Archive for the ‘Idealism’ Category

I have observed various instances of magical thinking in mainstream culture, especially here, which I find problematical. Although it’s not my ambition to disabuse anyone of magical thinking, which extends far beyond, say, religious thought, I was somewhat taken aback at the suggestion found in the comic at this link (not embedded). For those not familiar with Questionable Content (one of two online comics I read regularly), the comic presents an extended cast of characters, mostly in their early 20s, living in a contemporary New England college town. Those characters are supplemented by a few older parents and lots of AIs (in robot bodies). The AIs are not particularly futuristic but are simply accepted as a normal (if curious) part of the world of the comic. Major story arcs involve characters and AIs (the AIs are characters, I suppose) in the process of discovering and establishing themselves as they (the humans, anyway) transition into early adulthood. There are no great political themes or intrusions into life in a college town. Rather, the comic is largely about acceptance of difference. Often, that means washing away meaningful difference in the name of banal tolerance. Real existential struggle is almost entirely absent.

In the linked comic, a new character comes along and offers advice to an established character struggling with sexual attractions and orientation. The dialogue includes this exchange:

Character A: If tarot or astrology or religion halps you make sense of the world and your place in it, then why not use them?
Character B: But they’re not real. [emphasis in original]
Character A: It doesn’t matter, if you use them constructively!

There it is in a nutshell: believe whatever you want if it, um, halps. I’ve always felt that being wrong (i.e., using unreal or make-believe things) was a sufficient injunction against anchoring oneself to notions widely known to be false. Besides, isn’t it often remarked that the biggest fool is one who fools himself? (Fiction as a combination of entertainment and building a worldview is quite normative, but it’s understood as fiction, or to a lesser degree, as life imitating art and its inverse. Exceptions abound, which are regarded as psychopathy.) The instruction in that dialogue (part object lesson, part lesson in cognition) is not that it’s OK to make mistakes but that knowingly believing something false has worthwhile advantages.

Surveying examples where promulgating false beliefs have constructive and destructive effects is too large a project. Well short of that, nasty categories include fraud, gaslighting, and propaganda, which are criminal in many cases and ought to be in most others (looking at you, MSM! — or not, since I neither trust nor watch). One familiar benevolent category is expressed in the phrase fake it til you make it, often recommended to overcome a lack of confidence. Of course, a swindle is also known as a confidence game (or by its diminutive, a con), so beware overconfidence when asked by another to pay for something (e.g., tarot or astrology readings), take risks, or accept an ideology without question.

As philosophy, willful adoption of falsity for its supposed benefits is half-baked. Though impossible to quantify, my suspicion is that instances of positive outcomes are overbalanced by negative ones. Maybe living in a constructed reality or self-reinforcing fantasy is what people want. The comic discussed is certainly in line with that approach. However, while we dither and delude ourselves with happy, aspirational stories based on silliness, the actual world around us, including all the human institutions that used to serve us but no longer do, falls to tatters. Is it better going through life and eventually to one’s grave refusing to see that reality? Should childlike wonder and innocence be retained in spite of what is easily observable just by poking one’s head up and dismissing comforting lies? Decide for yourself.

I simply can’t keep up with all the reading, viewing, and listening in my queue. Waking hours are too few, and concentration dissipates long before sleep overtakes. Accordingly, it’s much easier to settle into couch-potato mode and watch some mindless drivel, such as the Netflix hit Bridgerton binged in two sittings. (Unlike cinema critics, I’m not bothered especially by continuity errors, plot holes, clunky dialogue, weak character motivation, gaps of logic, or glossy decadence of the fictional worlds. I am bothered by the Kafka trap sprung on anyone who notices casting decisions that defy time and place — an ill-advised but now commonplace historical revisionism like editing Mark Twain.) As a result, blog posts are less frequent than they might perhaps be as I pronounce upon American (or more broadly, Western) culture, trying vainly to absorb it as a continuously moving target. Calls to mind the phrase Après moi, le déluge, except that there is no need to wait. A deluge of entertainment, news, analysis, punditry, and trolling has buried everyone already. So rather than the more careful consideration I prefer to post, here are some hot takes.

The Irregular Aphorist. Caitlin Johnstone offers many trenchant observations in the form of aphorisms (some of which I’ve quoted before), all gathered under the subtitle Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix. The modifier irregular only means that aphorisms are a regular but not constant feature. Her site doesn’t have a tag to that effect but probably ought to. Here’s one in particular that caught my attention:

Everything our species has tried has led us to a dying world and a society that is stark raving mad, so nobody is in any position to tell you that you are wrong.

Twin truths here are (1) the dying world and (2) societal madness, both of which I’ve been describing for some time. Glad when others recognize them, too.

Piling on. Though few still are willing to admit it, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs, e.g., distancing, masks, and lockdowns) to stall or reduce the spread of the virus failed to achieve their objectives according to this study. Instead, NPIs piled on suffering no one could forestall. I read somewhere (no link) that the world is approaching half of total, cumulative deaths/infections predicted had nothing been done to impede the pandemic running its course. Adding in deaths of despair (numbers not entirely up to date), we’re using the wrong tools to fight the wrong battle. Of course, interventions opened up giant opportunities for power grabs and vulture capitalism, so the cynic in me shrugs and wonders half aloud “what did you expect, really?”

Growth of the Managerial Bureaucracy. A blog called Easily Distracted by Timothy Burke (never on my blogroll) publishes only a few times per year, but his analysis is terrific — at least when it doesn’t wind up being overlong and inconclusive. Since a student debt jubilee is back in the news (plenty of arguments pro and con), unintended consequences are anticipated in this quote:

When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers.

Something similar may well be occurring with stimulus checks being issued pro rata (has anyone actually gotten one?), but at least we’re spared any petitionary humiliations. We get whatever the algorithms (byzantine cutoff points) dictate. How those funds will be gamed and attached is not yet clear. Stay alert.

No Defense of Free Speech. Alan Jacobs often recommends deleting, unsubscribing, and/or ignoring social media accounts (after his own long love-hate relationship with them) considering how they have become wholly toxic to a balanced psyche as well as principal enablers of surveillance capitalism and narrative control. However, in an article about the manorial elite, he’s completely lost the plot that absolutism is required in defense of free speech. It’s not sufficient to be blasé or even relieved when 45 is kicked off Twitter permanently or when multiple parties conspire to kill Parler. Establishing your own turf beyond the reach of Silicon Valley censors is a nice idea but frankly impractical. Isn’t that what whoever ran Parler (or posted there) must have thought? And besides, fencing off the digital commons these very entities created has catapulted them into the unenviable position of undemocratic, unelected wielders of monopolistic power and co-conspirators to boot. That’s what needs to be curtailed, not free speech.

The Taxonomic Apocalypse. Although drawn from fiction and thus largely hypothetical, a new book (coming late 2021) by Adam Roberts called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? surveys doomsday stories and categorizes different versions of how it all ends. Alan Jacobs (yeah, him again — must have an advance copy of the manuscript) recommends it as “a delightful and provocative little book” but fails to grok two things: (1) these stories are rehearsals-cum-preparations for the real thing, and (2) the real thing really is bearing down on us implacably and so is no longer a mere hypothetical to contemplate and categorize for shits and grins. Despite acceptance of the eventualities that await all of us, reading Roberts’ taxonomy is not something I would expect to find delightful. Skip.

Narrative Collapse. Ran Prier (no link) sometimes makes statements revealing an unexpected god’s-eye view:

[45] is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he’s the messiah. We’re lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.

This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that’s part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.

Collapse of certain fundamental stories that animate our thinking is at the core of The Spiral Staircase (see About Brutus at top), though it’s often couched in terms of consciousness in transition. Getting through the transition (only temporarily, see previous item in list) probably means completion of the Counter-Enlightenment historical arc, which necessarily includes further descent into barbarism.

Hail Mary for Individualism. I always take special notice when someone cites Allan Bloom. Alan Jacobs (um, yeah, he’s prolific and I’m using his ideas again — sue me) cites Bloom to argue that individualism or the sovereign self, a product of the Enlightenment, is already dead. No doubt, the thought-world described so ably by Bloom no longer exists, but individualism has not yet died out by attrition or been fully dissolved in nonduality. Many of us born before the advent of the Internet retain selfhood and authenticity not yet coopted by or incorporated into mass mind. Moreover, ongoing struggles over identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, and race that are often used improperly to define the self) result from an inchoate sense that individualism is eroding precipitously, not that it’s already passé. Defiant attempts to (re)establish an authentic self (contravening all logic and becoming critical theory of one sort or another) in the face of this loss may well be a last-ditch effort to save the self, but it’s failing.

I’ve been holding in mind for five months now the article at this link (an informal interview with neuroscientist and psychologist Oliver J. Robinson), waiting for conditions when I could return to forms of media consumption I prefer, namely, reading books, magazines, and long-form journalism. When I try to read something substantive these days, I find myself going over the same paragraph repeatedly, waiting in vain for it to register. Regrettably, the calm, composure, and concentration needed for deep reading has been effectively blocked since March 2020 as we wait (also in vain) for the pandemic to burn itself out. (I could argue that the soul-destroying prospect of industrial collapse and near-term human extinction is having the same effect for much longer.) So my attention and media habits have been resignedly diverted to crap news gathering, mostly via video, and cheap entertainments, mostly streaming TV (like everyone else, though others may complain less). The lack of nourishment is noticeable. Considering we’re only weeks away from the U.S. presidential election, stress levels are ratcheting up further, and civil authorities prepare for “election riots” (is that new term?), which I can only assume means piling violence upon violence under the pretense of keeping-the-peace or law-and-order or some other word string rendered meaningless now that the police are widely acknowledged to be a significant contributors to the very problems they are meant to address. These unresolved issues (pandemic, police violence, civil unrest) give rise to pathological anxiety, which explains (according to Robinson, disclaimers notwithstanding) why it’s so hard to read.

To say we live in unprecedented times is both obvious and banal. Unique stresses of modernity have led multiple times to widespread madness and conflict, as well as attempts to recapture things lost in previous shifts from other styles of social organization. Let me not mince words regarding what’s now happening: we’re in an era of repudiation of the Enlightenment, or a renewed Counter-Enlightenment. I’ve stated this before, and I’m not the only one making this diagnosis (just learned it’s a rather old idea — I’m always late to the party). For instance, Martin Jay’s essay “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment” appears to have been floating around in various forms since 2011. Correlation of this renewal of Counter-Enlightenment fervor with literacy seems clear. Despite basic literacy as a skill being widely improved worldwide over the past two centuries, especially in the developing world, deep literacy is eroding:

Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read – or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned – typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention – what Wolf calls “cognitive patience” – on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it.

Considering deep literacy is absolutely critical to clear thinking (or critical thought, if you prefer, not to be confused with the The Frankfurt School’s critical theory discussed in Jay’s essay), its erosion threatens fundamental institutions (e.g., liberal democracy and the scientific method) that constitute the West’s primary cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment. The reach of destruction wrought by reversing course via the Counter-Enlightenment cannot be overstated. Yet many among us, completely unable to construct coherent ideas, are rallying behind abandonment of Enlightenment traditions. They’re ideologues who actively want to return to the Dark Ages (while keeping modern tech, natch). As with many aspects of unavoidable cultural, social, environmental, and civilizational collapse, I have difficulty knowing quite what to hope for. So I won’t condemn retrograde thinking wholly. In fact, I feel empathy toward calls to return to simpler times, such as with German Romanticism or American Transcendentalism, both examples of cultural and aesthetic movements leading away from the Enlightenment.

Long before these ideas coalesced for me, I had noted (see here, here, and here) how literacy is under siege and a transition back toward a predominantly oral culture is underway. The Counter-Enlightenment is either a cause or an effect, I can’t assess which. At the risk of being a Cassandra, let me suggest that, if these times aren’t completely different from dark episodes of the past, we are now crossing the threshold of a new period of immense difficulty that makes pathological anxiety blocking the ability to read and think a minor concern. Indeed, that has been my basic assessment since crafting the About Brutus blurb way back in 2006. Indicators keep piling up. So far, I have a half dozen points of entry to process and digest by other cultural commentators exploring this theme, though they typically don’t adopt wide enough historical or cultural perspectives. Like the last time I failed to synthesize my ideas into a multipart blog series, I don’t have a snazzy title, and this time, I don’t even have planned installment titles. But I will do my best to roll out in greater detail over several blog posts some of the ways the Counter-Enlightenment is manifesting anew.

A Dog’s Life

Posted: October 15, 2020 in Culture, Idealism, Idle Nonsense
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From my earliest memories growing up, my large, Catholic family kept a series of pets. Most of the time it was a dog, only one at a time, usually a German shepherd. Later on, it was a cat. The pet belonged to no one in particular but to the family as a whole. And because this was before leash laws became commonplace, the dogs had plenty of exercise and range off-leash. As an adult, I’ve never had a dog but often wanted one. What I understand as a nonnegotiable commitment to a dog is not really possible for me. Moreover, I have never lived in a location amenable to the needs of a dog. Yet in my condo building, many of my neighbors keep rather large dogs, who are dutifully trundled outside to a small, enclosed space where they can be let off leash for 10 to 20 minutes every morning and evening to pee and poop (owners often face-planted in their phones during these intervals). Whether the dogs are eventually taken to a park or dog run to socialize with other animals or just be free to roam and play is unknown to me. I don’t witness it.

In rather stark contrast, I was fortunate to spend most of a recent weekend visiting Winged Elm Farm operated by fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian (a superlative blogger, host, and chef, BTW), and the very first impression upon arrival was being greeted by his three dogs. Rather than being hemmed in by the city and limited by their master’s availability and willingness to grant outdoor time, these amiable dogs were free to move around and be dogs independent of the master. All of their time during my visit was spent outdoors. Of course, they were also tuned in, vigilant to all goings on around the farm and hyper-vigilant to any possibility of food or affection offered by one of the humans. They were introduced to me as “mostly useless,” which was unexpected because, to my way of thinking, all pets are essentially useless (as distinguished from useful or productive). That’s part of their charm. However, it was relayed that the oldest of three had been quite useful in her day corralling farm animal as they were moved from pasture to pasture. Alas, age and infirmity has made her less useful except for a reputed intimidation factor other farm animals still respect. Another dog was described as moderately useful as a ratter. The third enjoyed no encomium and had a habit (slightly unnerving to me) of standing with its muscled body pressed against my legs whenever possible. All three ventured without hesitation or apparent complaint into the rain that persisted most of the weekend.

Aside. With surprisingly superfluous regularity (maybe not so surprising in hindsight), nouns were accompanied by the modifier farm: farm dogs, farm animals, farm truck, farm tools and implements, farm life, etc. Eggs and veggies were farm fresh. Meat and fish were farm sourced, or as was jokingly admitted with respect to the crawfish etouffee we enjoyed for dinner, farm sourced but maybe not this farm.

Further aside. The farm was described as organic, meaning chemicals and unnatural fertilizers are not used and animals are mostly grass fed rather than raised in feed lots or stuck in crates. Indeed, chickens had access to the yard, goats sheep has access to pastures and barns, and pigs had access to the woods where they searched the understory relentlessly for anything remotely edible. The organic quality was reinforced as we sampled directly from the garden and orchards. Each farm product seemed to have a bit of dirt on it, which I ingested without first washing.

On the whole, these dogs enjoy a life on the farm most of us would envy. Their rootedness and sense of belonging to the farm, notwithstanding the occasional, cherished ride in the farm truck, is a condition few of us humans can claim. For instance, my own family, raised in the heart of the American Midwest, has now scattered to all four coasts/boundaries (East, West, North, and South), leaving only one behind in the center. Home may be where we hang our hats, but we don’t belong anywhere in particular anymore, and it’s difficult to say convincingly that any of us belong to that same family from my childhood, either. We live in flux, moving from place to place in search of opportunity, reforming many of our social attachments with each move, some of us forming new families in the process. Of course, this characterization fails to describe all Americans. Many stay their entire lives within, say, 100 miles of their birthplace and keep vital connections with an extended family all situated within one small region. Still, I can’t help but to admire the life provided to those dogs, something now denied to many of us humans.

The old saw goes that acting may be just fine as a creative endeavor, but given the opportunity, most actors really want to direct. A similar remark is often made of orchestral musicians, namely, that most rank-and-file players would really rather conduct. Directing and conducting may not be the central focus of creative work in their respective genres. After all, directors don’t normally appear onscreen and conductors make no sound. Instead, they coordinate the activities of an array of creative folks, putting directors in a unique position to bring about a singular vision in otherwise collaborative work. A further example is the Will to Power (associated with Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer) characteristic of those who wish to rule (as distinguished from those who wish to serve) such as regents, dictators, and autocrats. All of this sprang to mind because, despite outward appearance of a free, open society in the U.S., recent history demonstrates that the powers that be have instituted a directed election and directed economy quite at odds with democracy or popular opinion.

The nearest analogy is probably the directed verdict, where a judge removes the verdict from the hands or responsibility of the jury by directing the jury to return a particular verdict. In short, the judge decides the case for the jury, making the jury moot. I have no idea how commonplace directed verdicts are in practice.

Directed Election

Now that progressive candidates have been run out of the Democratic primaries, the U.S. presidential election boils down to which stooge to install (or retain) in November. Even if Biden is eventually swapped out for another Democrat in a brokered nominating convention (highly likely according to many), it’s certain to be someone fully amenable to entrenched corporate/financial interests. Accordingly, the deciders won’t be the folks who dutifully showed up and voted in their state primaries and caucuses but instead party leaders. One could try to argue that as elected representatives of the people, party leaders act on behalf of their constituencies (governing by consent of the people), but some serious straining is needed to arrive at that view. Votes cast in the primaries thus far demonstrate persistent desire for something distinctly other than the status quo, at least in the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Applying the cinematic metaphor of the top paragraph, voters are a cast of thousands millions being directed within a larger political theater toward a predetermined result.

Anyone paying attention knows that voters are rarely given options that aren’t in fact different flavors of the same pro-corporate agenda. Thus, no matter whom we manage to elect in November, the outcome has already been engineered. This is true not only by virtue of the narrow range of candidates able to maneuver successfully through the electoral gauntlet but also because of perennial distortions of the balloting process such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, and election fraud. Claims that both sides (really just one side) indulge in such practices so everything evens out don’t convince me.

Directed Economy

Conservative economists and market fundamentalists never seem to tire of arguments in the abstract that capitalist mechanisms of economics, left alone (unregulated, laissez-faire) to work their magic, deliver optimal outcomes when it comes to social and economic justice. Among the primary mechanisms is price discovery. However, economic practice never even remotely approaches the purity of abstraction because malefactors continuously distort and game economic systems out of self-interest greed. Price discovery is broken and equitable economic activity is made fundamentally fictitious. For example, the market for gemstones is famously inflated by a narrow consortium of sellers having successfully directed consumers to adopt a cultural standard of spending three months’ wages/salary for a wedding band as a demonstration of one’s love and devotion. In the opposite direction, precious metal spot prices are suppressed despite very high demand and nearly nonexistent supply. Current quoted premiums over spot silver price, even though no delivery is contemplated, range from roughly 20% to an absurd 2,000%. Supply and demand curves no longer function to aid in true price discovery (if such a thing ever existed). In a more banal sense, what people are willing to pay for a burger at a fast food joint or a loaf of bread at the grocery may affect the price charged more directly.

Nowhere is it more true that we’ve shifted to a directed economy than with the stock market (i.e., Wall Street vs. Main Street). As with the housing market, a real-world application with which many people have personal experience, if a buyer of a property or asset fails to appear within a certain time frame (longer for housing, shorter for stock, bonds, and other financial instruments), the seller is generally obliged to lower the price until a buyer finally appears. Some housing markets extraordinarily flush with money (e.g., Silicon Valley and Manhattan) trigger wild speculation and inflated prices that drive out all but the wealthiest buyers. Moreover, when the eventual buyer turns out to be a bank, corporation, or government entity willing to overpay for the property or asset using someone else’s money, the market becomes wholly artificial. This has been the case with the stock market for the last twelve years, with cheap money being injected nonstop via bailouts and quantitative easing to keep asset prices inflated. When fundamental instabilities began dragging the stock market down last fall, accelerating precipitous in early spring of this year and resulting in yet another crash (albeit brief), the so-called Plunge Protection Team sprang into action and wished trillions of dollars (taxpayer debt, actually, and over the objections of taxpayers in a classic fool-me-once scenario) into existence to perpetuate the casino economy and keep asset prices inflated for the foreseeable future, which isn’t very long.

The beneficiaries of this largesse are the same as they have always been when tax monies and public debt are concerned: corporations, banks, and the wealthy. Government economic supports are directed to these entities, leaving all others in the lurch. Claims that bailouts to keep large corporate entities and wealthy individuals whole so that the larger economy doesn’t seize up and fail catastrophically are preposterous because the larger economy already has seized up and failed catastrophically while the population is mostly quarantined, throwing many individuals out of work and shuttering many businesses. A reasonable expectation of widespread insolvency and bankruptcy lingers, waiting for the workouts and numbers to mount up.

The power of the purse possessed by the U.S. Congress hasn’t been used to help the citizenry since the New Deal era of FDR. Instead, military budgets and debts expand enormously while entitlements and services to the needy and vulnerable are whittled away. Citizen rebellions are already underway in small measure, mostly aimed at the quarantines. When bankruptcies, evictions, and foreclosures start to swell, watch out. Our leaders’ fundamental mismanagement of human affairs is unlikely to be swallowed quietly.

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.

Returning to Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, chapter 2 (subtitled “Progress and its Contradictions”) profiles two writers of the 18th-century Enlightenment: François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Voltaire was a proponent and embodiment of Enlightenment values and ethics, whereas Rousseau was among the primary critics. Both were hugely influential, and the controversy inherent in their relative perspectives is unresolved even today. First come Rousseau’s criticisms (in Mishra’s prose):

… the new commercial society, which was acquiring its main features of class divisions, inequality and callous elites during the eighteenth century, made its members corrupt, hypocritical and cruel with its prescribed values of wealth, vanity and ostentation. Human beings were good by nature until they entered such a society, exposing themselves to ceaseless and psychologically debilitating transformation and bewildering complexity. Propelled into an endless process of change, and deprived of their peace and stability, human beings failed to be either privately happy or active citizens [p. 87]

This assessment could easily be mistaken for a description of the 1980s and 90s: ceaseless change and turmoil as new technological developments (e.g., the Internet) challenged everyone to reorient and reinvent themselves, often as a brand. Cultural transformation in the 18th century, however, was about more than just emerging economic reconfigurations. New, secular, free thought and rationalism openly challenged orthodoxies formerly imposed by religious and political institutions and demanded intellectual and entrepreneurial striving to participate meaningfully in charting new paths for progressive society purportedly no longer anchored statically in the past. Mishra goes on:

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence. [p. 89]

Sounds quite contemporary, no? Driving the point home:

What makes Rousseau, and his self-described ‘history of the human heart’, so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection. [p. 90]

While most of the chapter describes Rousseau’s rejection and critique of 18th-century ethics, Mishra at one point depicts Rousseau arguing for instead of against something:

Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country. [p. 92]

Notably absent from Mishra’s profile is the meme mistakenly applied to Rousseau’s diverse criticism: the noble savage. Rousseau praises provincial men (patriarchal orientation acknowledged) largely unspoilt by the corrupting influence of commercial, cosmopolitan society devoted to individual self-interest and amour propre, and his ideal (above) is uncompromising. Although Rousseau had potential to insinuate himself successfully in fashionable salons and academic posts, his real affinity was with the weak and downtrodden — the peasant underclass — who were mostly passed over by rapidly modernizing society. Others managed to raise their station in life above the peasantry to join the bourgeoisie (disambiguation needed on that term). Mishra’s description (via Rousseau) of this middle and upper middle class group provided my first real understanding of popular disdain many report toward bourgeois values using the derisive term bourgie (clearer when spoken than when written).

Profile of Voltaire to follow in part 2.

Apologies for this overlong blog post. I know that this much text tries the patience of most readers and is well in excess of my customary 3–4 paragraphs.

Continuing my book blogging of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Chapter Two (subtitled “History’s Winners and Their Illusions”) focuses on the thought revolution that followed from the Enlightenment in Western Europe and its imitation in non-Western cultures, especially as manifested in the century leading to the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution (more narrowly a tax revolt with insistence on self-rule) preceded the French Revolution by slightly more than a decade, it’s really the French, whose motto liberté, égalité, fraternité came to prominence and defined an influential set of European values, who effectively challenged enthusiastic modernizers around the globe to try to catch up with the ascendant West.

However, almost as soon as this project appeared, i.e., attempting to transform ancien régime monarchies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Russia into something pseudo-European, critics arose who denounced the abandonment of tradition and centuries-old national identities. Perhaps they can be understood as the first wave of modern conservatism. Here is Mishra’s characterization:

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking. [p. 48]

Aside: The phrase “rights-bearing individual” has obvious echoes with today’s SJWs and their poorly conceived demand for egalitarianism not just before the law but in social and economic outcomes. Although economic justice (totally out of whack with today’s extreme income and wealth inequality) is a worthy goal that aligns with idealized but not real-world Enlightenment values, SJW activism reinforces retrograde divisions of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Calls to level out all these questionable markers of identity have resulted in intellectual confusion and invalidation of large “privileged” and/or “unoppressed” groups such as white males of European descent in favor of oppressed minorities (and majorities, e.g., women) of all categories. Never mind that many of those same white males are often every bit as disenfranchised as others whose victimhood is paraded around as some sort virtue granting them authority and preferential treatment.

Modernization has not been evenly distributed around the globe, which accounts for countries even today being designated either First, Second, or Third World. An oft-used euphemism is “developing economy,” which translates to an invitation for wealthy First-World nations (or its corporations) to force their way in to exploit cheap labor and untapped natural resources. Indeed, as Mishra points out, the promise of joining First-World living standards (having diverged centuries ago) is markedly hollow:

… doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies — or, most of the human population — might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment — manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods — the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up … [pp. 47-48]

That second paragraph is an unexpected acknowledgement that the earliest industrialized nations (France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) unwittingly put us on a path to self-annihilation only to be knowingly repeated and intensified by latecomers to industrialization. All those (cough) ecological disturbances are occurring right now, though the public has been lulled into complacency by temporary abundance, misinformation, under- and misreporting, and international political incompetence. Of course, ecological destruction is no longer merely the West’s trauma but a global catastrophe of the highest magnitude which is certainly in the process of catching up to us.

Late in Chapter Two, Mishra settles on the Crystal Palace exhibition space and utopian symbol, built in 1851 during the era of world’s fairs and mistaken enthusiasm regarding the myth of perpetual progress and perfectibility, as an irresistible embodiment of Western hubris to which some intellectual leaders responded with clear disdain. Although a marvelous technical feat of engineering prowess and demonstration of economic power (not unlike countries that host the Olympics — remember Beijing?), the Crystal Palace was also viewed as an expression of the sheer might of Western thought and its concomitant products. Mishra repeatedly quotes Dostoevsky, who visited the Crystal Palace in 1862 and described his visceral response to the place poignantly and powerfully:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath. [p. 68]

And later, describing the “world-historical import” of the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging onto this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is not to accept the material world as your ideal. [pp. 69–70]

The prophetic finality of the Crystal Palace thus presaged twentieth-century achievements and ideas (the so-called American Century) that undoubtedly eclipsed the awesome majesty of the Crystal Palace, e.g., nuclear fission and liberal democracy’s purported victory over Soviet Communism (to name only two). Indeed, Mishra begins the chapter with a review of Americans declarations of the end of history, i.e., having reached final forms of political, social, and economic organization that are now the sole model for all nations to emulate. The whole point of the chapter is that such pronouncements are illusions with strong historical antecedents that might have cautioned us not to leap to unwarranted conclusions or to perpetuate a soul-destroying regime hellbent on extinguishing all alternatives. Of course, as Gore Vidal famously quipped, “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”

 

Third version of this topic. Whereas the previous two were about competing contemporary North American ways of knowing, this one is broader in both time and space.

The May 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine has a fascinating review of Christina Thompson’s book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (2019). Beyond the puzzle itself — how did Polynesian people migrate to, settle, and populate the far-flung islands of the Central and South Pacific? — the review hits upon one of my recurring themes on this blog, namely, that human cognition is plastic enough to permit highly divergent ways of knowing.

The review (and book?) is laden with Eurocentric detail about the “discovery” of closely related Polynesian cultures dispersed more widely (geographically) than any other culture prior to the era of mass migration. Indeed, the reviewer chides the author at one point for transforming Polynesia from a subject in its own right into an exotic object of (Western) fascination. This distorted perspective is commonplace and follows from the earlier “discovery” and colonization of North America as though it were not already populated. Cartographers even today are guilty of this Eurocentrism, relegating “empty” expanses of the Pacific Ocean to irrelevance in maps when in fact the Pacific is “the dominant feature of the planet” and contains roughly twenty-five thousand islands (at current sea level? — noting that sea level was substantially lower during the last ice age some 13,000 years but due to rise substantially by the end of this century and beyond, engulfing many of the islands now lying dangerously close to sea level). Similar distortions are needed to squash the spherical (3D) surface of the globe onto planar (2D) maps (e.g., the Mercator projection, which largely ignores the Pacific Ocean in favor of continents; other projections shown here) more easily conceptualized (for Westerners) in terms of coordinate geometry using latitude and longitude (i.e., the Cartesian plane).

The review mentions the familiar dichotomy of grouping a hammer, saw, hatchet, and log in terms of abstract categories (Western thought) vs. utility or practicality (non-Western). Exploration of how different ways of knowing manifest is, according to the review, among the more intellectually exciting parts of the book. That’s the part I’m latching onto. For instance, the review offers this:

Near the middle of Sea People, Thompson explores the ramification of Polynesia as, until contact, an oral culture with “an oral way of seeing.” While writing enables abstraction, distancing, and what we generally call objectivity, the truth of oral cultures is thoroughly subjective. Islands aren’t dots on a map seen from the sky but destinations one travels to in the water.

This is the crux of the puzzle of Polynesians fanning out across the Pacific approximately one thousand years ago. They had developed means of wayfinding in canoes and outriggers without instruments or maps roughly 500 years prior to Europeans crossing the oceans in sailing ships. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the evidence, but abstraction and objectivity as a particular way of knowing, bequeathed to Western Europe via the Enlightenment and development of the scientific method, stunted or delayed exploration of the globe precisely because explorers began with a god’s eye view of the Earth from above rather than from the surface (object vs. subject). In contrast, quoting here from the book rather than the review, Polynesians used

a system known as etak, in which they visualize a “reference island,” — which is usually a real island but may also be imaginary — off to one side of the path they are following, about midway between their starting point and their destination. As the journey progresses, this island “moves” under each of the stars in the star path [situated near the horizon rather than overhead], while the canoe in which the voyagers are traveling stays still. Of course, the navigators know that it is the canoe and not the islands that are moving, but this is the way they conceptualize the voyage.

Placing oneself at the center of the world or universe — at least for the purpose of navigation — is a conceptual pose Westerners discarded when heliocentrism gradually replaced geocentrism. (Traveling using GPS devices ironically places the traveler back at the center of the map with terrain shifting around the vehicle, but it’s a poor example of wayfinding precisely because the traveler fobs the real work onto the device and likely possesses no real understanding or skill traversing the terrain besides following mechanical instructions.) While we Westerners might congratulate ourselves for a more accurate, objective orientation to the stars, its unwitting limitations are worth noting. Recent discoveries regarding human prehistory, especially megalithic stone construction accomplished with techniques still unknown and flatly impossible with modern technology, point to the existence of other ways of knowing lost to contemporary human cultures steadily triangulating on and conforming to Western thought (through the process of globalization). Loss of diversity of ways of knowing creates yet another sort of impoverishment that can only be barely glimpsed since most of us are squarely inside the bubble. Accordingly, it’s not for nothing that some unusually sensitive critics of modernity suggest we’re entering a new Dark Age.