Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why Liberalism Failed: Patrick Deneen's 2nd Thesis

[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 artificially "natural" individuals, with ever weaker cultural norms to moderate behavior, each insisting on his or her right to “make my 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 and 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 second 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 church 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 political structure they built. They assumed it to such an 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 the same stability to their children. Having internalized the counter-cultural ethos, 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 not only the unraveling of basic family structure, but 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 framing 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. Yet, ironically, it is still the American 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?

For many observers, 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 sit on, sure that when those branches break they will land in Utopia. This is what Deneen means by his version of the now common lament:

Liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal 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 social change, as if by some inherent law of history, 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 must look to the state to restore order. The is the paradox Deneen identifies: Liberal individualism must ultimately lead to increasing state intervention in daily life, and thus eventually undermine 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”, we may ask, do they mean exactly? The whole of humanity? Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg talking or some other Silicon Valley demigod, 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, as Deneen recognizes, is twofold. First, state laws and “speech codes” do not a culture make; and since we are deeply social beings, yearning for real cultural ties, the abstract notions of “community” on offer from government bureaucracies and corporate thought-police will necessarily leave us cold. As they will also leave us deeply suspicious. Second, how is it that liberal state bureaucracies and corporate ideologists have come to have so much direct power over our speech, our businesses, our actions? Growing around us we see new nexuses of power that we cannot attach to actual human faces or connect to any real heritage we recognize. There's a profound absenteeism about the powers that increasingly pull the strings.

Evidence suggests that nearly all of us, even staunch secular liberals, even tech enthusiasts, now feel the weight of this looming ersatz "community". How is it, we wonder, that our social order promises us such radical individual freedom, 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--two very fundamental rights--are on the verge of being taken away by powers we never voted 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 no more, 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 citizens' lives is underwritten by the very thoroughness with which liberalism has bulldozed the institutions that local societies once 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 until not long ago took that mandate seriously. The sexual revolution, the reframing of education as job training, and the new SJW politics of “diversity” 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. This has resulted in a nationwide undergraduate 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 Obama 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 wrong. Deneen provides analyses of this individualism/statism vicious cycle in other areas as well, for instance in our liberal economy, which commodifies nature, place and labor to radical degrees. When disastrous displacements inevitably result, the liberal state is 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: 1) radically unregulated capitalism, where winners have no responsibility to the larger community; 2) 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.

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 same institution which essentially defines them as rights-bearing individuals: the liberal state. Protector of individual rights, the list of which keeps growing, the state is called upon to take up more and more of the general social burden, reapplying the glue that it busied itself unsticking over the course of centuries. The liberal state more often than not responds to these demands, as in some ways it must, and the Nanny State is born. As Deneen reads it, liberty ends up a necessary casualty.

Next: 3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty

Order Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed at Amazon.

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Why Liberalism Failed: Patrick Deneen’s 5 Main Arguments

[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 year's must-read book of political analysis. I would go further and predict it will eventually be recognized as one of the key works of political theory of the early decades of this century. In what follows, I 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 may also 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 have we gotten to this point? If his book is important, if his arguments cannot just be brushed off, it’s because he succeeds in laying out a series of interlocking 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. The term liberal, then, 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 in. In my reading, the following five theses are the most important.

Eric Mader

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. We begin with 17th c. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

In an effort to explain the origins of government, 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; he lived by pure freedom of will, his grasping and greed only checked by the natural limits of the environment and violence from competitors. Given that life in such a state proved, as Hobbes famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” the philosopher speculated 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 figures 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 basis for politics (man’s willingness to enter into social contract through the instinct of self-preservation).

Though his theory may sound fanciful or arcane to contemporary Americans, it is nonetheless one of the crucial grounds on which our 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 “[1] Life, [2] Liberty and [3] the pursuit of Happiness,” each term corresponding to one of Hobbes’ stresses.

Central as it has proved in later Western history, there is nonetheless a serious problem with the “state of nature” theory. Simply put, it is a political myth that corresponds to nothing in actual history. The errors in Hobbes' “natural man” thesis are well-nigh 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 its shallowness, given that each human being is and always has been 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 on a terrain.

The “state of nature” theory was key for early liberal thinkers because it allowed them to legitimize government as a social contract willingly entered into by naturally “free” individuals. Human freedom was 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, by a deep historical irony, eventually brings into partial reality the mythical Hobbesian state. For Deneen, Hobbes’ “state of nature” theory ends up being a kind of perverse self-fulfilling prophecy of the society that liberalism ultimately creates. Though there never was an original “state of nature”, according to Deneen we are bringing one into being by means of our deep 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. From the start, the liberal state intervened in already established social webs, breaking them apart in order to 1) put the state in place of “nature”, so that it may finally 2) ensure the “natural” rights of those originally “free” individual men. 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 bring about 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.

John Stuart Mill, great supporter of genius,
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 what he calls our liberal “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 the liberal order'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 good 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 our place in the cosmos. Against this, and by design, secular liberalism atomizes societies, replacing religious community and ethnic or family loyalty with a Hobbesian myth that theorizes humanity as 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 3) there is no good evidence directly linking Locke’s writing on the topic with an immediate Hobbesian influence. I’m aware of these questions, but will not attempt to settle them one way or another. I believe they’re somewhat moot in any case, given Hobbes’ importance as a political thinker in the protoliberal era. A more interesting way to frame the larger issue might be to ask to what degree the American founding was ultimately grounded in “natural right” thinking (in a Hobbesian register) and to 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 approach seems promising. After all, even if the implementation of the American project over the course of centuries arguably depended more on stressing 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 bled out of the culture.]

Next: 2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Steven Pinker Steps in it Again

Steven the PowerPoint Messiah

Look at a handful of the online photos of Harvard’s Steven Pinker, watch any of his lectures, and you will be struck by the feeling that this is a man suffering from mania. A gleam of self-confidence, a twinkle of avid flippancy emanates from this face.

In fact sometimes one can judge a book by its cover.

Pinker has done important work in cognitive linguistics. Yes, he’s clearly a very smart man. Unfortunately, like not a few others who’ve done serious work in science (think Richard Dawkins) Pinker imagines this automatically makes him a sage in political matters too.

The results, as with Dawkins, are embarrassing. Though cases like Pinker’s and Dawkins’ do make for interesting lessons on the vanity of the scientific mind (or at least some scientific minds) they mostly serve to make one depressed. It would be better, one feels, if intelligent people didn’t make fools of themselves in the public arena.

A handful of years back, Pinker published his tome The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argued, in a nutshell, that modernity had made humanity less violent, and suggested that we needed just continue on the modern, secular path and we’d eventually eradicate human evil. He managed to make this argument with a straight face (he’s a man of great straightness of face) just a few years after the end of the most horrific and systematically murderous century in human history. Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism--these were, as serious political philosophers recognize, all deeply modern projects, possible only after the triumph of our secular "Enlightenment". It’s a conundrum many modern thinkers wrestle with, one that puts in question all our claims to civilizational progress.

Not Professor Pinker. No, he has read a few things and has all kinds of (suspect) data to buttress his case. Thus Better Angels.

Now Pinker is at the podium once more, again outside his field of expertise, again showing the world that one can be a major tenured researcher at Harvard and at the same time lack even an inch of philosophical depth.

I spent a few hours with Pinker’s book, but couldn’t finish it. It is typing rather than writing; typing rather than thinking; typing rather than history. Ultimately it represents a monomaniacal hubris, a mere keyboard mania, curls and graphs flying in all directions.

All to prove a rather banal and circular thesis. Something along the lines of: Reason as I, Steven Pinker, understand and define it, will save the world.

As Peter Harrison wrote in his well deserved review of the book:

For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don't be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers--just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.

What's obvious is that Pinker doesn’t take his go-to Enlightenment philosophers seriously enough to actually read them. His summary of the ethical thought of the figures he cites is so shoddy as to make one suspect he didn’t even bother to check, say, the relevant articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That encyclopedia is online, Steven.

The trend among prominent scientists not to take philosophy seriously (Pinker, Dawkins again, the late Stephen Hawking) is ultimately dangerous. Science discovers much about the universe, of course, but philosophy is needed to think the relevance of those discoveries for human being. Scientists like Pinker don’t care to think that relevance at any depth, any philosophical depth, because in fact they aren’t interested in human being. They’re not interested because, in a gesture of amazing naiveté, they assume they already know what human being is. They assume that the meaning of the human is somehow evident, or obvious.

Philosophy is prior to whatever science does. Philosophers of science understand this. Glib practitioners of scientism do not.

I’m not going to bother further with Pinker’s silliness. It’s true I used to be more interested in following intellectual zombies, if only to keep tabs on them. But recently, well, there are so many actual thinkers at work, and we have too much to benefit from them to give over precious reading time to books like Enlightenment Now.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mob Rule and Algorithms

Peter Hitchens is scared. In his recent Daily Mail piece, he sees Britain changing in ways he couldn't previously imagine:

Is THIS a warning? In the past few days I have begun to sense a dangerous and dark new intolerance in the air, which I have never experienced before. An unbidden instinct tells me to be careful what I say or write, in case it ends badly for me. How badly? That is the trouble. I am genuinely unsure.

I have been to many countries where free speech is dangerous. But I have always assumed that there was no real risk here.

How can one not be scared? In fact we are inching toward mob rule, where the mob's ideology is a perverse blend of PC "progressivism" and corporate-sponsored militarism. And no one seems to get any more that mob rule and liberalism are not the same thing.

In both Britain and the US, we're now a hair's breadth away from a kind of Orwellian techno-authoritarianism. Britain, with its more developed acceptance of "hate speech" laws, its actual criminalization of "offensive speech" (whatever that means), is further down this slippery slope than the US. And let me predict right now: Five more years of this sliding, with our Two-Minute Hates and our algorithmic policing of thought crime, and more people are going to wish they got red-pilled when there was still time.

And yes, by red-pilled I mean something like the fact-based discursive brashness of a Milo Yiannopoulos or the methodical refusal to toe the line of a Jordan Peterson.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


蚊子吃什麼? 牠們為什麼如此混帳?且讓我以這兩問破題。

蚊子吃血的說法當然是錯誤的。牠們靠血滋養或孵化蟲 卵之類該死的東西,但牠們本身並非以血為食。牠們吃塵 蟎,或者光吃灰塵。



憑良心講,關於蚊子習性的一點一滴,我從高中的生物 課之後就沒有任何斬獲。而我現在又快被這些小不溜丟的 混帳東西給煩死,根本沒心情上網蚊子東又蚊子西地查找資料。

其實夜復一夜,就在我即將入睡之際,房間裡老會出現 那麼一隻蚊子開始騷擾我。是,我們洗衣服的陽台是有一 群蚊子在那邊飛來飛去,電梯旁的走廊也總有個七、八隻蚊 子,但每每到了我快睡著的節骨眼,就絕對會有一隻蚊子朝 我飛將而來。


具有民主素養的素食者兼吸血混帳。這種組合乍聽之 下,也不是那麼自相矛盾。

我對那唯一一隻飛進房間的蚊子非常敏感。沒錯。我遠 遠就能聽見那翅膀在一片漆黑之中拍振的微弱聲響。早在 牠飛到我身邊之前,我就曉得牠進了房間。而當牠飛過我的 臉,即便是從我臉上三呎的半空中飛過,我也感覺得到兩頰 空氣那微乎其微的流動。



如果我能跟牠說,就跟那隻飛進房間的蚊子說好啦手讓你咬啦咬完了就快點給我滾蛋— 我會開口的。可我該怎麼告訴牠?牠們蚊子都講哪國話?依我看,應該是某種瑪雅方言。但我也在猜就算我真的開口,牠老兄恐怕也沒這麼好打發。牠咬了我的手之後,可能還會在我跟我太太周圍嗡嗡嗡吵個沒完,繼而讓她在漆黑之中亂揮亂打、哼哼唧唧,繼而讓整個情況更加失控。無論我瑪雅話說得多流利,牠都不會聽從我的提議啦因為牠很高興執行大夥兒推舉牠執行的任務嘛:當個煩死人的小小混帳東西。





現在是半夜一點四十分。我已經下了床,留我太太一個 人與那隻蚊子共處一室,也已經坐在書房的電腦前,與另 一隻該死的蚊子相為伴。說不定這隻就是牠們選出來的副總統。

那就抱歉了,因為我剛宰了這位副總統。很殘忍,我知 道。我又怎麼下得了手呢— 天天剷除幾隻可憐的混帳東 西,卻連人家的語言都懶得學?仔細想想,蚊子也挺冤的。

對,我也很清楚叫牠們「混帳東西」實在不太好— 並非因為牠們理當配上比較高雅的稱謂,而是因為會咬人的蚊子都是蚊子一族裡的女性,剩下的男性就只會賴在沼澤地裡看報紙。而「混帳東西」這個貶義詞多半用在男性身上,我一直叫那些女性蚊子混帳東西似乎有失恰當。






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The Brilliance and Theological Oddity of Shusaku Endo’s Silence

The first Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549. By 1583, an estimated 200,000 Japanese, from both the upper classes and the peasantry, had converted to the new faith, convincing the Jesuits who started the mission that Japan was their great hope in the Far East. This period of success, however, was followed by a sharp reversal. Japan's rulers, many of whom had themselves been baptized, decided that Catholicism was not suited to Japan, and suddenly, in a complete about-face, banned the religion completely.

There followed a persecution of extreme brutality. Through burning, crucifixion and a wide variety of other tortures, the new Japanese Christians were forced to renounce Christ. To the astonishment of the rulers, many brave souls refused even under such duress. These ended up martyrs.

Churches were destroyed, possession of Christian objects (icons, crosses, rosaries) was strictly forbidden, and ultimately the number of those who gave their lives in refusal of the ban reached over 5,000.

In Christian tradition to be a martyr is preeminently to refuse to obey an order that offends against the faith, and to hold to this refusal even unto death. Dying as they did, the Japanese were in perfect harmony with the ancient martyrs of the Western Church. The phrase still heard on the lips of Christians today, “Jesus is Lord”, had an additional meaning in the ancient West. For Christians living under the Roman Empire of the first centuries, to say “Jesus is Lord” was also to say “Caesar is not Lord!” Many Japanese faithful recognized the same primacy, and refused to renounce their Lord before their rulers.

Though ancient Western Christians were often model citizens, obeying the law and paying taxes, there were customs of life under the Empire in which they could not take part. One of these was the worship of the emperor as divine. In cities across the Mediterranean, when people came together to bow down to some image of the current Roman emperor as a living god, Christians stood out for their refusal. This refusal led to their persecution, and, for many, finally to death.

For ancient Western Christians, to bow to an image of Augustus or Tiberius was to renounce one’s faith. The theological term for such renouncing is apostasy. The officials of ancient Rome, precisely like the rulers of 17th century Japan, resorted to torture and other devious forms of psychological manipulation to compel the faithful to apostatize--to make a statement of renunciation against their faith.

In Japan the rulers tested people suspected of being Christian by forcing them to step on the fumie, an image of Christ affixed to a wooden plank. Of course those who refused the gesture were immediately subject to brutal punishment. But those who complied, depending on their demeanor during the process (their facial expression as they performed the gesture, the degree of hesitancy in their step) might also be judged Christian. In the secret Japanese Christian communities that survived under the ban, there was naturally much handwringing over whether it was not simply better to step on the fumie, as an outward gesture, while remaining faithful to Christ in one’s heart. Under pagan Rome, the early Western Church also saw many debates about whether one might in good faith perform outward gestures of obeisance to paganism while remaining a good Christian in spirit. The early Church’s conclusion was that one could not. One’s outward demeanor must correspond to one’s faith as a Christian. Many Japanese understood things this way as well.

Shusaku Endo’s extraordinary novel Silence is set in this 17th century Japanese milieu of strict secrecy and religious persecution. Its success in capturing the dynamics of persecution and resistance, along with the sheer beauties of its structure and evocations of place, led Graham Greene to hail Endo as “one of the finest living novelists.”

Endo, a Catholic who had himself struggled with the oddness of Catholicism in a Japanese context, was perfectly suited to writing this tale. He focuses his narrative on the fate of two Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe, who in 1637 made the long journey to Japan in order to tend the persecuted flock and discover whether it could possibly be true, as they had heard, that their former beloved teacher Christovao Ferreira apostatized under torture. Their superiors in the Jesuit order try to dissuade them from going, as the situation in Japan is dire and they would almost surely die martyr’s deaths. In the end, however, the zeal of the young men wins out. They are given permission to undertake the journey.

Making it from Portugal to Japan in the 1630s was hard enough, as Endo’s narrative reveals, but the difficulties only begin in earnest once the young priests set foot on Japanese soil.

Under cover of darkness, their ship anchors near a coastal peasant village of clandestine Japanese Catholics. The people’s joy upon learning that two priests have come is palpable. For years they have had no one to administer the sacraments. The two learn that the Japanese faithful, in the absence of priests, have developed their own indigenous hierarchy to keep the faith alive. And that the villagers are in a life-and-death struggle to ensure that their adherence to Christ is absolutely invisible to the authorities, who periodically conduct surprise visits and offer payment in silver to anyone who will betray a Christian.

The fathers are set up in hiding in an abandoned shed on the mountainside above the village. And here they wrestle with the first of many moral dilemmas to come. As priests, as Christians, they are called to proclaim the faith to all, regardless of consequences. Jesus himself taught: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from housetops.” (Matthew 10:27) Yet here in Japan they live in hiding, like criminals, not daring to show their foreign faces openly. As this life drags on for months, Garrpe and Rodrigues try to justify it by reminding themselves that they are the only priests in the whole of Japan; that their deaths would be useless; that someone must continue to teach and administer the sacraments to the villagers who have become their congregation. But what, they ask themselves, of all the other terrorized villages, who now likely believe that the Church over the seas has abandoned them to their fate?

Events catch up to the fathers before they can resolve their dilemma. Their flock’s adherence to the outlawed foreign creed is unmasked by authorities. Two of the peasants who refuse to apostatize are martyred in a grueling ordeal that the priests must witness from their hideout on the mountain, and soon after the fathers are forced to flee from the now utterly broken community they’d served. None of this alleviates the feeling that they are getting off lightly: that their status as priests, making them precious to the Japanese faithful who’ve lacked priests for so long, is protecting them from the brutality suffered by their flock.

One of the great triumphs of Endo’s novel is the character Kichijiro, a Japanese Catholic drunkard whose perverse meld of comradely warmth and devious cowardice is worthy of Dostoyevsky. A man of impossible paradox, Kichijiro ends up being the moral fulcrum around which the plot twists and tilts. Endo’s conception and use of this character show a master at work. The various Japanese officials depicted, from the interpreter up to Lord Inoue himself, who plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse with Rodrigues and Garrpe, are also brilliantly conceived.

The only element in the novel that rang false for this reader was Endo’s thematization of his title as the silence of God. Here one feels the writer is missing something in the Christian tradition; that the theology he gives his 17th-century Jesuit Rodrigues has been too affected by 19th and 20th century existentialism. Repeatedly Rodrigues complains of God’s silence and supposed lack of action in the face of the suffering of his Japanese followers. Facing the overall situation of the mission the Jesuit is led to ponder:

Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? [It is] sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.

Later, overhearing Christian peasants praying in their prison cell, Rodrigues is led to remark bitterly to God: “Yet you never break the silence. You should not be silent forever.” (55; 104)

This kind of discourse, though put in the mouth of a 17th century priest, is more Camus (Endo was a devoted student of French literature) than it is Christianity. The writer would have done better to engage more seriously with the biblical book of Job, but that isn’t half the problem. By allowing Rodrigues to conceive of God this way, as a kind of failed Deus ex machina, Endo neglects a core New Testament teaching--that Christ is always already present in his suffering faithful. As St. Paul put it:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts make up one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body--whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (I Corinthians 12: 14-15; 27)

For Paul, God is not somewhere else, watching and considering whether to take action. Rather, he is present already in his Church. Writing of his own suffering, Paul put it this way: “I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24; emphasis mine) The relevant point here is clear: Christians who suffer persecution are not asking what Jesus would be saying if he were present; they are asking what he is saying because he is present.

A Jesuit of the early modern period would have been thoroughly grounded in this deeper theology of Paul; it would have informed his spirituality of suffering through and through. The real Rodrigues would have known from the start that God’s love was already there in the grace granted to those who suffered in His name. Indeed, he would have known that their suffering, however grievous, was the suffering of Christ himself. Endo, a master novelist, seems to have missed this crucial Christian truth, with the result that Silence is more 20th century and secular in conceptual terms than it need have been.

And yet the theological failures of Endo’s missionaries, though they seem anachronistic to me, do serve one worthy novelistic purpose: they level the playing field between his Japanese and European characters. How so? Taken as a group, the Jesuit fathers, though they’ve benefited from their formation in a Catholic order, are no better than the Japanese when push comes to shove. Like the Japanese, some of the Portuguese face death heroically and refuse to apostatize even under the most extreme torture; but also like the Japanese, some of the missionaries begin to make excuses for themselves and finally do apostatize. In short, the Europeans here, though they’ve been raised in the heart of a thoroughly Christian culture, have no monopoly on Christian zeal.

This evened playing field serves to make Silence especially thought-provoking for the modern reader. Any devout Christian reading Endo’s book, given the harrowing subtlety of the sufferings he depicts, is finally forced to ask him- or herself the salutary question: Under such torture, would I be one of the brave and hold out to the end or would I give up and betray my deepest beliefs? Clearly one of Endo’s central points is that no one can predict for sure how he or she would fare in such straits.

Another, secondary thematization of the title is the question of the believer who remains silent or invisible. Above I mentioned Garrpe and Rodrigues’ doubts as to the rightness of their policy of remaining in hiding. They justified doing so as a means of protecting the mission. Their dilemma, the question of whether keeping one’s faith secret is an act of wise prudence, or whether it is rather mere cowardice in disguise, is not unique to the ancient world or 17th century Japan. Christians struggled with the same dilemma during decades of official atheist rule in the Soviet bloc, and many continue to struggle with this dilemma in the countries where the faith is still persecuted.

According to both the Pew Research Center and The Economist, Christians are now the world’s most widely persecuted religious group. Though followers of Christ in the modern West are largely unfamiliar with persecution to the point of imprisonment, many have, in recent years, had to face serious dilemmas when the tenets of their faith come into conflict with newly minted secular teachings on marriage, “reproductive rights”, or the number of "genders" that exist. In particular, how many orthodox Christians in our liberal West must now squelch their true beliefs on marriage or risk losing their careers? The answer seems to be: Millions. Which only underlines the fact that, even in our supposedly “inclusive” and liberal societies, many of the Christian faithful are being put to dilemmas of silence in everyday life.

If I’m writing this belated review of Endo’s novel, it is partly because of the great Italian-American director Martin Scorsese’s recent film based on it. Scorsese’s Silence stars Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, and Ciaran Hinds. The director had wanted to adapt Endo’s novel to the big screen for decades, describing the project as an obsession of his. Filmed mainly here in Taiwan, where I live and work, the film doesn’t disappoint. I would say, in fact, that Scorsese manages to negotiate the theological subtleties with more realism than Endo had in his novel--though admittedly that’s a hard call to make, given that the media of prose and film are so different. Still, in Scorsese’s interpretation, there is not nearly the same thematic stress on silence as “the silence of God” that one finds in the Japanese novelist.

I was lucky to attend an early Taipei screening of the film with Scorsese present. He gave a gracious introductory talk thanking the people here, also in attendance, who’d helped on the project. I only wish I’d had time to talk with him on a bit on the novel and its theological oddities.

Eric Mader

A version of this article was recently published in BookishAsia.

A new edition of my novel A Taipei Mutt is now in print. The Asian capital unmuzzled.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

CNN Chooses Wealthy, Mentally Ill Man to Talk on Women's Struggles

Doing its utmost in 2018 to make fake news even faker, CNN last week invited male ex-athlete Caitlyn Jenner to wax huskily on the struggles of "women". The interview was aired for International Women's Day.

Widely hailed on the coasts in 2015 for being a "brave woman", Jenner is in fact a psychosexually disordered man whose bravery consisted in his decision, after years out of the limelight, to again become Center of Attention by marketing his mental disorder. If only Americans who suffer from clinical depression or alcoholism could make lucrative new careers from their illnesses.

Or, for Women's Day, if only CNN had chosen to interview some of the many actual American women who face real struggles--such as those who bravely choose, in difficult economic situations, to raise their children rather than kill them in the womb.

Instead CNN chooses an ultra-wealthy, gender-challenged California man. To talk about the struggles women face.

But of course CNN is not the only major American media company that has championed this troubled attention hound. In 2015 Glamour magazine, published by Conde Nast, infamously awarded Jenner their Woman of the Year award, leading some misogynist wits to remark, with unfortunate logic, that Glamour had thus finally proved that "men really are better than women at everything. Even at being women."

Well, what can one say? I suppose: Keep up the good work, CNN, Glamour, and all you other women-hating liberal media geniuses. America is watching, as you sink further into irrelevance with each passing year.

Cf. also:
Why Does the Left Hate Women So Much?

"Peak Trans"

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

Planned Parenthood and Men's Uteruses

Some men have a uterus. And some trout have beards. When ripe, pineapples get about on their four legs. If you keep a pineapple as a pet, it is inhumane to declaw it.

This triangle has four sides:

Say it, bigot. Triangle. Four sides.

Repeat. Triangle with four sides. Some men have a uterus. 1 + 3 = 5. A ripe pineapple gets about on its legs. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia... etc., etc.

* * *

Cf. also:

Dreher on "Peak Trans"

LGBT Rights--Or Else!

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.