Monday, April 09, 2007

Keeping culture in line

John Derbyshire wasn't happy with the compliant behaviour of the British sailors captured by Iran:

How on earth can Britons behave like that? A previous generation would not have done so ... What on earth has happened to the British?

His answer is that the British were once animated by a sense of superiority toward other nations but that this has been effectively suppressed by multiculturalism. It is Derbyshire's view that multiculturalism fails to draw on the deeper human instincts and that George Orwell was right to claim that:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions - racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war.

My intention is not to critique Derbyshire's (or Orwell's) views in all this. What interests me more is the response Derbyshire drew in the comments section from someone calling himself (herself?) "Laika's Last Woof" (whom I'll refer to as LLW).

LLW is strongly committed in his politics to the "neutrality strand" within liberalism. This is the aspect of liberalism which arose following the wars of religion in the 1600s. The idea was to secure social harmony by having the state treat the competing religious views neutrally.

The problem with the neutrality strand has been explained by Lawrence Auster in these terms:

As Jim Kalb has pointed out, whatever is the highest public principle of a society tends over time to make the rest of the society conform to it.

Since neutrality with respect to religious truth was now the highest ordering principle of society, men progressively adopted a stance of neutrality with respect to other substantive truths and values - natural, social, and spiritual - on which society had historically been based.

LLW is an interesting example of what happens to someone who adopts the neutrality strand. In theory, it's possible for someone holding to the neutrality ideal to still give allegiance to his own tradition. All that's really required (in theory) is that the state not give preference to one tradition over another.

However, in practice having neutrality as "the highest ordering principle of society" does generally lead to a loss of particular cultural, religious and national allegiances.

In the case of LLW, the important "transcendent" allegiance is now to neutrality itself: to "the Constitution" or to "liberty" conceived in terms of an absence of any significant claims of culture or religion or nation.

LLW begins his reply to Derbyshire by insisting that Americans, as good neutralists, have something worth fighting for:

I think perhaps we Americans have retained our fighting spirit because we've never fought for such empty-headed "virtues" as "racial pride", "leader-worship", or "religious belief" ... Our soldiers aren't serving a race or a President or even a God. They swear their oath to the Constitution. Perhaps if Britain had fought for some kind of principles she would not have lost her fighting spirit. "For King and Country" means little in the age of Democracy. Liberty, though, is transcendent.

For LLW acting "for Country" means "little" in a modern age. He goes on to argue that neutrality does not allow multiculturalism to be as significant an agent as Derbyshire believes it to be:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" ... Multiculturalism is a dead letter so long as our Constitution's Bill of Rights stands unamended, not because we believe our culture is superior but because we believe that NO culture is superior.

He then adds the following:

Any culture that threatens our freedom we will remorselessly, relentlessly, and if necessary violently transform. "Death to Sharia!", and may it burn like Tokyo under the Stratofortress, because it is the enemy of liberty, not because we have some better God to pray to, some superior Mecca to pray towards.

We bow to no one, we apologize to no one, and we pray to no one. The Constitution is the only true authority in all the Universe, and only because it declares we are free.

What does freedom mean for a neutralist like LLW? It means a freedom from any claim of culture or any claim of religion ("we pray to no one").

Ironically, this development of the ideal of neutrality overrides the original concern to secure harmony and peace. Neutrality itself has become, in LLW's mind, a superior allegiance which may rightly maintain its supremacy through violent conflict.

Later, when LLW is asked whether he believes American culture to be superior to that of the head-hunting tribes of New Guinea, he replies:

The litmus test for any culture transplanted to America is whether it is compatible with liberty. Liberty is what we use to keep the world's religions and cultures in line when they come here. This supreme authority in a sense makes liberty transcendent, a value beyond culture, a belief beyond God.

Again, consider how far "neutrality" has distanced LLW from any cultural allegiance. What interests him is the restraint to be placed on any claims of culture, rather than what any culture positively represents.

Note too the seriousness with which neutrality as an organising principle of society is taken: it has become so authoritative that it is thought to be "transcendent" and beyond even "a belief in God".

There's more. Here's LLW again illustrating the aggressive claims of the neutrality strand:

Any culture that threatens our liberty we'll transform or destroy; cultures which believe in their own superiority will inevitably run afoul of us and have to be dealt with. As we are the strongest force on the planet, any culture that cannot accept the supremacy of the Constitution is inferior ...

And then there's this:

Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked. I think Nietzche called it "The Will to Power," and it is that which we Americans possess and which we cannot allow in the cultures and religions we take in. If all religions and cultures are equal then none is superior, and that is how we keep them in line.

Neutrality means, in practice for LLW, that the claims of culture and religion are not to be considered seriously: they are to be relegated to the realm of "weddings and music and fancy clothes" or else they face getting "their asses kicked". Again, the adoption of a neutral stance toward culture and religion, in which we don't consider any to be superior, has come to be associated with the idea of culture and religion as a negative, oppressive, dangerous threat to be kept in line, rather than something we might personally give a positive allegiance to. A particular culture and religion, even our own mainstream culture and religion, are not to be ceded any authority within society.

Finally, LLW explains that his allegiance is to a concept of freedom rather than to a particular culture or nation, and therefore he welcomes the rise to power of any "free" nation, even if this entails the loss of pre-eminence of his own:

Our power as we conceive it expands with the rise of free democratic nations such as India, even if India ultimately surpasses us in military capability. If India had the will and power to intervene in Darfur or sign a credible mutual defense pact with Taiwan we Americans would be tickled pink. We're worried about the rise of China not because they threaten American hegemony but American ideals ... If Britain is to find the enduring will to fight you must find it within yourselves to love America, India, Poland, Israel, and Australia as you love yourselves.

I'll finish with two brief points of my own. First, the neutrality strand explains why liberals so often believe conservative allegiance to be based on a belief in supremacism or superiority.

For instance, people who want to maintain the mainstream ethnicity of Australia are often accused of being "white supremacists". To conservatives this can be surprising, as we often simply want to conserve a tradition we love and have a natural allegiance to, rather than wishing to assert supremacy over others.

A liberal neutralist, however, is used to a theoretical framework in which any assertion of preference is tied to a denial of equality and to a claim of superior right. Liberal neutralists seem to find it difficult to step outside of this intellectual framework to understand the conservative mindset.

Second, conservatives should not be falling into line with liberal neutrality. Rather than consenting to an ideal which distances us, in practice, from particular allegiances, we should admire those who are most connected in their lives to natural loves, affinities and identities, including a sense of connectedness to our ancestry, our national tradition, our culture, our sex, our church, and our ethny.

To remain close to these allegiances doesn't necessarily mean asserting their superiority over others (though some may do this). Nor does it necessarily mean wanting to impose them on others.

The alternative, of accepting neutrality as the highest organising principle of society, will often mean replacing natural allegiances with a single artificial one, one which has no less potential for social conflict.

Hat tip: an excellent post on the same theme by Vanishing American titled Is our civilization a 'goner'?

Further reading: Tackling neutrality

Why don't we have an elite?

Can it only be politics or rugger?

1 comment:

  1. Mark, excellent job of dissecting LLW's arguments. You make some points that had not occurred to me about the 'neutrality strand'.
    I believe LLW identified himself/herself as a 'conservative' at some point, and I have certainly encountered many self-described 'conservatives' who hold the same position as LLW. Many Republicans seem to think like LLW. They are very proud of believing all cultures are equal, and very proud of believing that all peoples are equally capable of democracy and likewise equally capable of assimilating to the West.
    Both of these, however, are dependent on us to 'encourage' them to democratize in their countries, or assimilate in ours.
    I think those viewpoints are essentially liberal although unfortunately they pass as 'conservative' for too many people here in the U.S.
    Anyway, great post, and thanks for the link.