Reality is Ugly (Race and Gender)

Race and gender issues are the two most significant areas where Leftist ideology and social policy channel disillusionment with specific leftist policies into self-conscious resistance to the Left.  Perhaps this is not surprising; there are extensive parallels between the two areas. In both cases,

  1. people can categorize one another at a glance on the basis of a brief inspection of superficial traits, and can make inferences about non-observed individual traits on the basis of group averages.
  2. there are real differences between average group traits caused by genetics (in races, recent shared ancestry; in men and women, chromosomal differences).
  3. social outcomes for the group are affected by underlying biology, and so variance in different groups’ social problems may have biological explanations.
  4. In particular: in both cases, outliers may find it inconvenient to be confused with modal group-members (see #1), and may try to find ways (political or otherwise) to encourage/force strangers not to treat them like a modal member.
  5.  the pure form of Leftist ideology denies biological differences between groups, while the more moderate forms deny that biological differences should ever matter.
  6. the Left comes up with creative fictions to explain social problems caused by group traits; inevitably these fables slide from absolving the group of responsibility for its own problems, to blaming other groups.
  7.  when reforms based on these fables fail to solve the problems, new fables with an even broader scope are concocted to explain how the scapegoat-groups sabotaged the original solution.
  8. … the categories coordinate one’s participation in a major social sphere: people self-segregate to form ethnically homogenous (and thus culturally harmonious) communities, and they pair off to form families wherein a husband and wife can each play a specialized role suited to their talents and tastes.
  9. bizarre and constantly changing theories about how to solve “social problems” stemming from group differences (see #7) start to interfere with human flourishing within the relevant social sphere (community-formation is impeded in one case, and family-formation in the other).
  10. … the Left attempts to gain one group as a special constituency and increasingly adopts a platform of identity politics, pushing openly negative-sum policies that help the in-group only at the expense of the out-group (and in many cases do not help the group as a whole at all, but only its leaders and/or its most politically radical elements).
  11. In particular: the distribution of jobs, offices, honors and academic admissions is no longer viewed either as a private matter or as a matter of individual merit, but as political spoils for groups to fight over.
  12. In both cases, political debate and virtue-signaling increasingly come to revolve around insults (like “racist” and “sexist”) whose purpose is to create scapegoats for a group’s problems (see #7), and in particular to demean those who confuse outlier members and modal members (#4), who admit that group differences have biological roots (#2); ultimately, these labels come to refer to anyone who notices group traits at all (#1).

“Progress” in these two areas is a major contributor to the overall feedback loop which fuels leftward acceleration.  These are probably also, out of all the Left’s issues, the ones which have ultimately caused the most suffering: partly because family formation and community formation are so central to human life, partly because so many different policies are gathered together under these two rubrics.

Indeed, progressives actively work to recategorize their pet issues under “race issues” or “gender issues” precisely because racism and sexism are so central to the Left’s rhetorical strategy.  But people hate being slandered, so the very effectiveness of this rhetorical strategy forces the Left’s politically-incorrect targets notice its use and detest its users!

What’s more, race and gender are two topics where both personal experience and basic high-school biology demonstrate the absurdity of the ideology of political correctness.  Everyone knows that the Left is lying.

 

[This material is drawn from my earlier essay Recipe for Reaction, where it appeared within a broader explanation of the new energy on the Right in the last three years. However, it was somewhat counterproductive to bury a concise analysis of the structure of identity politics in a long essay on a different topic.]

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Wallace on Updike on the Boomers

I recently came across David Foster Wallace’s hatchet-job on John Updike. It’s always fun to read a good hatchet-job. Now, some of the things DFW says in the review make it seem like if he hadn’t hanged himself, he would have ended up as a tranny or worse. That’s the beautiful thing about a DFW hatchet-job; he typically ends up humiliating himself nearly as badly as his actual target, so you get a double-serving of delicious, delicious Schadenfreude.

Amidst all the cringing lefty pieties and self-abasement, there a few observations that are worth repeating.

I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the 60s and 70s, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr. Updike’s evocation of the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic. But the young educated adults of the 90s — who were, of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully — got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation. Today’s sub-40s have different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself.

DFW isn’t saying anything here that a lot of other folks haven’t said already. He did have the acuity to have said it in 1997, though — and given his stylistic talents, his observation is instructive not only in its content, but as a model for how to express a thought that many have had.

Schisms and Politics

I’ve posted every so often about the relationship between informal power and ecclesiastical hierarchy: [link] [link] [link]. As a quick summary, informal power is the sort of power that accumulates in kafkaesque bureaucracies where many people have influence and veto-power over a final decision, but no one has responsibility. It’s dangerous because there’s a great deal of uncertainty over outcomes, and uncertainty leads to conflict (and violence, and insecurity, and arms-races). Religions almost invariably exercise capacities (like teaching their adherents how to distinguish between holy and unholy, sin and righteousness, salvation and damnation) that are not themselves laws or judicial rulings, but nevertheless mold how ordinary citizens make sense of laws and judicial rulings. Therefore organized religion must be supervised by the same sovereign who makes formal law, or else it will become yet another bastion of informal power and social subversion. Disorganized religion is typically not a threat, but it can become a bastion of informal power if tiny independent congregations are all nudged in the same directions by a few powerful coordinating forces.

But the conditions for political harmony are not necessarily the conditions for theological unity.

It’s remarkable that the main schisms in Christianity started immediately after the conversion of Constantine, and continued to accumulate at an alarming rate under the Eastern Emperors until the latter had been forced back practically into the theme of Byzantium itself. No matter how many branches were already in schism, so long as there were chariot races to watch in Constantinople you can bet your last bezant that there was some new religious factionalism brewing in the Greek Church.

But then once the infidel had triumphed in the East, and the Greek Orthodox metropoleis were reduced to the status of tolerated millets within the caliphate, they managed to remain unified for the next 500 years.

The only remaining autocephalous Eastern Church which was sufficiently free of Muslim suzerainty to recreate caesaropapism was the Russian Orthodox Church. But barely had the Romanovs cobbled together an empire worthy of the name before the Patriarch Nikon had blown it apart again.

Likewise, after the Western Church went into schism with the patriarchs loyal to Byzantium, Western Europe was free from schism for hundreds of years (despite many sharp disagreements about theology and politics)… right up until the point that the Holy Roman Emperor was once again the most powerful prince in Western Christendom. And then bam, immediate schism.

These three examples don’t align perfectly. The pattern may be spurious. In Russia, to a first approximation, the issue seems to have been that as the expanding Russian Empire drew more and more fragments of the Slavonic/Greek Church within itself, liturgical peculiarities became a rallying point for rebels in the newly-incorporated provinces. So the Romanovs had an interest in religious uniformity, which meant they were shopping around for rationales to force one side to conform to the other. Ultimately the excuse they liked was that the Old Slavonic liturgical texts didn’t match the standard Greek texts… so they must be corrupted… so the Muscovites should adapt their liturgy to that of their emperor’s newest subjects. Insta-schism.

(In the end the rationale turned out to be spurious; it was the Byzantines who had made alterations to the original forms, not the Slavs. Whatever.)

I’m not qualified to comment on the Russian schism in depth. But superficially, at least, the case sounds very similar to the difficulties the Stuarts had with their newly-united kingdoms. It would have been easy enough to impose religious uniformity on England or on Scotland (assuming the reigning monarch wanted a uniformity of belief in the ballpark of the variation that already existed). But the task of imposing one standard on both was more difficult, because it meant one of the kingdoms would get a rather radical new policy. And the task of imposing two independent standards was hardly more promising, because it meant the British Presbyterians would have a permanent stronghold in Scotland from which to plot the takeover of England, and the British Episcopalians would have an analogous base of influence in England. (We haven’t even mentioned Ireland yet, so imagine trying to square all of this…)

The schisms in the Eastern Empire look more like purity spirals, but I don’t want to say too much off the cuff. Interpreting Byzantine history is terribly difficult. Roughly speaking, symbolic conflicts can easily take on an “everything not permitted is forbidden”-aspect if offense is a more powerful strategy than defense. “Proving” that some theological position X is totally permissible and non-heretical is quite difficult (especially if that means proving that it is absolutely consistent with every article of faith which might be essential to orthodoxy). Showing that the opposite doctrine, not-X, could be taken to contradict some interpretation of some orthodox doctrine is, by comparison, much easier. But this means that every school accused of error will want to quickly build a case that all of their opponents are heretics, as a form of self-defense.

Charles V had problems that match “multi-kingdom balancing act” and problems that match “symbolic arms race”. The best thing the Hapsburgs could have done for the stability of their empire — from a purely instrumental point of view — would have been to blow up the Brenner Pass to make sure that no German monks ever got within 100 miles of the Roman Curia. Taking off my Christian-hat and putting on my empire-hat, I will restrict myself to the observation that the mores of Renaissance Italy differed significantly from those of Germany, and standards of pious behavior differed too. If it was impossible for the Emperor to prevent his subjects from being aware of their differences, the next best thing would have been to try to convince the residents of each duchy that their responsibility for the religious orthodoxy of their neighbors ended at the borders of their feudal lord’s domain.

Christianity and Egalitarianism

After extensive and mostly-fruitless investigation, I’ve finally found some tangible evidence of that oft-alleged connection between the “universalism” of Christianity and the homogenous, egalitarian conception of humanity. In the Middle Ages, the Church defended – against the popular tradition that monstrous births were suppositious and/or the result of bestiality – the thesis that grossly deformed infants were every bit as human as healthy babies and thus needed baptism and so on.

As a purely scientific question, the medieval clergy hit this one out of the park. All appearances to the contrary, grotesque children are specimens of H. sapiens, and their disfiguring syndromes are the result of genetic defects rather than interspecies mésalliance. However, it is extremely difficult to find pre-modern examples of Christian authorities deducing the biological equality (and equal dignity) of empirically disparate human beings a priori from metaphysical principles; in the case of monstrous births, we have at least one. (But as Dissident Sociologist is fond of noting, Stoicism is still a much better match for the universalist strain in progressive ideology.)

Pro-Popery (#1: Monks)

I’m a good Anglo, and thus it is my obligation as a pathological altruist to take my opponent’s side from time to time. (And yes, I know the papists won’t reciprocate. It’s okay, I love our clannish para-Europeans.)

So: what is there to be said in defense of Rome? Let me start by restricting the scope of this question. I believe there were a number of features of the medieval Church which were extremely valuable, during the Middle Ages. (The eucivic effects of the extremely broad construal of incestum, for example.) This post is not about those features, which are an interesting topic in their own right. I also don’t consider every aspect of the medieval Western Church to be popish, but only those that were attacked and eventually abolished by the reformers, yet defended by the Counter-Reformation.

Similarly, there are certain things indifferent which ought to be organized differently in different dioceses with an eye on the different needs of each population. This too is its own topic and to the extent that Mediterranean countries have their own unique needs and so deserve their own autocephalous branch of the Church, I will leave that question for another day.

However, I’m not going to try to segregate the good of the Church from the good of a Christian society in these notes. (Hopefully the two distinct sets of concerns will come across clearly, but each note collects together concerns of both kind.) So without further ado:

I. Monasticism

Medieval monks intermittently came into ill repute because of their atrocious behavior. By the Renaissance, the monasteries were becoming something of a scandal. The reformers linked their criticism of the theology/ideology of the monastic orders to denunciations of monkish behavior, and Rome took the bait and defended the honor of the monks and abbots.

The rhetorical intuition that motivated the defense of monks is easy to understand. So is the group-unity dynamic that made it difficult to throw the monastic orders overboard in the midst of a crisis. But by holding up the monks as good boys who dindu nuffin, the papacy closed off an important perspective on monasticism.

Do monasteries protect monks from the laity, or laity from the monks? In the ideology of the monks, it’s the former. Outside the monastery is a fallen world, the City of Man, full of temptations: all paths lead to Sin. The monks are simply those who perceived this dire truth most clearly and retreated into the cloistered life for the good of their souls.

An alternate way to say this is that a certain group of people had been harming their neighbors and their communities so much that, out of their own free will, they elected to remove themselves far away from occasions of sin (i.e., victims) and live in cells in a closely supervised environment.

Now, nothing’s perfect. Obviously there were many entirely depraved sinners who never submitted to, nor were pressured into, the monastic life. And due to the self-aggrandizing ideology of the monastic orders and the reflected glory of the Desert Fathers and other early saints (whose spiritual experiments helped define the monastic tradition), many unusually pure and pious young men were drawn into the orders: an explosive situation. But on the whole, if a group of people withdraw from society because they cannot cope with how much they sin in ordinary life, and some of them remain fairly vicious even after withdrawing from the world, where’s the problem?

The tacit premise of the sixteenth-century debate was that monastic orders should be restricted if the monastic life is vicious and supported if the monastic life is virtuous. But what if any society has especially vicious men; can’t they receive support for openly confessing that they are in dire need of special restraint, even if they never reform?

In the quarrel over whether to honor work-family-autonomy or poverty-celibacy-obedience, the defenders of asceticism took for granted that if the monks were parasites on the body of a Christian society, they should be done away with. But don’t all societies have parasites? Parasites scheme tirelessly for the power and influence they need to leech off of others. Perhaps the best way to deal with a certain class of parasite is to reward them for removing themselves from public life. Scheming after three meals a day (give or take a few fasts) puts the parasite permanently* out of competition for political power.

(*Almost. Monks are a slippery bunch.)

 

Leftism and Inevitability

Here’s a lazy hypothesis for you: socialism is inevitable.

…because, inevitably, whatever comes to pass in the future will be called “socialism” by the Cathedral.

Does this seem like a cute point that merely dodges the difficulty of predicting how much damage the Left will manage to do to Western economic institutions over the next thirty to fifty years? Well, it’s more than that. If you understood this hypothesis inside and out, you would have a very strong grasp of the core dynamics of leftism.

Leftism — socialism, progressivism, bolshevism — is a movement which allows intellectuals to become momentum traders in a very unusual sort of prediction market. Leftist intellectuals win their reputations by prophesying the inevitable triumph of the left in some specific area when this seems improbable or even impossible, and then cashing in when the prophesy comes true… or even earlier, when it become common wisdom and their predictions are taken for as good as fact.

But who is to enforce prediction-contracts on questions like “the end of capitalism”, “the liberation of women”, “the death of the nuclear family”? Why, the intellectuals themselves. They are both responsible for making outrageous predictions and for policing whether the predictions have come true.

This is at the root of some of the more preposterous games that public intellectuals play. It’s Bernie Madoff cubed.

Once a leftist speculation has been accepted as the cultural equivalent of AAA asset-class, it can never again be questioned because the people who originally made the prediction now, on the basis of the acceptance of the prediction, have sufficient power to prevent anyone from questioning it ever again (and meanwhile, many members of the rank-and-file “bought in” when it was already near the top and have a lot to lose from being exposed as fools). So consensus about future events effectively replaces the events themselves. – Conditional predictions (“X if Y” or “W if not Z”) are particularly attractive because intellectual speculators can build up a consensus around the conditional prediction even if the members of the consensus are sharply divided between “X” and “not-Y”. Then you are free to “manage” the prediction in either direction. For example, if I predict “Blacks will have equal academic achievements to whites just as soon as systemic racism ends”, I am always free to interpret unequal academic achievements as prima facie proof of the persistence of “systemic racism”.

Isn’t it odd that radicals who are so quick to attack even the most benign and harmless institutions as vestiges of regimes like feudalism or Jim Crow are so confident that all currently existing institutions can be swept away? Logically, it would seem the two shouldn’t go together. Either you think old oppressive regimes were easy to get rid of and existing oppressive regimes will be too… or you think old oppressive regimes were insidious and near-impossible to purge from the fabric of social life, and the existing regimes will be just as hard… but why would TCY mark an enormous break between the insidious, obdurate forms of oppression of the past and the doomed, vulnerable forms of oppression of the future?

In the logic of momentum-trading, though, this makes perfect sense: “feudalism” has to disappear because “feudalism has to disappear” is AAA-rated. A leftist starts by making the implausible claim that an essential, currently-existing institution is unfair and totally problematic and basically doomed. (Wow! Unlikely!) Then after he stakes out a big position, he goes on to argue that the currently-existing institution is an insidious survival of some barbaric injustice. (Oh no! Eek!) If he can get people to buy into the “This is basically feudalism”-thesis at par, then what we already know about feudalism – that it has to disappear – can be extended to the currently-existing non-feudalism.

Once an activist gets media recognition for his “X is feudalism”-gambit he can swap all his “X has to disappear” junk-bonds for AAA verities, and he’ll look smart.  It’s not a paradox, it’s just the leftist version  of “Buy low, sell high”.

When Trump gets around to founding an Inquisition, he should probably make it a sub-division of the SEC. Leftism is a massively-distributed strategy for pump-n-dump collusion in the market for intellectual goods. Studying leftists shouldn’t, in principle, be any different from detecting the first signs of fraud in any other market.

Faith and Gullibility

G.K. Chesterton observed that people who rejected the Gospel as “superstition” were most commonly themselves believers in fairies, séances, or something equally peculiar. This is still true today; between DIY witchcraft, “no-religion-but-spiritual”, and lucky jerseys, the paranormal perspective on the world is flourishing in the twenty-first century like never before. (Recall that in the twelfth century, you would be condemned as a heretic for believing in witchcraft: this was the famous canon episcopi.)

But Chesterton’s point is in a certain sense a petty one to score: which of the trendy superstitions in circulation today is half as trendy as barren, godless materialism?

The vulgar errors of the plebs have actually become part of the metabolism of our godless society. As the Cathedral and its choirboys have gradually improved message-discipline on science and superstition (yes, they “freaking love science”), the contrast between the amusingly rustic ignorance of the commoners and the smug confidence of the overclass has become part of the status-structure that draws ambitious youngsters into the Cathedral’s cold embrace. Abandoning the poor to the torment of demons is now part of the Left’s plan; more room to tut-tut and demonstrate that you are a reasonable bugman, more misery to justify the next stage in the revolution.

But still, this fails to get at the root of the fairies and the séances and the horoscopes, which is neither faith’s relation to superstition, nor to the arrogance of those who lift themselves up above the superstitions they despise in others, but rather faith’s relation to gullibility.

Gullibility is a more general concept than superstition. Let us define superstition as gullibility with respect to opinions and possibilities that are held in contempt by the powerful, while gullibility itself is the epistemic equivalent of pettiness — an inability to dismiss highly improbable hypotheses.

I was visiting family friends who were insisting to me that they  had a (loud) appliance in their kitchen that would randomly turn on by itself — but only when they had been gone from the house for at least a full 24 hours. A gizmo that turned on by itself at random intervals could be explained as malfunction, but the fact that it had never turned itself on when they were home (or even when they were away at work for the day) they considered eerie.

The husband had given it some thought. He had been keeping track of how often it had happened, and over how many years. He seemed frustrated and uneasy, while his wife flat out stated it was the ghost of the previous owner of the house (and of the appliance).

Not because of any special piety or zeal, but simply because it was barely yesterday that I was an atheist, I had a vivid impression of the changes in my thinking process. It was not impossible that supernatural agency was involved, of course, but it was very implausible — because it seemed too trivial and indistinct to be worth the effort of a self-respecting angel. So I set that aside immediately, and stayed focused on thinking about what might actually be going on.

Putting aside the insignificant possibility lightened my mind almost in the way pouring water out of a jug would. I seem to remember that when I was an atheist confronting this type of “superstition”, I would keep the supernatural hypothesis in front of my mind, regulating my thoughts, considering the case from every angle but only from the perspective of what might disprove the superstitious opinion.

But a superstition is the opinion of a crackpot. Why was I worried about what crackpots believe? If Eddington has a hypothesis or Einstein has a hypothesis, then falsifying the hypothesis is science. Falsifying a crackpot’s hypothesis is proof that you place a low value on your time.

Even if the alleged anomaly is worth investigating in itself, there is no special reason that any evidence which contradicts the crackpot’s theory will bring you an inch closer to the truth. The “skeptical” approach that secular people are trained to take towards the paranormal may be solid virtue-signaling, but methodologically it’s cargo-cult science.

I also noticed something else new; as I was vaguely trying to imagine what sorts of explanation would be consistent with the facts (for example: someone sneaks into their house whenever they are out of town to turn on the appliance), and I was able to firmly discard the most implausible of these, too. The best account I can give: formerly, there seemed to be a world of difference between the implausible hypothesis I was duty-bound to reject (spooks) and the most implausible alternative hypotheses which were ideologically legitimate (strange men breaking into their neighbors’ houses to turn on appliances in statistically improbably patterns). The former had to be rejected; the latter had to be kept in reserve as a last resort.

Here is another possibility: I don’t know why the appliance turns on when it does. I wasn’t able to figure it out. It would be odd if I could, since I’m not an electrician or an engineer. The world would be a boring place if you could just suss out the answer to arbitrarily unusual questions without making any special study of the topic. Sometimes we don’t know. And often when we don’t know we don’t care. In fact, most of the time we don’t care about what we don’t know precisely because the insignificance of the topic is the very reason we never prepared ourselves to answer that type of question in the first place.