Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth

Reactionary Democrats and Pseudo-Liberals

“The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate. …We don’t have emperors yet, but one of our two major parties is now dominated by radicals engaged in a crusade of voter suppression aimed at the elderly, the young, minorities and the poor; while the other party, once the champion of everyday working people, has been so enfeebled by its own collaboration with the donor class that it offers only token resistance to the forces that have demoralized everyday Americans.”
~ Bill Moyers

Many Democrats unsurprisingly associate reactionary politics with Republicans. But in doing so Democrats don’t notice the reactionary tendencies of their own party.

It wasn’t just the GOP that had a reactionary backlash to the 1960s. It was Democrats voting against the liberal progressive candidate, George McGovern, who instead chose to vote for Richard Nixon and got him elected. And, in 2000,  more Democrats voted for George W. Bush than voted for Ralph Nader. Think about that.

Why do partisan Democrats have such short memories and lack of self-awareness? Without learning from history, the same mistakes are repeated. Once again, here we are with the reactionary partisans supporting the corporatist neoliberal and war hawk neocon instead of supporting the progressive liberal.

Will Democrats ever learn? Or are Democrats simply being true to themselves by embracing reactionary politics? If so, then maybe we should build a strong third party to challenge the bipartisan duopoly of reactionary politics.

* * *

About McGovern, the point isn’t whether or not he could have won. Rather, if Democrats were the party of progressive liberals, then Democrats would have voted for McGovern and not Nixon. It’s easy to forget that Democrats had a lot of conservatives in the past (and still do).

Even during Reagan’s administration, Blue Dog Democrats gave the Republicans a conservative majority in Congress. Then the Clinton New Democrats used a Southern Strategy that brought more conservatives back into the party and in doing so shifted the entire political spectrum in Washington to the right.

Democrats have always been a big tent party, not a liberal progressive party as they claim in their rhetoric. In this campaign season, once again the rhetoric is being shown as false.

* * *

About Nader, there are a few points. Most Nader voters weren’t Democrats. They were largely Independents and many of them wouldn’t have voted if not for Nader running. For the others who would have still voted, about an equal number would have voted for Bush.

Nader was never that popular with Democrats, as you know, and so it’s unsurprising that he didn’t draw that many Democratic voters. Even in terms of supposed liberals, 13% voted for Bush compared to 6% for Nader. The fact of the matter is Nader didn’t get that many votes in general. Not much of a spoiler.

Then again, the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, was so unpopular among Democrats that a massive number didn’t vote at all. Democrats were plenty divided and demoralized without any need for outside influence.

* * *

It’s not that I’m against Democrats being a big tent party. I just wish they were more honest about this in their rhetoric. That way, voters could make honest decisions based on the facts.

Politicians like the Clintons appeal as much to conservatives as to liberals. They talk out of both sides of their mouths, using codewords (from progressive rhetoric to dog-whistle politics) that appeal to different groups and so they change their talking points depending on which group they speak to. The Clintons are not progressive liberals. They are simply opportunists who shift with the tide.

However, it’s not just sleazy politicians that are the problem. There is something else going on.

In the 2000 presidential election, 13% of supposed ‘liberals’ voted for George W. Bush compared to only 6% who voted for Ralph Nader. In Florida, it was 17% of all liberals who voted for Bush, a total of 191,000 votes. It wasn’t just that more registered Democrats voted for Bush than Nader.

These betrayers of the political left were worthless liberals. Don’t trust a liberal. I say that as someone who has identified as a liberal for my entire adult life. I’m simply an independent from now on.

A similar thing is shown in Pew data, that liberals are confused in the head. About 1 in 10 of those who are liberal across the board identify as conservative. Does liberalism have any meaning? Or has it simply become some form of nebulous identity politics?

I’ll try not to laugh when clueless pseudo-liberals tell me that Clinton is a progressive liberal. Liberals need to get their act together and figure out what they stand for. And Democrats need to figure out what kind of party they are. As for me, the Democratic party is dead to me. They’ve lost me for life.

Any candidate of any party that wants my vote, will have to fight for my support by showing that, first and foremost, they care about democracy. Beyond that, we can negotiate. This is the only way change will happen, when enough Americans demand reform and refuse to accept anything less.

* * *

How Groups Voted in 2000
Roper Center, Cornell University

How Florida Democrats torpedoed Gore
If the vice president had locked up his party’s traditional base in the Sunshine State, the election wouldn’t be tied up in the courts.

by Jim Hightower, Salon

No More Mister Fall Guy:
Why Ralph Nader is Not to Blame for “President” Bush

by Tim Wise, TimeWise.org

The Ralph Nader Myth
by gjohnsit, Daily Kos

Dispelling the Myth of Election 2000:
Did Nader Cost Gore the Election?

by Irene Dieter, CAGP

Still Blaming Nader?
Green Party of Sonoma County

Debunked: The Myth That Ralph Nader Cost Al Gore the 2000 Election
by Good German, Disinfo

A Liberalism That Dominates

Why do people think they can vote for a politician to represent them and then not be morally responsible for what that politician does in their name?

I’m specifically thinking of politicians with known political records. In such cases, voters can’t reasonably plead ignorance. One has to assume that they approve of the choices made by their preferred political representative. If that is the case and it is hard to interpret it otherwise, this speaks badly for most voters across the political spectrum.

Do these people honestly wonder why politicians do bad things when they vote for politicians known for doing bad things? Or are these people simply disconnected from reality, disconnected from the larger world of consequences where real people are harmed?

That last question points to a real possibility. Those who are most harmed by our government are those who don’t or can’t vote: the poor who are shut out of the political system, minorities who experience voter suppression, felons who are disfranchised, undocumented immigrants who never had voting rights, and foreigners who have no influence over our government. But those aren’t the people I’m focused on here. It remains to explain those who can and do vote.

I’m unconvinced that the voting public doesn’t know they are supporting politicians who harm so many other humans, large numbers of them being their neighbors and fellow citizens. I know ignorance is rampant. But with internet and social media, knowledge of government actions and political records is hard to avoid. To not know this kind of thing at this point requires a particularly virulent form of willful ignorance. Even then, in order for that ignorance to be willful what is being ignored has to be acknowledged at some level of awareness, even if subconsciously.

Another explanation is lesser evilism. I have considered that in great detail as of late. It is the rationalization often given for why people vote the way they do. I don’t doubt that people are easily manipulated by fear-mongering. And I don’t doubt that political campaigns and PR companies are highly advanced in the techniques they use to manipulate voters. Still, that isn’t a fully satisfying explanation.

What if we take at face value how people vote? Maybe they aren’t voting for a lesser evil. Maybe it is no mere unintended side effect the harm done by the politicians who represent them. Maybe, just maybe voters really do get exactly what they want. I’ve resisted that conclusion for a long long time. It is the most demoralizing possibility that I can imagine. But it is starting to seem compelling.

My thoughts here have been largely elicited by listening to supporters of Hillary Clinton. Her political record is well known and widely discussed. It is easy to find out all the details of her political career. What bothers me is that much of what she has supported over the years and decades has led to horrific results, both in terms of decisions she has made in official political positions she has held and what she helped promote in working with her husband in his political career.

Clinton has been extremely active in promoting a particular worldview and social order. And to be honest one has to admit that it isn’t entirely inspiring: cutting welfare, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime policies, war hawk policies, promoting the overthrow of governments, etc. All of this corresponds to the money she gets from speaking fees and donations to campaigns and to the Clinton Foundation—from: prison industry, corporations, particular foreign governments, etc. She does the bidding of those who pay for her services. All of this is out in the open.

Maybe people who support her (and politicians like her) know fully well what she stands for. Maybe these voters completely understand what they are buying with their vote. Maybe they are intentionally aligning themselves with certain powerful interests. Maybe they want politicians who, from their perspective, will do what needs to be done.

It might seem like hypocrisy. Supporters of Hillary Clinton often claim to be liberals and progressives. So, how can they support her illiberal and reactionary policies? Yet maybe this misses the point.

The purpose of politicians in a democracy is to represent voters. If we take this as being genuinely true, then it indicates politicians are doing what voters want them to do. The confusion comes from there being a difference between what people say they want and what they actually want. That is what politicians are for, as they will do what voters want them to do, even though voters can’t admit that is what they want them to do. Politicians allow for plausible deniability, a disconnect between the voting public and government action.

We live in a liberal age. But we rarely think about what this means. What really is liberalism? Why do conservatives speak the rhetoric of liberalism and invoke liberal values? And why do liberals so often act like conservatives? Considering this, what exactly is this liberal order that dominates our minds and lives?

There are no conservatives.

There are no conservatives.

Someone can choose to be a regressive, rather than a progressive. A reactionary, rather than a radical. A right-winger, rather than a left-winger. But it is impossible to be a conservative in the world today.

We live in a liberal era. It is what frames our entire sense of reality, at least since the Enlightenment, although the basic framework has its roots in the Axial Age. There are many varieties of liberalism, and at this point all of us are liberals of some kind.

One of the most radical liberal ideas ever implemented is capitalism. So-called conservatives have embraced it, even though there is nothing conservative about it. That is because they aren’t conservatives, no matter what they claim.

We live in a world where there is nothing left to conserve. We’ve had continuous ‘progress’ and creative destruction for a very long time. Nothing has remained untouched and unmoved. Even fundamentalist religion is a modern invention. Tradition is an empty word, a talisman we shake to fend off the monster lurching out from the future’s shadow.

We can embrace this brave new world or fight it. Either way, conservatism isn’t an option. Change is inevitable, like it or not. Fantasies about the past are simply a form of entertainment, as the world collapses around us… and becomes something else.

* * *

If one reads carefully what I wrote and thinks carefully about what it means, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a paean to liberalism. It is simply noting the world we live in. Liberalism must accept the blame as much as the praise for where we find ourselves.

The past is gone. It won’t be saved or revived. I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. Part of my motivation for writing this is that I wish I lived in a world where conservatism was possible, where there was something capable and worthy of being conserved. But the changes we are making to society and environment are permanent.

There is no turning back. We are past the point of no return.

* * *

“If Homo sapiens survives the next millennium, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have known for the last 200,000 years.

“In order for us to adapt to this strange new world, we’re going to need more than scientific reports and military policy. We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality, and a new relationship to the deep polyglot traditions of human culture that carbon-based capitalism has vitiated through commodification and assimilation. Over and against capitalism, we will need a new way of thinking our collective existence. We need a new vision of who “we” are. We need a new humanism— a newly philosophical humanism, undergirded by renewed attention to the humanities.

“Admittedly, ocean acidification, social upheaval, and species extinction are problems that humanities scholars, with their taste for fine-grained philological analysis, esoteric debates, and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill-suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant or Frantz Fanon help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval poets, and contemporary metaphysicians going to save Bangladesh from being inundated by the Indian Ocean?

“Perhaps not. But the conceptual and existential problems that the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the heart of humanistic inquiry: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live? What is truth? What is good? In the world of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality— What does my life mean in the face of death?— is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. 21 As environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it, “The Anthropocene presents novel challenges for living a meaningful life.” 22 Historian and theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has claimed that global warming “calls us to visions of the human that neither rights talk nor the critique of the subject ever contemplated.” 23 Whether we are talking about ethics or politics, ontology or epistemology, confronting the end of the world as we know it dramatically challenges our learned perspectives and ingrained priorities. What does consumer choice mean compared against 100,000 years of ecological catastrophe? What does one life mean in the face of mass death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful decisions in the shadow of our inevitable end?

“These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They cannot be graphed or quantified. They are philosophical problems par excellence. If, as Montaigne asserted, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age, for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. 24 The rub now is that we have to learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
By Roy Scranton
Kindle Locations 141-166


A Phantom of the Mind

Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.

It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.

Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:

So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.

Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.

What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.

* * * *

Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,

Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.

Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?

Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:

In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.

I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.

This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.

I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”

Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.

That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.

* * * *

Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking  a new vision  to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.

It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.

My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):

It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.

One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.

In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:

In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.

* * * *

It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.

It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.

Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.

My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:

If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

* * * *

An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.

This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:

This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.

In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:

[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.

* * * *

Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.

The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.

That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.

The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.

If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.

All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.

That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.

First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:

an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms.[12] It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.

Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.

It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.

Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.

Conservative-Minded Liberals: Reactionary & Xenophobic

A while back I was involved in some discussions about Jonathan Haidt’s model of moral foundations via some book reviews. One of those discussions was resurrected. Two people offered links to articles. It connected to something else that was on my mind. That something is violence.

In the discussion, there was a link was to a piece by PZ Myers. What caught my attention was instead a comment by Eamon Knight:

“I mostly liked The Happiness Hypothesis, but I think Haidt’s gone downhill since (and in a direction pointed to by the flaws in that book, ie. let’s just appreciate everyone’s viewpoint because it comes from their basic psychology, even if it requires overcompensating for our natural pro-self bias). I’m reading the last chapter of Pinker’s Better Angels, in which he discusses the underlying psychology of the decline in violence. He frames his exposition in terms of Haidt’s Moral Foundations (the original five), though even more in terms of [mumble’s — sorry I’m not near the book at the moment] Relational Models (the two taxonomies roughly inter-map). Pinker argues that human violence has declined precisely as we have moved away from an emphasis on (using Haidt’s terms) Purity, Authority and Loyalty towards Care/Harm and Fairness — IOW, as we have become more psychologically “liberal”. Even modern conservatives are where liberals used to be — it’s getting harder to justify eg. outlawing certain sexual behaviours on the grounds of “yuck” or blind obedience. So to hell with Haidt’s false equivalence — we are better off by ignoring some bits of social-psychological baggage that worked for small foraging bands, just as we need to train ourselves into restraining our natural taste for sweets and fats that developed in the days when dinner was A) uncertain and B) often had to be chased down.”

Haidt argues that humans and hence society functions best when there is an ideal balance between moral foundations. The problem is such an ideal comes off as an abstract belief. Functions best for what purpose and for whom?

He justifies this balance by claiming he has gained a vantage point above all of us peons. Through his model, both conservatives and liberals can be transcended, although with a tilt toward conservatives for he oddly claims they are more balanced than liberals (an argument he makes by not taking into account some of the moral values that liberals possess and conservatives dismiss). As Eamon Knight says in another comment:

“Or to borrow a punchline originally used in a different domain, but which seems applicable here: the important thing is that Haidt’s found a way to feel superior to both sides.”

Haidt sees himself as a missionary who learned from the natives (conservatives) and now wants to teach the civilized folk (liberals) about the benefits of a more natural lifestyle. Meanwhile, from the safe position of his lectern, he conveniently doesn’t mention that the natives have a high rates of violence and death.

Still, I don’t just want to beat up on poor ol’ Haidt. Let me move onto the next link. It is a response to Haidt by Sam Harris. Of course, Harris does beat up on Haidt, but that isn’t what interested me. Instead, I want to beat up on Harris a bit to even things out.

Harris begins with the same basic insight as Pinker:

“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “wisdom” of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to “suppress selfishness” and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered “human flourishing” at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

“What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?”

That is more than a fair point stated with dramatic flair. There are many things that are ‘traditional’ which we would rather not continue. Besides human sacrifice and cannibalism, one could mention common examples from past societies such as slavery and theocracy. Moral progress fits uneasily in Haidt’s scheme of moral foundations.

Harris further on continues his line of thought, but then takes it down a dark alley of his own (bigoted?) paranoia:

“The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?”

How did the mostly non-Christian Japanese feel when the Christian Americans dropped atomic bombs on their cities? Some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about the long history of being oppressed and exploited by Western countries. And some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about when their own government went the path of oppression and exploitation in relation to the Chinese. Many liberal Muslims, Arabs, Africans and Asians have been concerned about the violent militaristic Western countries with long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, wars of aggression, invasion and occupations, etc; all issues that many non-Christians see as directly connected to a Christian heritage going back to the Crusades.

A Christian nation is the only one ever to have gone nuclear on another country. Why is it terrorism if Muslims were to do it but a morally justified act of war when Christians do it?

Harris didn’t need to go there. It didn’t help his argument.

Harris isn’t wrong to bring up the violence of particular groups, but he ignores a larger issue of culpability. When the Iraq War (a war of aggression) was promoted, many liberals jumped on board. The number of innocent people who died because of that war makes the casualty numbers of the 9/11 attack look minuscule. Middle Easterners have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.

This weird mix of liberalism and xenophobia is what I call conservative-minded liberalism. I see it all the time. It’s similar to how some progressives in the past became neoconservatives or how some liberal-minded people today have have embraced neoreactionary ideologies such as the Dark Enlightenment. As I’ve argued before, this seems to be a central aspect of liberalism, it’s ability to shift toward its opposite (sometimes shifting back again and at other times getting stuck).

I came across another example of this from a friend of mine, a very intelligent and well-educated friend I might add:

“Immigration to UK seems to be implicated in the UK criminal class now carrying guns and using them to shoot law abiding citizens and their police adversaries. The old ban on gun crime apparently was maintained by criminal norms–UK criminals shunned others who had shot the police. A criminal who shot and killed 3 UK police in the 1960s was shunned by his fellows and given no place to hide in his local community–he eventually lived in a tent in remote moorland (and was there apprehended).

“Now, that informal arrangement (which empirically, by inspection, seems to have existed) has collapsed. Criminals carry guns and use them against the police, so the police have armed themselves, too.

“One factor that contributes is immigration of Afro-Carribeans to UK, who brought/bring with them different norms for gun crime. For example, murder rates in Jamaica are 50x higher than in UK (Collier’s figures). If Jamaica does not have the highest homicide in the world, it’s quite high.

“A paradigmatic case is Mark Duggan (Afro-Carribean descent) who shot and killed three UK police and was lionized (rather than ostracized) by substantial portions of his co-ethnics in London. After he was shot, vocal portions of his co-ethnics sided with him against the police, and accused the police of brutality.”

Afro-Caribbeans live in poverty that was created from a colonial past. Poverty, for all races and ethnicities, correlates to higher rates of violence and crime. It sucks to be so oppressed to the point that poverty, and the desperation that goes with it, persists for generation after generation. Once slaves, I’m willing to bet those Afro-Caribbeans experience racism on a daily life which makes it hard for them to find good work and housing. Europe has the problem of ghettoizing immigrants, something the US doesn’t do (here in the US we only ghettoize our native-born poor minorities).

Besides, if we included all the violence done in the name of UK citizens by way of their government, the murder rates would look a lot differently. I’m willing to bet Collier isn’t including police brutality and wars of aggression in his figures, and certainly not all the victims of slavery and genocide (and other victims of colonialism and imperialism). We don’t even know how to count up all the victims in order to compare them. But Afro-Caribbeans haven’t enslaved UK citizens en masse nor started a war of aggression against the UK nor tried to make the UK into a colony.

My friend then concluded:

“The interpretation: Duggan can be viewed (in game theoretic terms) as a “super-villian” who violated the old norms, increased distrust between UK indigenes and Afro-Carribean new-comers, and is a paradigmatic signpost / marker of a transition to a new, more violent equilibrium (vigilant UK police must now be ready to shoot suspects before they might pre-emptively be shot *by* suspects).”

Or maybe it is simply the inevitable results of a colonial past with continuing poverty, oppression, and racism magnified by globalized capitalism and growing economic inequality. There are a lot of factors going on and few if any of them can be understood in isolation. There would be no Afro-Caribbeans in the first place if not for the intertwined history with colonialism and slavery. Afro-Caribbeans are as much a product of the Europe as of Africa, both culturally and genetically.

“Another salient example of norms,” my friend explained further, “probably not discussed in Collier but it came readily to mind.”

“In the USA, in theory and I think also in fact, Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) norms prohibited the murder of uniformed police officers and judges. I don’t know when this got to be the case, but it seemed to facilitate a “non-agression pact” in which Mafia members lived openly without much hiding who they were, and cops went home and slept at night with a bit less trepidation.

“The counterexamples in other countries are well known: Italy, Colombia, and Mexico come to mind offhand.”

Yes, norms change. But the argument seems strange.

The Mafia is listed as an example, but Italy is offered as a counterexample. The Mafia brought there norms from Italy. They were social norms and they were quite violent. An early version of the Mafia were the Black Hand. The more Anglo-American KKK was very similar, specifically the second KKK around the same time as the Black Hand.

Both the Black Hand and the KKK were anti-democratic and used violence when they saw it as convenient. They were some of the most violent groups in US history and yes many innocents were harmed, and the era when they dominated was one of the most violent in uS history. They both were trying to enforce their versions of traditional social norms and cultures, but they were also strongly opposed. One of the main motivations of the KKK was fighting against ethnics like the Black Hand because they feared changes that were undesired.

These kinds of arguments fall apart when you look at all of the data and look at the entire history. But that isn’t my main point in writing about this kind of argument. All three of these liberals (Haidt, Harris, & my friend) argue for traditional Western values. They may disagree about other things, but they agree about this style of argument. This is what makes them conservative-minded liberals, conservative-minded with a reactionary slant.

It is obviously a popular viewpoint. Even liberals get stressed out by the uncertainties of modernity: globalization, industrialization, de-industrialization, offshoring of jobs, world wars, etc. Everything is changing and we humans don’t have the capacity to easily deal with this on the individual level. It is overwhelming.

My argument is that liberalism can only operate on its own terms during peaceful times and in democratic societies. Liberalism becomes dysfunctional or forms weird hybrid ideologies when it is dominated by illiberal forces. It is only in brief moments when we can see the potential of liberalism manifest without the constraints of fear and anxiety. That is understandable, but unfortunately I don’t think many liberals fully understand this.

“suicidal self-hatred of Western Left-wingers”

Over at WSJ, there is an article about The Late, Great American WASP by Joseph Epstein.

I won’t say much about the article itself. The author is essentially talking about an enlightened aristocracy as related to ethnocentric nationalism, plutocratic ruling elite, landed gentry, primogeniture and noblesse oblige. It’s an interesting topic, but the author simplifies and in doing so falsifies history a bit. Still, the topic should be discussed for its continuing relevance.

My purpose here, however, is simply to make note of a couple of comments. The two commenters were speaking to a more side issue that is another interesting topic. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this side issue, but I thought I’d share it because I found it curious.

Frank Pecarich, in his comment, offered a quote by Collin Cleary:

“Even within the most modern of Western men – yes, even within our politically correct academics – we still see some glimmer of the old, Indo-European thematic nature. One sees this, of course, in the polemical nature of Leftist scholarship. And, as Ricardo Duchesne has pointed out, their critique of the West embodies the perennial Western negativity about itself, and Western “self-doubt.” This may be the hardest point for Right-wing critics of the Left to understand. The suicidal self-hatred of Western Left-wingers is something that seems utterly mad, and defies explanation.

“Of course many Right-wingers do, in fact, have a ready explanation: the self-hatred that currently grips Europeans, and European-Americans, is a kind of plague germ spread by non-Europeans who wish to manipulate us for their own ethnic self-interest. But such manipulation would be impossible if Europeans did not already exhibit an innate capacity for ruthless, sometimes suicidal self-criticism. The anti-Western animus of the European Left may be foolish, dishonest, and disastrous – but it is not un-Western.”

I’m not familiar with Collin Cleary. I wondered what was the larger argument he is making, but the source of the quote wasn’t offered. Fortunately, a quick web search brought up the article which begins with that quote. Cleary is a neo-pagan of the neo-reactionary variety. His argument is basically that left-wingers take too far what is otherwise fundamentally true and good about the Western tradition. This he describes as our “tragic flaw”, individual freedom brought to its self-defeating extreme.

It seems a bit melodramatic with the author’s description of the “suicidal self-hatred of Western Left-wingers”. Still, I’m intrigued by the general idea of the “old, Indo-European thematic nature”. In this view, the Left isn’t un-Western and as such neither is it un-American. However it is described or judged, it can claim an ancient lineage of sorts.

In response to that quote, James Nedved wrote:

Very interesting. I never thought about that in relation to Leftist criticism of the West, that “even it” is really part of the Western “tradition” as it were.

We in the West when you think of it do have a penchant for self-criticism on BOTH the “Jerusalem” and “Athens” side of our patrimony: Jerusalem: search our hearts, find our sin and get rid of it. Athens: Socrates was the original asker of the question, “What is the right way to live?” (An aside: If he would have just shut up, he wouldn’t have had to drink the hemlock.)

Both sides of our patrimony ask us to criticize ourselves / our laws / our “way” to find and then to prove (in the sense of “test”) ourselves.

With this comment, Nedved adds another layer of Western tradition from two other sources of the Mediterranean variety. Levantine Judeo-Christianity obviously didn’t originate in Europe, but it has become so syncretized with the “old, Indo-European thematic nature” that is impossible to separate the two. Protestantism is very much an European creation and Calvinism particularly embodies the attitude of self-doubt and harsh judgment. As for the Greek influence (by way of Hellenism and Rome), we have another strain of Axial Age influence that later fully bloomed in the Enlightenment Era. Combined, the doubting prophets and philosophers were overlaid upon the ancient dark imagination of the European pagans.

In a The Phora discussion thread about Cleary’s article, someone with the username Petr wrote:

I myself would be ready to acknowledge and celebrate the genius of Aryan peoples (as a non-Aryan Finn myself ), but yet I think that writers like this often overstate their generally correct case concerning the exceptional altruism and idealism of Indo-European peoples by over-generalizing and not noting similar traits in other peoples as well.

Here, for example, the brazen attitude of Leftist polemics is attributed to Aryan high spirits. But in other New Right writings, Jewish or Semitic fanaticism is blamed for that same thing…

The Jews had enough suicidal idealism to rebel repeatedly against the might of Rome, inspired by their messianic ambitions, until they were almost destroyed. On the other hand, the Asiatic Aryan peoples of Persia and India do not seem to have displayed that Faustian individualist attitude that writers like Cleary seem to consider as typically Indo-European.

That is a good point. Cleary is a true believer seeking to defend his conception of European traditionalism. His analysis, although interesting in parts, is ultimately apologetics and should be taken as such. Even so, I’m always fascinated by exploration of origins.

Vicious Cycle of Politics

There are two related thoughts that have been on my mind today.

I was thinking about American history, as that is what I’ve been reading and writing about lately. I see these repeating patterns and it can seem odd to me. Things keep changing and yet they don’t. The odd part, to my mind, is that so few seem to notice or think it all that important.

My first thought is about religious tolerance and inclusion.

Earlier in American history, Protestants had most of the power and they oppressed all other religions. Those they feared the most, however, were Catholics, Quakers and Baptists because they were competing Christianities. After centuries of persecution, Christians started forming alliances for practical reasons of trying to maintain what they perceived as a Christian society.

Jews had also been a persecuted minority, but they weren’t Christians. Catholics were bad enough. Accepting and tolerating or even cooperating with Jews, now that was going too far. Nonetheless, alliances began to form. Americans began to speak, instead, of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Muslims have now become the newest popular scapegoat. Muslims are perceived as the enemy of both Christianity and Judaism. This has strengthened the Judeo-Christian bond even further, even going so far as creating an unhealthy pact between the US and Israeli governments. However, as with Catholics in earlier Protestant America, Muslims are growing in numbers and becoming normalized.

It is simply a matter of time before Muslims will become part of the club. Americans in the future will speak of Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition of Mosaic monotheism. So, then it will be the Mosaic monotheists against everyone else. Then, of course, a new enemy will arise that “Real Americans” will join together in order to fight.

Repeat and rinse.

This cycle is so predictable. It’s almost boring in how obviously predictable it is. I feel inane in even pointing it out. Why can’t we just skip forward a few cycles and save some time, not to mention lives?

My second thought is about socialism and capitalism.

Here is a video to give you an amusing way of looking at the issue:

This is the best portrayal I’ve ever come across about the problems of dogmatically polarized ideologies.

Each side is inseparable from the other, each existing in a vicious cycle of reactionary political rhetoric and power-mongering. One side wins, becomes full of themselves and goes too far. Then the other side takes power, becomes full of themselves, and goes too far. And the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

I was thinking about this because of reading about the Southern Plains and California.

Those living in the Southern Plains were originally motivated by the capitalist rhetoric of free soil that became popular with the early Republican Party. Then the railroad and industrial tycoons got greedy and eventually Wall Street collapsed which led to the Southern Plains farmers to be inspired by the rhetoric of agrarian socialism, interestingly using rhetoric not dissimilar to what was used with free soil politics. In both cases, rural farming was romanticized, whether it was seen as opposing slavery with free soil or opposing capitalism with agrarian socialism.

With the Great Depression, larger numbers of these Southern Plains farmers headed to California. Of course, they couldn’t be independent farmers there as land was owned in massive tracts by wealthy landowners and so instead many of them became poor migrant laborers. That was in some ways a fate almost worse than death in their minds, but the rhetoric of their agrarian tradition wouldn’t let them see how they were being taken advantage of. They moved into the factories as the Cold War pumped a bunch of federal money into the defense industry. Becoming middle class and respectable, these same people embraced capitalist rhetoric again.

Now, a second era of massive economic turmoil has hit us. People are criticizing capitalism and once again discussion about socialism has arisen, especially among the new generation. Heck, socialism is quickly growing in popularity, in this era when the Cold War is mere history to many Americans. Before long, the demand for left-wing reform will become strong again and even go mainstream.

It’s an endless cycle. It keeps repeating, I suspect, because of a collective amnesia about history. The switching back and forth tends to happen over several generations. By the time it switches back the other direction again, there aren’t many people left who have living memory of what came before.

What if this endless cycle is part of the problem. When neither side can win, when both sides keep repeating their same mistakes over and over, maybe a third option is in order.

Conservatism & The Reactionary Mind: some thoughts

I came across an interesting book: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. I haven’t read or even purchased it yet, although I plan on doing so.

I was intrigued by his proposition that conservatism is reactionary in nature. This makes sense just in the basic meaning of ‘conservatism’. There is something conservatives are seeking to conserve (from being lost) or if (perceived to have been) lost to regain… not that the non-conservative would agree with this reactionary, often revisionist take on the past, the perception of the past that informs what the conservative movement seeks in the present. In an unchanging society such as  an isolated hunter-gatherer tribe, there probably would be nothing for the conservative to react against… but that isn’t the conservatism that we know now or, as Corey Robin argues, as we’ve known throughout the history of civilization. Corey Robins isn’t necessarily talking about conservatism in the psychological sense as I sometimes use it. Instead, he is referring to the political conservatism that arose, especially in the US, in response to the French Revolution. This conservatism is inherently counter-revolutionary, i.e., reactionary.

My disagreement is that Corey Robin separates the conservative mindset from the conservative movement. The conservative movement may have “always been” reactionary since its inception in post-Englightenment Western politics, but that is relatively speaking a short view of human society. With civilization, the conservative mindset was radicalized. With modernity, this radicalized conservatism became a specific reactionary conservative movement. Still, humans and human society existed before all of this. Psychological research shows there are distinctions to be made between the conservative mindset and right-wing authoritarianism, although modern politics have brought the two into close alignment within the conservative movement.

Nonetheless, for practical purposes of dealing with modern conservatism, Corey Robin’s conclusion is essentially correct. I think it’s important, though, to hold onto the understanding of a conservative mindset that can be found in many places, whether inside or outside of the conservative movement. Actually, if one really wants to find the conservative mindset rather than merely the conservative movement, one would be better off looking at the Democratic Party, the moderate centrists speaking about bipartisanship and compromise and the socially conservative religious black demographic, both Democratic groups seeking to conserve US society as it is with the gains of social rights and freedoms and with the gains of the protections against poverty and oppression.

So, maybe it is helpful to separate the conservative movement from the conservative mindset since many in the conservative movement have sought to separate themselves from the conservative mindset. Corey Robin argues that conservatism is a modern movement. In the comments section of a blog post (Bobo’s Reactionary Mind by Scott Lemieux), there was an interaction that touches upon this issue and the distinction made by Robin:

Incontinentia Buttocks says:
September 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

But is this exclusively true of modern conservatism? Doesn’t Cicero, e.g., suggest that virtuous behavior involves choosing the harder path?

Corey Robin says:
September 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

There’s definitely a precedent in Cicero and others (though I’d say that “modern conservatism” is redundant; my argument is that all conservatism is modern. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish). The difference is that they were writing within the framework of virtue ethics (and other modes of ethics). Brooks and the romantics are not: they’re writing within the framework of a concern about the self, not its virtue or flourishing or anything like that, but its very survival as a self.

Anyway, I wanted to get a better grasp of this book before I bought it. The Amazon reviews were positive, but not thorough. My web search first brought me to a review by Sheri Berman in the New York Times Book Review. Her review is negative and I sensed it wasn’t fair. I was glad to see that Corey Robin responded to the review in a way that was intellectually fair. In checking out some other web search results, I found a nice discussion that refers to this book. Here is the section where he mentions Robin’s book:

Strangely, my own brief trip through the right–the paleo-conservative and far right–has led me to be a more passionate “leftist” as I get older.   I am sure that people will psychologize my drift, but I think my personal experience agrees with Corey Robin’s conception of the reactionary mindset.  That there is a Utopian element to their thinking.

While conservatives (and many left liberals) have called Libertarian-ism the Marxism of the right.  Yet even traditionalism itself has a kinship to utopian socialist thought.  They want a different society and they see the structural elements that keep the status quo going as a negation of a past. In fact, I have accused conservative ideology, or more specifically, paleo-conservative ideology as being utopian in reverse.   It involves an invented past to which they long to return.

I wrote a comment which I posted there and thought I would post here as well (although my following thoughts are only indirectly related to the book in question):

– – –

A very interesting analysis. Your transition over the years has given you useful perspective.

I’ve never had such a transition. I’ve never had any allegiances and so have never switched them. The Republican Party these days seems morally repugnant and the Democratic Party seems weak sauce. There is lots of rhetoric in the two party system, but none of it means much to me. The radical right too often seems to have become disconnected from reasonable debate, not to mention factual reality. The radical left has become almost irrelevant, ignored by both parties in power.

I’ve always clearly been a ‘liberal’, although my liberalism is more of an attitude than an ideology: open-minded, intellectually curious, prone to relativism and occasionally utopian longings, critical of theocrats, desiring to believe in the goodness of people and the potential of collective humanity, hyper-individualism and mindless group-think neither make sense to me, etc. So, I’m liberal-minded, liberal in the psychological sense. Neither conservatives/right-wingers nor mainstream democrats understand the fundamental impulse of liberalism.

I do have some radical leanings, but I’m not a radical in the reactionary sense. I prefer reason and the endless conflict of partisan politics is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s not as if we lack historical examples to guide ourselves by or lack plenty of data to make informed decisions, but none of that seems to matter. It’s all about winning at any cost. No matter who wins, those with wealth and power maintain their influence. Even though I’m not a reactionary radical, neither am I a ‘moderate’ in how it is normally used. I know what I value and believe. Maybe I’m a person who would like to be a moderate if we lived in moderate times, but in this world as it is I find myself drawn to the ignored radical visions. The radical ideologies that get attention are those with money and power backing them, but few people in the mainstream remember the true radicalism of someone like Thomas Paine when he wrote ‘Agrarian Justice’.

My radical leanings do make me often agree with Derrick Jensen in his analysis of what is wrong, but I don’t seem to be able to follow him where he wants to go. I really don’t have much desire for revolution unless it becomes unavoidable. Derrick Jensen does have more than a small amount of nostalgia in his anarcho-primitivism. I must admit it resonates with some part of me, although in the end nostalgia seems like empty calories. If the civilization ends, so be it… but If so I will be sad to see it go.

I live in a liberal college town. I voted for Nader and I dislike Obama only slightly less than I dislike Bush. I participated in the anti-war protests during Bush’s administration. I’ve even been to a Marxist meeting once. On the other hand, I have conservative parents and my dad is of the more intellectual bent. I find that I often can agree about certain things with my parents or come to a middleground of understanding. Unlike right-wing pundits and reactionaries, my parents are capable of reasonable thought and discussion. They don’t let their principles get in the way of caring about actual people. That is all I ask for.

As a Gen-Xer, I grew up with the culture wars. It’s all I’ve known. I came of age in the 90s just when the right-wing militants were on the rise and the culture war was in its second phase of anti-abortion protests including the assassination of doctors and of course the various bombings in protest. I was born into a world of social conflict and national decline. I’m tired of the culture wars, the identity politics, the partisan tribalism, the politicized religion, the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the war on terrorism, the war on illegal aliens, war on everything, and on and on. I’m tired of all the bullshit. Sadly, I see my generation produce the worst examples of all this that just egg it over the edge, the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks. On the bright side, my generation also has produced Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Comedians all of them, a generation of clowns.

Even though I didn’t swing from one side to the other as you have done, I still feel that sense of not having a clear sense of where I belong in American politics..I’m definitely not in the middle. I feel like I’m somewhere to the side of the typical left/right spectrum. However, when I look at polls of public opinion, I find I often agree (or at least don’t strongly disagree) with the average American on many issues. Obviously, mainstream media and politics is disconnected from much of the rest of the population. I don’t know where this leaves me.