Saturday, April 14, 2018
Brazen, baldfaced lying: all states engage in it when the benefit to elites are high. Russia engages in it, China, the US, Britain, France, Iran. Each has propounded brazen lies at different times in the course of its modern history, and many of these lies were eventually documented as such, to no one’s surprise.
This time, regarding the April 7th chemical weapons attack at Douma in Syria, it’s the Russians and Syrians who are likely telling something nearer the truth, while the US and its allies are lying through their teeth.
If what looks like a carefully planned, cold-blooded murder occurs in an office building, if there are no witnesses or other incriminating evidence, police inspectors tasked with solving the murder immediately begin the work of establishing who may have had a motive. Did the dead woman have a jealous ex-lover? Does someone stand to gain a huge inheritance? Was she in some bitter power struggle in the company?
This approach is just common sense. After all, people usually don’t plan murders for no reason. Having identified someone with a strong motive, police can continue their work by focusing on that person.
In the case of Syria, why is this basic approach, good enough for police, not tried? Why is it not tried by anyone? Why is it simply assumed that the Syrian government would order a chemical weapons attack that served no military purpose--and in fact, for obvious reasons, served quite the opposite? Why would the Syrian government order an attack that could only put them in the crosshairs of vastly superior enemies?
The chance that the Assad government ordered the attack in Douma is virtually nil. Everyone paying attention, from blowhard John McCain to our military brass to Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May--they all know this. The Trump Administration also knows Assad didn’t gas Douma. If the story had to go out that Assad was responsible, and if Western military action needed to follow, these had little to do with anything Assad or Russia did. Rather, our quick Western response arose from powerful forces in our own governments and corporate offices. People with vested interests in staying on the war path in the Middle East needed this story.
But if Assad didn’t commit the atrocity in Douma, you might ask, who did? Well, first of all, there is still some small doubt that there there even was a chemical weapons attack. It is possible the event was staged, a propaganda op. But let’s assume that the attack occurred. Following basic police procedure, let’s pose the question of who would benefit from such an attack. Who had a motive?
One answer is obvious. The Syrian rebels themselves. On the verge of losing the civil war, the rebels heard the US president just days earlier announce plans to withdraw America from the conflict. Given that this was the same America that had been haphazardly backing them for years, the rebels had a huge motive for finding some pretext, any pretext, to keep America involved. The only feasible way they could do this, playing Trump off against those in the US who wanted the war to continue, was to stage a chemical attack that could be blamed on Assad. Note the amazingly opportune timing of the Douma attack. It occurred just a week after Trump’s mention of plans to withdraw.
This is called, of course, a false flag event. And this one, really, it maybe wins the prize as the most glaringly obvious false flag in modern history.
But: Assuming the attack did happen, did the Syrian rebels plan and pull it off by themselves? Or did they have outside help?
That’s a rather gruesome question to be asking, one many won’t even like to pose, as it points to possible Western involvement. But how can we know the answer? At this point we can't. But if we’re looking merely at motive, again, there’s much evidence out there that Western intelligence and military elites have sought for years to find means of overthrowing the Assad government.
In any case, we need to keep our heads about us. We need to be thinking clearly. These issues are matters of life and death; and given Russia’s stake in Syria, and how the events there fit into growing Western tensions with Russia, the circle of death could potentially widen to include all of us.
To assume that Assad ordered the Douma attack is to assume that he is not merely a despot, but that he is a despot with a 41 IQ. This Assad is the same leader who managed to hold the Syrian capital during seven years of a brutal civil war. Yet he’s also enough of a moron to shoot himself in the foot, in broad daylight, with a double-barrel shotgun? Assad is on the verge of winning the war, and the biggest guns against him, those provided by the US, would soon have been gone.
For Assad, the attack in Douma makes no psychological or cognitive sense. This fact must be kept front and center, as it is one that points to a larger truth too many of us are missing. Namely: Our rivals on the world stage may be treacherous, even evil, but they are not drooling idiots. Russia is not ruled by idiots, nor is Syria. Had either state been run by utter morons, it would have been overthrown by now.
The story of the Douma attack presented in our media is predicated upon an utterly shallow, cartoonish notion of our rivals. We need to stop believing in the cartoon villains our elites present to us. Hell, even cartoon villains are smarter than Assad was--if he ordered that attack.
Breathtaking in all this was the immediacy and unanimity of the Western call for reprisals. Our corporate media, our government officials, our Congress, both sides of the aisle--all were suddenly on the same page. Assad must be shown a lesson.
How can we explain this unanimity? In corporate media, as far as I know, only one voice dared to speak plain truth: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Carlson’s healhty skepticism and sanity deserves a nationwide hats off. Watch:
The very speed to verdict, the very unanimity of our elites, only suggests all the more that the story is fishy. The only organization that could have possibly provided evidence as to what happened in Douma, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was just yesterday preparing to visit the site. Isn’t it interesting that the US, Britain and France decided to quickly pull off their strikes against Assad before the OPCW had time to investigate? If I didn’t have such respect for our elites, I’d be tempted to say that it almost looks like they didn’t really want to know what the OPCW might find.
There’s been plenty of evidence of a recent and growing Deep State push to go to war with Russia and its allies. The Skripal poisoning in London on March 4th is almost certainly part of this concerted effort. Attempting to poison Skripal and his daughter served no purpose for Putin and made no sense in terms of timing and execution. The only thing it succeeded in doing was giving Britain and her allies an opportunity to demonize the Russian government and expel diplomats.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
But if the official story on the Skripal poisoning is full of holes, our official narrative of Assad’s chemical attack is no more than one big hole. There’s no story there even to have holes. If I weren’t seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’d find it hard to believe our elites would dare pull off such a clumsy sleight of hand. How can they expect to get away with it?
Oh, wait, I know how. Our elites assume that most of their citizenry couldn’t find Syria on a map and are too busy in any case stuffing their faces with mounds of french fries and watching Dancing with the Stars to care one way or another. Sadly, in this our elites are probably right.
So why did President Trump go along with it, calling for the missile strikes? Hadn’t he just announced intentions to pull out of Syria? Hadn’t he indicated during the campaign that he wanted America involved in no more Middle-Eastern hell holes? Hadn’t he even said, bravely and I think rightly, that it would have been better if we’d allowed Saddam Hussein to remain in power and not created the horrible mess that brought the world ISIS and so much else?
Problem is, Trump is between a rock and a hard place. This month’s chemical attack at Douma, though fishy as all hell, more or less forced his hand. Inside his own government are deeply-entrenched interests that want the war in the Middle East to continue. He knew his announcement of withdrawal plans would irk these people. At the same time, he has been hounded since before even the inauguration with the absurd accusation that he is somehow a Russian puppet, a man put in office by, uh, $70,000 of Russian-bought Facebook ads. It’s laughable, I know. But keep in mind the Dancing with the Stars factor. Trump knows there are tens of millions of American voters who actually believe in Russiagate, there’s a CNN/NYT/WaPo media axis daily treating the story as legit, and there’s the Mueller investigation to boot, dragging on endlessly. So Trump had to do something.
It’s a sad fact that leading a democratic country in the age of instant information is more often a kind of ongoing improv theater performance than it is a matter of forging rational policy meant to address real problems. But a fact it is. If what we are hearing so far is correct, then Trump’s new rain of missiles on Syria will not be followed by pursuit of the insane policy of the neocons and the likes of Nancy Pelosi. America will not be seeking to actually remove the regime in Damascus. At least I pray that’s the case. Trump needed to throw something out there to appease the ravening wolves all around him, to shut them up. I’m praying he leaves it at that.
Will Russia undertake some kind of response in retaliation? They have more or less announced that they will. What might it be? A quick seizure of the Baltic States on the North Sea that used to be part of the Soviet Union? That would lead to direct Russian conflict with NATO, which, again, could lead to nuclear war. In any case, we can be sure Putin is himself feeling obliged to respond. Not to do so is to lose part of his credibility with his own people. Provided the West’s actions against Syria are limited to these strikes, however, Putin’s response may be muted.
In any case, these are not games we want to be playing. President Trump should stick to his guns on No more regime change in the Middle East. This is what he promised, and this is what the voters who put him in office demand. If Trump can't stand up to the Deep State and the neocon apologists that swarm Washington, his legacy as an outsider will be lost.
Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.
Friday, April 13, 2018
Rod Dreher has written many a good piece on what is happening to American education under the daft and authoritarian regime of the SJWs. On April 3, he posted on “The Ideological Corruptions of Scholarship”, then immediately followed it up with a detailed letter from a young academic who decided to throw in the towel rather than conform to the SJWs’ preferred discourse and priorities.
The American Conservative, Dreher’s main outlet, also posts his articles on their Facebook page. The commentary these posts draw, unlike the often brilliant and varied commentary one finds at the original TAC posts, is often shabby and sniping and cheap. I sometimes weigh in when comments sink to a certain level of shallow. It’s depressing to see TAC’s Facebook posts used mainly as a punching bag for pint-sized pseudo-leftists.
This time, however, with the Facebook posting of the April 3 piece, one (presumably) young academic, Jessie M., weighed in at length, making the argument that Dreher’s reading of our campuses is wrongheaded, things aren’t nearly so bad, that he is, in short, cherrypicking. I ended up in dialogue with Jessie, and you’ll see, if you read on, how it ended.
I’m posting the whole thread, surnames effaced, beginning with a bit of sparring with guttersnipes. My reading of Jessie’s finale may of course be wrong, but I’ve a very strong hunch it’s not. Most people like this, I’ve come to learn, the hard way, if they had power simply to delete your comments, they’d do so. For the “safety” of the “community”, of course.
Here’s how things started out in reaction to Dreher’s piece:
CHRIS M.: I can't imagine being so frightened of the world around me. If he weren't so willing to demonize others with differing views, I could almost feel bad for Dreher.
MICHAEL M.: can you please put the by-line in the post, I only click on these to play "guess who" with rod. i always win.
SHELLY R.: This article is by Dreher. I'm shocked.
ERIC MADER: Chris, Michael, and Shelly: Interesting that you even follow TAC. It looks like you only do so to dismiss Dreher's pieces offhand as "Oh, it's just business as usual in our universities" or "Rod is a bigoted alarmist." So your thesis is that he is making things up, writing up from scratch all the evidence of groupthink and ideological hate-mongering that he includes in his pieces? Yes?
And Chris, you really are a laugh: "demonize others with differing views"? That’s precisely what this piece is about. SJW groupthink is a monolithic ideology that promotes a mono-discourse, organizing constant activities and initiatives to enforce this mono-discourse and "out" anyone who might not be going along.
Oh, but wait, sorry, Dreher is just making all this up, including the lengthy quotes from people in academia who see what's happening.
Y'all are pathetic.
JESSIE M.: The problem is not that Dreher is making things up, but that he's cherry-picking evidence and not explaining any context.
Imagine you're a student at a university who regularly experiences messages that you don't belong there and you aren't as good as your peers, for some reason. This is not conducive to your education. You're put at a significant disadvantage in confidence and willingness to participate, to ask for help when needed, to explore activities and ideas outside of your comfort zone. Confidence is enormously important in most of life, and particularly in learning-- after all, everyone makes errors and fails, and we have tho pick ourselves back up.
Educators have a responsibility to seek out those reasons that affect students in such ways and to mitigate the effects, and to try to prevent the cause itself. It happens-- unsurprisingly-- that classism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices play a large role in undercutting many students at many universities. Workshops calling attention to how we treat each other, and how our treatment of each other relates to patterns in wider society, are important.
I think this *can* sometimes be too narrowly focused, but then why is the argument for these workshops to be eliminated rather than to have more of them on more topics? (And indeed, you will find workshops on masculinity and other topics Dreher notably excludes).
Universities are places for the exchange of ideas, and that requires respect of one another as equals. Sensitivity training may not be the best way to do that, but then suggest something else!! ("Get over it" demonstrably does not work, and is its own "monolithic ideology"). Dreher doesn't offer any solution, he just shits all over the one being tried right now, when it's really still too early to see how well it will work.
Jon Haidt has some really interesting stuff on this topic-- *much* better argued than Dreher. And in the interest of honesty, I'm an academic, but I wouldn't say I'm in some "groupthink" cult, at least not on this topic!
And I should add because it was such a ridiculous claim-- rejection of papers for conferences, etc. Is the NORM. That first example is utterly suspicious, and in any case is pure speculation from a resentful party. Not reliable evidence.
[I was surprised at the length of this comment, but as it was at least relevant, and civil, I replied cordially.]
ERIC MADER: Good points, Jessie. But my own reading is that 1) the SJW approach is way over the top; 2) it is illiberal (speech codes, microaggressions, etc.); 3) what the writer says in the second post about "woke" academic writing as largely conformist hackwork is true for a wide range of fields; and 4), and perhaps most importantly in the big picture, our SJW left is raising up its mirror image in the growing and ever more explicit racism of the Alt-Right, which, depending on how things play out in the coming decade, may not be something to sneeze at.
I think Dreher's and my own solution would be: 1) open discourse must not be shut down; 2) university administrations must not keep caving to gangs of student demagogues; 3) students and faculty must be able to challenge things like "the elimination of whiteness" and "toxic masculinity" as the racist and sexist discourse they are, rather than what happens at present, where a protective shield is built around these discourses, or they are framed as “progress” in campus-wide initiatives, woe to anyone who would protest.
Oh, and also: American university administrative budgets should be cut in HALF, at least, across the board, while more money and more stable employment should be given to the people who actually WORK: i.e. teachers and scholars.
MICHAEL M.: I can’t imagine my self-esteem being so fragile I had to defend Rod Dreher.
And lol @ “we just want to open the discourse” somehow you’ve missed Rod’s book on running away from all the discourse
Also I’m pretty sure half of AmCons online readership leans left, came for the anti-imperialism, and stuck around to make fun of Dreher. Go look at any of their FB posts
ERIC MADER: Yeah LOL. I'm just cringing here in low self-esteem. What a flake you are. No approach to the issues under debate, just little pop psychology jabs. You should be over at Teen Vogue posting. And in fact I reviewed Rod's book, which you haven't read.
MICHAEL M.: Eric wow there is a lot to unpack there. But seriously nobody “viscerally hates” you or Rod, the left has just turned you into caricatures it can laugh at.
And I have to say, we really appreciate y’all playing along. I guess ironic readers are better than nothing, amirite?
ERIC MADER: Plenty of people on the left viscerally hate Rod Dreher, and in my day I've gained plenty of visceral haters too. Although I spent most of my life on the left.
I don't find the left funny anymore, and I don't even find it in any meaningful way the left. What I see is the "left".
MICHAEL M.: i think you need them to hate you otherwise you're just shrill, fragile men shouting about the death of social systems that worshiped them to ironically entertain hipsters
ERIC MADER: Uh-huh. I'm not much interested in social systems that might worship me. I'm interested in things like 1) the continued viability of Western culture, 2) averting authoritarianism, and especially 3) the truth I recognize in Christianity. But you go enjoy your hipsterdom, okay?
JESSIE M.: Eric-- I agree with you in part for many points; I put it off onto aligning myself with Haidt since my comment was already of TLDR length.
I think there are cases that have been over the top, but I've not seen any evidence that this is the NORM in how issues are handled. What happened to the Christakises at Harvard [sic] (the email about Halloween costumes which led to both her and her spouse being spat on, harassed, and eventually fired) is always the example that comes to mind. But this was as alarming to many in the university community-- this is not something "normal" on college campuses.
Likewise, with scholarship there have been cases of concern. Rebecca Tuvel published an unpopular article and received a lot of hate, even from some people within the field (philosophy), but ultimately-- and quickly-- she won out; the majority of people in the field sided with her, even if they disagreed with her position. Haidt has given some other examples of political scientists publicly condemning the work of a colleague.
One of Dreher's weaknesses when he writes on this topic is that he treats the extreme cases as the norm when they aren't-- or at least I've seen no evidence or response to them that indicate this. Moreover, he ignores how much disagreement there is in academia, and he doesn't clearly distinguish professors from administrators. These "controversial people" have defenders from the left, from their colleagues. Hell, Margaret Atwood defended her colleague in Canada who's been mistreated from the mishandling of a sexual harassment allegation. A book was recently published on a similar situation. These cases make the news because there ISN'T groupthink. (As an aside, you'll get no argument from me that admins are paid too much and teachers too little-- I think this is a much bigger problem for education, but here I'm clearly a little biased.)
If you're up for more reading, let me try to give a tempered defense of "speech codes." Speech-police, in a sense, always has occurred. If I referred to you in a way you didn't like, I'd expect and hope you'd correct me. We correct people when they don't call us by the right name, or they mispronounce it, etc. It's a basic thing of respect that we don't deliberately call someone by the wrong name or mispronounce it.
Speech codes SHOULD be unnecessary, and I think someday they will be. (I'm an optimist.) But a lot of people--even people as young as I am-- didn't grow up in a time when we were taught very well about what kinds of words, etc. are disrespectful, at least as disrespectful as calling someone by the wrong name.
As I see it, there are two main options for making the situation better. We can tell people to get over it and just deal with the disrespect that they feel. This has the benefit of some people being able to say whatever they want. It has the downside of some people clearly NOT being able to say what they want, because it will just be dismissed-- "Get over it". The other possibility is to change the social environment to put everyone on an equal footing. Microaggressions are things that really have to be learned-- they're so easy to not notice if one isn't affected by them (hence the name). And someone who makes a microaggression isn't doing anything *Seriously* wrong, in a sense, but one or two microaggressions from a wide selection of people adds up. Imagine if you went about your workweek with everyone calling you the wrong name and using the wrong gender pronoun. I would hope you'd object.
And that's what people at universities are doing; they're collectively objecting, rather than objecting to each individual microaggressor. Where I think it goes overboard is when blame & shame get involved to an unwarranted degree (as in the Christakis case). And I think you make a good point that this is tied to mirroring the alt-right, something I also oppose. But usually this stuff isn't so dramatic, and that's due in part to workshops educating people on social skills.
ERIC MADER: Much appreciate your lengthy comments, Jessie, that make a lot of excellent points I would agree with, and a few on which I wouldn't. But as I'm busy, I haven't been able to respond yet. Tomorrow, I hope. Cheers.
JESSIE M.: I look forward to your response!
ERIC MADER: Jessie M.: I'm as close to being a free-speech absolutist as a sane person can come. What I mean by this is simple: In society at large, there should be laws only against clear, unambiguous incitement to violence. Thus I think most Western countries' "hate speech" laws are noxious. And getting worse quickly. They are noxious for the three reasons that: 1) they abridge free speech; 2) hate speech is notoriously difficult to define and will always be defined in biased ways by elites; 3) suppressing speech only makes bias and hate go underground, where it will get worse.
That goes for society at large, and in my view many Western societies are failing. As for campus communities, I think your perspective that things are not as bad as the Drehers of the world imply is generally good news, though you haven't quite convinced me. For two reasons: 1) I think that since you are already on board with much of the left-liberal interpretation of society, progress, etc. (I may be wrong about this, but just a hunch)--I think that you, like many in your shoes, aren't well-positioned even to *notice* how this interpretation increasingly excludes outlier voices. Shuts them up in fact. 2) The news of campus thought-policing keeps falling heavy and quick, and it is not getting better, but rather worse.
Re: speech codes and microaggressions on campus--and I think this may offer a good example of how you aren't noticing something essential--I agree that in campus communities, including especially classrooms, it would be entirely inappropriate and basically breaking the social contract for a professor or student to use the n-word to refer to another student. If a student in class were to say to another, "Yeah, that's just your n***** attitude talking”--then I think we have a serious problem and the basic social contract that allows civil discussion to continue has been broken. So: Speech codes of one sort or another are appropriate in corporate or classroom settings. But as for gender pronouns, any rules regarding gender pronouns, and as for nannying student populations on this absurd thing called microaggressions, I totally disagree with you.
Why should there be campus regulations forbidding someone from using racial epithets in campus settings but NOT regulations on gender pronouns? The answer is obvious. If a woman student describes herself as a "Mexican" and someone else calls her a "wetback", what they are doing is employing an insult instead of the perfectly correct and noncontroversial term. But if someone tells me his preferred gender pronoun is "xe", and I happen to believe strongly that 1) there is no such gender as xe, 2) the phenomenon of newly invented gender pronouns is a species of cultural decay I don't want to abet, and 3) the person before me is clearly male--in this case, it is *not* an insult for me to say "Sorry, I only use *he* and *she* and will use *he* to refer to you." It is not an insult because *he* is not in itself an insulting word. When I refuse to use these novel gender pronouns, I am not intending to insult anyone, I am merely insisting that *my* usage of English will express my own interpretation of the world. On this, I agree with Jordan Peterson. Since there is a sizable percentage of people who do not subscribe to the recent gender-queering interpretation of reality, for the state or universities to force people to use the language preferred by gender ideologists is authoritarian.
Yes, “xe" will feel offended. That's not my concern and it shouldn't be the concern of university administrations. There are lots of things said on American campuses that offend me, but I’m not calling for people to be censored or for their language use to be policed to conform to *my* preferred interpretation of reality.
On microaggressions, I am also very old school. As in: "So, you are tired of people asking where you are from? So what? You can live with it." Or: "So, you are tired of people referring to your beautiful curly African hair? Give me a effing break. Grow up and lean to accept others' way of making small talk." That this discourse on "microaggressions" even began is a sign of how pathetic our campuses have become.
I’m a Western man living in Asia, in a big city, I've lived here for twenty years, and not a day goes by without me getting at least three or four "microaggressions". "Where are you from?" "What are you doing here?" "Oh, you can speak Chinese!" "Isn't it hard for you to live here?" "I know you people don't like this kind of food." "This heat must be worse with so much hair on your body." Literally. But I'm not upset by it because these are people who are TALKING TO ME--i.e. trying to communicate in ways that break the ice, in ways that, for the sillier of them, show me they haven't given a thought to how OFTEN Westerners in Asia must be asked these same damn questions over and over and over, in my case thousands of times. "Do you have a Taiwanese girlfriend?" I get asked that question by men at least a few times a month. Literally. But still, I'm NEVER going to complain about such "microaggressions", because I see that when humans are racially or ethnically different from each other, they use that difference as a stepping stone to communication.
I agree with you that it is better to practice mutual listening and understanding as carefully as we can. But in the case of alternative gender pronouns and microaggressions, we are *not* dealing with mutual listening and understanding. With the former, we are dealing with the imposition of a certain sexual anthropology, one I and many other people reject utterly. With the latter, we are dealing with crybaby minority groups who want to be proud of their minority status while simultaneously ensuring that nobody ever brings it up in ways they might find boring or annoying. Crybabies who want to have their cake and eat it too and then yell at the baker because he ain't woke enough.
As a rather traditionalist Christian keenly interested in furthering and defending what is good in Western culture, and as a supporter of free speech, I can assure you that I would likely not be able to hold down a job on an American campus at present. I might make efforts to get along, but I still wouldn't survive. Because I've got too much of a mouth on me. If I were to see a group of BLM students carrying a poster that denigrated that abstract thing they call "whiteness", I would consider it my right to challenge it aloud.
"Oh, yeah. So whiteness is a problem?" I'd ask.
"Yes! THE problem," they'd say.
"Well, what about the serious problem of blackness?" I'd ask ironically.
I ask you honesty: If any young professor on your campus were to do that, even in ironic tit for tat, wouldn't there be an uproar? Wouldn't he or she have made a virtually fatal mistake that, if caught on cell phone, would bring down the roof upon his/her head? If so, your campus doesn't enough respect freedom of discourse for me.
Looking forward to hearing any reply you may have. Cheers.
[No reply. Four days later I posted the following;]
ERIC MADER: Well, Jessie M., I read your TLDR comments, and replied in detail. You too busy, or am I to understand it's the usual reason I'm getting crickets here?
[Two days later:]
ERIC MADER: Jessie M.: After your lengthy comments about making space for different voices, your decision to drop this dialogue cold, leaving only crickets, only demonstrates my point. Congratulations.
[And so ends yet another dialogue on “dialogue” according to the left.]
Have some deadpan with your coffee. Check out Idiocy, Ltd. Dryest humor in the west.
Friday, April 6, 2018
[This is the last part of a 5-part essay on Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. Return to part 1.]
5. Liberalism justifies and promotes an unsustainable relation to nature (plus Conclusion)
If in the interests of radical individual autonomy liberalism hollows out actual cultures, so also in the human understanding of nature liberalism theorizes and promotes a kind of anti-nature. And again, not surprisingly, this novel theorization of nature is justified because, it is claimed, it will further human autonomy.
In the early modern period, European thinkers abandoned the medieval understanding of nature that saw it as a vast, mysterious book in which humans could read the laws and intentions of the Creator, replacing it with a more antagonistic view of nature as a force set against man and one that he was called upon to defeat. Francis Bacon (whom Hobbes served as secretary) was one of the seminal thinkers in this shift.
While medieval culture understood man himself as part of nature, with the rejection of Aristotle and natural law philosophy a space was opened up, man was theoretically liberated from the natural world, and a new human freedom was championed--a freedom from both 1) the natural environment and 2) anything that might be claimed as man’s essence. Over the intervening centuries, man’s freedom was increasingly defined in a dual direction: he neither had to conform to the natural order around him, nor even to conform to his given nature as man. In our academies at present, the notion of a human nature is widely denounced as an oppressive “ideology”. Those denouncing such an idea as “essentialism” claim to be doing so in the interests of oppressed non-Western cultures or marginalized sexual minorities, but the repercussions of this revolt against even the idea of nature are seen at many less obvious levels.
[Science and technology are] arguably the greatest source of our liberation [from natural limits] and simultaneously the reason for our imperiled environment, the deformations wrought by our own technologies on our personhood, and deep anxiety over our inability to control our own innovations. The modern scientific project of human liberation from the tyranny of nature has been framed as an effort to “master” or “control” nature, or as a “war” against nature in which its study would provide the tools for its subjugation at the hands of humans. Francis Bacon--who rejected the classical arguments that learning aimed at the virtues of wisdom, prudence, and justice, arguing instead that “knowledge is power”--compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.
… Yet nature seems not to have surrendered. As the farmer and author, Wendell Berry has written, if modern science and technology were conceived as a “war against nature,” then “it is a war in every sense--nature is fighting us as much as we are fighting it. And … it appears that we are losing.” Many elements of what we today call our environmental crisis--climate change, resource depletion, groundwater contamination and scarcity, species extinction--are signs of battles won but a war being lost.
That addresses some of the more global fallout. But Deneen also sees repercussions of this early modern shift in perverse developments like transhumanism, a movement gaining ever more adherents and which insists that our nature as humans can be “remade” or “improved” and death defeated. This latter in fact demonstrates the same view of nature as malleable material that we see in modern approaches to our global environment. The only difference is that here it is human nature itself that is to be remade according to individual wishes. And again, this same view can be seen to animate or underpin recent movements claiming that sex is not essentially related to reproduction (as with much contemporary feminism) or that “gender identity” is not related biological sex (the LGBTQwerty movement’s current battle front). One can see, to take an example Deneen doesn’t mention, a like revolt against nature evidenced in what has become a virtual epidemic of cosmetic surgery, a practice once hidden and cause for embarrassment, now entirely normalized.
To sum up, under advanced liberalism the person is no longer grounded in 1) a natural environment, 2) a particular biological sex, or even 3) the givenness of his/her own body in terms of appearance or the phenomenon of aging. That dystopian science fiction repeatedly takes up all these forms of disconnect proves that although this revolt against nature is deep and widespread, there is nonetheless a culture-wide awareness of a lurking “revenge of the repressed” waiting in our near future.
Our more philosophical critics will trace most of these developments to the early modern revolt against Aristotle and natural law. Enlightenment thinkers took over the anti-Aristotelian stance whole cloth and, combining it with a stress on free markets and capitalist development, liberalism weaponized it, creating our current dominant understanding of science. For the modern West, worshipful of science, nature is no longer a Book to be read in service of insight or wisdom; it is rather to be unveiled and exploited in service to our need for new technologies and products, which allow us to live at ever greater “comfort”, this term often meaning mostly: ever greater distance from the soil and natural processes. Further, with the development of transportation and the new mobility of elites, also products of the same technology, our liberal order can externalize destruction of natural environments by simply 1) moving place, or 2) ensuring that the worst destruction occurs in undeveloped nations, where populations must suffer what they must, unable to defend their forests, land, or water.
Given this historical/technological context, it is no surprise that dystopian literary and film visions of our future depict a ruling elite that is at least part-artificial, mentally and ethically deranged, and always disconnected from any specific territory. Territories, meanwhile, are depicted as polluted and barely sustainable, the proletarian or rebel denizens stuck in them living out hardscrabble lives and facing impossible odds even to survive. Our science fiction, again, its very popularity, as Deneen recognizes, proves that most citizens living in advanced liberal societies are well aware that liberalism is a false ideological veil that threatens to tear asunder any decade now.
Many of these topics have been widely discussed going back decades. What is powerful in Deneen’s presentation is 1) his linking of this current looming crisis with the original gestures of liberal thought, as well as 2) his observation that our deformations both of wider nature and, more recently, of human nature (transhumanism, radical feminism, the trans craze, etc.) have origins traceable to one and the same liberal shift in the understanding of nature, a shift formulated centuries ago.
“The end of liberalism is in sight.”
This is Deneen’s prognosis, based on a many-faceted analysis of the liberal project’s fundamental grounds as they work themselves out in Western societies. In my own reading, if I were to put it in a nutshell, Deneen argues that liberalism will fall because it is ultimately incompatible with one of the key constituents of human flourishing: culture.
Presuming he is right, what does he then propose we do given the breakdown he identifies as already underway?
Here we come to what I see as one of the special virtues of his approach. Deneen manages to combine deep diagnostic insight on the fallout of liberal ideology with an equally deep theoretical humility as to possible remedies. He offers no grand blueprint of what might come after liberalism, and in fact cautions that any attempt to draw up such a blueprint would be premature and almost certainly self-defeating.
There are two reasons. The first is that there is much in the liberal order that we don’t want to abandon. Yes, although Deneen is unsparing in his critique of the excesses brought on us by liberal ideology, he maintains a keen appreciation for liberalism’s successes over the centuries, citing many of the things avid liberals would also cite. The second is that he recognizes the totalizing threat of political blueprints per se, especially in the post-Enlightenment period. He suspects that those who would draw up a new blueprint in theoretical rejection of liberalism would only be bringing yet more of the disaster we have suffered already from liberalism’s competing modern ideologies, Marxism and fascism. The threat of falling into one despotism or another is clear in his mind, as he suggests alternative possible outcomes to liberal collapse.
This denouement might take one of two forms. In the first instance, one can envision the perpetuation of a political system called “liberalism” that, becoming fully itself, operates in forms opposite to its purported claims about liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. Contemporary liberalism will increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat--especially in the form of an administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of a massive “deep state,” with extensive powers of surveillance, legal mandate, police power, and administrative control. …
[A second possible denouement would be] the end of liberalism and its replacement by another regime. Most people envisioning such scenarios rightly warn of the likely viciousness of any successor regime, and close to hand are the examples of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism, and Russia’s brief flirtation with liberalism before the imposition of communism. While these brutal and failed examples suggest that such possibilities are unlikely to generate widespread enthusiasm even in a postliberal age, some form of populist nationalist authoritarianism or military autocracy seems altogether plausible as an answer to the anger and fear of a postliberal citizenry.
Faced with these two possible outcomes, Deneen suggests not a new grand blueprint, but rather undertaking “tentative first steps” to seed the ground for ways of living yet to come. He suggests three, which may be summed up as:
1) Acknowledge the achievements of liberalism; eschew any desire for an impossible “return” to some preliberal age. Build upon these liberal achievements while abandoning the foundational philosophical positions that allowed for liberal failure.
2) Outgrow the age of ideology. Deneen: “Instead of trying to conceive a replacement ideology (or returning to some updated version of an alternative, such as a renascent Marxism), we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.”
3) Allow any new theory of politics to develop organically, based on the experiences of lived communities. From “the cauldron of such experience and practice, a better theory of politics and society might ultimately emerge,” one that retains the “rightful demands” liberalism itself makes, “particularly for justice and dignity.”
Deneen closes his magisterial Why Liberalism Failed with a consideration of the challenges taking up these “tentative steps” present: the difficulties of fostering and defending new cultural models in the midst of our growing and every more dysfunctional “anticulture.” His vision of cultural viability going forward shares much with the projects of other critics and thinkers writing at present, such as the Benedict Option of Rod Dreher (whom he mentions), or the philosophical focus on practices and communities of practice of Alasdair MacIntyre.
Deneen’s book is a must read for those who want to get at the roots of what now ails the West. There is much, very much, in it that I haven’t mentioned. I only hope I have identified and roughly outlined the main theses.
Return to Why Liberalism Failed: Introduction and Part 1.
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Monday, April 2, 2018
and Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
[This is part 4 of a 5-part essay on Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. Return to part 1.]
4. Liberalism creates a globalized monoculture
Our word culture derives from the Latin verb colere: to till the land, to inhabit, also to worship. The term thus relates to cultus, a religious grouping defined by its own understanding of the divine or its own particular rituals for relating to the divine. Etymology is sometimes less than helpful when seeking to define current usage of terms, but in this case it is not. This complex of meanings in the Latin points to how the word culture is now understood.
As we have seen, liberalism explicitly seeks to liberate the individual from what it considers the arbitrary and oppressive strictures of the past. But into what precisely is the individual liberated? Nature? A new liberal culture? Hardly. Deneen argues that liberalism, as it advances, can only liberate into an “anticulture”.
All previously known cultures were characterized by deep links to place (the geographical locale in which the culture arose) and a deep sense of generational time (the individual was aware of being beholden both to his/her heritage and his people’s future). Liberalism, theorizing nature in Baconian fashion as a placeless expanse to be subjected to man’s technological advance, and theorizing man himself as self-made, self-actualizing individual, undermines both of these fundamental preconditions of culture. In the realm of nature, liberal anticulture proves unsustainable.
[Human] mastery of nature is producing consequences that suggest such mastery is at best temporary and finally illusory: ecological costs of burning fossil fuels, limits of unlimited application of antibiotics, political fallout from displacement of workforce by technology, and so forth. Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.
In a recent study, an international team of marine biologists predicts that the oceans will be basically “dead” by the year 2048. What does such news even mean in human terms? Liberalism has no answer. Have humans ever lived in a world with “dead” oceans? Never in our 220,000-year history. In comparison to that spread of two-hundred-plus millennia, the new ideology of liberalism has given us the tools to render sterile a massive expanse of the planet’s ecosystem in a mere handful of generations.
We have gotten used to hearing announcements like this one from marine biologists, and our reactions are of two kinds. Either we claim that it must be mere “alarmism”, that no such thing will happen, or we shrug and go on with our lives, assuming that when it does happen our descendants will figure out a way to pull through. “Unfortunate, that,” seems the general response, “but what can we do about it?”
This hints at another aspect of advanced liberalism that Deneen teases out, namely the fact that it has raised human activities like “the economy” and “technology” to a kind of functional transcendence beyond human control. The stunning thing is that citizens of the liberal order accept this as “just the way it is”.
[A deep] anxiety arises from the belief that there is an inevitability to technological advances that no amount of warning about their dangers can prevent. A kind of Hegelian or Darwinian narrative seems to dominate our worldview. We seem inescapably to be either creating our own destroyer or, as Lee Silver writes in Remaking Eden, evolving into a fundamentally different treasure that we have reason to fear becoming. Our popular culture seems to be a kind of electronic Cassandra, seeing the future but unable to get anyone to believe it.
Under advanced liberalism, economy and technology are not human practices linked to particular cultures, but transcendent, globalized phenomena to which all cultures must bow. They are in effect post-human: forces no specific cultural order could hope to alter or resist.
Meanwhile, of course, liberalism pursues its project of undermining individual cultures at breakneck speed. Deneen analyses how, in a gesture of deep denial, liberalism now weaponizes the very language of cultural difference in order to spread its global monoculture.
A panoply of actual cultures is replaced by a celebration of “multiculturalism,” the reduction of actual cultural variety to liberal homogeneity loosely dressed in easily discarded native garb. The “-ism” of “multiculturalism” signals liberalism’s victorious rout of actual cultural variety. Even as cultures are replaced by a pervasive anticulture, the language of culture is advanced as a means of rendering liberal humanity’s detachment from specific cultures. The homogenous celebration of every culture effectively means no culture at all. The more insistent the invocation of “pluralism” or “diversity” or, in the retail world, “choice,” the more assuredly the destruction of actual cultures is advancing.
In recent decades, we see the following absurd formula dictating norms: “We must respect diversity! Diversity means that if you don’t agree with us on all fundamental points, you aren’t diverse enough. You must become like us, then we can be diverse together. You don’t want to be a bigot, do you?” Bizarrely, the self-contradictory absurdity of this formula escapes notice in huge swaths of academia, media, government. As if different cultures, by definition, don’t sometimes differ on fundamentals. Liberals pride themselves on being “tolerant”, but of course if they only tolerate those who agree with them, that is not “tolerance” in any meaningful sense of the word. In such an environment, does any real pluralism stand a chance? Given the pervasive power of the ideology of “diversity”, now implemented both by the state and our educational institutions, it seems hardly likely.
Liberalism’s success in the West and its global reach only mean a speeding up of the spread of anticulture, a process by which actual cultures are hollowed out and once distinct peoples, redefined as “global citizens” and “consumers”, are forced to worship the now reified liberal powers of Economy and Technology. In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen subtly analyses this dynamic at work on various fronts.
Next: 5. Liberalism justifies and promotes an unsustainable relation to nature (plus Conclusion)
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Sunday, April 1, 2018
3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty
This particular thesis relates closely to what we’ve just laid out in section 2. The central place of liberty in the American liberal project is evident to everyone. What is less known, however, is the fact that this term itself underwent a major shift in meaning before it become cornerstone in our political self-understanding.
In paradigm shifts in the sciences, it is common to see key terms from the older theory retained, but having undergone radical changes in meaning to fit the new paradigm. Important terms are not often abandoned entirely; rather they are repurposed, their meaning changing when one paradigm replaces another. Of course similar semantic shifts occur in periods of cultural or political revolution. A cherished concept like liberty becomes the prize in an ideological struggle, and the revolutionaries, if successful, seize it as their own, managing in the process to modify its meaning even as they lay claim to its old prestige.
Deneen makes clear that Enlightenment thinkers did not formulate their new politics from scratch, but developed it out of ancient and medieval political concepts which they bent into new shapes to match their new order. This was both an organic development (one typically works with the concepts one inherits) and a strategic one (the populace can only be rallied with terms they recognize). In the case of the traditional concept liberty, however, the semantic shift pulled off by these thinkers was massive.
Deneen lays out the tradition behind the term as follows:
Liberalism did not, of course, discover or invent the human longing for liberty: the word libertas is of ancient origin, and its defense and realization have been a primary goal from the first forays into political philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. The foundational texts of the Western political tradition focused especially on the question how to constrain the impulse to and assertions of tyranny, and characteristically settled upon the cultivation of virtue and self-rule as the key correctives to the tyrannical temptation. The Greeks especially regarded self-government as a continuity from the individual to the polity, with the realization of either only possible if the virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation, and justice were to be mutually sustained and fostered. Self-governance in the city was possible only if the virtue of self-governance governed the souls of citizens; and self-governance of individuals could be realized only in a city that understood that citizenship itself was a kind of ongoing habituation in virtue, through both law and custom. (italics mine)
For the Greeks, any polity that would avoid falling into tyranny must first understand the necessity of teaching its individual citizens to rule themselves, to control their appetites and recognize a certain degree of duty to the whole. Liberty, then, was a dual condition: a virtue in possession of which individuals would be free both from the overweening demands of their own greed and lust (pushing from inside them) and from the tyrant who would always be ready to seize control of their polity (pushing at them from the outside). Needless to say, this is hardly how Americans understand liberty. Liberty in our understanding is largely two things: 1) my personal freedom to behave/consume/think as I choose without others impeding me; 2) the power of the American government to uphold this freedom against any challengers (whether communist, fascist, etc.). Note that nowhere in this American understanding of liberty is the element of liberty from the overweening power of one’s own lusts.
How was this change in stress effected?
Liberty was fundamentally reconceived, even if the word was retained.… Liberty [had long been thought] to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government. Classical and Christian political thought was self-admittedly more “art” than “science”: it relied extensively on the fortunate appearance of inspiring founding figures and statesmen who could uphold political and social self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, and acknowledged the likelihood of decay and corruption as an inevitable future of any human institution….
The roots of liberalism lay in efforts to overturn a variety of anthropological assumptions and social norms that had come to be believed as sources of pathology--namely, fonts of conflict as well as obstacles to individual liberty. The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers 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.
Deneen traces this project back to Machiavelli, who first explicitly rejected what he saw as the unrealistic political fantasies of previous republics based on the cultivation of virtue.
Rather than promoting unrealistic standards for behavior--especially self-limitation--that could at best be unreliably achieved, Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon readily observable human behaviors of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory…. By acknowledging ineradicable human selfishness and the desire for material goods, one might conceive of ways to harness those motivations rather than seeking to moderate or limit those desires.
Of course this basic Machiavellian insight comes most into its own in our modern thinking on the advantages of the free market. After Machiavelli, Hobbes and Descartes proved crucial as sources of the new politics.
Second, the classical and Christian emphasis upon virtue … relied upon reinforcing norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life. What were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue--and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny--came to be viewed as sources of oppression, arbitrariness, and limitation. Descartes and Hobbes in turn argued that the rule of irrational custom and unexamined tradition--especially religious belief and practice--was a source of arbitrary governance and unproductive internecine conflicts, and thus an obstacle to a stable and prosperous regime. Each proposed remediating the presence of custom and tradition by introducing “thought experiments” that reduced people to their natural essence--conceptually stripping humans of accidental attributes that obscured from us our true nature--so that philosophy and politics could be based upon a reasoned and reflective footing. Both expressed confidence in a more individualistic rationality … and each believed that potential deviations from rationality could be corrected by the legal prohibitions and sanctions of a centralized political state.
Thus the philosophical roots of that fundamental shift in the meaning of liberty effected by later Enlightenment thinkers. Deneen would not deny that many social goods have come from this shift, or from certain aspects of it. But by the latter decades of the 20th century, if not earlier, the social pathologies such reconfigured liberty encouraged became obvious. And at present, well into the new century, it’s become impossible to ignore that while many things were gained, many others were lost. We may be entering a period where liberalism itself falls into crisis because of the radical individualism fostered by this philosophical shift.
Deneen makes clear how liberty as we now conceive it may be encouraging a kind of mass barbarism. On the one hand, democracy as a task, as something needing active civic engagement and cultivation at the local level, is giving way to a growing statism, where “democratic” activists come to demand their “rights” or “entitlements” from a state that is seen as Great Provider. Simultaneously, these rights or entitlements continue to grow well beyond anything put forward in the original liberal charter. On the other hand, the Hobbesian shift in the understanding of liberty--that we are somehow born as free individuals rather than needing to learn liberty as a social practice--leads more and more to a citizenry that conceives of their own liberty as grounded in their bodies, almost as with some animal species (bears, for instance, which rove as individuals, rather than chimpanzees, which live in groups). As advanced liberalism develops and such cultureless individualism becomes the norm, the state will necessarily become more invasive:
Informal relationships are replaced by administrative directives, political policies, and legal mandates … requiring an ever-expanding state apparatus to ensure social cooperation. The threat and evidence of declining civic norms require centralized surveillance, highly visible police presence, and a carceral state to control the effects of its own successes while diminishing civic trust and mutual commitment.
Always with a mind to the role of education in political formation, Deneen sees the hand of liberalism in recent developments on our campuses:
Liberalism … undermines education by replacing a definition of liberty as an education in self-government with liberty as autonomy and the absence of constraint. Ultimately it destroys liberal education, since it begins with the assumption that we are born free, rather than that we must learn to become free. Under liberalism, the liberal arts are instruments of personal liberation, an end that is consistently pursued in the humanities, in the scientific and mathematical disciplines (STEM), and in economics and business. In the humanities, liberatory movements based on claims of identity regard the past as a repository of oppression, and hence displace the legitimacy of the humanities as a source of education. Meanwhile, the subjects that advance the practical and effectual experience of autonomy--STEM, economics, and business--come to be regarded as the sole subjects of justified study.
Both left and right push this dynamic forward, so that now we have come to the odd pass were the humanities are largely “victim studies”, only good for producing activists bent on further destruction of their own cultural roots, and where “practical” fields are conceived as job training. Completely lost is the vision of education as the preparation of citizens for life in a republic.
But to return to the concept liberty, note that liberty, in a belated echo of the mechanistic thinking of the early moderns, must always be liberty of bodies. Deneen traces this logic in our current humanities, where increasingly we see that only bodily, physical differences count as valid grounds for claiming victim status:
The humanities and social sciences … focus on identity politics and redressing past injustices to specific groups, under the “multicultural” and “diversity” banners…. [But the] groups that are deemed worthy of strenuous efforts to redress grievances are identified for features relating to their bodies--race, gender, sexual identity--while “communities of work and culture,” including cohesive ethnic and class groupings, receive scant attention. Thus while students’ groups grounded in racial or sexual identity demand justice so that they can fully join modern liberal society, cohesive ethnic groups resistant to liberal expressive individualism like Kurds or Hmong, persecuted religious minorities such as Copts, non urban nonelites such as leaders in the 4-H, and the rural poor can expect little attention from today’s campus liberals.
At present these developments are writ large only in academic settings, which has led some to claim that all this is only a matter of “student protest”, that the kids will “grow up and face the real world eventually”. What is ignored in this assessment is the fact that these very campuses are training the people who will soon move into directorial positions across the culture, in government, media and the corporate world. Already, especially in high tech, we see precisely these kinds of “political correctness” determining corporate policy and effecting the whole society through the above-mentioned “Communities Standards” guidelines that lead to censorship of public discourse online. The same mentality is getting ever more entrenched in print and television media as well.
The Enlightenment rewriting of the concept liberty, in Deneen’s view, has ultimately led to a social order that valorizes hedonism and greed even as it barbarizes what used to be liberal education. Given the central role of education in any advanced polity, a role the ancients well understood, it will be little surprise if our “advanced” liberal republics begin to come undone given our current priorities. As the ancients would also have understood, tyranny is one possible next step.
Next: 4. Liberalism creates a globalized monoculture
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Saturday, March 31, 2018
[This is part 2 of a 5-part article on Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. Part 1 is here.]
2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle
A vast population of such individuals, with ever weaker cultural norms to moderate behavior, each insisting on his or her right to “make their own rules”, will necessarily become difficult to govern. In a regime where “experiments in living” are the norm, there will be few shared standards or customs to dictate interpersonal relations, sexual mores, or the borders between private vs. public space. There will likewise be no common cultural heritage to refer to when disagreements arise, making the state and its laws a necessary arbiter for differences that were previously dealt with at the local level. Liberalism must thus, again in a perverse twist, lead to less and less individual liberty as the liberal project progresses. Thus Deneen’s next major thesis.
Among both scholars and the general public, the debate over the religious and/or secular intentions of the American Founders continues unabated. One reason is evident enough: the American founding was a profoundly and subtly mixed phenomenon, the Founders framing a political order that would 1) suit the almost entirely religious population of the time, but 2) ensure that their new state remained carefully protected from the possibility of any one denomination taking over. This made eminent sense in the context. The Founders assumed an overwhelmingly Christian population as the one that would inherit and thrive under the carefully balanced political structure they built, to the extent that one of the most prominent, John Adams, could write:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.
With this background and subsequent American history in mind, many subtle observers in recent decades have made a point that Deneen echoes, namely: If American society has remained relatively stable in the decades following 1960, it is because it has been able to borrow on the store of (largely Christian) cultural capital left to it by the past. The strong family ethic, stress on personal responsibility, stigma on divorce and sexual license that most of America held to even during the last decades of the 20th century--these were largely an inheritance from more explicitly Christian earlier generations. Many millions of Americans now in their fifties benefited from this stability, which shaped their childhoods via mostly two-parent households and a social environment with roughly traditional moral standards. But given the more experimental and “counter-cultural” social mores of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, many of these same 50-somethings didn’t provide that same stability to their children. Having internalized the counter-cultural ethos themselves, they raised children, now young adults, that consider culture itself to be mainly a matter of breaking whatever remains of the “oppressive” past in favor of a hedonistic liberation that is seen as synonymous with progress. Thus we now face the unravelling of basic family structure, and at the same time such things as the nationwide abandonment of basic civics education. Ask a 20-something today about the Founders, and you are likely to hear: “They were all white slave-owners.” What you won’t get is any sense of the subtlety of what they wrought in giving us our Constitution. Ask about Christianity, and you are likely to hear: “What? You don’t believe in evolution?”--as if religion and science were mutually exclusive. And yet, ironically, it is still the constitutional order, along with our religiously-grounded respect for the dignity of individual conscience, that underpins the very society these 20-somethings live and breathe in. But for how long?
The upshot in inescapable: these younger generations can't be counted on to maintain or defend our political order. One sees them high up in a tree, gleefully sawing away at the branches they’re sitting on, sure that when those branches break they will land in Utopia. This, in reference to the religious inheritance, is what Deneen means by his version of the now common lament:
Liberalism has drawn down on a pre liberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish. The loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life--familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national--reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability.
Again, it is a matter of the combined impact of the radical Millian individualism we discussed in part 1 (“experiments in living”) and the widespread belief that historical change, as if by some inherent law, is always equal to Progress.
The repercussions of this steady, decade-by-decade withdrawal of cultural capital, our slow march to bankruptcy, are now beginning to be felt more painfully, and since there's no longer any cultural institution that might school the flailing experimenters in their inevitable conflicts, our tribes will call upon the state to restore order. The paradox is striking: Liberal individualism eventually leads to increasing state intervention in daily life, and thus eventually undermines real liberty.
Deneen focuses on the increase of state intervention, but we might also note something we're seeing ever more of: corporate intervention. I’m thinking mainly of Silicon Valley’s growing efforts at social engineering, undertaken in the name of vague “community standards” or a need for “safety”. What “community” do they mean exactly? The whole planet? Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg talking or some other Silicon Valley demi-deity, the claim that they speak for such a vast community is equally absurd. One also thinks, in terms of such interventions, of the growing power of corporate HR departments and, of course, university administrations, of which more below. Whether it is literally the state, then, or the new tech elite that polices our public discourse, intervention is becoming the new normal.
The problem with all this is twofold. First, state laws and “speech codes” do not a culture make--and, as I’ve underlined above, we are deeply social beings, yearning for real cultural ties. The abstract notions of “community” on offer from government bureaucracies and corporate thought-police leave us cold, if not embittered. Second, how is it that these state bureaucracies on the one hand and corporate ideologists on the other have come to have so much direct power over our speech and actions? Growing around us we see new nexuses of power that we cannot attach to actual human faces or connect to any real heritage of which we are part. There's a profound absenteeism about the powers that increasingly pull the strings.
I’m confident nearly all of us, even staunch secular liberals, even tech enthusiasts, now feel this. How is it, we wonder, that our social order promises us such radical individual freedom, and yet we seem ever more hemmed in and monitored in everything we say and do? Why this encroachment, year by year, of ever more surveillance, ever new metrics by which to check our behavior, our political loyalties, our personal contacts? Why, for many of us, do our careers now seem to hang in the balance under a pervasive monitoring? Why do many of us feel that our right to raise our children as we see fit, or our right to speak our ideas in public, are on the verge of being taken away by powers we didn't vote into office?
For Deneen, the depth of this malaise is evidenced not only in the current populist revolts against liberal elites (Trumpism, Brexit, the rising power of the far right in France and elsewhere) but also in the ubiquity of dystopian fiction and films. We sense that something big is coming, that certain fundamental freedoms are under attack and may soon be taken from us, but we aren’t sure exactly how it will happen. Many of us also sense that whatever is coming is connected to the current regnant, globalizing liberal order, and so we must dislodge our distant elites while we still can.
Deneen demonstrates that this ever more invasive meddling of state and state-like structures in citizen’s lives is underwritten by the very thoroughness which which liberalism has bulldozed the institutions that local societies depended on (church, local economy, family, heritage). Avid to create its society of Millian individuals free of traditional bonds, liberalism destroyed all competition, and now must answer to that old warning: “You break it, you buy it.” Sadly, liberals in general believe that this new responsibility thrown at the state (“Heal our wounds! Provide better jobs! Protect our dignity! Keep our kids in line!”) can only be met by enacting … yet more liberalism. Deneen sees this as emphatically the wrong answer, as evidence in fact of a vicious cycle that liberal elites are predisposed by ideology not to recognize.
One of the most telling examples Deneen gives of this vicious cycle in action comes from the change in culture on university campuses. Until not long ago, American universities were understood as institutions upholding a particular cultural heritage (Western Europe, the United States) and saw their mandate as raising up citizens able to carry on the best of this heritage. The university was to offer a “liberal education” (in content more what we might call a humanist education, after Renaissance models) the goal being to civilize students in a particular cultural order. Many of the best of our universities were founded with a religious mandate, and took that mandate seriously. The sexual revolution, the reframing of education as job training, and the new SJW politics of “diversity” (explicitly theorized as anti-Western) have entirely overturned this previous civilizing mission:
One of the upheavals of the sexual revolution was the rejection of long-standing rules and guidelines governing the behavior of students at the nation’s colleges and universities. Formerly understood to stand in for parents--in loco parentis, “in place of the parent”--these institutions dictated rules regarding dormitory life, dating, curfews, visitations, and comportment. Adults--often clergy--were charged with continuing the cultivation of youth into responsible adulthood. Some fifty years after students were liberated from the nanny college, we are seeing not sexual nirvana but widespread confusion and anarchy, and a new form of in abstentia parentis--the paternalist state.
Long-standing local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of norms, manners, and morals came to be regarded as oppressive limitations on individual liberty. Those forms of control were lifted in the name of liberation, leading to regularized abuse of those liberties, born primarily of a lack of any sets of practices or customs to delineate limits on behavior, especially in the fraught arena of sexual interaction. The federal government, seen as the only legitimate authority for redress, exercised its powers to reregulate the liberated behaviors. But in the wake of disassembled local cultures, there is not longer a set of norms by which to cultivate self-rule, since these would constitute an unjust limitation upon our freedom. Now there can be only punitive threats that occur after the fact. Most institutions have gotten out of the business of seeking to educate the exercise of freedom through cultivation of character and virtue; emphasis is instead placed upon the likelihood of punishment after one body has harmed another body.
And so we enter the era of hysteria about “rape culture” on campus, a phenomenon entirely unsupported by statistics. Nevertheless, the “rape culture” claims are predictable enough given 1) third-wave feminism and 2) that campus culture itself promotes a hook-up approach to sexual relations, a free-for-all, where young men are of course going to follow their biological inclinations, while young women, under the influence of alcohol, are going to end up engaging in “regret sex”, feeling the day after that they’ve been used, a feeling then reformulated days and sometimes months later as “I was raped”. What is to be done about this repeat phenomenon? The Department of Education comes to the rescue by creating directives that allow unprincipled university administrations to validate all claims against young men, many of which claims, later, show little merit (cf. the ongoing saga of “Mattress Girl” or any number of other cases). Meanwhile the media takes up the “rape culture” narrative, even as it continues to promote sexual hedonism from the other side of its mouth, and the result is predictably a growing sense of sexual anomie: distrust between the sexes that leads soon to demands for signing of “consent forms” before sexual relations happen (an actual American development that one could hardly even imagine under Soviet rule) and a generalized reregulation of such things as shoulder pats or hugs (“Did I give you consent to touch me?”). In this way, step by step, the sexual revolution manages to turn what used to be the ritualized dance of relations between the sexes into a bureaucratically managed farce.
Here again, as Deneen points out, we can see the Hobbesian natural man mythology at work, this time implemented through university administrations, the media and the state:
This immorality tale is the Hobbesian vision in microcosm: first, tradition and culture must be eliminated as arbitrary and unjust (“natural man”). Then we see that absent such norms, anarchy ensues (“the state of nature”). Finding this anarchy unbearable, we turn to a central sovereign as our sole protector, that “Mortall God” who will protect us from ourselves (“the social contract”). We have been liberated from all custom and tradition, all authority that sought to educate within the context of ongoing communities, and have replaced these things with a distant authority that punishes us when we abuse our freedoms. And now, lacking any informal and local forms of authority, we are virtually assured that those abuses will regularly occur and that the state will find it necessary to intrude ever more minutely into personal affairs (“Prerogative”).
Many might guess from this example that Deneen will end by advising readers to vote for the Republican Party in hopes of restoring an earlier American social vision. But that guess would be a mistake. Deneen provides analyses of the individualism/statism vicious cycle in other areas as well, for instance in our liberal economy, which commodifies nature, place and labor to such radical degrees that disastrous displacements inevitably result--the liberal state then called upon to address the fallout. In this instance it is the policy agenda of Republicans that is more implicated. In fact Deneen sees our two-party system working in a kind of “pincer movement”, Democratic left and Republican right each doing its part to push the same deep liberal agenda: increasing individualism/increasing statism. He notes that the Republican right has long promised to promote two basic things, traditional family values and unregulated capitalism; and yet, oddly, it has only ever delivered on one of these two: the laissez-faire capitalism. Meanwhile, the Democratic left has also, in recent years, promised to promote two basic things, identity-based rights and dignity (especially in terms of sexuality) and strong social programs to ensure a more egalitarian outcome; and yet, again, our Democrats have only delivered on one of these: identity politics, with a special focus on sexual minorities. Deneen sees it as instructive that our two parties, apparently in bitter opposition to each other, both deliver only those goods that further individualize the citizenry: radically unregulated capitalism, where winners have no responsibility to the larger community, and radical sexual autonomy, where sex is increasingly divorced from reproduction and family.
For Deneen, it is not merely an irony that this is what we end up with; rather, it is the “operating system” of advanced liberalism doing what it does. Neither Democratic nor Republican Party, which run as “applications” in this operating system, is capable of changing it, and so they now work in a “pincer movement” that further erodes any national unity. The policy priorities of both Democrats and Republicans lead to new forms of anarchy and separateness that then provoke calls for further state intervention to manage the fallout.
Deneen sees advanced liberal society as one plagued by loneliness, a condition that results ultimately from liberalism's long and largely successful attempt to separate citizens from institutions like church, family, tradition, local economy, etc. (I cover Deneen's treatment of the systemic nature of this attempt in part 1.) With no thick communities in which to thrive, individuals feel weak, without anchor, and when their discontent arises, it is channeled at that institution which now most essentially defines them as rights-bearing individuals: the liberal state. Thus this same state, not surprisingly, is called on to take up more and more of the general social burden, the glue that it busied itself unsticking over the course of decades. The liberal state more often than not responds positively, as in some ways it must, and the Nanny State is born. Liberty proves one of the unfortunate but necessary casualties.
Next: 3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty
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[This page contains the first of five sections, including a brief introduction. I will link the remaining sections 2-5 from here as they are completed.]
The Five Arguments:
1. Liberalism is grounded on a false theory of human nature (with Introduction)
2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle
3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty
4. Liberalism creates a globalized monoculture
5. Liberalism justifies and promotes an unsustainable relation to nature (plus Conclusion)
Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, just out in February, continues to garner ever-wider acclaim as the must-read political book of the year. I would go further and predict it will eventually be recognized as one of the key works of political theory of the early years of this century. In the following posts, I will attempt to sum up Deneen’s hard-hitting, interlocking theses on the causes of our deepening malaise, but want to begin by quoting the opening paragraphs of his last chapter:
Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them. . . .
The narrowing of our political horizons has rendered us incapable of considering that what we face today is not a set of discrete problems solvable by liberal tools but a systemic challenge arising from pervasive invisible ideology. The problem is not in just one program or application but in the operating system itself. It is almost impossible for us to conceive that we are in the midst of a legitimation crisis in which our deepest systemic assumptions are subject to dissolution. . . . Liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist reject as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house standing. The end of liberalism is in sight.
Liberalism’s defenders today regard their discontented countrymen as backward and recidivist, often attributing to them the most vicious motivations: racism, narrow sectarianism, or bigotry, depending on the issue at hand. To the extent that liberalism regards itself as a self-healing, perpetual political machine, it remains almost unthinkable for its apologists to grasp that its failure may lead to its replacement by a cruel and vicious successor. No serious effort to conceive a humane postliberal alternative is likely to emerge from the rear-guard defenders of a declining regime.
If these few paragraphs give some sense of the scope and paradoxical thrust of Deneen’s argument, they also may reveal why some see his prognosis as overly grim. In fact Deneen does claim our political order is beginning to unwind, and predicts its end, as his provocative title (in prophetic past tense) suggests. But how, according to Deneen, have we gotten to this point? If this book is important, if his arguments cannot just be brushed off, I would argue that it’s because he succeeds in laying out a series of interlocked systemic features of liberal politics that explain why breakdown is inevitable.
[NB: A brief clarification of terms may be in order for some. What is meant here by liberalism? Simply put, Deneen is using the term liberalism in its more academic sense to mean a post-Enlightenment system of government characterized by (more or less) free markets, individual liberty, and elections. He has in mind particularly our American republic as founded in our Constitution. He is not using the term liberal in the way it is often used in common parlance today--to mean Democrat, say, rather than Republican. In Deneen’s usage, all our prominent politicians are part of “the liberal tradition”--George W. Bush as much as Barack Obama. Deneen follows the standard use of the term in political science. The term liberal is meant to distinguish our politics from, say, the monarchism of previous centuries or the Leninism or fascism of more recent times.]
Deneen’s theses on the liberal project buttress his argument that eventual failure is virtually built into it. In my reading, the following five theses are the most important.
1. Liberalism is grounded on a false theory of human nature
This is one of the most provocative of Deneen’s points, and will take a bit of unpacking.
In an effort to explain the origins of government, 17th c. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes theorized on the primitive human condition before the rise of society: the condition of man in a purported “state of nature”. Hobbes imagined pre-political men to live individually, all against all, in brutal competition for nourishment and comfort. For primitive man, there were no legal limits on individual behavior, and thus he lived in many respects by pure freedom of will, his grasping and greed only checked by limits in the environment and violence from competitors. Given that life in such a state proved, as he famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” Hobbes theorized that the first political arrangements arose by consent of these warring individuals. Individuals contracted mutual agreements to temper the endemic violence of the natural state, and thus civil society was born.
Hobbes is recognized as a protoliberal thinker, laying some of the groundwork, but later thinkers more central to the liberal project took up the idea of a “state of nature”, particularly Locke and Rousseau. Hobbes’ “natural man” theory proved crucial to the formation of liberal thought because it offered two things: 1) a kind of general anthropology (a theory of humanity in its basic state which, in this case, characterized humans as individual and greedy); and 2) a rough theoretical base for politics (man’s willingness to enter into social contract through the instinct of self-preservation).
Though this theory may sound fanciful or arcane to contemporary Americans, it is nonetheless one of the crucial grounds on which our American political edifice is built. Hobbes projected “natural” humans as 1) individuals interested primarily in self-preservation, 2) by definition free, and 3) in constant quest of their own individual fulfillment, all against all. One can hear the echo of this anthropology, point for point, in our Declaration of Independence, when it lists our unalienable rights as “ Life,  Liberty and  the pursuit of Happiness,” each term corresponding to one of Hobbes’ stresses.
Central as it has proved in later Western history, there is a serious problem with this Hobbesian “state of nature”. Simply put, it is a political myth that corresponds to nothing in actual human history. The errors in Hobbes’ projected “natural man”, and in the later version especially propounded by Rousseau, are glaring.
Most obviously, there is no such thing as “pre-social” human being. Humans are by definition social animals (indeed even our near relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, are social animals) and there are no known examples of Homo sapiens, no matter how “primitive”, living in a condition anything like Hobbes projected. Even a cursory glance at Hobbes’ myth should reveal it as shallow, given that every human being is raised up in a family of one sort or another, in which cooperation and mutual aid, as well as limits and punishments, are basic constituents. Further, the stress in Hobbes’ theory on single, separate individuals in brutal competition for resources is problematic. Primitive humanity shows competition, but it is competition between groups, organized as families or clans, not between lone individuals spread out as discrete points across the terrain.
The “state of nature” theory of early liberal thinkers was key because it allowed them to legitimize government as a social contract willingly entered into by naturally “free” individuals. And that freedom was initially formulated in a radically individuated way on the basis of the Hobbesian myth.
Deneen sees this founding gesture of the liberal order as setting in motion a political practice that, in a deep historical irony, eventually brings into partial reality a mythical state that never previously existed. For Deneen, Hobbes’ “state of nature” theory ends up being a kind of perverse self-fulfilling prophecy of the society that liberalism ultimately creates. In short, though there never was an original Hobbesian “state of nature”, we are bringing one into being by means of our systemic absorption of Hobbes’ theory.
Deneen underlines how from the very beginning liberal governments enforced policies designed to systematically weaken any human bonds or obligations (such as to church, guild, family) that were not mediated by the liberal state or formulated in terms of individual rights. The liberal state, in effect, intervened in already established social webs, breaking them apart in order to 1) put the liberal state in place of “nature”, so that it may 2) ensure the “natural” rights of that originally “free” individual man. Deneen explains how the “state of nature” myth was implemented:
In a reversal of the scientific method, what is advanced as a philosophical set of arguments [Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau] is then instantiated in reality. The individual as a disembedded, self-interested economic actor didn’t exist in any actual state of nature but rather was the creation of an elaborate intervention by the incipient state in early modernity, at the beginnings of the liberal order. … Few works have made this intervention clearer than the historian and sociologist Karl Polanyi’s classic study The Great Transformation.…
According to Polanyi, the replacement of [previous social arrangements] required a deliberate and often violent reshaping of local economies, most often by elite economic and state actors disrupting and displacing traditional communities and practices. The “individuation” of people required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts but people’s acceptance that their labor and its products were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian and individualistic terms.…[The goal was] to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves as individuals separate from nature and one another. As Polanyi pithily says of this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.”
Later liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill (1806-73) doubled down on this project, reformulating it in even more explicitly individual terms as a kind of culture war. It was understood, of course, that liberalism would not create a classless society, so Mill focused on what was needed for liberal societies to raise up sufficiently independent individuals to serve as a ruling class. Deneen:
In order to liberate these individuals from accident and circumstance, Mill insisted that the whole of society be remade for their benefit, namely by protecting their unique differences against oppressive social norms, particularly religious strictures and social norms governing behavior and comportment. Put another way, Mill argued that “custom” must be overthrown so that those who seek to live according to personal choices in the absence of such norms are at greatest liberty to do so.… Mill called for a society premised around “experiments in living”: society as test tube for the sake of geniuses who are “more individual.”
“Oppressive social norms”, “experiments in living”, “more individual”--this sounds strikingly post-1960s in many ways, doesn’t it? But Deneen is presenting the views of a 19th-century intellectual, a man writing well before the first Ford Model T’s. The historical lesson is perhaps that it takes time for ideas to move through institutions and finally be brought into mass social practice--but move they will. Of Mill’s projected society of “geniuses” Deneen writes:
We live today in the world Mill proposed. Everywhere, at every moment, we are to engage in experiments in living. Custom has been routed: much of what today passes for culture--with or without the adjective “popular”--consists of mocking sarcasm and irony.… Society has been transformed along Millian lines in which especially those regarded as judgmental are to be special objects of scorn, in the name of nonjudgmentalism.
grandfather of the hippy generation
Deneen sees this earlier liberal project of radical individuation, premised on contempt for traditions and customs, as finally linking up with market forces and the lure of fad and fashion, to create a kind of mass “anticulture.”
In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.
For Deneen, this is the end result of liberalism’s original “state of nature” myth as it combines with Mill’s “experiments in living”. Given the centrality of both these forms of radical individualism in modern liberalism, the problem is systemic.
Deneen argues that liberalism’s mythical stress on the naturalness of radical individualism is part of what now renders it unstable. He gives myriad examples of this instability, but we need only think in anthropological terms to see reason for our current malaise. Such radically weaponized individualism doesn’t correspond to what human beings really are: social creatures that, for our very flourishing and sanity, depend on group bonds and deep loyalties that define both our humanity and place in the cosmos. Against this, and by design, secular liberalism atomizes society, replacing religious community and ethnic or family loyalty with a Hobbesian myth of humanity as by definition an aggregate of grasping, self-directed loners. That we now see a surfeit of individuals struggling with a painful lack of meaning, even as they set out to compete against their peers in the market, is not, as Deneen would say, “an error in our implementation of liberal thought”, but rather exactly the kind of people liberalism set out to create: the “natural man”. This is one of the troubling paradoxes of liberalism as it becomes ever more itself:
Ironically … the political project of liberalism, is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, non-relational selves.
[Problems/Questions: Some readers may take issue with the connection I make between Hobbes and the wording of the Declaration of Independence, saying that 1) Locke’s understanding of the state of nature was more decisive for the Founders than Hobbes’, that 2) Locke’s version of the theory differed in key ways, and that in fact 3) there is not good evidence to directly link Locke’s writing on the topic with a direct Hobbesian influence. I’m aware of these questions, but will not attempt to settle them one way or another. In any case, I believe they’re somewhat moot, given Hobbes’ importance as political thinker in the protoliberal era. A more interesting way to frame the larger issue might be to ask what degree the American founding was ultimately grounded in “natural right” thinking (in a Hobbesian register) and what degree dependent on “natural law” thinking. I look forward to the forthcoming book by Timothy Gordon, who writes on this topic and who has argued that the Founders’ project would have been unintelligible without a deep conceptual grounding in the older natural law. I don’t know what Gordon’s precise arguments will be, as I haven’t gotten to his just-published title (Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish Without Rome) but his general position seems promising. After all, even if the implementation of the American project over the course of centuries can be argued to be more a matter of stress on natural right, that doesn’t necessarily mean the founding conceptual framework didn’t depend largely on natural law. From what I have heard in interviews with Gordon, I suspect his work will include the argument that the American project is bound to founder once the last traces of a natural law understanding of key concepts have been abandoned by the culture. I’d say it is already foundering apace.]
Next: 2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle
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