Suicide or Destiny?

The list of related reading at the bottom of this post is updated occasionally.

The suicide to which I refer is the so-called suicide of the West, about which Jonah Goldberg has written an eponymous book. This is from Goldberg’s essay based on the book, “Suicide of the West” (National Review, April 12, 2018):

Almost everything about modernity, progress, and enlightened society emerged in the last 300 years. If the last 200,000 years of humanity were one year, nearly all material progress came in the last 14 hours. In the West, and everywhere that followed our example, incomes rose, lifespans grew, toil lessened, energy and water became ubiquitous commodities.

Virtually every objective, empirical measure that capitalism’s critics value improved with the emergence of Western liberal-democratic capitalism. Did it happen overnight? Sadly, no. But in evolutionary terms, it did….

Of course, material prosperity isn’t everything. But the progress didn’t stop there. Rapes, deaths by violence and disease, slavery, illiteracy, torture have all declined massively, while rights for women, minorities, the disabled have expanded dramatically. And, with the exception of slavery, which is a more recent human innovation made possible by the agricultural revolution, material misery was natural and normal for us. Then suddenly, almost overnight, that changed.

What happened? We stumbled into a different world. Following sociologist Robin Fox and historian Ernest Gellner, I call this different world “the Miracle.”…

Why stress that the Miracle was both unnatural and accidental? Because Western civilization generally, and America particularly, is on a suicidal path. The threats are many, but beneath them all is one constant, eternal seducer: human nature. Modernity often assumes that we’ve conquered human nature as much as we’ve conquered the natural world. The truth is we’ve done neither….

The Founders closely studied human nature, recognizing the dangers of despots and despotic majorities alike. They knew that humans would coalesce around common interests, forming “factions.” They also understood that you can’t repeal human nature. So, unlike their French contemporaries, they didn’t try. Instead, they established our system of separated powers and enumerated rights so that no faction, including a passionate majority, could use the state’s power against other factions.

But the Founders’ vision assumed many preconditions, the two most important of which were the people’s virtue and the role of civil society. “The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people,” George Washington argued.

People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad institutions family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc. Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians, Hannah Arendt observed: “We call them children.” Civil society, starting with the family, civilizes barbarians, providing meaning, belonging, and virtue.

But here’s the hitch. When that ecosystem breaks down, people still seek meaning and belonging. And it is breaking down. Its corruption comes from reasons too numerous and complex to detail here, but they include family breakdown, mass immigration, the war on assimilation, and the rise of virtual communities pretending to replace real ones.

First, the market, as Joseph Schumpeter argued, maximizes efficiency with relentless rationality, tending to break down the sinews of tradition and the foundations of civil society that enable and instill virtue. Yet those pre-rational virtues make capitalism possible in the first place.

Second, capitalism also creates a mass class of resentful intellectuals, artists, journalists, and bureaucrats who are professionally, psychologically, and ideologically committed to undermining capitalism’s legitimacy (as noted by Schumpeter and James Burnham, the author of another book titled “Suicide of the West”). This adversarial elite is its own coalition.

Thus, people increasingly look to Washington and national politics for meaning and belonging they can’t find at home. As Mary Eberstadt recently argued, the rise in identity politics coincided with family breakdown, as alienated youth looked to the artificial tribes of racial or sexual solidarity for meaning. Populism, which always wants the national government to solve local problems, is in vogue on left and right precisely because local institutions and civil society generally no longer do their jobs. Indeed, populism is its own tribalism, because “We the People” invariably means “my people.” As Jan-Werner Müller notes in his book What Is Populism?: “Populism is always a form of identity politics.”

A video at the 2012 Democratic National Convention proclaimed that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” For conservatives, this was Orwellian. But for many Americans, it was an invitation to belong. That was the subtext of “The Life of Julia” and President Obama’s call for Americans to emulate SEAL Team Six and strive in unison — towards his goals….

The American Founding’s glory is that those English colonists took their cousins’ tradition, purified it into a political ideology, and extended it farther than the English ever dreamed. And they wrote it down, thank God. The Founding didn’t apply these principles as universally as its rhetoric implied. But that rhetoric was transformative. When the Declaration of Independence was written, some dismissed the beginning as flowery boilerplate; what mattered was the ending: Independence! But the boilerplate became a creed, and America’s story is the story of that creed — those mere words — unfolding to its logical conclusion….

It seems axiomatic to me that whatever words can create, they can destroy. And ingratitude is the destroyer’s form. We teach children that the moral of the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg is the danger of greed. But the real moral of the story is ingratitude. A farmer finds an animal, which promises to make him richer than he ever imagined. But rather than nurture and protect this miracle, he resents it for not doing more. In one version, the farmer demands two golden eggs per day. When the goose politely demurs, he kills it out of a sense of entitlement — the opposite of gratitude.

The Miracle is our goose. And rather than be grateful for it, our schools, our culture, and many of our politicians say we should resent it for not doing more. Conservatism is a form of gratitude, because we conserve only what we are grateful for. Our society is talking itself out of gratitude for the Miracle and teaching our children resentment. Our culture affirms our feelings as the most authentic sources of truth when they are merely the expressions of instincts, and considers the Miracle a code word for white privilege, greed, and oppression.

This is corruption. And it is a choice. Collectively, we are embracing entitlement over gratitude. That is suicidal.

I would put it this way: About 300 years ago there arose in the West the idea of innate equality and inalienable rights. At the same time, and not coincidentally, there arose the notion of economic betterment through free markets. The two concepts — political and economic liberty — are in fact inseparable. One cannot have economic liberty without political liberty; political liberty — the ownership of oneself — implies the ownership of the fruits of one’s own labor and the right to strive for prosperity. This latter striving, as Adam Smith pointed out, works not only for the betterment of the striver but also for the betterment of those who engage in trade with him. The forces of statism are on the march (and have been for a long time). The likely result is the loss of liberty and the vibrancy and prosperity that arises from it.

I want to be clear about liberty. It is not a spiritual state of bliss. It is, as I have written,

a modus vivendi, not the result of a rational political scheme. Though a rational political scheme, such as the one laid out in the Constitution of the United States, could promote liberty.

The key to a libertarian modus vivendi is the evolutionary development and widespread observance of social norms that foster peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation.

Liberty, in sum, is not an easy thing to attain or preserve because it depends on social comity: mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual forbearance. These are hard to inculcate and sustain in the relatively small groupings of civil society (family, church, club, etc.). They are almost impossible to attain or sustain in a large, diverse nation-state. Interests clash and factions clamor and claw for ascendancy over other factions. (It is called tribalism, and even anti-tribalists are tribal in their striving to impose their values on others). The Constitution, as Goldberg implies, has proved unequal to the task of preserving liberty, for reasons to which I will come.

I invoke the Constitution deliberately. This essay is about the United States, not the West in general. (Goldberg gets to the same destination after a while.) Much of the West has already committed “suicide” by replacing old-fashioned (“classical“) liberalism with oppressive statism. The U.S. is far down the same path. The issue at hand, therefore, is whether America’s “suicide” can be avoided.

Perhaps, but only if the demise of liberty is a choice. It may not be a choice, however, as Goldberg unwittingly admits when he writes about human nature.

On that point I turn to John Daniel Davidson, writing in “The West Isn’t Committing Suicide, It’s Dying of Natural Causes” (The Federalist, May 18, 2018):

Perhaps the Miracle, wondrous as it is, needs more than just our gratitude to sustain it. Perhaps the only thing that can sustain it is an older order, one that predates liberal democratic capitalism and gave it its vitality in the first place. Maybe the only way forward is to go back and rediscover the things we left behind at the dawn of the Enlightenment.

Goldberg is not very interested in all of that. He does not ask whether there might be some contradictions at the heart of the liberal order, whether it might contain within it the seeds of its undoing. Instead, Goldberg makes his stand on rather narrow grounds. He posits that the Enlightenment Miracle can be defended in purely secular, utilitarian terms, which he supposes are the only terms skeptics of liberal democratic capitalism will accept.

That forces him to treat the various illiberal ideologies that came out of Enlightenment thought (like communism) as nothing more than a kind of tribalism rather than a natural consequence of the hyper-rational scientism embedded in the liberal order itself. As Richard M. Reinsch II noted last week in an excellent review of Goldberg’s book over at Law and Liberty, “If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal.”

That is to say, we mustn’t kid ourselves about the Miracle. We have to be honest, not just about its benefits but also its costs….

What about science and medical progress? What about the eradication of disease? What about technological advances? Isn’t man’s conquest of nature a good thing? Hasn’t the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution and the invention of liberal democratic capitalism done more to alleviate poverty and create wealth than anything in human history? Shouldn’t we preserve this liberal order and pass it on to future generations? Shouldn’t we inculcate in our children a profound sense of gratitude for all this abundance and prosperity?

This is precisely Goldberg’s argument. Yes, he says, man’s conquest of nature is a good thing. It’s the same species of argument raised earlier this year in reaction to Patrick Deneen’s book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” which calls into question the entire philosophical system that gave us the Miracle….

[Deneen] is not chiefly interested in the problems of the modern progressive era or the contemporary political Left. He isn’t alarmed merely by political tribalism and the fraying of the social order. Those things are symptoms, not the cause, of the illness he’s diagnosing. Even the social order at its liberal best—the Miracle itself—is part of the illness.

Deneen’s argument reaches back to the foundations of the liberal order in the sixteenth  and seventeenth centuries—prior to the appearance of the Miracle, in Goldberg’s telling—when a series of thinkers embarked on a fundamentally revisionist project “whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and action.”

The project worked, as Goldberg has chronicled at length, but only up to a point. Today, says Deneen, liberalism is a 500-year-old experiment that has run its course and now “generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-Aids and veils to cover them.”

Taking the long view of history, Deneen’s book could be understood as an extension of Lewis’s argument in “The Abolition of Man.” The replacement of moral philosophy and religion with liberalism and applied science has begun, in our lifetimes, to manifest the dangers that Lewis warned about. Deneen, writing more than a half-century after Lewis, declares that the entire liberal project manifestly has failed.

Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.

Goldberg is correct that we have lost our sense of gratitude, that we don’t really feel like things are as good as all that. But a large part of the reason is that the liberal order itself has robbed us of our ability to articulate what constitutes human happiness. We have freedom, we have immense wealth, but we have nothing to tell us what we should do with it, nothing to tell us what is good.

R.R. Reno, in “The Smell of Death” (First Things, May 31, 2018), comes at it this way:

At every level, our elites oppose traditional regulation of behavior based on clear moral norms, preferring a therapeutic and bureaucratic approach. They seek to decriminalize marijuana. They have deconstructed male and female roles for children. They correct anyone who speaks of “sex,” preferring to speak of “gender,” which they insist is “socially constructed.” They have ushered in a view of free speech that makes it impossible to prevent middle school boys from watching pornography on their smart phones. They insist upon a political correctness that rejects moral correctness.

The upshot is American culture circa 2018. Our ideal is a liquid world of self-definition, characterized by plenary acceptance and mutual affirmation. In practice, the children of our elites are fortunate: Their families and schools carefully socialize them into the disciplines of twenty-first-century meritocratic success while preaching openness, inclusion, and diversity. But the rest are not so fortunate. Most Americans gasp for air as they tread water. More and more drown….

Liberalism has always been an elite project of deregulation. In the nineteenth century, it sought to deregulate pre-modern economies and old patterns of social hierarchy. It worked to the advantage of the talented, enterprising, and ambitious, who soon supplanted the hereditary aristocracy.

In the last half-century, liberalism has focused on deregulating personal life. This, too, has been an elite priority. It makes options available to those with the resources to exploit them. But it has created a world in which disordered souls kill themselves with drugs and alcohol—and in which those harboring murderous thoughts feel free to act upon them.

The penultimate word goes to Malcolm Pollack (“The Magic Feather“, Motus Mentis, July 6, 2018):

Our friend Bill Vallicella quoted this, from Michael Anton, on Independence Day:

For the founders, government has one fundamental purpose: to protect person and property from conquest, violence, theft and other dangers foreign and domestic. The secure enjoyment of life, liberty and property enables the “pursuit of happiness.” Government cannot make us happy, but it can give us the safety we need as the condition for happiness. It does so by securing our rights, which nature grants but leaves to us to enforce, through the establishment of just government, limited in its powers and focused on its core responsibility.

Bill approves, and adds:

This is an excellent statement. Good government secures our rights; it does not grant them. Whether they come from nature, or from God, or from nature qua divine creation are further questions that can be left to the philosophers. The main thing is that our rights are not up for democratic grabs, nor are they subject to the whims of any bunch of elitists that manages to insinuate itself into power.

I agree all round. I hope that my recent engagement with Mr. Anton about the ontology of our fundamental rights did not give readers the impression that I doubt for a moment the importance of Americans believing they possess them, or of the essential obligation of government to secure them (or of the people to overthrow a government that won’t).

My concerns are whether the popular basis for this critically important belief is sustainable in an era of radical and corrosive secular doubt (and continuing assault on those rights), and whether the apparently irresistible tendency of democracy to descend into faction, mobs, and tyranny was in fact a “poison pill” baked into the nation at the time of the Founding. I am inclined to think it was, but historical contingency and inevitability are nearly impossible to parse with any certainty.

Arnold Kling (“Get the Story Straight“, Library of Economics and Liberty, July 9, 2018) is more succinct:

Lest we fall back into a state of primitive tribalism, we need to understand the story of the Miracle. We need to understand that it is unnatural, and we should be grateful for the norms and institutions that restrained human nature in order to make the Miracle possible.

All of the writers I have quoted are on to something, about which I have written in “Constitution: Myths and Realities“. I call it the Framers’ fatal error.

The Framers’ held a misplaced faith in the Constitution’s checks and balances (see Madison’s Federalist No. 51 and Hamilton’s Federalist No. 81). The Constitution’s wonderful design — containment of a strictly limited central government through horizontal and vertical separation of powers — worked rather well until the Progressive Era. The design then cracked under the strain of greed and the will to power, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The design then broke during the New Deal, which opened the floodgates to violations of constitutional restraint (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare,  the vast expansion of economic regulation, and the destruction of civilizing social norms), as the Supreme Court has enabled the national government to impose its will in matters far beyond its constitutional remit.

In sum, the “poison pill” baked into the nation at the time of the Founding is human nature, against which no libertarian constitution is proof unless it is enforced resolutely by a benign power.

Barring that, it is may be too late to rescue liberty in America. I am especially pessimistic because of the unraveling of social comity since the 1960s, and by a related development: the frontal assault on freedom of speech, which is the final constitutional bulwark against oppression.

Almost overnight, it seems, the nation was catapulted from the land of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver to the land of the free- filthy-speech movement, Altamont, Woodstock, Hair, and the unspeakably loud, vulgar, and violent offerings that are now plastered all over the air waves, the internet, theater screens, and “entertainment” venues.

The 1960s and early 1970s were a tantrum-throwing time, and many of the tantrum-throwers moved into positions of power, influence, and wealth, having learned from the success of their main ventures: the end of the draft and the removal of Nixon from office. They schooled their psychological descendants well, and sometimes literally on college campuses. Their successors on the campuses of today — students, faculty, and administrators — carry on the tradition of reacting with violent hostility toward persons and ideas that they oppose, and supporting draconian punishments for infractions of their norms and edicts. (For myriad examples, see The College Fix.)

Adherents of the ascendant culture esteem protest for its own sake, and have stock explanations for all perceived wrongs (whether or not they are wrongs): racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, hate, white privilege, inequality (of any kind), Wall  Street, climate change, Zionism, and so on. All of these are to be combated by state action that deprives citizens of economic and social liberties.

In particular danger are the freedoms of speech and association. The purported beneficiaries of the campaign to destroy those freedoms are “oppressed minorities” (women, Latinos, blacks, Muslims, the gender-confused, etc.) and the easily offended. The true beneficiaries are leftists. Free speech is speech that is acceptable to the left. Otherwise, it’s “hate speech”, and must be stamped out. Freedom of association is bigotry, except when it is practiced by leftists in anti-male, anti-conservative, pro-ethnic, and pro-racial causes. This is McCarthyism on steroids. McCarthy, at least, was pursuing actual enemies of liberty; today’s leftists are the enemies of liberty.

The organs of the state have been enlisted in an unrelenting campaign against civilizing social norms. We now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability.

The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which Judeo-Christian morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

If there are unifying themes in this petite histoire, they are the death of common sense and the rising tide of moral vacuity. The history of the United States since the 1960s supports the proposition that the nation is indeed going to hell in a handbasket.

In fact, the speed at which it is going to hell seems to have accelerated since the Charleston church shooting and the legal validation of  same-sex “marriage” in 2015. It’s a revolution (e.g., this) piggy-backing on mass hysteria. Here’s the game plan:

  • Define opposition to illegal immigration, Islamic terrorism, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and other kinds violent and anti-social behavior as “hate“.
  • Associate “hate” with conservatism.
  • Watch as normally conservative politicians, business people, and voters swing left rather than look “mean” and put up a principled fight for conservative values. (Many of them can’t put up such a fight, anyway. Trump’s proper but poorly delivered refusal to pin all of the blame on neo-Nazis for the Charlottesville riot just added momentum to the left’s cause because he’s Trump and a “fascist” by definition.)
  • Watch as Democrats play the “hate” card to retake the White House and Congress.

With the White House in the hands of a left-wing Democrat (is there any other kind now?) and an aggressive left-wing majority in Congress, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and property rights will become not-so-distant memories. “Affirmative action” (a.k.a. “diversity”) will be enforced on an unprecedented scale of ferocity. The nation will become vulnerable to foreign enemies while billions of dollars are wasted on the hoax of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and “social services” for the indolent. The economy, already buckling under the weight of statism, will teeter on the brink of collapse as the regulatory regime goes into high gear and entrepreneurship is all but extinguished by taxation and regulation.

All of that will be secured by courts dominated by left-wing judges — from here to eternity.

And most of the affluent white enablers dupes of the revolution will come to rue their actions. But they won’t be free to say so.

Thus will liberty — and prosperity — die in America.

And it is possible that nothing can prevent it because it is written in human nature; specifically, a penchant for the kind of mass hysteria that seems to dominate campuses, the “news” and “entertainment” media, and the Democrat Party.

Christopher Booker describes this phenomenon presciently in his book about England and America of the 1950s and 1960s, The Neophiliacs (1970):

[T]here is no dream so powerful as one generated and subscribed to by a whole mass of people simultaneously — one of those mass projections of innumerable individual neuroses which we may call a group fantasy. This is why the twentieth century has equally been dominated by every possible variety of collective make-believe — whether expressed through mass political movements and forms of nationalism, or through mass social movements….

Any group fantasy is in some sense a symptom of social disintegration, of the breaking down of the balance and harmony between individuals, classes, generations, the sexes, or even nations. For the organic relationships of a stable and secure community, in which everyone may unself-consciously exist in his own separate place and right, a group fantasy substitutes the elusive glamor of identification with a fantasy community, of being swept along as part of a uniform mass united in a common cause. But the individuals making up the mass are not, of course, united in any real sense, except through their common dress, catch phrases, slogans, and stereotyped attitudes. Behind their conformist exteriors they remain individually as insecure as ever — and indeed become even more so, for the collective dream, such as that expressed through mass advertising or the more hysterical forms of fashion, is continually aggravating their fantasy-selves and appealing to them through their insecurities to merge themselves in the mass ever more completely….

This was the phenomenon of mass psychology which was portrayed in an extreme version by George Orwell in his 1984…. But in fact the pattern described was that of every group fantasy; exactly the same that we can see, for instance, in the teen age subculture of the fifties and sixties, … or that of the left-wing progressive intellectuals, with their dream heroes such as D. H. Lawrence or Che Guevera and their ritual abuse of the “reactionaries”….

… Obviously no single development in history has done more to promote both social disintegration and unnatural conformity than the advance and ubiquity of machines and technology. Not only must the whole pressure of an industrialized, urbanized, mechanized society tend to weld its members into an ever more rootless uniform mass, by the very nature of its impersonal organization and of the processes of mass-production and standardization. But in addition the twentieth century has also provided two other factors to aggravate and to feed the general neurosis; the first being the image-conveying apparatus of films, radio, television, advertising, mass-circulation newspapers and magazines; the second the feverishly increased pace of life, from communications and transport to the bewildering speed of change and innovation, all of which has created a profound subconscious restlessness which neurotically demands to be assuaged by more speed and more change of every kind….

The essence of fantasy is that it feeds on a succession of sensations or unresolved images, each one of which arouses anticipation, followed by inevitable frustration, leading to the demand for a new image to be put in its place. But the very fact that each sensation is fundamentally unsatisfying means that the fantasy itself becomes progressively more jaded…. And so we arrive at the fantasy spiral.

Whatever pattern of fantasy we choose to look at … she shall find that it is straining through a spiral of increasingly powerful sensations toward some kind of climax…. What happens therefore is simply that, in its pursuit of the elusive image of life, freedom, and self-assertion, the fantasy pushes on in an ever-mounting spiral of demand, ever more violent, more dream-like and fragmentary, and ever more destructive of the framework of order. Further and further pushes the fantasy, always in pursuit of the elusive climax, always further from reality — until it is actually bringing about the very opposite of its aims.

That, of course, is what will happen when the left and its dupes bring down the Constitution and all that it was meant to stand for: the protection of citizens and their voluntary institutions and relationships from predators, including not least governmental predators and the factions they represent.

The Constitution, in short, was meant to shield Americans from human nature. But it seems all too likely that human nature will destroy the shield.

Thus my call for a “Preemptive (Cold) Civil War“.

Related reading:
Fred Reed, “The Symptoms Worsen”, Fred on Everything, March 15, 2015
Christopher Booker, Global Warming: A Case Study in Groupthink, Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018
Michael Mann, “Have Wars and Violence Declined?“, Theory and Society, February 2018
John Gray, “Steven Pinker Is Wrong about Violence and War”, The Guardian, March 13, 2015
Nikita Vladimirov, “Scholar Traces Current Campus Intolerance to 60’s Radicals“, Campus Reform, March 14, 2018
Nick Spencer, “Enlightenment and Progress: Why Steven Pinker Is Wrong” Mercatornet, March 19, 2018
Steven Hayward, “Deja Vu on Campus?“, PowerLine, April 15, 2018
William A. Nitze, “The Tech Giants Must Be Stopped“, The American Conservative, April 16, 2018
Steven Hayward, “Jonah’s Suicide Hotline, and All That Stuff“, PowerLine, May 15, 2018
Jeff Groom, “40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard“, The American Conservative, June 8, 2018
Graham Allison, “The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom“, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018
Gilbert T. Sewall, “The America That Howard Zinn Made“, The American Conservative, July 10, 2018
Mary Eberstadt, “Two Nations, Revisited“, National Affairs, Summer 2018

Related posts and pages:
Constitution: Myths and Realities
The Psychologist Who Played God
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Society and the State
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
The Fallacy of Human Progress
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
1963: The Year Zero
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
Defending the Offensive
A Dose of Reality
Turning Points
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Left and “the People”
Liberal Nostrums
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, and the Demise of Civility
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What’s Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Disposition and Ideology
Down the Memory Hole
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
Utopianism, Leftism, and Dictatorship
The Framers, Mob Rule, and a Fatal Error
Abortion, the “Me” Generation, and the Left
Abortion Q and A
Whence Polarization?
Negative Rights, Etc.
Social Norms, the Left, and Social Disintegration
Order vs. Authority
Can Left and Right Be Reconciled?
Rage on the Left
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan

Whence Polarization?

America today is riven with racial, social, and political divisions. Why? Is there a way out?

It’s hard to know where to begin. So, rather arbitrarily, I begin with race. David Reich‘s hot new book, Who We Are and How We Got Here, is causing a stir in genetic-research circles. Reich, who takes great pains to assure everyone that he isn’t a racist, and who deplores racism, is nevertheless candid about race:

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”

Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real….

Self-identified African-Americans turn out to derive, on average, about 80 percent of their genetic ancestry from enslaved Africans brought to America between the 16th and 19th centuries. My colleagues and I searched, in 1,597 African-American men with prostate cancer, for locations in the genome where the fraction of genes contributed by West African ancestors was larger than it was elsewhere in the genome. In 2006, we found exactly what we were looking for: a location in the genome with about 2.8 percent more African ancestry than the average.

When we looked in more detail, we found that this region contained at least seven independent risk factors for prostate cancer, all more common in West Africans. Our findings could fully account for the higher rate of prostate cancer in African-Americans than in European-Americans. We could conclude this because African-Americans who happen to have entirely European ancestry in this small section of their genomes had about the same risk for prostate cancer as random Europeans.

Did this research rely on terms like “African-American” and “European-American” that are socially constructed, and did it label segments of the genome as being probably “West African” or “European” in origin? Yes. Did this research identify real risk factors for disease that differ in frequency across those populations, leading to discoveries with the potential to improve health and save lives? Yes.

While most people will agree that finding a genetic explanation for an elevated rate of disease is important, they often draw the line there. Finding genetic influences on a propensity for disease is one thing, they argue, but looking for such influences on behavior and cognition is another.

But whether we like it or not, that line has already been crossed. A recent study led by the economist Daniel Benjamin compiled information on the number of years of education from more than 400,000 people, almost all of whom were of European ancestry. After controlling for differences in socioeconomic background, he and his colleagues identified 74 genetic variations that are over-represented in genes known to be important in neurological development, each of which is incontrovertibly more common in Europeans with more years of education than in Europeans with fewer years of education.

It is not yet clear how these genetic variations operate. A follow-up study of Icelanders led by the geneticist Augustine Kong showed that these genetic variations also nudge people who carry them to delay having children. So these variations may be explaining longer times at school by affecting a behavior that has nothing to do with intelligence.

This study has been joined by others finding genetic predictors of behavior. One of these, led by the geneticist Danielle Posthuma, studied more than 70,000 people and found genetic variations in more than 20 genes that were predictive of performance on intelligence tests.

Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

You will sometimes hear that any biological differences among populations are likely to be small, because humans have diverged too recently from common ancestors for substantial differences to have arisen under the pressure of natural selection. This is not true. The ancestors of East Asians, Europeans, West Africans and Australians were, until recently, almost completely isolated from one another for 40,000 years or longer, which is more than sufficient time for the forces of evolution to work. Indeed, the study led by Dr. Kong showed that in Iceland, there has been measurable genetic selection against the genetic variations that predict more years of education in that population just within the last century….

So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations? It will be impossible — indeed, anti-scientific, foolish and absurd — to deny those differences. [“How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’“, The New York Times, March 23, 2018]

Reich engages in a lot of non-scientific wishful thinking about racial differences and how they should be treated by “society” — none of which is in his purview as a scientist. Reich’s forays into psychobabble have been addressed at length by Steve Sailer (here and here) and Gregory Cochran (here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say that Reich is trying in vain to minimize the scientific fact of racial differences that show up crucially in intelligence and rates of violent crime.

Those ineradicable differences mean that there is something like a permanent — and mostly black — underclass in America. But there is an American “overclass” (to which I will come) which insists that all can be made well by pushing the underclass into contact with people who (wisely) resist the push, and shoveling money and privileges at it. This, alone, would be cause enough for a chasm between the overclass and those who resist its misguided social agenda. But there is more.

I now invoke Robert Putnam, a political scientist known mainly for his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2005), in which he

makes a distinction between two kinds of social capital: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding occurs when you are socializing with people who are like you: same age, same race, same religion, and so on. But in order to create peaceful societies in a diverse multi-ethnic country, one needs to have a second kind of social capital: bridging. Bridging is what you do when you make friends with people who are not like you, like supporters of another football team. Putnam argues that those two kinds of social capital, bonding and bridging, do strengthen each other. Consequently, with the decline of the bonding capital mentioned above inevitably comes the decline of the bridging capital leading to greater ethnic tensions.

In later work on diversity and trust within communities, Putnam concludes that

other things being equal, more diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups….

Even when controlling for income inequality and crime rates, two factors which conflict theory states should be the prime causal factors in declining inter-ethnic group trust, more diversity is still associated with less communal trust.

Lowered trust in areas with high diversity is also associated with:

  • Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
  • Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in one’s own influence.
  • Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
  • Higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result.
  • Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
  • Less likelihood of working on a community project.
  • Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
  • Fewer close friends and confidants.
  • Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
  • More time spent watching television and more agreement that “television is my most important form of entertainment”.

It’s not as if Putnam is a social conservative who is eager to impart such news. To the contrary, Putnam’s

findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.

When he finally published a detailed scholarly analysis … , he faced criticism for straying from data into advocacy. His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.

“Having aligned himself with the central planners intent on sustaining such social engineering, Putnam concludes the facts with a stern pep talk,” wrote conservative commentator Ilana Mercer….

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time “kicking the tires really hard” to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents — all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

“People would say, ‘I bet you forgot about X,’” Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. “There were 20 or 30 X’s.”

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes….

In a recent study, [Harvard economist Edward] Glaeser and colleague Alberto Alesina demonstrated that roughly half the difference in social welfare spending between the US and Europe — Europe spends far more — can be attributed to the greater ethnic diversity of the US population. Glaeser says lower national social welfare spending in the US is a “macro” version of the decreased civic engagement Putnam found in more diverse communities within the country.

Economists Matthew Kahn of UCLA and Dora Costa of MIT reviewed 15 recent studies in a 2003 paper, all of which linked diversity with lower levels of social capital. Greater ethnic diversity was linked, for example, to lower school funding, census response rates, and trust in others. Kahn and Costa’s own research documented higher desertion rates in the Civil War among Union Army soldiers serving in companies whose soldiers varied more by age, occupation, and birthplace.

Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also less likely to look out for one another. “Everyone is a little self-conscious that this is not politically correct stuff,” says Kahn….

In his paper, Putnam cites the work done by Page and others, and uses it to help frame his conclusion that increasing diversity in America is not only inevitable, but ultimately valuable and enriching. As for smoothing over the divisions that hinder civic engagement, Putnam argues that Americans can help that process along through targeted efforts. He suggests expanding support for English-language instruction and investing in community centers and other places that allow for “meaningful interaction across ethnic lines.”

Some critics have found his prescriptions underwhelming. And in offering ideas for mitigating his findings, Putnam has drawn scorn for stepping out of the role of dispassionate researcher. “You’re just supposed to tell your peers what you found,” says John Leo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. [Michael Jonas, “The downside of diversity,” The Boston Globe (, August 5, 2007]

What is it about academics like Reich and Putnam who can’t bear to face the very facts that they have uncovered? The magic word is “academics”. They are denizens of a milieu in which the facts of life about race, guns, sex, and many other things are in the habit of being suppressed in favor of “hope and change”, and the facts be damned.

All of this is a prelude to some observations about the state of America:

The U.S. was undoubtedly more united — more tightly knit by “bonding” and “bridging” capital — in 15 years after the end of World War II than it has been since. Bonding has loosened among whites because of socioeconomic and geographic mobility.

Post-war prosperity enabled most of the descendants of the Greatest Generation (GG) to live high on the hog compared with the GG.

College-going rates boomed, giving the descendants of the GG access to social and cultural circles that weren’t open to most of the GG.

The descendants of the GG, because of their greater prosperity and movement in “higher” circles (which include even seemingly trivial things like book clubs and wine-tasting clubs), became (on the whole) distant from the morals and mores of the GG and its antecedents. The more educated and the more highly paid, the more distant.

The GG and their antecedents weren’t strangers to regional, racial, religious, and class differences, and the suspicions and (sometimes) hostility engendered by them. But the whites among them (i.e., the vast majority), were broadly united in their allegiance to God and country. The blacks were, too, though they lived mostly apart from whites, by design (mainly on the part of whites) and mutual choice.

That degree of unity was possible because the economic and educational differences among the GG and its antecedents didn’t span as vast a range as they do today, and because they were racially (if not ethnically) similar.

On top of that there are wide and growing racial-cultural fissures. (For who can deny that race and culture are deeply intertwined?) These fissures are due in part to the rapid growth of black and Hispanic populations in the United States since the 1960s, growth that will put whites in the minority by the middle of the 21st century, This will come after two centuries (from 1790 to 1990) when whites accounted for more than 80 percent of the population, and a 70-year span (1900 to 1970) when the population was 88-percent to 90-percent white. Throw in the huge numbers of illegal immigrants, and the picture looks even darker.

There is just no getting around it. Like prefers like, and it’s just as true among blacks and Hispanics as it is among whites. Throw in the deepening divisions among whites (discussed above), and you have a country unlike the one that existed in the first 60 years of the 20th century.

Throw in, on top of all that, dissensions bred by white elites (The Crust), and you have a country that is unrecognizable to almost anyone who came of age before 1960, or anyone who still adheres to the morals and mores of that earlier era.

The Crust consists of the information-entertainment-media-academic complex, huge swaths of the professional-managerial (college-educated) classes, and most of the politicians at the national, State, and local levels. Many of the politicians who profess allegiance to conservatism are nothing but vote-seeking, power-hungry, backslappers who would rather be reelected by pandering to special interests than actually try to conserve traditional American values like self-reliance and respect for others’ property and liberty.

What you have, in fact, is a culture war that has become a cold civil war. But it’s not a war of white vs. colored or North vs. South, though because of the “big sort” it does have a geographic dimension. At bottom, it’s a war of white traditionalists vs. The Crust and the “victim” classes (blacks, Hispanics, gender-confused persons, etc.) favored by The Crust to the exclusion of non-Crust heterosexual white males. You know the drill:

The Crust believes in sharing the wealth. Not all of its own wealth mind you, but just enough to assuage The Crust’s white guilt. But sharing means forced sharing (because The Crust knows what’s good for everyone), regardless of its long-run economic effects and the burdens that it places on taxpayers of modest means.

Sharing the wealth includes a commitment to demonstrably destructive and counterproductive schemes, some of which are the affirmative action, the minimum wage, universal basic income, expanded Medicaid rolls, “free” college, and that holy grail of feel-good schemes: single-payer health care. (You can be sure that The Crust would still have access to private-pay health care.) These are sure-fire vote-getters among blacks and illegal immigrants — both (not coincidentally) favored groups among The Crust.

Throw in other programs and policies to entice and keep the votes of aggrieved feminists, gender-confused persons, naive transnationalists, religion-haters, success-enviers, and everyone else who believes that white America is evil (The Crust excepted, of course) and that it’s government’s job to deliver nirvana. Sprinkle in a huge helping of idealistic and impetuous youth. Stir, stir, stir with all of the communications technology that can be mustered.

Suppress dissenting views by invoking the “victim” classes (women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, gender-confused persons, etc.).

Pump schoolchildren and college students full of The Crust’s crazy beliefs (small samples here and here), so that in a few decades those beliefs will be set in concrete among most of the populace. (Shades of the “flower children” of the 1960s and 1970s who became politicians, lawyers, judges, professors, and joined other influential pursuits.)

These economic and cultural differences underlie the fragmentation of America.

But it’s worse than fragmentation. The Crust is in charge of almost everything, including much of government. The Resistance (which Wikipedia doesn’t even acknowledge) is of The Crust’s making. In concert with its sub-rosa members in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the central, State, and local governments, The Resistance is dedicated to the overthrow of the lawfully elected President of the United States. Why? Because he is perceived as a threat to The Crust’s agenda: one world under the technocratic control of administrative agencies dedicated to the pursuance of The Crust’s pseudo-scientific dogmas.

The spirit of it is captured by Theodore Dalrymple:

The threat to our freedom comes not from government, except when it cravenly capitulates to the demands of monomaniacs and tries to limit our speech by decree, but from pressure groups from within what used to be called, invariably as a term of approbation, civil society. Perhaps uncivil society would now be a better term for at least a part of it, which wants to reform not only laws but our minds and souls. It does this not for the sake of betterment, but as an exercise in, or as an expression of, power. The will to power seems to have infected people who once might have been content to live quietly, power itself now being the only goal worth aiming for in the absence of anything more elevated or elevating.

Stalin famously (or infamously) once said that writers were the engineers of souls, and that is what pressure groups believe themselves increasingly to be. They do not so much seek to persuade us by the force of their arguments as irreversibly to change our mentalities. Habit is character, and if we can be forcibly made to change the way we speak, eventually our thoughts will follow. Of course, such changes have always occurred, but less by design than spontaneously.

The totalitarian impulse did not die with the Soviet Union, but rather fractured into many different monomanias. The freedom that many people desire is the freedom to limit other people’s freedom, which they find much more gratifying than the mere expression of their own opinion, which has at most the effect of throwing a pebble into a pond, causing a ripple that soon disappears and is forgotten. Surely I am more important than that, and my opinion deserves to dictate to others?

Political polarization is about much more than culture. It’s about liberty. Freedom of speech is a threat to The Crust and The Resistance because their joint agenda can so easily be shown for the sham that it is. Thus it is imperative for The Crust and The Resistance to stifle freedom of speech and other freedoms that threaten their agenda: freedom of religion, freedom of association, and the right to bear arms.

Totalitarianism is on the march, and it is gaining strength daily.

I once again beseech Mr. Trump to undertake a preemptive (cold) civil war before it is too late to rescue liberty from its enemies within.

It’s the only way out.

Related reading:
Peter Leyden and Ruy Texeira, “The Great Lesson of California in America’s New Civil War“, Medium, January 19, 2018
Kurt Schlichter, “Liberals Announce Plan to Crush Normal Americans in a New “Civil War” (Spoiler: It’s Not a Great Plan)“, Townhall, April 9, 2018
Selwyn Duke, “Twitter’s CEO Endorses Call for Conservatism’s DestructionThe New American, April 11, 2018
Surnantra Maitra, “The Creeping and Creepy March of the Progressive Totalitarian Impulse“, American Greatness, April 11, 2018
John Derbyshire, “Ideology Trumps Reality in Reich’s Who We Are And How We Got Here“, The Unz Review, April 19, 2018

Related posts:
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The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
A New (Cold) Civil War or Secession?
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
The Culture War
Judicial Supremacy: Judicial Tyranny
The Tenor of the Times
The Answer to Judicial Supremacy
Turning Points
Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
The Rahn Curve Revisited
Polarization and De-facto Partition
Civil War?
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Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
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Preemptive (Cold) Civil War
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