Saturday, May 27, 2006

The shadow side of political modernism

It's rare to hear self-doubt from political moderns. Therefore, appreciate while you can the confessions of Rev. Alan Taylor.

Rev. Taylor preaches at a Chicago temple of the Unitarian Universalist church. The Unitarians are one of the most liberal churches you're likely to find. They describe themselves as "a living example of, and a powerful voice for, liberal religion in America."

In a sermon in 2004, Rev. Taylor spoke about a book he had read by a fellow liberal, David Brooks, called Bobos in Paradise. Brooks' basic idea is that in the 1990s a new elite emerged who combined wealth with free-spirited creativity. He calls this new elite "bourgeois bohemians" or, more simply, "Bobos".

Brooks self-identifies as one of these "Bobos", as does the Rev. Taylor who admitted:

Rarely do I read a book like Bobos in Paradise and say, they're talking about me, about so many religious liberals, and about most of the folks with whom I graduated from college in 1990.

Which brings us to the self-doubt.

The Bobos are political moderns. The basic idea of such modernism is that we are made human when we are free to create ourselves through our own individual choices. This means that the aim of politics is to achieve an individual "freedom" in which there are no impediments to "individual choice."

I have pointed out many times that this way of looking at things, as good as it sounds, doesn't work out as it's supposed to.

One reason for this is the following problem. If the aim is to allow me to create who I am by my own choices, then anything which influences me in an important way, but which I don't choose, must be rejected.

But this means that it is exactly the deeper things which must be rejected, as it is these which are most likely to be part of an inherited tradition or a biological nature, placing them outside the realm of individual choice.

For instance, my masculine nature as a man is something that I didn't choose, but was born into. Therefore, political moderns think it ought to be made not to matter. Political moderns admire men who act outside of, or contrary to, such an inherited nature.

As a result of considering things this way, modernism leaves us with an abundance of choices, but only of a shallow nature (such as consumer choices). The deeper, really important things are rejected as being a "biological destiny" or a "traditional role" and so on.

What do political moderns think about the shallow range of lifestyle choices they have limited themselves to? Usually, the topic isn't raised. But Rev. Taylor, and David Brooks, aren't entirely comfortable living so lightly. Hence the self-doubt.

The Rev. says:

Here in Oak Park it is challenging. We live in a community that caters to the upper middle-class. The value of maximizing freedom reigns supreme, but there are forces that undermine sustained connections...

I have lived a quintessentially Bobo life ... If these trends continue ... my life will be a series of light, ultimately inconsequential and therefore meaningless connections. But I will have a lot of them! And that's just it, when we Bobos maximize our freedom, depth and meaning elude us.

And so what we get in Bobo life, Brooks says, is "a world of many options, but not a life of solid commitments, and maybe not a life that ever offers access to the profoundest truths, deepest emotions, or highest aspirations. Maybe in the end the problem with this attempt to reconcile freedom with commitment, virtue with affluence, autonomy with community is not that it leads to some catastrophic crack-up or some picturesque slide into immorality and decadence, but rather that it leads to too many compromises and spiritual fudges. Maybe people who try to have endless choices end up with semi-commitments and semi-freedoms. Maybe we will end up leading a life that is moderate but flat, our souls being colored with shades of gray, as we find nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing that brings our lives to a point. Some days I look around and I think we have been able to achieve these reconciliations only by making ourselves more superficial, by simply ignoring the deeper thoughts and highest ideals that would torture us if we actually stopped to measure ourselves according to them.

The Rev. Taylor believes that the following quote from Brooks also captures this "shadow side" of political modernism,

Bobos pay lip-service to the virtues of tradition, roots, community. However, when push comes to shove, they tend to choose personal choice over other commitments ... And this is self-defeating, because at the end of all this movement and freedom and self-exploration, they find that they have nothing deep and lasting to hold on to.

Surprisingly for a Unitarian, the Rev. Taylor even looks back to the following lost religious tradition to underline his point:

The monk in the monastery does not lead an experimental life, but perhaps he is able to lead a profound one.

And isn't this a worthier aim? To live profoundly, within a world and a nature we did not create, rather than skittling life down to those things we can choose freely as autonomous individuals, but which don't count for much.

Some political moderns might object that they would lose their "individuality" in a world where individual autonomy was not the overriding principle. But their fear is unfounded in my opinion.

A man who is connected to the more profound aspects of his own nature will almost inevitably express a stronger and more confident individuality, than someone whose existence revolves around mere lifestyle choices.

In any event, we should be grateful that the Rev. Taylor and David Brooks are willing to admit the self-doubt they feel about the superficiality and rootlessness in the lives of political moderns.

It helps our case as conservatives when even insiders are willing to acknowledge this fault within liberal societies.


  1. Certainly sounds far more theologically sound and sensible than some of his American protestant counsins as in and

  2. I'm all in favor of living profoundly, with virtue, commitment, community, and so on. But I don't trust the language denigrating individual choice and freedom. If you are against individual choice, then to me that means that you are saying your choices should be made by others. If you are against freedom, that, to me, means you are for so some sort of tyranny.

    When I read the piece carefully I see that what you and the Reverend seem to be referring to is not individual freedom versus tyranny under a political entity, but individual freedom versus the imperatives of human nature. But I'm not sure exactly what that means. I am a human being and I am therefore going to make choices according to my nature. I can't help doing so. Anything I choose is by definition part of my human nature, even if that choice is something that other people would label "shallow" or an "inconsequential meaningless connection".

    So I think the discussion would be helped by more specific examples of exactly what is being recommended and what is being criticized. Let's have some examples of "deeper thoughts and higher ideals" that the Reverend says we are missing out on by making our own choices instead of...instead of what? How can he fairly criticize our desire to make our own choices without then telling us who should be making those choices for us? And who in the world is more qualified to make the choices in my life than me? And if someone else makes my choices for me, so as to avoid me making some merely shallow, inconsequential choices, then how is that any virtue on my part?

    That is why I object to objections to individualism. If you condemn individualism, as I understand it, you condemn individual choice. By doing so you say that some other entity - God, government, wise people, etc - knows better how I should live my life than I do. Which takes away my humanity and my virtue and turns me into an automaton which should just do as it is told because it is too stupid to know the right choices. The problem is, who knows better? God? Who knows what God thinks? The guys who wrote the Bible? What makes them the experts? What makes government the expert? Or the community? Government is often wrong. Community can be stultifying and suffocating.

    So other than individualism, I see no alternative that leaves the individual with any dignity as a sentient human being responsible for his choices.

    I think what you are actually criticizing are things like people choosing to remain single and childless and to "play the field" into middle age rather than settle into a committed relationship and raise children. But that is not a criticism of individualism, that is a criticism of a certain kind of choice made by some individuals. Whether a person chooses marriage or singleness, committment or shallow attachments, that is an individual choice. It is not the individualism that is the distinction there.

    My intuition is that what the Reverend is yearning for is a sense of mastery rather than a sense of having sampled many of the experiences of life without having mastered any area. I think we yearn for mastery, for depth, because in the process of working towards mastery we lose ourselves very happily in ourselves and in our work. And we can work towards this mastery in our relationships (committment in marriage for example) and in our work. But it has nothing to do with a criticism of individualism. Mastery is all about individualism.

    I think there is a common feeling in our modern world that we have a lot of consumer choices and freedom to sleep around but we are often missing a sense of deeper satisfaction. Liberals blame it on consumerism; conservatives blame it on libertinism. Both are ways of expressing a yearning for mastery and self-control. The solution is not going to be found in denigrating personal choice, but in acknowledging that only when the right choices are made freely by the individual do they have any meaning. How do we encourage people to make the right choices? Well perhaps we just make them ourselves, serve as a living example, and then respect the other guy enough to leave it to him whether he chooses to follow our example or not.

  3. Mark, I'm going to have to respond in instalments.

    You write:

    "If you are against individual choice, then to me that means that you are saying your choices should be made by others."

    There's a couple of problems with putting things this way.

    First, part of my criticism of liberalism is that liberalism itself denies the legitimacy of the most important choices we are likely to make.

    So it's not that I am flatly 'against individual choice', but that I want people to be able to choose the deeper, really important things.

    Second, it's mostly not the case that I am saying choices should be made by others.

    It's that choices should not only be made by a blank slate, ahistorical individual, but rather by the real man or woman, who has a tradition and an inborn nature.

    The one exception to all this, in which your objection holds, is that liberals are more likely to reject external forms of authority than conservatives.

    For instance, liberals have more trouble accepting paternal authority within a family, or the authority of a priest within a religious community, since these forms of authority are "external" to individual will.

    Even here, though, it's not really a case of giving choices to others. If I accept the authority of my local priest to preach on moral issues, it doesn't mean I can't still choose good acts or evil acts. I don't become an automaton.

    And nor does it mean that there are no external forms of authority within a liberal order. Liberals may prefer to believe that the state is neutral within their own order, and that authority is 'contractual' in some way or other - but this is a fiction.

    In reality, for liberalism to work, there has to be an increasingly intrusive regulation of society, undertaken to an increasing degree by a non-elected judiciary or by a non-elected technocracy or by non-elected international organistions.

  4. Mark, I'll base my reply on the gist of your blog.

    Alot of people feel that the concept of ethnicity is stifling. It's not like you chose to be your ethnicity - so why should it matter? Isn't basing anything on that concept an affront to "individual choice" - isn't it, in the minds of all freedom loving people, backwards?

    Even if you personally choose to say it matters - which is backwards - on what basis could you ascribe it to a nation state or any living space? Wasn't it in the name of "freedom" and "progress" that we got rid of such insular, unenlightened thinking?

    We can live with virtue and good taste, doing good deeds, listening to Bach - but making communal decisions beyond setting this example, is overstepping the liberal mark.

    We can't tell our neighbours that they can't be pornographers or pump out "urban music", nor can we stop them from following us if we choose to move to another neighbourhood. Surely they have the "right" to live near virtuous people as virtuous people tend to create desirable neighbourhoods. They're humans with free will too, why can't they choose to have the best - even if by their own nature they sully all that is desirable.

    Prescribing anything else would be a return to the "dark ages", surely.

    As long as we're free to choose as individuals, isn't "Western survival" guaranteed, regardless of who makes up the "West"? I assume you're not saying that we should have unfettered freedom in every worldly matter besides that one single issue of who we choose - or have chosen - to allow into our neighbourhoods and nations based on their unchosen characteristics.

    There is no consistent basis to that line of thought according to the liberal worldview - hence we got rid of such notions ages ago, lest it lead to some new tyrannical attack on other freedoms to self-author.

    We could be reactionary, and prescribe a 19th or early 20th century type society - with all that encompassed, but of course, nothing we could do could stop it from reaching the current state again. That was just one stop in the neverending march towards progress. What we have now is the logical conclusion of radical individualism - mixed with his twin brother "rights based" egalitarianism - as we know it.

    According to modern principles, it couldn't have turned out any other way. Indeed, look around, this is the "free" utopia, this is Western survival according to the path set out by the more radical engineers of the Enlightenment.

    Western man has finally overcome everything that he didn't choose for himself, and it is of no philosophical consequence if this new Western man is different in terms of mere ethnicity. In fact, it is just another proof that he's on the right track - that's why we celebrate diversity.

    Nothing short of a re-evaluation of all modern values can change anything in a meaningful, long term way. Not that anyone who enjoys complete liberal democracy should want it to.

  5. Of course, I could have just said: Mark, you don't believe in unfettered individual freedom because you believe that ethnic groups - not just individuals - have interests.

  6. shane wrote:
    Alot of people feel that the concept of ethnicity is stifling. It's not like you chose to be your ethnicity - so why should it matter? Isn't basing anything on that concept an affront to "individual choice" - isn't it, in the minds of all freedom loving people, backwards?

    We don't choose our families either, yet they matter very much. Why are new parents not indifferent to which infant they take home from the hospital nursery? Why in fact would they be in a state of utter existential panic if they thought they were given the wrong baby, and that their baby was in the hands of someone else? Because family matters. And ethnic groups are extended families.

    Even if you personally choose to say it matters - which is backwards - on what basis could you ascribe it to a nation state or any living space?

    The communists in Russia in the 30s thought "family" was backward and for a while tried to force parents to give up their children to be raised by the commune. They had to give up on that idea because even though it seemed "backward" to them in their intellectual, elitist mental framework, the realities of biology meant that their idealism simply was a disaster when applied to the real world.

    A family needs a space just for the family, where all outsiders are excluded except by invitationo, in order to maintain itself as a family. The same goes for a people. The most content, peaceful places on earth tend to be those where a distinct people have a country for themselves, not shared with any other. Iceland, for example. The worst places on earth have more than one ethnic group mixed inside one nation-state. Just as families naturally seek a home exclusively for themselves, where their interests and way of life can be maintained, so do peoples.

    Yes, I don't believe in "unfettered" human freedom. I believe in respecting the property rights of others. I find Murray Rothbard very convincing on this. So I consider myself a libertarian, with one exception: I think race matters. I doubt libertarianism would work in a black, mestizo, arab, or chinese society, but I think white people - especially Anglo-Saxons - have a genetic personality type that requires libertarian-style freedom in order to be happy. And I think that libertarianism cannot be maintained if non-whites are allowed in. It might not be possible even for an all-white country, but it's certainly impossible with a mixed-race country.

    What I keep coming back to is my experience here in the US. You can be as idealistic as you want, but if you're white and you go into Detroit at night, you will get robbed, raped, or even murdered because you are white. This is true essentially everywhere that blacks gather in large numbers. In Australia white people are discovering the same is true for areas controlled by Lebanese. In the US, the problems with violence against whites are in black and hispanic areas. But even in the areas controlled by asians, the asians stick together closely. In California, for example, I have heard from a white parent that lives there that the asians have set up their own parent-teacher association, quietly and non-publicly, with admission for asians only.

    Race matters! Whether you chose your race or not, it matters, very much.

    They're humans with free will too, why can't they choose to have the best - even if by their own nature they sully all that is desirable.

    Interesting that your acknowledge that letting non-whites move into white areas "sullies" those areas - and it does, as is proven again and again and again - and yet you can find no basis for allowing white people to protect themselves from this. Apparently we are to serve as sacrificial lambs on the altar of "diversity".

    Actually, if we had the kind of individual freedom I advocate, whites like myself would buy up large tracts of land and forbid non-whites to live there. We would hire and rent to and sell to whites only. We would build a de facto white-only society. Which would be the safest, most prosperous part of the country. Some "diversity-loving" whites would object to this and try to live outside the whites-only areas as a demonstration of their solidarity with non-whites, but almost all of them would eventually have to move to the whites-only area for personal safety and the safety of their children.

    I've gone on too long but the subject is a large one and it's hard to address everything you've said in an adequate way in a limited amount of space.

  7. Mark, just two points.

    First, you've mischaracterised part of Shane's comment. Shane was arguing that once you accept, as an overriding value, the idea of individual free will, then it becomes logically difficult to uphold the ethnic integrity of a nation.

    This is because it is seen to be a denial of the humanity of the "other", and an unjust discrimination, if you prevent them exercising their free will by moving to your own territory.

    Shane wasn't endorsing this view, but spelling out its negative consequences.

    Second, as I've written previously, I'm glad that you've become so clear on the issue of race and ethnicity in your writings. I really have enjoyed your recent posts at your own site.

    But let's say that white Americans re-form a nation of their own in their own territories based on libertarianism and property rights.

    What is to prevent the reoccurrence of what we have already been through?

    Why wouldn't, for instance, a group of intellectual women stand up and say: marriage makes me dependent on a man, rather than autonomous as an individual. Therefore, it's better for women to live an independent single girl lifestyle of careers and parties and shopping and travel.

    And if the women of your new territory do this, and family formation and the birth rate are hit hard, then why won't the same cry go up that immigrants are necessary to sustain the population and the economy?

    This was a key factor undermining traditional Australia. There were royal commissions on this very early in the 1900s, and a shift toward multiculturalism was eventually justified by the slogan "populate or perish".

    And why won't you get people saying: traditional moral codes tell me what to do and therefore infringe on my individual will to decide for myself. Therefore it is a "liberation" to break moral taboos and to show that I am not ruled or restricted by inherited moral understandings.

    But how are you going to maintain a public standard of morality if people think this way? And if you don't maintain a public standard of morality, and people think it progressive to break moral taboos, then what is to stop further disruptions to your new nation, in the form of drug abuse, or sexual promiscuity, or adultery or high rates of divorce.

    And what is to stop the more intellectual people thinking that traditional notions of gender, being inborn, also restrict the sphere of individual choice. And that it is a "liberation" to choose against traditional gender, in other words, against masculinity and femininity.

    Which causes further disruptions to your society. When the normal process of young men cultivating an idealised masculinity, and young women an idealised femininity, is not only halted but put into reverse, you don't arrive at the normal heterosexual commitment of young men and women toward each other, as being joined together in a complementary existence.

    Instead, there are disappointments and frustrations and resentments, and often a delayed commitment to adult life (such as men committing to career and family).

    I could go on and on with these examples.

    If Western man is to work toward a stable future, he has to rethink what it means to be free and independent. The specific understanding of these qualities has to change.