not give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians, the Philippines back to the Filipinos, former Northern Mexico back to the Mexicans, and at least some of the former Indian territories back to the Native Americans? Why did we as a country expend so much blood in keeping the country together during the Civil War? Why do we want to be a great power on the earth? Why not just be free and independent communities that govern themselves as they see fit?

I love the Midwest for its moderation. I truly believe the Midlands has helped keep this country together, for whatever that is worth (I often do think there is worth in this, certainly Dickinson and Paine did). Still, the dark side of this bothers me. I see it in a status quo mentality. The attitude of tolerance only goes so far and often is only advocated when it is convenient and easy, when no sacrifices are required. This is the rot in the Tree of Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Jefferson proved to be less consistently principled than the likes of Dickinson and Paine, but still his words resonate as I don’t doubt that he believed them when he wrote them. What has often been on my mind lately is how the American Revolution was ideologically and politically lost by the principled reformers like Dickinson and the principled revolutionaries like Paine. Accordingly, it could be said that the American Revolution went too far and not far enough. Those who took the reigns of power were the very ones least interested in any liberty besides their own. It is strange how radical a moderate like Dickinson can sound compared to what came to pass.

I’ve never been sure about revolution, specifically violent revolution. It is hard to say that Canada is worse off for embracing slow reform instead of bloody insurrection. Canada has a more multicultural society than even the US. Plus, Canada has fewer of the problems found in the US: high poverty, high wealth inequality, low social mobility, etc. The American Revolution seems to have created a very divided country and made the Civil War inevitable. The British, instead, offered freedom to many slaves right after the revolution and many of them settled in free communities in Canada. I sometimes wonder if Canada is offering a better American Dream than America.

Is there something worth saving by moderation in America? Can we regain the moderate vision of John Dickinson? Or can we finally follow to completion the freedom-loving vision of Paine? If we are so incapable of worthwhile non-violent reform, what makes some people think that yet again more violence will solve our problems? How many more revolutions and civil wars do we need? What is this deformed tree of ‘liberty’ that has grown out of conflict? Should we hope to water it once again or just let it die from its own rot? What would we plant in its place? Or are there other seeds already planted that don’t need blood to grow?

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country–not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society–cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”
~ Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times