“The Darker Side”: Openings in the Meme Wars

I recently stumbled on a book review from a few years ago and found myself reading this:

One might have expected a project on the “impact” of a philosophical movement such as German Idealism to cover not only the good news but also the bad (as it were), but these introductions conspicuously fail to do so. Examples of the darker side of German Idealism arguably include, in addition to its overambitious systematic pretentions, its apriorism, its perpetuation of religious, and in particular Christian, myths long after these had been discredited by the French and British Enlightenment, its occasional nationalism (Fichte’s Speeches to the German Nation), and its occasional racism and anti-semitism (here the main culprit is Kant).

What we observe here is an inflection point in the inner dynamics of the Manichaean mindset. The general pattern of this mindset is that all reality must be understood as a war between Light and Darkness; the living must be forced to choose a side, and the dead must be pigeonholed as partisans of one side or another. But within this overarching pattern there are more complex subsequences, for while the narrative the Manichaeans construct portrays the universe as an all-consuming war between Progress and Tradition, and the net effect of this is, in fact, to mobilize resources for a progressive war on the social order, the reality (to which we, who resist progressivism, must not be blind) is that there are many struggles going on at the same time, including within the progressive camp.

We see a particular version of these struggles at the point when the Cathedral switches to “We have always been at war with Eastasia”. While the overall logic of Manichaeanism is that any historical figure must either be a heroic forerunner of Our Progressive Values or else an ugly racist, there is no immaculate transfer from one side to the other; we must seek to explain why the bolsheviks shift from one dominant interpretation of a historical figure or field to another in the micro-behavior of the priestly class.

Specifically, when there is a reigning orthodoxy that some historical figure (Kant, say) is a heroic progressive, then for your average Brahmin it is low-status to deny it. This is not primarily a matter of virtue signaling; while there is some element of that (projecting an inability to believe that a brilliant man like Kant could have been anything but a leader of the Children of Light, for example) it is not the whole explanation, because you can equally well signal your virtue by express outrage that anyone could admire a Dead White Male like Kant.

The micro-incentives that promote intra-Cathedral orthodoxy are more complicated and varied than that. For one thing, while the orthodoxy exists it will be espoused by the bishops who run the most elite institutions. If you show that you are unfamiliar with the faction within the Cathedral that chooses to cast Kant as a heroic progressive, then you prove that you didn’t attend the schools that faction controls. Furthermore, the mental gymnastics required to make these kinds of Manichaean portrayals work are complicated, so dissenting from them amounts to an admission that you are too stupid or lazy to master the relevant esoterica. Low status!

But the author of the review I quoted is not low status. He is in fact very high status. This does not mean he would not like to be higher status, though; the only thing a bishop resents more than a heretic is a more powerful bishop. There are many tactics the priestly class uses to fight for power in its internal battles. One of these is to affect a higher level of holiness, a stronger obsession with purity than the other priests. In some cases this requires the priest to prove that he has a high disgust threshold, that he is less disgusted than other priests by things that the laity find revolting but which are doctrinally speaking “clean”; this shows his indifference to anything other than true purity. Conversely, he can prove that he has a high disgust sensitivity by obsessively avoiding all traces of contamination, and proving that he is revolted by the thought of anything resembling impurity, even if it perfectly within the bounds of “the clean” according to orthodoxy.

This may be what we are seeing here. The author is extremely learned, quite familiar with the details of the Cathedral’s Kant scholarship and (I believe) a prominent contributor to it. (If you want to confirm this, read the review and look for his minute dissections of the historical errors in the volume he is reviewing.) So there is no risk that if he appears hesitant to accept the orthodoxy that Kant is a progressive hero it will be taken as a sign of low-prestige affiliations — or at least, not by the upper echelons of the Cathedral whose opinions matter. (As I have discussed before it is inherently high-status for people who are high-status to send the stereotypically low-status signals that a man of middling status will scrupulously avoid.)

As a result, the reviewer has the luxury of signaling his extreme sensitivity to the impure, unprogressive elements in German idealism without denying the orthodoxy or endangering his reputation for familiarity with it.

As you begin to see signs that the upper echelons of the Cathedral are willing to back off from some of the rigidity of a certain dogmatic interpretation in order to compete more strenuously for prestige, be aware of the possibility that you may be looking at an ideological opening. Left to their own devices, the Brahmins will all start to signal disgust if this proves to be a successful prestige-strategy for the early adopters, and in the ensuing purity spiral they will go from using their reservations about the dogma to signal their extraordinary holiness to actually reversing the dogma itself.

But at some point in this phase-transition, there is a maximum of factional tension in the Cathedral. Some factions are pursuing prestige with a fanatic defense of the unstable dogma, others are making a great show of their reluctance and disgust at upholding a position that they do, in the end, endorse, and still others are already denying the dogma. The most enterprising priests will see their status skyrocket with complicated, opportunistic positions combining inconsistent elements which allow them to act as intermediaries between different faction while remaining orthodox in the eyes of all of them.

For the most important priests these struggles are absorbing. They present opportunity for advancement and danger of disgrace in equal measure. But for the lower echelons — metaphorically, the country vicars, the deacons, the choir boys — they are simply confusing. They make it difficult for someone who is ill-suited to theological disputation to navigate the confusing tides of orthodoxy, and difficult to understand or accept the discordant sermons they must listen to. (Remember, leftism is like a language; there is no inner logic to it so you must get consistent, repetitive exposure to it to learn it by heart.)

Thus the opening. This is probably the point at which it is most conceivable to shatter the Manichaean illusion — to convince ordinary that Kant was a 1488’er and that he was also a hero of Western civilization and also planted the seeds of what have become destructive and incoherent creeds and also was a champion of faith against a shallow secular materialism, and the godfather of the most successful resistance to these destructive creeds and also

Worlds within worlds within worlds. Whether Kant was a good boy who dindu nuffin’, of course, is not really the point. It would be nice to reconquer lost territory, but the decisive question is whether we can free others from the vice of seeing history in black and white.

Our Thermidor, and Napoleon’s

54653306_1265127210_talleyrandRevolutions are typically accompanied by huge property-transfers. (Redistribution, robbery: whatever.) The people who lose their patrimony in the revolution become the great partisans of restoration thereafter, which provides the reaction with a fair amount of talent and influence. However, every “transfer” has both winners and losers. The lands that the revolutionaries seize do not sit idle; they are awarded to powerful revolutionaries, or auctioned off to the revolution’s supporters to finance further revolutionary activities, or divided among military veterans when the conflict is over. Sometimes the title changes hands several times.

However it may be, when the reactionaries are ready to act the “lost” property (recovery of which is a powerful motive to them) already has publicly recognized owners. In many cases these lands have accumulated in the hands of men of wealth and power. In other cases, to get them back would require confiscating a large part of the property of an entire class of men. In all cases, the difficulty of figuring out which émigré should recover what from whom represents a formidable barrier to any actual restoration of the confiscated property to its pre-revolutionary owners. To avoid the chaos and uncertainty of such a process, and even more importantly to win the support of the power-brokers of the revolutionary regime (and the acquiescence of its former foot soldiers), the ruler who restores order typically recognizes some or all of the revolutionary property-transfers. To keep the loyalty of the enemies of the revolution (or to gain it), he offers only compensation — typically, the tyranny of finance ministers being what it is, partial compensation.

This arrangement facilitates the restoration immensely: the ruler who “ends the revolution” can purchase the support of most of the (important) remaining revolutionaries and most of the enemies of the revolution while only meeting part of the demands of each. But the half-measures destabilize the regime founded upon them. Logically a reactionary faction, having accomplished its restoration, should simply become the most loyal and self-conscious supporters of the new political order; but reparations follow a logic all of their own. The “reactionary” orientation becomes identified with the most exacting revanchisme, and the restoration’s chief supporters use the power their support won them to push for more compensation.

This is already destabilizing on its own; but to the extent that the compensation is paid out directly as a pension or as a government bond, the political crisis is disguised as a fiscal crisis. (Everyone loves a good fiscal crisis!) A related dynamic is the dissociation of ancien régime status from ancien régime responsibilities. Before the revolution, aristocrats (and the foundations they endowed) took care of all sorts of important functions, from patronizing writers to building infrastructure. When the restoration reshuffles property, the state typically makes up for its inability to restore the fortunes of its reactionary supporters fully by giving them an income while absolving them from the responsibilities formerly attached to it. But then who is to build the roads and feed the poets?

Often the state agrees to take full responsibility itself, at a certain risk to its fiscal health. (Moldbug says somewhere that a sovereign entity should be profitable, but he neglects to clarify for whom, and where on its balance sheet this profit is generally registered. In many post-revolutionary states, both public debt and statutory liabilities are very profitable.) In other cases the state delegates the responsibility to some private organization or clique, or — what amounts to nearly the same thing — waives the state’s authority to regulate and police the activity in question in order to make the sector profitable and self-financing.

This kind of delegation of functions contributes insidiously to the instability of the restoration. One important bulwark of any established state is uncertainty and fear of disorder should the state collapse, in light of which even the most incompetent king can count on the firm loyalty of any law-abiding subject. But if an important function is in the hands neither of the state, nor of anyone whose resources depend on his rank or on special legal protections, but in fact is in the hands of men indifferent to the state or secretly hostile to it, then there is every reason to think that they will try to perform their function through war and rebellion. Indeed, they may collaborate with rebels to make sure their operations are not interrupted; they may actually be on the side of the rebels themselves.

That is in itself just a slight blow to political stability, but many of these functions actually offer some pretext for informal power, which gives the politically-motivated an incentive to become involved in such functions, and gives whoever performs the function an incentive to pick political fights. This dynamic can be destabilizing in itself, aggravating deeper wounds elsewhere, but it can also culminate in the cliques that wield such powers triggering a political crisis, or actively picking sides in a revolutionary situation.

But do the rulers of restored states take special care to minimize the accumulation of important functions in the hands of mavericks? Generally, no; in fact, quite the opposite. Just as the restored ruler balances the material interests of the enemies and supporters of the revolution, so he typically balances their political interests, attempting to allay both sides’ fears of a state-apparatus dominated by the other. This balance is effected by stressing the technical virtuosity of the civil service, and appointing the best diplomats, engineers, generals, and so on to the relevant councils of state, without regard to — sometimes with flagrant disregard of — their political orientation and ultimate loyalties. Ultimately, though, the ideal pick for this kind of position is the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, the man who considers his job to be important and the identity of his boss to be an irrelevant detail.

Such civil servants reassure both sides. Reactionaries and revolutionaries can be assured that the government is not going to murder them in their beds the very moment it has secured its position. But ultimately a government which won’t murder anyone in his bed to uphold the sovereign won’t risk getting murdered in bed, either. These civil servants will happily work for whatever new regime manages to seize the capital, provided it pays their salaries and protects their pensions. (And if it won’t protect their pensions — watch out!)

The end result is that historical restorations often lead to a “see-saw” effect, where a council of state continues to administer society without interruption while a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions constantly replaced the head of state who is nominally the civil servants’ lord and sovereign.

There are many lessons you could draw from these dynamics. I will only make one very modest point: post-revolutionary settlements tend to be driven by two factors (the need to compensate émigrés without alienating existing stakeholders, and the corresponding desire for an apolitical civil service) which are irrelevant today. Today, reactionaries have no concrete reparations-bill drawn up, and consider the technocratic state itself to be their most powerful enemy and their chief target. So do not take the parallels between Thermidor and TCY too literally.

Spring Review

It was a busy few months here at Quas Lacrimas, both on the blog and in real life. With the exception of a lull in February and early March I have maintained a fairly aggressive posting schedule through the Winter and the beginning of Spring. I posted far more than I expected to but finished far fewer of my pre-existing drafts than I intended to. But that no longer surprises me: when your only reward for writing is the thrill of the hunt your eye will tend to wander from target to target.

The number of entries in the Table of Contents has doubled since the end of December; that metric understates the amount of new material, because several of those entries are long, multi-part essays. As the index grows it gets harder to browse through, which I imagine makes it harder to find interesting things to read by skimming the titles of the posts.

Of course, a QL-newbie (or someone returning to QL after a long break) could just put his trust in the wisdom of crowds. Which of my posts have been hits? On Conspiratorial Thinking was the only new post to break into QL‘s top five (in terms of readers) since my New Year’s Review in January. The other four top slots are all occupied by older pieces, but my post on The Cathedral is getting up there at #7, followed closely by Memetic Lebensraum at #8. QL‘s most recent crowd-pleaser, Basic Strategic Concepts, went up only five weeks ago and started to zoom up in the rankings after a link from Free Northerner.

You could also trust the judgment of Nick Steves and “The Committee”, who have been extremely kind to QL over the last few months. In that period they’ve honored ten posts with a Week in Reaction Mention (abcdefghij), a further six with a spot in the Silver Circle:

  1.  On Conspiratorial Thinking
  2. Political Concepts: Servitude
  3. The Cathedral, the English Civil War, and informal power
  4. Memetic Lebensraum I (Resisting Assimilation) – II (Conquest)
  5. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts I – II – III – IV
  6. You Can’t Get There From Here

…and three with the coveted “Best of the Week”:

  1. Loving the Sinner I – II (Sin) – III (Ecology) – IV (Parties) – V (Postscript)
  2. Virtue Signals (published in Social Matter)
  3. Tribalism: A Model

But I’m going to offer a more thematic presentation for those of you who care more about whether the topic of a piece of writing interests you than whether other people liked it.


It would be logical to group my posts by subject, but that is actually more difficult than it might at first appear, because in many cases the subject of a post fits in one way with one cluster of companion posts, and another way with a second cluster.

So in fact it makes sense to start by reviewing the interconnections between the themes that characterize each cluster as a warm-up, before talking about how the posts in a given cluster fit together. (That way when the borders between the clusters turn out to be a little sloppy, you won’t be confused.)

QL is very interested in moral authority — what it is, how it works, and how it fits into the rest of the theory of the state. Prima facie, moral authority is a case of informal power (perhaps the paradigmatic case), which I have been increasingly inclined to call influence. The analysis of informal power is simply the yin to formal power‘s yang, and since in these parts we like our Moldbug, QL is concerned to determine whether formalism’s basic concepts are coherent and valid, and in what contexts they are most useful.

Formalism makes some very bold claims about how things go wrong in modern democracies, and why. The political crises of historical monarchies (and other non-democratic forms of government) are the limit-cases that allow us to test formalism’s claims. Trying to understand whether these crises resulted from misrule, bad luck, external constraints, or informal power is roughly what I think of as statecraft. Statecraft identifies common missteps and unforced errors that lead to identifiable patterns of crisis; and if these identifiable patterns cannot ultimately be attributed to mistakes, but rather to the limits of sovereign power, then statecraft points to the conceptual limits of formalism.

One particularly interesting aspect of statecraft is ecclesiastical policy. The organization of the Church is interesting, first, because no one really cares about it anymore (outside the Reactosphere, I mean); second, because the functions of the Church develop rapidly into informal power when left unattended. So the history of the Church is, in a sense, the history of informal power; and the conflicts of the Church grow out of earnest disputes over theology, so we must address theology if we are to understand this history and if, moreover, we are to discover which political stable forms of church government are acceptable to God, and vice-versa.

Statecraft includes several other problem-areas which are interesting for analogous reasons: not because they threaten the stability the state, per se, but because the goal of the sovereign is to establish some form of stable structure of expectations among his subjects, and there is a frontier of possibility describing the possible expectations. These expectations coalesce around institutions; when the limits the sovereign faces concern the functions of the institutions he wishes to shape, the limits are imposed by social structure whereas if they are the limits of his own ability to enforce his will the institution in question is the state and the limit is not dictated by its function but rather by institutional organization.

All of these themes would be gratuitous if we had no way to advance right wing  political goals — i.e., if we had no idea how to achieve the level of political cooperation necessary to push back the Left. Political cooperation is linked via the Right’s new doctrine of signaling to the moral authority these tactics so effectively challenge. And political cooperation is linked to social structure because the loyalties that grow out of our basic institutional realities lay the foundation for partisan political loyalties.

Signaling and loyalty, meanwhile, are (along with Church history, and many other topics besides) bound up in conceptual history, which is indispensable because a nuanced understanding of the past is our best weapon against illusory progressive frames. But better still, the concepts we recover from the mud where the progressives have buried them will be ours to use, and if these concepts grant us a superior understanding of reality (one denied to progressives, who can only accept a distorted version of the concepts which fits neatly inside the progressive historical narrative) that will be powerful evidence to our sympathizers and to our rivals alike.

Political Cooperation

My first post on identity politics last fall introduced the idea that groups need a certain kind of stability to gain support, and they can get that stability either from the rigidity of their principles or from the stability of an identity that group members share. I elaborated on this distinction in January. Identities can be deeply felt because they are fundamentally tribal, or they can be impossible to escape because they are constantly reinforced by daily life. In some cases complex interconnections within a group may encourage unconscious coordination without any deliberate cooperation; sometimes the group may not even realize they are a group! In other cases the ruling classes of various regions ally publicly, and when the symbolic vision of their union is sufficiently powerful, even people who are not actually part of the ruling classes that are uniting will go along for the ride. (Ask Gramsci.)

Part of the reason why we’ve been doing a better job cooperating on the Right in the last year or two is that we’ve been less vulnerable to disruption because the situation has gotten so dire. No faction or party can function without a healthy political ecology, and to preserve that ecology we should remember that political parties exist to win elections, not to punish sin.

Moral Authority

The Left viciously punishes anyone who openly signals their willingness to join us. Virtue signals send a message of servility to the Left, create an aura of inevitability that discourages the Left’s opponents, and give ordinary people the impression that all the high-status people they know respect the Left’s values. While the obvious counter-measure is to ridicule these values, we can’t be too hasty; leftists are very aggressive in pressing an imperialistic claim that all values and all concepts are either “progressive” or “reactionary”, and as this Manichaean frame itself may be the main source of the moral authority of the Left, rejecting the frame is ultimately more valuable that rejecting individual values the Left has arrogated.

In a progressive society, public figures and socioeconomic classes acquire certain limited kinds of (a)moral authority over the populace. This perverse authority is not a deliberate goal of progressivism, but typically only an afterimage of older forms of authority which progress had eliminated, like the authority of parents over children.

Signaling and Social Structure

Socialization is the most fundamental source of social expectations and signaling-systems, and so understanding how youth culture has perverted socialization (and how it replaces authority figures with celebrities) helps us think through the spongy instability of expectations and standards in contemporary life. We must have some idea how we would stabilize a society which had not yet degenerated before we can aspire to social regeneration. My essay on the bourgeois virtues and the destabilization of the conventional signs of class-affiliation has a more overt focus on the interdependence of signals and the social structure to which the signalers belong.

“Youth Culture” (implicitly) and “Naughty and Nice” (explicitly) highlight the malfunction of processes which determine who belongs to a group and who doesn’t. But the crisis of belonging is as important for nations as for cultures and classes; if you try to force people to hide and ignore signs of national identity, you can cripple feelings of national loyalty. I briefly addressed the historical dimensions of this problem (the interactions of huge populations in daily life, and the biological mingling of previously-distinct populations) when I discussed servitude. I looked at the ideological dimensions of the problem (what Steve Sailer calls “the War on Noticing”) in my review of physical anthropology in 1950, and elsewhere I tried to correct some of the misconceptions about biological relationships.

One of the most important general principles underlying social structures is the relationship between commitments and expectations, and thus I started my (unfinished) account of marriage with a general account of commitment: a firm grasp of commitment will help us understand both the dependence of expectations on the underlying conventional commitments (which, when they change, rapidly undermine the expectations built on top of them) and the realm of social possibility. Expectations are like systems of equations in that, when the values of a few of the “variables” are fixed, the possible values of the remaining variables are tightly constrained. To put it bluntly, you cannot expect a thing and its opposite; and two or more expectations may contradict or confuse some third expectation.

This is especially important in considering the elements of social structure which are directly tied to the coercive apparatus of the state. For example, rulers usually must adapt themselves to the languages of their subjects; rulers may try to govern through pariahs who are themselves estranged from the rest of society and absolved of all social expectations; the rulers may voluntarily estrange themselves from their (natal) society, the better to merge with foreign elites and ruthlessly rule a united empire.

No royal attempt to evade popular expectations is without consequences. Rulers may have an arbitrary power to create expectations, but they cannot ignore expectations that they have already created; and since sovereign power rests on the expectation that the sovereign will always win (and that it will always intervene to protect legitimate titles), a sovereign who carelessly creates expectations about who will represent the authority of the state and what they will protect may find himself in trouble. The reductio ad absurdum of the sovereign’s vulnerability to expectations is the flexible resilience of tribal government, which maintains a measure of stability by channeling the sources of power which shape expectations about who will win any given conflict. (The strength of tribal identity makes an interesting counterpoint to the contrived anemia of “modern” identities, as well.)

Political Institutions and Statecraft

The limits that social structure imposes on statecraft illuminate the nature of the state and reveal the germs of corruption of the political order. Statecraft proposes to examine how sovereigns rule their states. Prior to understanding how sovereigns rule, you must first understand how they can become sovereign, for the premise of any act of statecraft must be that it will preserve the ruler’s “state”, his status as a ruler. This status cannot merely be a question of “having enough power”, if a ruler and his subjects are understood to have “power” in the same way (differing only in that the weak have little, the strong have much, and the sovereign has the most), because power requires the aid of others and the power of a sovereign cannot rest on legal guarantees or individual goodwill the way the power of his subjects typically does.

Becoming and remaining sovereign is first of all a sort of strategic interaction, and so the basic principles of strategy apply. Because the question is how “the sovereign” (one man, or a body of men) can have power which requires the cooperation of many subordinates without the support of an external force, the question is primarily one of institutional strategy: how can a group function as a unitary actor? Concepts like hierarchy, disengagement, and centrality allow us to discuss these questions — not just for extremely powerful sovereign bodies, or potentially sovereign bodies, but also for political parties and their ecosystems.

Informal Power and Church History

If a state is ruled by the formal power of a sovereign, you can have political order without lies. But that isn’t to say that the institutions which priestly rulers use to weave illusions aren’t necessary to the health of the state — they are necessary, if only to prevent the growth of an incipient Cathedral! The same institutions that are sources of informal power in the absence of a sovereign have harmlessly formal powers when they are under the control of a sovereign, a contrast I tried to sketch out under the rubric of (in)formal capacities and (in)formal mechanisms both in the original “Cathedral” post and in a subsequent clarification. (Basically: informal capacity + informal mechanism = informal power, but any other combination leads to formal power.)

The “Cathedral” post and its capacity/mechanism distinction was based on my understanding of the multi-dimensional religious disagreements which fueled the English Civil War. But the informal capacities which the Church wields are never free from danger, and I have been gradually pulling together information on different episodes in Church history, of which I have published notes on the English Church, on New England Calvinism, on the Puritan Hypothesis generally, on the integration of Church and State at the time of the Reformation, on a certain religious minority, and also a more free-ranging note which addresses (a) characteristic (undesirable) effects of religious minorities on the majority religion, (b) religious minorities as pawns in international politics, and (c) the polarization-dynamics which lead to the formation of rival theological coalitions (and to the formation of their “platforms” as well).

Part of the reason why the Church is so important (both in historical perspective, and to us today) is that it is part of the bedrock social structure which the sovereign may seek to tweak or rearrange, but which he cannot abolish. In part that is because everyone believes something and no society is without its memeplex, but that is a somewhat remote and instrumental conception, and does not capture more than a fraction of historical Church-State interaction. More importantly, Christian rulers and Christian subjects seek to do the will of the Lord; thus we face constraints relating to questions like “What can we know of God’s laws?” and “How should we treat sinners?”, which force us to first ask fundamental questions about faith and sin.

Minor Note: Exoteric Calvinism

Via TWiR I found Shylock Holmes’ excellent précis of Theodore Parker’s life and works.

If you enjoyed Holmes’ excavations into the murky origins of the progressives’ “arc of the moral universe” cliché, you must find time to read W.E. Channing’s sermon Unitarian Christianity (1819). It is an excellent encapsulation of the intellectual and theological errors of liberal Christianity (sic) and Channing’s conclusion demonstrates with unusual clarity how abruptly bad soteriology leads to the absurdities of Whig history.

On the other hand, I’m inclined to agree with the anonymous commenter who oh-so diplomatically notes, over on Holmes’ Parker post, that “[Moldbug’s] understanding of Church history has many lacunae”. In fact, let us word this a little more strongly: as intellectual history, the great merit of Moldbug’s Puritan Hypothesis is that it serves as a coordination point for philosemites who would rather not talk about some (((other))) unitarian sect and papists who would rather not talk about heretics in pretty dresses albs.

In particular, the hypothesis ignores:

  • that American Unitarianism was imported into Boston from Britain and was only very indirectly linked to indigenous New England Calvinism;
  • that Anglican Unitarianism itself grew out of Arminianism, which was rejected by the Dutch Calvinists at Dort in 1619 and was rejected with great violence by the English Calvinists shortly thereafter;
  • that the stereotype of “Puritan missionary fervor” which Moldbug triumphantly links to America’s fervor for imposing its principles on its satellites is, in any case, grounded in the missionary activities of conservative Calvinists who rejected Parker and Channing;
  • that the PA Quakers, not the MA Congregationalists, are to blame for most of the progressive themes in early US history, including universal suffrage, democracy, (hypocritical) pacifism, disestablishment of state churches, and abolitionism;
  • that the disestablishment of state churches did not undermine a de facto policy of Protestantism, and general cultural unity, until the establishment of urban immigrant enclaves;
  • and that the ethnic composition of Harvard in the last fifty years has had some intriguing religious dimensions, but not with respect to infiltration by the Eternal Calvinist.

The genesis of leftism truly is fascinating, but it’s almost impossible to study the history of ideas from an ideological perspective: I mean, to study it in order to advance the goals of a 21st-century ideology, be it left-wing or right-wing. You will not be able to enter into any of the details of our ancestors’ debates if you do not care about the issues animating them, and in the end you will fall back on that Manichaean worldview the Left loves (“these people advanced the progressive cause, those people fought against it”).

The POZ Speaketh

By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes!

“It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt.”

The restoration will be cathartic the way the bathhouse scene of Sully’s youth was cathartic: every day will present new opportunities.

“If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic.”

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? It is exactly that which separates the man who is watching a stranger loiter near his property and the man who hears footsteps inside the house. It is the difference between the apprehension of a future risk and the fortitude to resist a danger which has already arrived.

Someone who has the courage to resist a disaster can take pride in having confronted the situation like a man even if he only found himself in danger in the first place due to his own lack of foresight. A man who pessimistically predicts a looming disaster but then meekly submits to it when it arrives is just a coward.

And a coward who is not content to have predicted the disaster which he is currently enduring, but who prides himself on continuing to fret and cluck about future disasters which we all know he will endure with equal sluggishness and servility?

Of course, we live not in the abstract realm of thought but in this, the most actual of all possible worlds, where concepts like conservative and reactionary carry around with them a whole history of culturally- and ideologically-specific uses. This is a world where gay does not refer to joy and jolliness but to seropositive men like Sully. And in this world, “conservative” is the progressive term of praise for the servile — those who see the whip-hand moving back and brace themselves for the lashes — and “reactionary” the term of abuse for those who fight on.

The toxicity of virtue signaling being what it is, the only way to break the cycle is to go along with it. (Okay, Sully; I’m the evil reactionary, you’re the noble conservative, now get out of my country.) But keep the underlying conceptual relation between conserving and reacting in the back of your mind in case there is a chance to recover lost ground.

“If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them.”


In any bad essay there comes a point where you realize the mediocrity of what you have read up to now cannot be explained by the tightness of deadlines, the timidity of editors, the dullness of the public, the delicacy of the topic, or any of the other extenuations a published author can claim.

3As Collingwood observed, you cannot know the nature of a thing until you ask what question it proposes to answer. Answers that look uncommonly dull to people who have only a vague idea what the question might be often look fiendishly clever to anyone who has spent five minutes trying to answer the question on their own.

In other words, many of the stupid things you might read in Sullivan’s articles (or those of any other conservative catamite) are open to interpretation. Many stupid phrases do not add up to one stupid essay. Sullivan needs to please gatekeepers and power brokers, Sullivan needs to attract attention to his once-famous name, Sullivan needs to earn the respect of other pundits and “conservative intellectuals”, Sullivan needs to appeal to those who read New York Magazine, Sullivan needs to avoid antagonizing potential book-buyers and potential sexual partners. Sullivan is a busy man! If in all this appeasing and pandering Sullivan looks like he is a blundering fool, it is hard to know whether Sullivan looks like a fool because he is a fool or because you, the observer, do not appreciate the theatrical flair with which he performs the delicate kabuki his audience(s) required.

And then comes the blunder that serves no purposes, that sends no subtle message; one which merely indicates the presence of a great fool. What is better known than the reactionary fascination with élites — even strange, foreign élites, even hostile élites?

Of course, probably Sullivan has in mind something like this: I used to be a co-blogger at The Atlantic. These reactionaries who hold me in contempt hold Atlantic bloggers in contempt; therefore they hold élites in contempt. The error in this reasoning will no doubt occur to him eventually.

“If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up.”

To hear Sullivan tell it, the true conservative is the man who berates firemen who just hacked through a wall and rescued his children for the fire hazard created by the debris they left behind.

“If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.”

Today’s Republican Party? Am I the only one who remembers what the primary campaign was like? The GOP is a (very moderate but) very firmly progressive institution which freaked out when its electoral constituency turned out to support a man (the aforesaid Trump) who promised to slow social change in one or two areas where its effects had proven particularly damaging.

What, exactly, is Sullivan so afraid of?

“I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance.”


If anyone would know anything about relevance, I imagine it would be Sullivan. No one ends up as a celebrity journalist without being able to spot influence, and spot it early. As a tropical insect is infallibly drawn to the unique species of orchid on which it feeds, so too has Homo sullivanus evolved a special attraction to the next ass it will try to lick.

“I’ve grown out of it in many ways — and the depression and loneliness that often lie at the core of the reactionary mind slowly lifted as I grew more comfortable in the only place I could actually live: the present.”

Dear Reactionaries, I abandoned the principles of my forefathers so I could see my byline in the pages of Famous Magazines. The rising social status this brought me made me very happy. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! I have won the victory over myself. I love democracy. —— Signed, Andrew Sullivan

“You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.”

Good luck with that. May the Lord be our judge and decide between us.

“And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly?”

; )

Youth Culture II: Socialization

“From time immemorial man has been made in such a way that his vision of the world, so long as it has not been instilled under hypnosis, his motivations and scale of values, his actions and intentions are determined by his personal and group experience of life. [During] the long epochs when our world lay spread out in mystery and wilderness, before it became encroached by common lines of communication, before it was transformed into a single, convulsively pulsating lump – men, relying on experience, ruled without mishap within their limited areas, within their communities, within their societies, and finally on their national territories. At that time it was possible for individual human beings to perceive and accept a general scale of values, to distinguish between what is considered normal, what incredible; what is cruel and what lies beyond the boundaries of wickedness; what is honesty, what deceit. And although the scattered peoples led extremely different lives and their social values were often strikingly at odds, just as their systems of weights and measures did not agree, still these discrepancies surprised only occasional travellers, were reported in journals under the name of wonders, and bore no danger to mankind which was not yet one.”

— Alexander Sozhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture (1970)

The History of Socialization

When I say that youth culture is the culture of motherlessness, what I mean is that in a normal civilization, youths are socialized into the culture of their parents, and in the modern West mothers have stopped socializing their children.

Earlier eras might have had:

  • distinct aristocratic, peasant and bourgeois “subcultures” inside the broader culture of an entire civilization
  • special castes (like the soldiers or the bankers)
  • esoteric religious cults
  • persistent ethnic minorities with their own (sub)cultures

But the youth could not have their own distinct subculture, because in these eras children were undergoing initiation into the adult world. Each social order raises its children, first, as members of a common culture, and then secondarily as members of their own social order, so that the children grow up to be adult aristocrats, adult peasants, adult craftsmen, and so on.

(In other cases what makes the life of a group so distinctively a sub-culture is that is cut off from family life and reproduction, and the education/hazing of new members — for example, new recruits in an army or novices in an ascetic cult — is about forcing them to see the world with new eyes, to stimulate the rebirth of the initiate into a world alien to everyday life.)

It was not always a special duty of mothers to socialize their children. Historically, fathers played an important role — but then so too did neighbors, cousins, and the parish priest. Roughly speaking, mothers assume a monopoly over the socialization of an infant while it is breastfeeding which they do not fully lose until the child can walk and talk.

At that point the mother is no longer required to keep the baby with her at all times and the role of the father can become considerable. As the child gets closer to adolescence its mother can no longer manage it physically and the great strength and strength of character of the father may give him the predominate role. At approximately the same time, the child’s preoccupations shift from play towards some form of productive effort (whether actual work, training, or a combination of both).

The focus of socialization shifts at this age as well. Sociologists contrast the “primary socialization” which furnished us with the language, norms and other basic knowledge we need to live in society at all with the “secondary socialization” which teaches us how to serve our society in a certain way — as a doctor, for example, or as a mechanic. If a peasant girl needs a secondary socialization to prepare her to be a peasant’s wife, she will spend that time with her mother (a peasant’s wife), helping with the weaving, the cooking, and the gardening; her brother on the other hand needs to spend more time with his father, learning to plow straight furrows.

Thus both mothers and fathers played a large role in traditional socialization, with the father’s role growing as the child became more independent and robust, but the main responsibility for socializing each child fell on whichever adult already did the job the child needed to learn to do. Civilization disrupted this dynamic by prolonging childhood and intensifying the division of labor.

Strictly speaking, human neoteny began long before civilization. Human infants are unusually helpless and dependent on their mothers even by the relaxed standards of placental mammals. The abilities of newborns from different continents, at birth, as well as the ages at which they reach all their subsequent developmental milestones confirms that the unusual prolongation of human development (and especially cerebral development) is still under differential selection pressure across the globe.

Stone-age agriculture and then civilization itself may have increased the cognitive demands of human life and thus intensified selection for innate, biological neoteny. But as the process of civilization continues, the specialization of social roles contributes to neoteny in its own right.

The more difficult the performance of an adult social role, the less a child is able to contribute, even as an assistant, and the longer he has to wait before he is mature enough to attempt to master the performance himself. Indeed, as a certain kind of work changes — becoming more precise, more efficient, more organized — a team of workers will find the presence of clueless intruders increasingly annoying, even if the latter are only there to observe.

But these are precisely the tasks whose execution is most difficult to grasp only by watching! So the young one has no real reason to observe anyway, until it is finally time for  him to learn to do the task properly; but if the task is sufficiently complex, this training may require elaborate preparation. The three “R’s” — reading, writing, and arithmetic — by themselves require five years of continuous, full-time education even for very bright children, during which time children cannot be socialized by joining their parents at work.

Even as the deepening division of labor was conspiring to prolong childhood indefinitely, it was dragging fathers further and further away from their children: from the homestead to the father’s workshop or study, and then on to the factory or the “bureau”. First the workplace had to be more and more separated out from the living space (to accommodate racks of specialized tools or shelves of carefully arranged records, for example), then the many workers engaged in different parts of a single task had to be colocated on-site, whether to collaborate as a team or to take advantage of some fixed capital investment (like a steam mill or a library).

The result: children needed to be looked after and socialized for a longer period of time, and fathers were less able to participate. This ushered in the brief golden age of motherhood.

Cultural Fluency

I do not want to belabor the importance of child-rearing in unnecessary detail, so let me characterize maternal care with a metonym: one of the most important parts of primary socialization is learning to speak one’s mother tongue fluently, and most of the rest of primary socialization can be likened to learning a language. The mother coos to her toddler in baby-talk (“What does the ducky say?”), which gradually matures into a real language, but one stuffed full of helpful diminutives, repetitions, pleonasms, circumlocutions, nicknames, overemphases, and all the other simplifying tricks that help babies graduate from babble to sentences.

Group activities are structured around talking. The mother will constantly narrate what she is doing, what the baby is doing, what they can observe others doing; she will ask the baby how it is thinking or what it is feeling or what, in the baby’s opinion, the mother should do next; she will quiz the baby on the identities of various people, places, and animals they pass by. All of this chatter in unnatural: unnatural, that is, by the standards of normal conversation, where such questions would never come up, but perfectly natural as a way to bootstrap baby into mom’s language-community.

The mother creates conversations out of activities that could be easily be conducted in silence; conversely, she presents the elements of each activity in a ceremonial, dramatic fashion that creates a topic for conversation where none would have existed otherwise.

By the same logic, a mother can choose to make inherently captivating topics or areas of language vanish. You can witness this to this day when mothers explain pregnancy (or any other awkward or “adult” topic) to their children. Whether she opts for the naturalistic “there’s a baby growing inside her” or the traditional stork, a mother who routinely makes mountains out of molehills to coax her kid into parroting back her sentences will act as though it’s no big deal (of course babies grow in tummies); her child will lose all interest.

By the same trick, a particularly sheltered child can get nearly all the way to adulthood without knowing the exact sense of vulgar words for which his mother routinely substitutes a euphemism (or which she avoids entirely, and forbids him to use).

Obviously a mother cannot entirely control every sentence her child hears, but traditionally she could come pretty damn close. The baby could come to his mother’s book club and play in the background while her friends gossip, but he could not under any circumstances go to that gambling den his father frequents. He could go spend the night at Johnny’s house any time, but when it comes to Sammy’s sleepover, well, that is a different story. She could not control every word her neighbors said, but she could choose the neighborhood.

Moreover, if one of her children picked up syntax or vocabulary from the neighbors that she considered low-status or simply foreign, all she needed to do was mock or scold him until he stopped using it. Everyone in their speech conforms to the easiest means of expression available; if everyone around you reacts to your speech as though something unusual is going on, the path of least resistance is to talk like them.

When a mother gave her little darling more verbal feedback than anyone else, it would be easiest for him to speak like his mother, even if he does encounter the speech patterns of strangers. In fact, an occasional sociolinguistic stumble — a verbal blunder that makes a child sound like those people — could be valuable to the child’s socialization: it gives his mother an opportunity to subtly point out suitable targets for social contempt.

In all this we have been imagining successful primariy socialization — i.e. that the mother succeeds in teaching her child the language he must speak when he is grown. But now let us compare the plight of an immigrant mother who does not speak the language of her new country. How can she teach her children the language they must learn?

She can’t. She must leave their instruction (in the new language) in the hands of others. And because she is no longer responsible for the instruction she must give up all control over its content as well.

Even if she has some control over who her children talk to, she does not know what they are saying or what differences in dialect and tone separate one group from the next. Even if she knows the rudiments of the language and has a few abstract ideas about how her children “ought to” speak it, she cannot provide constant, consistent feedback and she cannot provide models to demonstrate her rule in action. If she is able to arrange the syntax of a sentence according to the model she was taught, her child will still hear that her accent is obviously “wrong” and so therefore her sentence cannot be “correct”, and he will cling to the paradigm he hears his friends use. A language belongs to the people who speak it. The child will speak “their” language the way “those people” tell him to.

Remember that we are discussing language as a metonym for culture.

Learning cultural rules resembles learning linguistic rules, but the stakes are much higher. Language is the (nearly-)neutral substrate in which all other cultural rules are communicated. Thus a child who ignores his parents’ linguistic advice but grows into a fluent adult is a case of “no harm no foul”. Perhaps without any authoritative verbal feedback from his mother he will learn the language more slowly; perhaps when he is finally fluent, he will have settled on a slightly barbaric accent. The damage will be minimal.

But if he ignores his parents’ opinions, not only about the right way to speak and the wrong way, but also the right and wrong way: to dress, to eat, to clean to play, to work, to socialize… for these cultural rules, a child who “speaks the wrong language” is actually abandoning his family’s way of life for that of another group. In so doing, he also changes his allegiances, leaving the one group for the other. Tensions between incompatible cultural rules are tensions between the groups that obey them.

A child cannot become a member of the out-group just because his clumsy speech reminds his peers of the out-group; when they tease him, the mockery is only symbolic of group tensions. If he speaks incorrectly, his peers know the mistake is inadvertent. But this certainty is premised on the assumption he does want to remain in the community which dictates the standard he must meet.

A speaker wants his speech to be intelligible to a community because he dwells within it. Clarity and meaning are always relative to some group: clear to whom, intelligible to whom? Learning the right way to speak is, as a matter of fluency, about clear and meaningful communication. Other cultural rules are not about whether communication is intelligible, but about the substance of what is communicated.

I hope this extended analogy has not been too hard to follow. Linguistic rules are, despite their “neutrality”, introduced to children in the same way as more “substantive” cultural rules during socialization, so by using language as a metonym for culture as a whole we can use the confusion of tongues as a model for the degeneration of cultures.


In the case of learning to speak, I used the immigrant mother to illustrate the plight of a mother who has no input in the rules her child learns; but of course this example tacitly assumes that there are thousands of other families in the community who are native speakers. While our hypothetical immigrant mother may not be able to control exactly who speaks English to her child, she can be certain that almost all of them learned to speak English from their parents, so her child is learning English as somebody’s parents taught it to them.

When more and more immigrants flood an area, this assumption collapses. It becomes possible that her child is mostly talking to other children of immigrants who are mostly talking to other children of immigrants and who mostly learned to speak English from other children of immigrants. When a community becomes so fractured among multiple languages that the children do not even converge on any common language, a pidgin develops.

Likewise, when one mother loses control over what her children consider normal behavior she has at most lost control over whose culture her children adopt. She can still be confident her children will assimilate to some way of life that some family has passed on to its children.

But if many mothers simultaneously lose control, what then?

This is the cycle that ended the “golden age of motherhood”:

  1. Some labor-saving commodity replaced maternal care with a more efficient industrial solution.
  2. With her children (and her household) taken care of but her bills for labor-saving commodities high, the mother finds herself with plenty of time but short on cash, and begins to feel pressure to find paying work.
  3. Having entered the labor force, the mother is now cash-rich but time-poor and begins to look for  ways to make running a household and in particular caring for a child more time-efficient, including buying more labor-saving tools and paying for professional childcare.

And iterate. Mothers care for children less and less. Modern technology — whether in the home or in the childcare industry — pacifies children more and more. What does this replacement of maternal care by commodities accomplish?

First of all, standardization: the socialization of children is delivered in standard packaging and the mother has very little influence over its content.

A mother who buys a comic book for her child or plops him down in from the television for quiet time is in much the same position as an immigrant mother who buys ESL material for her children. She can read the comic book, she can watch the show; she can, at length, decide to return the book or forbid him from watching the show; but she has no ability to object to the content and tailor it to her tastes. To do that she would have to actually tell her child a story herself, and forego labor-saving technology entirely.

So she can reject book A for book B and show C for show D, but ultimately she must accept some of the options the publishing industry and the broadcasting industry have seen fit to provide, or simply reject TV and comic books.

This standardization promotes disintermediation: rather than going through socialization in the presence of his mother and, primarily, through the agency of his mother or some other authority-figure, the child consumes media alone and unsupervised, communing with the glowing screen like a heathen with some hellish idol. The main advantage of labor-saving childcare technology is, of course, that the parent need not be involved, and given that the parents cannot affect the standard there is very little reason for them to waste time reviewing it.

Third, the cycle of motherlessness promotes anonymization. The labor-saving childcare tools present themselves (to the child) as about all people and addressed to all people. Mass-market products need to be non-specific to draw in potential customers; there is no way to tell a buyer that the perspective presented in the work is irrelevant to his life and should not be taken seriously without losing the sale. Thus the child draws the inferences that whatever he learns to be normal or correct in the work is normal and correct, full stop.

I have framed standardization, disintermediation, and anonymization as though they mostly concerned the content of books, television programs, and other media, because in these cases the content of the “standards” is very easy to understand. Other commodities transmit and travesty cultural rules in other ways. A mother who sews her daughter’s skirts herself has editorial control over what variation in hem-length her daughter is familiar with, and what is “too long” or “too short”: off-the-rack clothing presents mother and daughter with a whole set of contrasts that set the standard for what styles of clothing are desirable.

The Failure of Socialization

I don’t mean to take my account too far, or to sound too hysterical about youth culture. Obviously you cannot turn a basically risk-averse kid into a robber by forcing him to listen to rap music. You cannot turn a basically shy kid into a Don Juan by forcing him to watch racy Hollywood trash. But socialization is a real phenomenon and it can fail to happen — or happen in a perverted form.

In particular, I want to call attention to the oft-repeated claim that children “can tell reality from fantasy”. In certain contexts the claim makes sense: for example, playing Doom does not turn you into a mass shooter. Children really can tell reality from fantasy: of course they can. The problem is that they cannot tell reality from irreality; they cannot tell a smooth, plausible lie about reality from the honest truth.

No quantity of books about people who ride around on dragons will make a kid believe that dragons are real. And when the “bad guys” are marked by their repetitive, obnoxious behavior and low-status speech patterns, it will be clear that their villainous activities are also abnormal and part of the exciting melodrama of the fictional world. But if the hero and heroine fornicate between dragon-jousts… who is to tell the young reader whether this is a fantastical element of the plot that is as normal as dragon-jousts in dragon-worlds but abnormal in our own, or it part of the bedrock of everyday reality that the author draws on to fill out the details of his fictional creation?

Conversely: if the hero and heroine remain entirely chaste for the entire series, who is say whether this is a reflection of the norms of our culture or is merely part of the special convention of bowdlerizing books aimed at a young audience?

The problem is not that media has violent or obscene or otherwise inappropriate content per se: it is that media is disintermediated and anonymized with the explicit goal of making it impossible for anyone consuming to find any reason to stop consuming, and thus the implicit effect of making it impossible for any consumer to see the boundaries between the reality of his own people and the reality of outsiders.

Skeptics about the actual impact of cultural degeneration typically assume that if pop culture did affect the behavior of its consumers, its effect would be to reproduce media fantasies in reality: so rap about drug-dealers would engender drug-dealing, books about dragon-riders would engender dragon-riding, and so on. Such skepticism overlooks the possibility that these fantasies can give rise to a new culture simply by preventing the social reproduction of the old culture.

The result is that the difference between reality and fantasy, which the children grasp perfectly well in the media they consume, is suspended in their reality. They have lost — no! They never acquire the ability “to distinguish between what is considered normal, what incredible”. They live in a Peter-Pan world, where wishing makes it true and adults figure only as enemies and obstacles.


“[At] an age when [the young] have not yet any experience other than sexual, when they do not yet have years of personal suffering and personal understanding behind them… In shallow lack of understanding of the age-old essence of mankind, in the naive confidence of inexperienced hearts they cry: let us drive away THOSE cruel, greedy oppressors, governments, and the new ones (we!), having laid aside grenades and rifles, will be just and understanding.”

— Solzhenitsyn, op. cit.

Youth Culture I: Desire

What was traditional about traditional Western culture, and is it gone forever? Within the framework of this depressing question, I’ll be defending two narrower theses:

  • Youth culture is the culture of the motherless
  • Pop culture is the eclipse of meaning by triviality

My thoughts about youth culture emerged while planning the essay on marriage, For some people the problem marriage poses is about conflict resolution and for others, about romance, but for a community, marriage is an intergenerational agency problem. If you don’t know what an agency problem is, let me put it this way: marital institutions are about how parents control their children and how children react to influence their parents and preserve their autonomy. (And in turn communities control how parents control their children, as well as how the parents react to influence the community — but I think you get the idea.)

The upshot is that it is hard to think about marriage without thinking about the broader question of how parents come to have any control over their brats at all. The title of that series is Marriage, not Who She Baby Daddy Be. In the long run, if the ability of families to influence their children declines to nil we will continue to have “marital institutions” only in the very loose sense that insane asylums are said to be “mental institutions”. In the traditional sense, institutions embody a collection of roles, expectations, and relations; but progressivism normalizes the abnormal situation where an institution only manages deviants (deviants who refuse to recognize any obligation to play roles or meet expectations) and the chaos they create.

Pop Culture and Desire

Last week EvoX asked why musicians rank with actors (charismatic!) and athletes (fit!) as targets of “excessive female interest” — notably, romantic interest. Beware reverse causation: music executives groom (in all senses of the word) proto-stars who seem to have the natural charisma and physique to inspire lust, setting the stage for a massively profitable test-tube-perfect pop-music sensation.

(Have you noticed that everyone has started to refer to these celebrities as “performers” or — better yet — “artists”, rather than singers, guitarists, or (generic) musicians? The rebranding is appropriate: pop stars give dramatic and athletic performances for their adoring fans, the sound team pipes in some muzak over the spectacle, and everyone is happy.)

But! The phenomenon EvoX mentions is real and predates the convergence of the different modes of mass-media celebrity by millennia. So what explains the mystery — what trait are musicians’ admirers chasing after, that put a love of music under selection in our ancestral environment? The comments to the post did a pretty good job kicking around different hypotheses:

[Among] people in the normal intelligence range, say from about the bottom 25% to the top 75%, I bet musical ability, broadly speaking, correlates decently well with intelligence–smarter people can probably memorize more songs, are better at performing them, can come up with their own songs, etc.

More than that – if you hypothesize that good health, facial symmetry, general intelligence, reflex-arc speed, and physical fitness covary around an underlying factor that corresponds to something like “lack of deleterious mutations”, then musical ability is a very good match for the desirable factor: you need intelligence (to process the acoustic waves, and react/improvise/compose appropriately), stamina (to dance/play/practice) and reflexes in almost equal proportion.

Any one of those traits is subject to decreasing returns to scale. Athleticism is sexy, but is running for three hours 50% sexier than running for two? In large part, these traits are attractive not because they are so valuable for organisms in themselves, but because they are correlated to so many other valuable traits. Any particular correlate, however, may be a misleading guide to the “underlying factor,” especially if it is an outlier; worse, if sexual competition puts the trait under pressure it can quickly develop in directions that are not only unrelated to the whole complex of valuable traits, but are actually harmful in themselves.

This would explain how an apparently frivolous ability which depends on many different intercorrelated traits could be more attractive as a sign of genetic fitness than any one trait (or any one of the many useful abilities that depend on only one of the traits). And if musical talent confirms the apparent absence of any underlying deleterious mutations, that would be consistent with how it interacts with other traits. Musical virtuosity can make very “average” (normal-but-not-gorgeous) women enchanting but abnormal appearance ruins the effect, and I assume it’s roughly similar for how women perceive musical men.

We could stop here, and treat the mystery as resolved: for an organism looking for a fit mate, a little riff on the guitar could well be more informative than intelligence, size, or any of the other traits that could individually be subject to runaway selection and lose their correlation to the underlying good health of the mate. But I suggest we go further and layer two more considerations on top of the first:

  1. Why do girls fall for serial killers? Obviously there is some kind of feminine heuristic which uses celebrity (specifically: widespread recognition of face and name) as an index of power/status. This is a decent heuristic in small nomadic bands, and works surprisingly well even in our societies but falls apart at one end (see: serial killers).
  2. As EvoX observes, music makes a great shibboleth. It’s perfectly predictable that hominids would become highly attuned to differences in musical style and taste for the purposes of assigning political loyalties and other social meanings, just as we become highly attuned to accents. Seeking groups that are similar to you also serves what Darwinian Reactionary calls a stabilizing function; e.g. you need to be speaking the same language to know if he just said “Let’s go to the movies”, and you need to listen to the same music to know whether he’s playing a really sad song, or they all sound like that.

When you dissolve local communities, authority figures, local leaders and other luminaries fade into obscurity — leaving entertainers, the only celebrities left standing, to shine into the void.

When you stigmatize traditional identities, attempts to identify people of similar ethnê, class, education, language, and religion become low-status (and soon: impossible, as the members of each group lose the ability to find each other), so musical taste is one of the few remaining cultural kinds still permitted, and thus one of the few “stabilizing functions” people can rely on.

These two processes play off each other: as musical genres become increasingly salient cultural kinds, musical entertainment and musical subcultures become more important to making friends and bonding with them. This provides practical functions for musical talent, which in turn makes musical talent an entrée to rising status in a growing scene. This status and its perks draw ambitious young men into musical hobbies and, ultimately, into the music world, further solidifying the relevance of celebrity entertainers at the expense of all others and the significance of pop culture at the expense of all other identities.

(Tune in on Tuesday for youth culture and socialization.)