Archive for June, 2022

Search the tag Counter-Enlightenment at the footer of this blog to find roughly ten disparate blog posts, all circling around the idea that intellectual history, despite all the obvious goodies trucked in with science and technology, is turning decidedly away from long-established Enlightenment values. A fair number of resources are available online and in book form exploring various movements against the Enlightenment over the past few centuries, none of which I have consulted. Instead, I picked up Daniel Schwindt’s The Case Against the Modern World: A Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016), which was gifted to me. The book was otherwise unlikely to attract my attention considering that Schwindt takes Catholicism as a starting point whereas I’m an avowed atheist, though with no particular desire to proselytize or attempt to convince others of anything. However, The Case Against is suffused with curious ideas, so it is a good subject for a new book blogging project, which in characteristic fashion (for me) will likely proceed in fits and starts.

Two interrelated ideas Schwindt puts forward early in the book fit with multiple themes of this blog, namely, (1) the discovery and/or development of the self (I refer more regularly to consciousness) and (2) the reductive compartmentalization of thought and behavior. Let’s take them in order. Here’s a capsule of the first issue:


Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations … but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures. — W.H. Auden

A while back, I made an oblique reference (a comment elsewhere, no link) to a famous Krishnamurti quote: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Taken on its face, who would agree to be swept up in the madness and absurdity of any given historical moment? Turns out, almost everyone — even if that means self-destruction. The brief reply to my comment was along the lines of “Why shouldn’t you or I also make mental adjustments to prevailing sickness to obtain peace of mind and tranquility amidst the tumult?” Such an inversion of what seems to me right, proper, and acceptable caused me to reflect and recall the satirical movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The full title is not often given, but the forgotten second part is what’s instructive (e.g., mutually assured destruction: MAD). Events spinning out of control? Nothing any individual can do to restore sanity? Stop squirming and embrace it.

That’s one option when faced with the prospect of futile resistance, I suppose. Give in, succumb, and join the party (more like a rager since the beginning of the Cold War). I also recognize that I’m not special enough to warrant any particular consideration for my intransigence. Yet it feels like self-betrayal to abandon the good character I’ve struggled (with mixed success) to build and maintain over the course of a lifetime. Why chuck all that now? Distinguishing character growth from decay it not always so simple. In addition, given my openness to new ideas and interpretations, established bodies of thought (often cultural consensus) are sometimes upended and destabilized by someone arguing cogently for or against something settled and unexamined for a long time. And then there is the epistemological crisis that has rendered sense-making nearly impossible. That crisis is intensified by a variety of character types acting in bad faith to pollute the public sphere and drive false narratives.

For instance, the show trial public hearings just begun regarding the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol (or whatever it’s being called, I prefer “Storming of the Capitol”) are commonly understood, at least from one side of the political spectrum, as a deliberate and brazen attempt to brainwash the public. I decline to tune in. But that doesn’t mean my opinions on that topic are secure any more than I know how true and accurate was the 2020 election that preceded and sparked the Jan. 6 attack. Multiple accounts of the election and subsequent attack aim to convert me (opinion-wise) to one exclusive narrative or another, but I have no way to evaluate narrative claims beyond whatever noise reaches me through the mainstream media I try to ignore. Indeed, those in the streets and Capitol building on Jan. 6 were arguably swept into a narrative maelstrom that provoked a fairly radical if ultimately harmless event. No one knew at the time, of course, exactly how it would play out.

So that’s the current state of play. Ridiculous, absurd events, each with competing narratives, have become the new normal. Yours facts and beliefs do daily battle with my facts and beliefs in an ideological battle of all against all — at least until individuals form into tribes declare their political identity and join that absurdity.

Cynics knew it was inevitable: weaponized drones and robots. Axon Enterprises, Inc., maker of police weaponry (euphemistically termed “public safety technologies”), announced its development of taser equipped drones presumed capable of neutralizing an active shooter inside of 60 seconds. Who knows what sorts of operating parameters restrict their functions or if they can be made invulnerable to hacking or disallowed use as offensive weapons?

A sane, civilized society would recognize that, despite bogus memes about an armed society being a polite society, the prospect of everyone being strapped (like the fabled Old American West) and public spaces (schools, churches, post offices, laundromats, etc.) each being outfitted with neutralizing technologies is fixing the wrong problem. But we are no longer a sane society (begging the question whether we ever were). So let me suggest something radical yet obvious: the problem is not technological, it’s cultural. The modern world has made no progress with respect to indifference toward the suffering of others. Dehumanizing attitudes and technologies are no longer, well, medieval, but they’re no less cruel. For instance, people are not put in public stocks or drawn and quartered anymore, but they are shamed, cancelled, tortured, terrorized, propagandized, and abandoned in other ways that allow maniacs to pretend to others and to themselves that they are part of the solution. Hard to believe that one could now feel nostalgia for the days when, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, calls for gun control were met with inaction (other then empty rhetoric) rather than escalation.

The problem with diagnosing the problem as cultural is that no one is in control. Like water, culture goes where it goes and apparently sinks to its lowest ebb. Attempts to channel, direct, and uplift culture might work on a small scale, but at the level of society — and with distorted incentives freedom is certain to deliver — malefactors are guaranteed to appear. Indeed, anything that contributes to the arms race (now tiny, remote-controlled, networked killing devices rather than giant atomic/nuclear ones) only invites greater harm and is not a solution. Those maniacs (social and technical engineers promising safety) have the wrong things wrong.

Small, insular societies with strict internal codes of conduct may have figured out something that large, free societies have not, namely, that mutual respect, knowable communities, and repudiation of advanced technologies give individuals something and someone to care about, a place to belong, and things to do. When the entire world is thrown open, such as with social media, populations become atomized and anonymized, unable to position or understand themselves within a meaningful social context. Anomie and nihilism are often the rotten fruit. Splintered family units, erosion of community involvement, and dysfunctional institutions add to the rot. Those symptoms of cultural collapse need to be addressed even if they are among the most difficult wrong things to get right.