“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.

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6 thoughts on ““The Darker Side”: Openings in the Meme Wars

  1. How funny that you post about this just as I covered another Kantian more up to that commentator’s alley.

    One would think they’d cut Kant slack for his services in enshrining liberal idealism as a field in international relations, but then again leftist views on foreign policy tend to ambivalently combine pacifistic anti-realist liberalism with a Marxist contempt for the institutions actually necessary to get any illusion of the former, since it involves such spooky things as IMFs, World Banks and so forth.

    I affirm that Schlegel and Novalis were the best things to come out of German idealism precisely for perpetuating those “Christian myths.”

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    1. Serendipity! I had never heard of Barni.

      I think there is a reality/mythology problem with the idea that Kant “enshrined” liberal idealism anywhere. Kant wrote that essay _after_ the sister-republics policy the Jacobins had pursued! Don’t you think that would give someone an inkling that the idea came from somewhere else?

      You seem to think that Kant’s “Zum ewige Frieden” was a step towards the IMF and the World Bank, but that essay is actually a counterproposal (and one written in a very interesting *tone*) which scales back the Left/Liberal agenda a great deal. If you want to read real POZ, look up Émeric Crucé (although realistically I think Sully’s “Le Grand Dessein” had more influence on the philosophes).

      Kant’s essay – for all that it is dangerous, for all the damage it did as a prestigious symbol for Wilson’s internationalist project – is not to be dismissed as anti-realist liberalism. You should look at my book review of “The Sovereign Individual” if you want a sense of why: §III https://quaslacrimas.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/predictions-are-hard-davidson-rees-mogg-edition/

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      1. No, I don’t think Kant lead to Harry Dexter White. I was making a broader point about dialectical conflict in “pozzed” views of the law of nations.

        I guess “enshrined” was intended in rhetorical sense more than anything. Ideological cladistics are iffy like that.

        How interesting that you bring up the Duke of Sully, “Le bon roi”‘s right hand man. But he was still primarily a fiscalist, like Fouquet and Colbert later on, though the latter would also be pivotal in making absolutism a popular monarchy. It is with the Spanish line of the Bourbons that the philosophes and the illuminists really make their way, with such illustrious figures as the Count of Campomanes. I will of course have much to say on this later.

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      2. I look forward to it.

        (Btw, in some European languages “les Lumières” is illuminismo or some cognate, but in English and French that refers to the followers of Molinos, the Quietists, the Alumbrados, theosophy, etc.)

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