Monday, November 28, 2022

To break the chain?

Earlier this month a young biracial woman denounced her white father at his funeral. In her speech she said of her father:

You’ll never be what you could have been, but only what you are. And what you are is a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, Trump-loving, cis, straight white man. That is all you will ever be to me.
There are two striking things about this. First, it demonstrates clearly the changed understanding of the virtue of justice. In the ancient world, justice meant giving someone their due. This meant giving due respect to those entities who gave us our existence, including God, our parents and our larger national family. "Honour your father and your mother" as it says in the Bible. In Ancient Rome, this was considered to be an aspect of the natural order to be upheld through the virtue of "pietas", defined by the Encylopaedia Britannica as "a respectful and faithful attachment to gods, country, and relatives, especially parents".

Justice in our own times has mostly lost this ancient meaning. It is now focused on notions of social equality. You can see this in the daughter's speech: she castigates her father for his transgression of modern ideas of equality, i.e. for being racist and sexist and for belonging to supposedly privileged groups (white, male, cisgendered etc.)

In her mind, she is fighting to make the world a better and more just place. To more ancient minds, she is acting unjustly in disrespecting her own father at his funeral. A key question here is why this transition in the meaning of justice has taken place. I will give a possible explanation shortly, but it will help first to look at another striking aspect of the speech, namely what it demonstrates about social class.

The father in question is Donald Foss. He was worth $2 billion at the time of his death and so was part of an upper class elite. His daughter was raised in a position of immense class privilege, living in mansions and attending elite private schools.

And yet his daughter, with a furious energy, chooses to present herself as being at the bottom of the social hierarchy and as being a victim of privileged forces, such as white, male, "cisgendered" men like her father.

Again, there has been a transition here in how the upper class justifies its privileged social position. In the past, the elite would signal its status through refinement (of manners, of speech, of taste); through displays of wealth (homes, clothing, banquets); and through cultivating knowledge and an appreciation of the fine arts. There was also the important concept of noblesse oblige, meaning that if you were noble in status you should act nobly in character ("Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly"). Noblesse oblige was also understood to mean that those in a privileged social position had a duty toward those less privileged - so this concept connected the upper classes in a positive way toward those of other social classes.

The older justification of wealth and privilege barely exists today. It is true that modern day billionaires do sometimes commit to philanthropic causes, although these are often international efforts to promote some form of "identity equality". What is increasingly common, though, is for upper class people to seize upon identity politics to claim to be suffering from some form of oppression, i.e. to present themselves as lacking privilege rather than enjoying it.

Which brings me to my theory of why this change has taken place. If we consider the world picture that existed in the ancient world, and compare it to that of modern times, one significant difference is the loss of the idea of a great chain of being. There were two key aspects of this chain of being. First, it was hierarchical. Those further up the ladder had more elevated attributes. Second, every creature in the chain was necessary to hold it together and so, in this sense, each was a vital link.

It has to be remembered that this chain of being was thought of, in concrete terms, as representing the way that the cosmos was structured. In other words, reality was understood through this idea of a chain of being.

One of the consequences of understanding the world this way, is that there was both an "above" and a "below" when it came to man's position in the cosmos. Above man were the angelic beings and God, below man were the animals and the inanimate forms of creation. There was a vertical realm of existence within which man could look upwards, but also could feel set above and therefore dignified in his position.

What I would like to conjecture is this: that if your world picture included the great chain of being, then it was possible to believe that if you were higher up the social ladder that you represented something higher in the scale of being. If so, the major distinction between the social classes, of nobility and commoner, would be a relatively profound one. It would not just rest on money or power, but would signify also an "ontological" difference, i.e. of being formed in some higher way.

In the American Declaration of Independence there is a famous phrase that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". This is not obviously true. Men are clearly not equal in many respects. It is possible that the emphasis here is on men having equal rights. Perhaps, though, it is also a move away from the older view, in which the distinction between nobility and commoners really did suggest men being created unequally.

This elevated view of the nobility can be seen to have had both positive and negative consequences (sometimes intermixed). For instance, it makes sense in such a social situation for people to look up to and to seek to emulate the culture of the upper classes, since this culture will be thought of as being higher up a scale of existence. This is clearly preferable to the situation in our own times in which culture looks downwards, so that the middle-classes begin to ape behaviours once associated with bikies, sailors or "gangtas". 

On the other hand, when you have an elevated upper class, the possibility emerges of people fawning to this social class. It's interesting in this regard that nineteenth century Australian culture strongly rejected this aspect of old world culture and replaced it with a more egalitarian "mateship" ethos (Australian soldiers in WWI had a reputation for not respecting officers as they were supposed to).

Again, if I am right here, and the nobility thought of themselves as being a breed apart, this would anchor their identity, in part anyway, on the possession of higher attributes of character that they would then have to live up to. Yes, it might justify snobbishness as well, but it softens the idea that class privilege is only about power or money. It provides a foundation for more positive ideals of what it means to be upper class.

The older concept of the nobility still retained some influence in the modern period, at least until the early 1900s. For instance, if you look at the magnates of the American Gilded Age you find a mixture of modern sensibilities (e.g. technocracy), with some admiration for an aristocratic past. J.P. Morgan, for instance, built a beautiful library in a traditional style and collected older European manuscripts. The Vanderbilts married a daughter, Consuelo, to the Duke of Marlborough. John D. Rockefeller built a museum in a traditional European style in New York, The Cloisters, and purchased many medieval artworks for display. 

The Cloisters, New York

The Morgan Library

If the secular order of the pre-modern West had a built in, inegalitarian social hierarchy, this was balanced to some degree by the clerical or religious order. I mean this not only in the sense that commoners could rise through the ranks of the church, and not even in the sense that the Christian belief that man was made in the image of God supported the dignity of the common man, but more fundamentally that the possession of the virtues most highly regarded within the religious life and the clerical orders did not depend on birth. Ascent within the clerical orders or the realm of religion was measured by faith, love, piety and sanctity, and these did not depend on birth (the New Testament, of course, emphasises that the poor are not disadvantaged in their spiritual fate). 

In this way, the existence of a hierarchical social order was most likely of great benefit to the Church, as it made Christianity that order of life through which the common man could ascend or in which he stood on equal ground. This may help to explain the discontent when the Church hierarchy too closely mimicked that of the aristocracy, as it might have seemed at odds with the true function or role of the Church.

There were radical religious movements which rejected the idea of two orders, and which wanted to abolish the hierarchy within the social realm. They sometimes pointed out that in the prelapsarian state of man, in the Garden of Eden, there were no social classes. They were levellers of one sort or another. Looking back, they seem to have missed the symbiotic relationship between the secular and religious orders. What Christianity offered was made more compelling by the existence of a hierarchy within the social realm. To put this another way, there was an important space made available to Christianity, one in which Christianity was a necessary component of a working order of life, because of the existence of a hierarchical social realm. 

Marx got it wrong in claiming that religion was the opiate of the masses. It was not anything like the bread and circuses of the Romans, nor the distractions of the modern era (Netflix, food courts etc.). Religion in Western civilisation undergirded the dignity of being for the common man - it was the order of life in which the common man held no inferior status of being.

So what do we make now of the great chain of being? I think the loss of this concept has, overall, been damaging. John Lennon boasted about the loss of an above and a below ("no hell below us, above us only sky") but this flattening of our metaphysical horizons has had mostly negative effects.

The great chain of being gave man a distinct place between the purely spiritual realms and the material. (This is, in my opinion, an accurate description of what man is made to be in this life: a creature who experiences, in a profound way, the confluence of the spiritual and the material.) The position of man spanned both realms, with space to be grounded within this material world but also then to reach into the spiritual - without which there is a disenchanting of the experience of life. 

The loss of any above or below represents a hemming in of man's being. It is, perhaps, little wonder that so much emphasis was then put on an ideal of autonomy, in which it was thought that man could be less straitjacketed or caged through a freedom to self-define or self-create. This is reasserting some ontological space but more as a subjective expression of will rather than as an objective feature of existence. 

What I would emphasise, however, is the effect of this metaphysical flattening on social class. We were clearly better off when the upper class set the tone, not only in manners or fashions, but by attempting to live as a more "noble" class ought to live. And we were better off when this upper class accepted the reality of privilege but compensated not through virtue signalling but by accepting responsibilities and duties to others of their own community. 

It is not that the concept of a chain of being can, or should, be recreated exactly as it was in medieval times. We are clearly not, for instance, going to think of the physical cosmos in terms of such a chain as was once the case. We do, however, need to assert more than a horizontal dimension of existence - there is a vertical one as well, which if denied or obscured has damaging consequences.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Dating & disorder

I've read a few posts by a young English writer for Vogue magazine by the name of Annie Lord. She writes on relationships and gives some insights into the state of dating culture among young people in the UK.

Much of what she describes is familiar. Annie Lord wants to date hot guys, but these men tend to trifle with her and so she ends up disappointed. She has occasional casual hook ups; is worried at the age of 27 about hitting the wall; and is starting to feel jaded with the whole dating scene.

To her credit, she does take some accountability. She understands that she too is undermining the culture by dismissing men on the most trivial and unreasonable grounds. It is also a positive that she acknowledges that there is something wrong with the way dating culture works today, i.e. that things are disordered.

Annie Lord

In theory, liberalism does not order human goods. For liberals, in asserting that some goods are to be preferred to others, we limit what people might choose to do or to be, i.e. we discriminate or exclude. It is therefore the case that some liberal moderns would not acknowledge a state of disorder, because they have no ordering principle, so they cannot distinguish between order and disorder.

In practice, liberals do rank goods. The highest ranked good for many liberals is individual autonomy, understood to mean having the power to act as a free agent and to enact whatever arbitrary choice one wishes to make.

Ever since the very first wave of feminism, Western women have had to choose between this good of individual autonomy and that of love and family. This has put young women in a difficult position, because the instinct toward love and family is a strong one, but it is pitted against an equally strong ideological commitment to autonomy. 

You get a picture of the ensuing internal division in Annie Lord's writing. She clearly would like to find her man, at times to the point of obsession, but she also belongs to a culture which she describes this way: 

Nowadays, for many people I know, love is the last priority. The idea of putting a relationship over your friend or career is presented like the craziest thing you could ever do. “Don’t do that for a man!” friends say because now you must do everything for yourself. And that’s what I’ve been doing.
This is a nice description of the "non serviam" attitude I discussed in my last post, in which women reject the idea of ever doing things for a spouse. Interestingly Annie Lord goes against the usual script by adding the following thought:
But what if doing something for a man is doing something for yourself?

This is interesting as it is a rejection of the zero sum game attitude to relationships, in which it is thought that if one sex gains the other must lose. It suggests, correctly I think, that we develop through what we give as men or as women to family life.

My social milieu is dominated by the most left-liberal of women, so I have some understanding of their approach to relationships. Listening to them can be disheartening. They tend to believe that women should be able to follow any passion or prompting and that men should just fall into line. For instance, if a wife suddenly decides she would like to live in Finland, there should be no barriers to her carrying through with this and that it is her husband's role to follow along. 

Oddly, they see this as a movement toward equality between men and women, because they have persuaded themselves that men are already empowered to do whatever they have a mind to do. The reality is that their concept of equality gives absolute supremacy to the arbitrary will of women; it is like a version of The Handmaid's Tale but with the sexes swapped around.

Unsurprisingly, the relationship success rate amongst these women hovers close to zero percent. 

We do need to order goods. This does not mean claiming that one good is always and in every respect a blessing, and others always evil. It is "ordering" - making a decision about what is the higher good and what is the lower. And it is not just individuals who need to order in this way. As Annie Lord's writings make clear, it doesn't work for just one individual to order rightly if the entire culture has become disordered. There are certain aspects of life that we cannot succeed in alone and that need to be ordered at the communal level.

The focus on individual autonomy has one other negative effect. It encourages a highly individualistic mindset, in which the only unit of society is the individual. Within this mindset, the concept of a spousal union is entirely lost - it no longer registers. A husband and a wife no longer act together for a common purpose, with united interests. For my left-liberal female acquaintances, if a husband acquires anything, this is considered to be to the detriment of his wife. He has gained something, therefore she has lost out. It is assumed that he will put this resource to the purpose of empowering himself, for his benefit, leading to her disempowerment and loss of control and standing. Again, this is in the most striking of ways a zero sum game approach to relationships.

How did we get to this state of affairs? It goes all the way back to metaphysics. We have inherited an understanding of man and the world from a variety of sources, much of it from the early modern period. You can recognise, for instance, the influence of Hobbes in some of this. Hobbes was very strongly materialistic and thought that everything we did was materially determined. Even so, he believed in a certain kind of freedom, namely that of having the power to enact our own individual passions rather than others having the power to have us enact theirs. 

If you accept such an Hobbesian framework, then relationships do necessarily become a zero sum game. It is no longer the case that men and women, as social creatures, fulfil their telos - their ends or purposes - in relationship with each other, as a common good. Instead, what matters is my individual "empowerment" in enacting whatever materially determined passions or desires happen to arise within my will.

The metaphysics needs to be reset.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

The anti-wifely woman

There is a potential in women to develop either wifely or anti-wifely attributes.

When you observe a wifely woman, you are likely to notice an air of feminine receptivity and a higher degree of sexual modesty. She is, in marriage, more likely to focus on an ideal of "making a life together", which includes the grounded, daily, practical tasks associated with family life. Her husband is "personalised", in that he is not just there "for purpose" or as an abstracted figure of infatuation. She genuinely wants to form a family and so is less likely to hold out for an impossible list of requirements in a husband. She will often meet her future husband at a relatively young age and have children in her 20s.

The anti-wifely woman is more combative, seeing life as a struggle between men and women for power and status. She is more overtly sexual, in part, because she rejects the idea of serving a spouse in marriage and so, in the absence of daily gifts of service in marriage, relationships are based more squarely on the expression of sexuality. She is also more likely to cultivate a masculine energy in herself as she is too set apart from men to think of a husband providing this energy within a spousal union. And so she cultivates ambition, pursues masculine hobbies and interests, and creates within her own self an uneasy balance between masculine and feminine attributes.

What creates the anti-wifely woman? There are reasons to do with political ideology, such as the emphasis on individual autonomy within liberalism. But it goes beyond this to an ongoing potential within female nature to react against hierarchical forms of authority, particularly masculine authority. Anti-wifely women are often in a proud rebellion against the patriarchy, traditional Christianity and to serving (i.e. doing things for) a husband. It is a rebellion against the father and is triggered by fathers who were either absent or who did not model a loving form of paternal authority. 

In the 1800s, when Western culture was more heavily saturated with Christianity, these anti-wifely women sometimes identified with the prideful rebellion of Satan against God. Per Flaxneld has written a lengthy book on this theme, titled Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture. When you read the examples he gives, you are struck by the similarity to the anti-wifely women of today, in the sense that you have the same hostility to traditional Christianity, the same overt sexuality, and the same focus on forms of masculine and/or paternal authority in society.

Why bother to note any of this? First, I think it's important to understand that a layer of women in the modern West are not really fit for marriage and that it is misleading to suggest that there is some formula by which men might successfully partner with them. Second, there is a confirmation here of the important role that fathers play within the family. If a father is absent, or too lacking in authority, or if his authority is wielded unlovingly, this has serious repercussions down the line. Fathers do matter.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Our changing ends

One approach to life is to attempt to be fit for purpose - or, more specifically, fit for the purposes that are given to a creature of our kind. But this raises the critical question of what our purposes are.

A more traditional answer might be that there are many such purposes. A man, for instance, has the purpose to protect and provide; to seek God and the spiritual goods of life; to defend his people; to defend his church; to mentor his son to be fit for his adult life as a man; to raise his daughter so that she might be fit for her adult life as a woman; to be a good friend; to reach a potential of physical and intellectual development and so on.

There are barriers to following this path in modern life. A long time ago, an influential strand of philosophy rejected the idea that we are a being of a particular given kind, with attached purposes. The rejection of Aristotelian thought in the Enlightenment also dealt a blow to a teleological view of life. The prevailing idea now is that we are all uniquely individual and that our identities and purposes can and should be self-fashioned, rather than given to us as a part of our nature.

What this means is that rather than orienting ourselves to being fit for purpose, we are more likely to think that the world outside should change to fit whatever we fashion ourselves to be.

Having said this, there are still some remnants of the older view of fulfilling a telos in life. People do still speak of becoming their better self, even if the content of this is left vague. And there are assumptions of purpose even within certain strands of liberalism, particularly when these purposes can be easily measured or quantified, are materialistic and are held to be "rational".

For instance, there is the idea of Economic Man, who pursues a "rational self-interest" in the market, whether as a unit of labour, a consumer or an investor. This participation in the market is assumed to be the higher purpose of human life.

You can see this attitude clearly in a post written for Morgan Stanley back in 2019. In this post, titled "Rise of the SHEconomy", it is noted that very soon large numbers of American women aged 25 to 44 will be single - 45% by the year 2030. 

The author sees this as an encouraging development, as a single and childless woman is better able to participate in the market:
What’s driving this trend? For starters, more women are delaying marriage, choosing to stay single or divorcing in their 50s and 60s. Women are also delaying childbirth or having fewer children than in the past.

“These shifting lifestyle norms are enabling more women, with or without children, to work full time, which should continue to raise the labor force participation rate among single females,” says Zentner. Rising labor-force participation rates should put upward pressure on women’s wages and help increase overall consumer spending.

...The trend is set to boost segments of the economy where single women historically spend more, including apparel and footwear, personal care, food away from home, and luxury and electric automobiles.
Similarly, the author sees much promise in trends by which,
a growing population of prime working-age women in the U.S.—many single and focused on career—will have greater representation in the labor force, help boost wages and create potentially large tailwinds in a number of consumer products categories.

And so, for all the talk of a self-fashioning life, a woman's purposes are being determined here by the metaphysics of modernity. And it is a narrow account of purposes, one that explicitly rejects goods relating to marriage, motherhood, love and spirituality. Woman is becoming Economic Man and is being divested of those purposes that do not fit in with this view of her ends.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website. 

Friday, September 30, 2022

A kingdom of women warriors

The modern world is doubling down on the idea of women as warriors. This was foreshadowed as far back as the 1970s, with the advent of second wave feminism. The deal back then was that women could be shown bringing down men, as long as they remained glamorously and sexily feminine. You could see this on popular TV shows of the era like "Charlie's Angels" and "Wonder Woman".

Charlie's Angels - 1970s


Since then, there have been multitudes of female characters kick boxing their way across movie and TV screens, with a decreasing emphasis on feminine glamour. That has now progressed to the idea that female warriors were common in real history not just in fiction. I had a lengthy debate with one person on social media who claimed, in all seriousness, that half of the Viking warriors were female (on the basis of one contested grave find). And now, unsurprisingly, a film ("The Woman King") has been released about the Agojie, an all female warrior unit which operated in the Kingdom of Dahomey on the west coast of Africa.

More on the film later. The first issue is why our culture thinks it so important to establish the idea of women as warriors. My first answer is straightforward. If you are a liberal, and you believe that the predetermined aspects of life, such as our sex, are a limitation on our freedom to self-define, then you will want to erase sex distinctions. One powerful way of doing that is to assert that men can be just as emotional and nurturing as women, and women just as capable as men of acting as warriors. 

One of the disturbing consequences of holding such a belief is that it suggests that unless women can be shown to have such masculine qualities that they are somehow lacking. Women manifesting the best feminine qualities no longer suffices, as this will be thought to still support a distinction of sex. Everything comes to rest on the "girl boss" phenomenon. To put this another way, it will be assumed that supporting women means supporting a masculinised version of women.

Rey from Star Wars 2015

There is also a second possible explanation for the "women as warrior" ethos. There is an emphasis within Gnostic thought that "we are not our bodies". Instead of a positive picture of the material world as God's creation, in which aspects of the divine order inhere, Gnostics see the material world as a merely corrupted material form which has to be overcome. In this world view, our physical bodies do not point in a positive way to our ends or purposes as men and women, but are merely the limiting flesh caging our real selves. Our embodiment limits us, in this view, and therefore needs to be transcended. 

And what about the Agojie? Well, it is true that the Kingdom of Dahomey did have such a female warrior corps. However, the film that has recently been released about the Agojie has highlighted some inconvenient truths about the Kingdom of Dahomey. It turns out that this kingdom would raid neighbouring areas, capture men and women, keep some of them as slaves, sacrifice some of them on an annual festival day and sell others to the North Atlantic slave trade.

The Kingdom of Dahomey existed in what is now the country of Benin from about 1600 to 1904. It was a militarised kingdom that focused considerably on slavery:

Both domestic slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were important to the economy of Dahomey. Men, women, and children captured by Dahomey in wars and slave raids were sold to European slave traders in exchange for various goods such as rifles, gunpowder, textiles, cowry shells, and alcohol. 

Other war captives who were not intended to be sold to Europeans remained in Dahomey as slaves. There, they worked on royal plantations that supplied food for the army and royal court.

There was a history of human sacrifice using slaves.

The human sacrifice would happen once a year during the "Annual Customs" celebrations:

Since Dahomey was a significant military power involved in the slave trade, slaves and human sacrifice became crucial aspects of the ceremony. Captives from war and criminals were killed for the deceased kings of Dahomey. During the ceremony, around 500 prisoners would be sacrificed. As many as 4,000 were reported killed in one of these ceremonies in 1727. Most of the victims were sacrificed through decapitation, a tradition widely used by Dahomean kings, and the literal translation for the Fon name for the ceremony Xwetanu is "yearly head business". 

The European who has been called "the greatest slave trader", the Portuguese/Brazilian Francisco Félix de Souza, held an honoured place in Dahomey, being awarded the status of chieftain. Even today there is a statue of him in the port city of Ouidah in Benin (he also has a plaza named after him and a museum).

The British attempted to suppress these practices in Dahomey in the mid-nineteenth century:

Dahomey became an adversary to the British Empire after the abolition of slavery during the 19th century. The British sent diplomatic missions to Dahomey, in an effort to convince King Ghezo to abolish human sacrifice and slave trading. Ghezo did not immediately concede to British demands, however he attempted to maintain friendly relations with the British by encouraging the growth of new trade in palm oil instead. In 1851, the Royal Navy imposed a naval blockade against Dahomey, forcing Ghezo to sign a treaty in 1852 that immediately abolished the export of slaves. However, the treaty was broken and slave trading efforts continued in 1857 and 1858.

Historian Martin Meredith quotes Ghezo telling the British,
The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people. It is the source of their glory and wealth. Their songs celebrate their victories and the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery.

Dahomey collapsed during the second Franco-Dahomean War that took place in the early 1890s. Despite being equipped with quality German guns, the Dahomey army could not match a much smaller French force. The Agojie did fight fiercely, but not very effectively:

Between 2,000 and 4,000 Dahomean soldiers—including both men and women—died during the seven-week war. Of the roughly 1,200 Agojie in fighting shape at the beginning of the war, just 50 or 60 remained ready for battle by its end. Comparatively, the French side lost 52 Europeans and 33 Africans on the battlefield. 


A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.
 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Pope Francis on love of homeland

Pope Francis is not exactly known for being a conservative in the Catholic Church, but nonetheless he recently made a good defence of patriotism. Speaking on the topic of the morality of defending one's own country, he stated:

To defend oneself is not only licit, it’s also an expression of love toward one’s homeland; whoever doesn’t defend something, doesn’t love it. Instead, those who defend, love.

I particularly like the way he framed this, as it captures something important about patriotism. When you belong to a genuine national tradition, you see the good in it, and this naturally draws our love - it becomes a love of a significant good, perhaps even a type of transcendent good (a good that draws us to a higher aspect of reality and of ourselves). It then becomes natural to want to defend this good, which is why people will make sacrifices to uphold their national tradition, including making commitments to family life, to raising the next generation, to wanting to maintain the moral standing of the nation they are a part of, to creating a worthy national culture and so on.

The Catholic Church has something of a mixed record on the issue of defence of homeland, and no doubt it was easier for Pope Francis to make his comments, given that he was supporting the right of Ukraine to obtain weapons, and Ukraine is currently considered a progressive cause. 

Still, there are many voices within the Catholic Church arguing for patriotism, so Catholics should not be pressured into thinking that they must support globalism. Cardinal Robert Sarah is one such voice:


Cardinal Sarah is aware that globalism favours a technocratic vision in which people become "fungible", i.e. become mutually interchangeable units of production or consumption to the detriment of their personhood.

Similarly, Cardinal Burke has given an extensive speech on the issue, drawing on the work of St Thomas Aquinas. Cardinal Burke concludes by rejecting a globalist agenda:

It is clear that we and our homelands have responsibilities within the international community, but those responsibilities can only be fulfilled through a sound life in the family and in the homeland. Patriotism, in fact, fosters the virtue of charity which clearly embraces citizens of other nations, recognising and respecting their distinct cultural and historical identity.

...The divine authority, in accord with the order written upon the human heart, does not make just and legitimate a single global government...On the contrary, God meets us and orders our lives for the good in the family and in the homeland.

 

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Technocracy vs tradition?

Why are the elites so hostile to traditional ways of life? One common answer is that the elites are committed to running society along technocratic, rather than traditional, lines. I don't believe that this is the only factor involved, but it does seem to be part of the problem.

The independent journalist Auron MacIntyre has written a piece for The American Mind on this issue. He begins by summarising the ideas of the writer James Burnham:

In 1941 James Burnham published The Managerial Revolution to explain the fundamental transformation of society around the world. While it appeared that communism, fascism, and liberal democracy were competing for supremacy on the world stage, Burnham noted that these systems shared a common trait of empowering highly-specialized managers who operate a network of large bureaucracies with the goal of standardizing and planning their societies from the top down. This dynamic was easier to observe in the hard totalitarian states where official state organs dictated social and economic behavior. The tight grip of the managers in those societies drove them to collapse, but in the liberal West managers used a gradual approach that proved more resilient.

James Burnham

I think Burnham is right to note the similarities between different kinds of modernist political movements. I'll give examples later of technocratic attitudes in both communist Russia and liberal democratic Australia. First, though, it's helpful to continue with MacIntyre's account of technocracy and why it is so at odds with traditional ways of life:

The political formula of the managerial class is based on its expertise in the operation of large organizations and the efficiency they produce. In order to reliably deliver efficiency through massive bureaucratic institutions managers must impose uniformity. Small businesses, regional governments, and community organizations can mold themselves to the character of the people they serve and cater to the individual needs and tastes of their culture. Mass organizations, in contrast, generate their power due to scale, and to achieve that scale they require mass production and mass consumption. The cultural and moral particularities of a specific community, region, or even nation are a hindrance to the goal of maximizing the efficiency of mass production and consumption. Because those regional particularities represent a hindrance to the applications of managerial techniques, cultural homogenization is a key aspect of the managerial political formula.
I'd like to hone in here on just two characteristics of technocracy identified by MacIntyre: size and expertise. As we will soon see, those who wish to manage society along technocratic lines have a contempt for smaller-scale social institutions run by amateurs. Technocrats prefer to operate on a mass scale but with authority invested in a small class of experts (so the vision, despite being oriented to a mass scale, is nonetheless elitist).

I'll include just one more quote from MacIntyre explaining why the ideologies of the left have been so readily adopted by large economic corporations:
The radical left is a nexus of ideologies designed to break down the traditional structures of society. Structures like family and religion are the institutions through which troublesome regional particularities tend to be expressed and perpetuated. The deracinated individual stripped of all connection to faith, family, culture, or even gender serves as the perfect employee and consumer. Woke ideology may pay lip service to diversity but it dissolves the particularities that generate actual diversity. Total cultural homogenization is the logical consequence of progressivism and serves as the perfect medium for the fungible worker and consumer that larger managerial corporations crave.

The rest of MacIntyre's piece is very good and I encourage you to read it. For now, though, I am going to focus on reinforcing some of the points he has already made.

If we go back to the year 1932, we find the communist leader Leon Trotsky defending the attempt to abolish the family in the years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution:

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” - that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution...The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc.

Note some of the key features of the technocratic mindset here. Trotsky doesn't like the scale of the family ("petty enterprise"). And he wants it to be replaced entirely by professional organisations ("a finished system of social care"). Trotsky, then, was as much a technocrat as the managerial class we have in the West today - despite the difference in political ideologies. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that the modern West has adopted much of the Bolshevik revolutionary programme, albeit in a more reformist way.

Fast forward to Australia, 1942, just a year after Burnham's book on the managerial revolution was published. This was the year that the decision was made to end the Anglo-Australian identity and to replace it with a more heterogeneous population (but still European). What is noteworthy is that the decision was made, in part, by a group of technocrats, such as economists and planners, in an "Inter-Departmental Committee". They had growth targets they wanted to meet and they believed that the fertility rates (depressed in the 1920s and 30s at the end of the long first wave of feminism) in Australia were too low to meet these targets. 

It is also noteworthy that the politician most in favour of the change, Arthur Calwell, believed that maintaining the status quo would leave Australia as "a dull inbred country of predominantly British stock" - which expresses a similar mentality to Trotsky in his complaint that the traditional family was archaic, stuffy and stagnant. The technocrats want a more open or "opened-up" social field to work on - not "inbred" or in Trotsky's words "shut in". 

Let's move forward to 1993. An American secular humanist by the name of Thomas Flynn, just like Trotsky, wished to see the end of the family. Why? 

We expect specialists to build our cars, raise our buildings, make our clothing, write our software - the list is endless. Perversely, only society's most precious products - us - are still entrusted to cottage industry. If society is falling apart as conservatives charge, perhaps the blame lies not with "alternative family structures" (more accurately, non-familial households) but simply with parents, single or married, rich or poor, for whom parenting could never be more than a hobby - pursued in naive isolation, abandoned just when one threatens to get good at it. While procreation and parenting remain yoked, most children are doomed to be raised by amateurs...

The family, our last cottage industry, must go!

Looking Backwards - Issuing A Challenge

In 1888 Edward Bellamy published the utopian novel Looking Backwards, 2000-1887. Bellamy predicted that by the 21st Century capitalism, home, and family would be forgotten. Generations of reformers imbibed Bellamy's vivid images of happy workers who lived in dorms and ate in refectories, of children raised in large cohorts by gifted mentors, and dreamt that this was the shape of things to come. Science-fiction masters like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and others portrayed futures in which the family had been eclipsed by licensed, professionalized alternatives. Many progressives simply assumed that one day, if not too soon, parenting would be a career like any other. Those most capable of it would be trained to mentor armies of children not their own.

Flynn has gone all out here to put things on a technocratic footing. He wants the small-scale unit of the family to be replaced by "children raised in large cohorts" and by happy workers who lived not in homes of their own but in dorms. And who would be in charge? Not a loving father and mother but "licensed, professionalized alternatives".

(I can't help but note here that Flynn's dream is being increasingly adopted in our education system. There is a gradually increasing expectation that teachers will not just teach a specialist academic subject but will take on an ever more ambitious mentoring role, i.e. teachers are being "trained to mentor armies of children not their own".) 

So what are we to do? Some thoughts.

1. Rejecting a technocratic mindset doesn't mean going completely the opposite way. There are some things that have to be done to a certain scale, and expertise is necessary in some domains of human life.

2. There are, most likely, deeper beliefs underlying the technocratic mindset. For instance, if you believe in equality of outcomes in a radical way, then it will be difficult to accept the lack of uniform outcomes that occur in more traditional social settings. If people are raised mostly in a family setting, then some children will experience a better childhood than others and it will be difficult to "fix" this via bureaucratic interventions. Similarly, if you have a faith that science can be applied in all contexts to create desired social outcomes, you will most likely think in technocratic terms. 

3. Perhaps even more important is the issue of our telos (our ends) as men and women. If you think, along more traditional lines, that these are realised significantly within a family and national setting, then this places limits on the value of technocratic organisation. Technocracy in some senses presupposes a radically individualistic view of human purposes. To adopt a technocratic mindset you need to see the core purposes of human life as being based not on the roles, identities and loves that arise within the family or nation, but on individual purposes within a mass setting (or, alternatively, you need to abstract the mass institution and pursue its measurable external goods - wealth or power - as an aim in itself).

What I am suggesting is that you cannot maintain the larger metaphysics of modernity and hope to permanently curb the worst aspects of technocracy. You can only defend the role of family and nation if it makes sense to do so within your larger world picture. 

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Links:

Auron MacIntyre on social media

Articles on the changes to Australian policy in the 1940s (here and here)

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

A classical liberal confronts left-modernity

I've just read an interesting piece by Eric Kaufmann, titled "Liberal Fundamentalism: A Sociology of Wokeness".

Kaufmann is a classical liberal who believes that liberalism took a wrong turn and is responsible for some of the worst features of what he calls "left-modernism".

This starting point means that Kaufmann's analysis is different to that of mine or, say, Patrick Deneen's. Deneen and I argue that the problem with liberalism stems from core aspects of its philosophy, including its understanding of freedom as maximum individual autonomy. The more that liberalism is true to itself, the more apparent will be its failures.

Kaufmann, in contrast, defends a liberal ideal of freedom as "negative liberty", i.e. the right to do what you want provided you don't interfere with the same right of others. As nice as this might sound, it lacks a concept of the good that a society might uphold and it is particularly weak in upholding significant goods that require trust and cooperation (e.g. communal traditions, family commitments). It is difficult to assert the existence of worthwhile objective goods in a society that limits itself to the formula of negative liberty, as there will be pressure on individuals to hold their beliefs as pertaining only to themselves, i.e. as subjective preferences only.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of Kaufmann's analysis that are useful for traditionalists to consider. Kaufmann has written a book, The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, which traces in some detail the intellectual shifts that produced the modernist mindset. He is therefore in a relatively strong position to describe the distinct inputs of liberalism and Marxism into modern day woke culture. He also has an interesting account of how small numbers of activists are able to swing things their way within institutions. 

It is Kaufmann's view that liberalism was the original impetus for the left-modernism that reigns today. Marxism did also have an influence, but it came later. Kaufmann asserts that liberals have developed an identity that is in conflict with liberal principles. This identity emerged in the later 1800s and is focused on a contrast between minorities in need of protection and majorities who are thought of in negative terms as potential oppressors. Kaufmann sees this minoritarian outlook as forming the emotional reflex of modern day liberalism:

The emotive pairing of majority with malice and minority with empathy began this way. What started as a modest habit of mind has deepened into a reflexive demonization of majorities and lionization of minorities, which is the “elephant” driving the “rider” of contemporary left-modernism.
According to Kaufmann, this reflex has its origins with liberal Progressives such as John Dewey and Jane Addams, and freethinkers like William James and Felix Adler. They began to adopt a cosmopolitan outlook, which by 1910 had influenced the Federal Council of Churches. The avant-garde in Greenwich Village are perhaps the first, though, to sound truly like modern leftists. Randolph Bourne, for instance, in 1916 was already pushing the idea that Anglo-Americans had no culture, unlike vibrant immigrant cultures. Bourne wanted Anglo-Americans to give up their cultural identity, but urged the immigrants to retain theirs.

This is where Kaufmann's analysis becomes particularly interesting:
The result is what I term asymmetrical multiculturalism: ethnicity as wonderful for minorities, poisonous for majorities. This contradiction in the worldview of the left-modernist bohemians established a minoritarian, anti-majority mold which occupies the very soul of today’s woke culture.

This asymmetrical multiculturalism is especially pronounced in Australia. Most prominently, you see it in the different treatment of Aborigines and Anglo-Celtic Australians. Leftists will stridently defend Aborigines as an ethnic people, with a long and proud history and with an enduring culture. Robert Manne, for instance, who describes himself as belonging to "the pro-Labor social justice liberal intelligentsia" once wrote about the Aborigines that,

...if the traditional communities are indeed destroyed, one distinctive expression of human life - with its own forms of language, culture, spirituality and sensibility - will simply become extinct. Humanity is enriched and shaped by the diversity of its forms of life.

This is true, but when it comes to other peoples the "pro-Labor social justice liberal intelligentsia" takes the very opposite view. If an Anglo-Celtic Australian were to defend his own traditional community along the same lines he would be thought to have committed the moral crime of racism, or even perhaps of white supremacism.

There is no rational or reasonable justification for the double standard. Kaufmann may well be right that it has its origins within liberal history but has subsequently taken on a life of its own by forming part of the emotional identity for the modern left:

Yet once the emotional valences had crystallized, the world became a much simpler place, where reflex rather than logic ruled.

The phrase "emotional valences" is important here. It means having an emotional aversion or attraction to a particular event or situation. The emotional valences for liberals came to be focused on the minoritarian identity. This makes a lot of sense to me: you just have to consider what is presented to us in the mainstream media or in classrooms - the aversion/attraction axis is often set up around such issues (think too of the oddness of women being classed as a minority group).

Kaufmann next discusses the distinction between Marxism and progressive liberalism in the mid-twentieth century. He notes that Marxists were for a time unreceptive to liberal minoritarianism because they envisaged an uprising by the working-class majority. At the same time, progressive liberals were put off by the doctrinaire politics of the Marxists.

This changed when the New York intellectuals abandoned Marxism at the time of the Stalinist show trials and gravitated instead to "to an expressive liberal-cosmopolitan utopia". However, they brought with them the "purity tests" characteristic of Marxist groups and this, in Kaufmann's view, is the origin of woke cancel culture. 

The weakness of a genuinely conservative movement in the 1940s meant that there was little effective opposition to the growing influence of the left-modernists; the growth of the universities in the 1960s brought a new "knowledge class" which further aided the movement.

The attacks on WASP America then broadened into a hostility to white America more generally. Kaufmann summarises the contributions of liberalism and Marxism this way:

This development, it should be stressed, originates not with Marx­ism but with liberalism’s minoritarian sympathies and anti-majority ethos. In effect, liberalism’s categories of majority and minority cultural identities were plugged into socialism’s oppressor-oppressed terminal, filling the blank slots left by the bourgeoisie and the pro­letariat. While those who point to wokeness as a cultural form of Marxism are partially correct, these influences came later, and ferti­lized a preexisting liberal matrix.

Which leaves one great question unanswered. If much of politics is about the carrying over of liberal forms of identity, and of the expression of emotional valences, how do you go about changing things? Pointing out inconsistencies in liberal thought might be effective for a small number of people, but it doesn't directly confront the unprincipled arena of politics.

Kaufmann points out one of the difficulties that exists within liberal institutions, namely that a small number of more radical "moral entrepreneurs" will often set the terms:

Whenever an institution like a uni­versity or newspaper comes to be mainly populated by the cultural Left, value consensus is assumed and left-modernist moral entrepreneurs rise up to “outbid” others in their commitment to communal values. Even where centrists rather than extremists are dominant, appeals to the liberal identity—in which minorities carry a positive valence while majorities are viewed as threatening—are tricky for moderates to morally contest.

This is insightful. I have witnessed it over and over in my own workplace. When you have value consensus, i.e. it is simply assumed that everyone adheres to the same liberal values, including the minoritarian moral reflex, then a small number (even just a couple) of radicals can push things ever onward, even if they are juniors. There cannot be an "adult in the room" to stand up to them, not even their superiors who theoretically have the power to do so, because opposing the more radical implementation of the values would break the larger moral consensus.

So what does Kaufmann think can be done? He notes a weakness of woke morality, namely that many people feel compelled to go along with it in public, whilst not genuinely following it privately:

This produces Timur Kuran’s “private truths, public lies” in which public reality becomes the performance of a lie. The best the majority can do is to drag its feet or change the subject in the hope that activists will go away. They won’t.

On the one hand, the woke system is like the emperor’s new clothes, a fragile illusion waiting to be exposed. A critical mass of open dissenters can set off a cascade in which fence-sitters move, con­vincing the next set of undecideds, and eventually exposing the entire racket. Desacralizing wokeness is therefore partly a matter of suffi­cient dissidents raising their voices until a tipping point is reached

This is a little too hopeful. Some people do genuinely absorb the woke mentality. I've observed seriously Christian women who, gradually over time, enthusiastically embrace woke causes even if they directly contradict Biblical morality. I have also heard women say that they enjoyed listening to oppression stories: I think they enjoyed the emotional experience of feeling pity and outrage and empathy and were not very interested in independently researching whether these stories had any merit.

Nonetheless, Kaufmann is right that the aim is to break the consensus. There are perhaps two ways to do this. One would be to create parallel institutions. The other would be to launch a challenge from within existing institutions. The latter strategy is achievable, but would need more than "one brave individual" as Kaufmann puts it (I have tried this with zero success). It would need at least several people within an institution to carefully coordinate their actions to put the values consensus in question.

A useful point Kaufmann does make is that status matters in challenging the consensus. Appealing to patriotism or religion won't work, as these have been consigned as low status by the educated middle-class people powering wokeism. Kaufmann thinks it a good sign that edgy comedians have begun to push back (e.g. Chapelle, Gervais) and I would add that it's a positive sign that a growing number of academics are now challenging the modernist path. 

I'll finish by summarising what I think are the two key points in Kaufmann's article. The first is that most liberals do not act according to a formal theory, but according to an emotional valence, in which minority culture and rights have a reflexive moral and emotional appeal, whereas there is reflexive aversion to the majority culture. This liberal narrative developed fairly early on in liberalism's history:

When liberalism was about metaphorically slaying despotic elites, its narratives were grounded in ideas of “the people,” like democracy and nationhood. Once liberalism turned from defending the rights of disenfranchised majorities to protecting minority rights, the narrative shifted. When it came to the rights of Catholics and Jews (in Protestant countries), racial minorities, or homosexuals, the “bad guys” were the majority, who menaced minorities in need of protec­tion. 

Second, there is a logic by which a very small number of more radical liberals are able to successfully push their agenda in institutions through an appeal to a values consensus.

I don't believe that this explains all of the dynamic of liberal modernity, but it does seem to me to be part of it and it therefore needs to be understood. For instance, liberals have had many decades now to promote the aversion to the majority as a moral and emotional reflex. It has been so intense that even a three-year-old Australian girl is reflexively averse to her own existence:

How do we battle on this front, particularly when we do not have much influence over the levers of popular culture? There is clearly a need to promote a more positive reflex, but this isn't done as a matter of winning formal arguments, but of promoting achievements and a positive narrative.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

One more story

I have been focusing on one theme in recent posts, namely de-transition stories, and would like to do just one more. The account this time is by a young man, Steven Richards, who transitioned not because of gender dysphoria but because identifying as trans provided a community and a purpose lacking in his life:

I went from being a lonely, insecure teenager to a member of a loving community engaged in a heroic battle against an evil society that desired my destruction. Left-wing oppression narratives disseminated online and in local “queer youth” groups run by adult members of the movement cast “cis” people as villains. "Transitioning" was a baptismal ritual in which I was cleansed of my wicked nature as a “cis male” oppressor and reborn as a virtuous “marginalized” person with a new name and body.

Adult transsexuals online coached me on how to convince my parents, doctors, and therapists that I was suffering from gender dysphoria. The term supposedly refers to an incongruence between one’s sexed body and internal sense of gender but is used among transgender people as a catch-all term for any negative emotion. It’s an attractive narrative for vulnerable teenagers who are struggling with their developing bodies, sexualities, and the looming responsibilities of adulthood.

This is similar to the account by Helena in an earlier post who wrote that adopting a trans identity allowed her to enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded youths and to escape the burden of being a "cis" person within a political milieu where this made you an evil oppressor. 

Transitioning did not make Steven any happier; unfortunately, he decided to keep taking more radical steps along this path before finally deciding that none of this was ever going to be a solution for his emotional problems.

I'm half way through reading the book After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. The content of the book goes some way, I think, in explaining how we could ever have reached this point (I'm not claiming it explains everything, just that it sets out some of the groundwork).

What MacIntyre focuses on is the loss of a teleological view, particularly during the Enlightenment. The classical approach was to think of man as having an untutored nature, that then had to be disciplined by moral precepts and habits, so that he could fully realise his telos (his ends/purposes as a man).

The Enlightenment strongly rejected an Aristotelian teleology, which then severed the inherited store of moral belief from its practical role in guiding man toward his true ends.

If we still had the idea that our nature as men contains within it a potential telos, and that we are to be ordered toward fulfilling this telos through moral self-discipline, then there would not be the same grounds for young men like Steven to believe that purpose was to be found through the rejection of his own sexed body. 

The older Aristotelian view is fast declining within modern culture, but there are still remnants of it. The idea that there is meaning and purpose within our essence as men is not entirely lost. 

Here, for instance, is a comment by a woman defending men from the usual charges:


This woman also recognises the good within the masculine:



Saturday, June 11, 2022

More reasons why

Why might young people wish to transition? The official answer is that they were born in the wrong body, so that the solution is to change bodies. Last month I looked at the life stories of two young people who had once been "trans" but who had then decided to de-transition. Neither of them thought that the real reason for wanting to transition was being born in the wrong body. 

The first de-transitioner I looked at gave a very articulate account of what was running through his mind at the time. He described a modern-day Gnosticism:

The world is wicked, and it is that way because it was made wicked by the Enemy...[the "White Supremacist Capitalist Cis-Hetero-Patriarchy"]

One has to understand the nature of the world’s evil before one can repair it. The first step in obtaining that knowledge is realizing that our bodies are not us, but things which we're trapped inside of. We're not humans; we're ghosts haunting rotting corpses. To stop the Enemy, trans people need to make us all understand that our true selves don’t exist in our corrupted material forms. This is what gender identity actually means: We are not our bodies.

The end goal is a very familiar one centred on a utopian vision of individual autonomy:

The dream of the trans movement is of a world where no one has to do anything they don't want, where no one is forced to work, where everyone can indulge their every desire without fear or shame, where all distinctions between people have been abolished and we're all completely equal. In a word: Utopia.

I was reminded of this reasoning when I read a story about an English girl named Kate. She was driven out of her school for questioning the trans movement. She politely questioned the movement because she recognised similarities between it and her own experience of anorexia:

'I couldn't help but hear the anorexic mentality reverberate in conversations about gender dysphoria,' she says.

'Both anorexia and gender dysphoria [make people] aspire to reach an idealised form of the self, liberated from the grotesque realities of material existence. Both are driven by a desire to control one's reality — to unveil a potential 'truth'.

Again, you can recognise a gnostic quality to this: a belief that our material existence is both wicked and illusory and that it is possible to attain special powers through access to a hidden knowledge. 

Then there are the words of this trans person:

This person wants to use fae/faer pronouns, which I understand indicates a desire to identify as a fairy. What's noteworthy is what is said at the end:
I'm excited because fae/faer pronouns make me feel very affirmed in my not feeling like a person.

It is more evidence for what our first de-transitioner claimed, that as a trans person he believed that "our bodies are not us, but things which we're trapped inside of. We're not humans..."

What does all this suggest? Well, Gnosticism is an ancient belief and likely to be always with us. However, it doesn't help that there is overlap between Gnosticism and certain aspects of liberal modernity.

The more traditional Western view is that we are part of a divinely created order and made, in fact, in the image of God. There may be both good and evil within nature, growth and decay; benevolence and cruelty, but we nonetheless find within our own creatureliness a connection to a higher meaning that gives form and substance to our lives. Gnosticism does not find fertile soil within this traditional view and, unsurprisingly, was condemned as a heresy by the early Christian church.

Liberal modernity has tended to divorce man from this meaningful relationship to creation. Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, sketches the history of how this came about. Early moderns sought dominion over nature. At first, this was not meant to be a dominion over our own nature (which was conceived negatively as fundamentally self-interested):

Liberalism...embraced and advanced as well an economic system - market-based free enterprise - that similarly promoted human use, conquest, and mastery of the natural world. Early-modern liberalism held the view that human nature was unchangeable - human beings were, by nature, self-interested creatures whose base impulses could be harnessed but not fundamentally altered.

But a second-wave of liberals in the later 1800s did seek to extend this dominion over the natural world to include our own nature. Deneen observes that these two waves of liberalism are still represented within modern politics:

First-wave liberals are today represented by "conservatives," who stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends...Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies.

The liberal project is to maximise individual autonomy in the name of freedom. This is made possible by removing humans from an embedded place within a given realm of nature:

Liberalism...seeks to transform all of human life and the world. Its two revolutions - its anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and its insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature - created its distinctive and new understanding of liberty as the most extensive possible expansion of the human sphere of autonomous activity.

And so we all become self-creating autonomous individuals, unwilling to acknowledge any limitations imposed by our created nature. This is a more fertile ground for Gnosticism to flourish and to exert an influence within modern culture.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The melding of the modern mind

We have a new Labor Government here in Australia and one of their aims is to enact the Uluru Statement. The policy implications of this statement are not entirely clear, but the general aim is to recognise Aborigines within the constitution as a separate people and to give them a separate voice within parliament.

This raises the issue of the incoherence of modern politics. The Aborigines are being treated here as a traditional ethnic nation. If other groups were to claim the same status for their own identity they would be condemned in the harshest moral terms as being racist. This is true even when these groups are themselves the indigenous population, such as the ethnic Swedes in Sweden. The expectation for the mainstream population in countries like Australia is that rather than seeking to preserve their own ethnic identity that they should welcome diversity as a strength and reject "distinctions" (i.e. discrimination) on grounds of race or ethnicity.

If anything, the expectation is that a truly progressive individual would not take a communal identity for themselves seriously and would instead adopt the position of being a neutral observer of, or partaker in, other cultures. How seriously, for instance, does this person take the idea of upholding a homeland of their own?


In this view, we should only ever belong to voluntary associations that we can choose to enter or leave, rather than to inherited, longstanding traditions. But when it comes to Aborigines, the tune changes, and the length of their history is considered a virtue to be extolled rather than a vice to be personally liberated from.

The same sort of contradictions can be found elsewhere. Moderns often see themselves as belonging to the party of science but then claim that it is impossible to define what a woman is. They claim that gender is socially constructed and that femininity is oppressive, but that trans people are born with a feminine identity that is their positive, authentic self. And so on.

Why do moderns unthinkingly accept these contradictions in their beliefs? Years ago, someone (I think it was James Kalb or Lawrence Auster) made the the point that if your beliefs do not truthfully represent reality they will inevitably be contradictory. This is a good point, but I think the explanation can go further than this. 

From what I have read of the history of ideas, it seems to me that the modern mind is made up of several different currents of thought, none of which were ever able to establish supremacy over the others. Therefore, these currents of thought have melded together into a modernist mindset, despite being in certain respects incompatible.

One of these currents of thought is the voluntarist, subjectivist one which emphasises the freedom of the individual human will to self-create in whatever direction it prefers. From this current derives the idea that a woman is whatever a person defines it to be. 

Another current is the empiricist, materialist one. This is the current of thought that insists that all knowledge must be verified along the lines of the natural sciences and that knowledge is a matter of qualified expertise. Someone drawing on this line of thought might claim not to know what a woman is because they are not a biologist or ask you for an academic study if you claim that a woman is an adult female. 

The empiricist, materialist tradition is also connected to the organising of modern life along technocratic lines. It emphasises efficiency and managerial expertise over more private, informal and personal social relationships. (Technocrats would see traditional family life as being too opaque, closed off and amateurish to be an adequate basis for social life and they would criticise the lack of standardised outcomes.) There is, superficially at least, a contradiction between this technocratic intrusion into formerly private realms of living (think of the social credit system) and the modernist emphasis on liberation from all social constraints, though it may be that moderns would see the increased role of the state as "liberating" individuals from institutions like the family.

There is also a contradiction in the two attitudes toward human nature inherited by moderns. The first emphasises lower aspects of human nature, such as greed and the individual pursuit of pleasure, believing that these can be utilised for positive social outcomes. The second, in contrast, believes that human nature can be perfected through social reform. This second current of thought is, at times, utopian, believing that an Edenic existence can be restored through the eradication of power structures in society and via educational programs. The belief is that human nature will be regenerated, the end of history will arrive and humans will no longer have to work, but will live in Arcadia, showing only kindness and beneficence to others, in a world without distinctions but based instead on perfect freedom and equality.

These two approaches to human nature coexist uneasily, but nonetheless both have influence in the modern world. There would be feminists, for instance, who would see a woman pursuing her own sexual pleasure in her own way, without constraint, as positively demonstrating empowerment; whilst at the same time believing that the patriarchy needs to be defeated as a power structure in order to usher in a world in which sex distinctions would no longer matter and in which there would finally be freedom and equality. Feminists holding these beliefs are, in practice, drawing on two very different traditions of thought based on opposing views of human nature.

Why are moderns content to live with an incoherent view of the world? I suspect the reason is that it suits the purposes of the dominant social classes. The moneyed classes in modern society draw their wealth from corporate capitalism. The technocratic organisation of society, based on the logic of the market, and without competition from older loyalties and commitments, strengthens the position of these classes. At the same time, the intellectual classes get to think of themselves as the experts leading humanity forward toward the end of history and the realisation of humanity's ultimate purposes.

But why then are Aborigines given a pass from all this and allowed to exist more traditionally as a type of ethno-nation? The political reason is that Aborigines are thought to have the least power and privilege (the Uluru Statement emphasises that they are "powerless"). This confers upon them the most validity as a people and as an identity. 

It seems as well that Aborigines fill an absence within the modernist mind, namely that of the sacred. It is notable that Aboriginal issues are sometimes framed in ways which suggest a secularised expression of Christianity. Is there not, for instance, an expression of atonement in sorry days? Germaine Greer once wrote an essay in which she combined the idea that Aborigines have the only valid identity with religious concepts drawn from Christianity. She wrote that she earnestly desired and hoped (prayed) that one day all of Australia might adopt an Aboriginal identity "as if by an act of transubstantiation". 

Increasingly the solemn, formalised rituals of Australian life are focused on Aborigines. We have welcome to country ceremonies, the paying of respect to Aboriginal elders, and cleansing and purifying smoking rituals. The connection of Aborigines to the land is also a rare acknowledgement of the sacred within modern Australian life. (The bending of the knee, not to God and altar, but to the BLM is similarly a kind of secularised expression of Christianity in the USA, but I don't think the process has gone as far in America as it has here.)

None of this is to attack Aborigines maintaining their own identity and traditions - this I fully support. It is to highlight (and to attempt to explain) the incoherent thinking characteristic of the modern mind. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Their reasons why

There has been a big focus on transgenderism over the past few years. The official account of this is that there are large numbers of young people who are trapped in the wrong body and who therefore should "transition" into the right body, either by a change in outward appearance or, more radically, through the use of hormones and surgery.

There are now some young people, however, who have gone through this process and have regretted it to the point of choosing to detransition. It is worth the effort to read through their accounts of what led them to adopt a trans identity, because they do not match the official explanation. I read two such accounts on the weekend; I'll summarise them below, but the message is probably better imparted by reading the originals. 

a) Tree

"Tree" begins his account by pointing out, with some skill, the contradictions of the ruling "gender ideology". He then explains how he came to adopt a trans identity. It began when he was fifteen and became involved in a left-wing Tumblr online community:
When I was fifteen years old, I adopted a kaleidoscopic, schizophrenic ideology patched together from hundreds of individual posts talking about feminism, disability, gender identity, queerness, race, capitalism, and leftism. I didn't have the context for any of it, and neither did any of the other teenage kids on Tumblr at the time–of which there were many...We took this stuff in and internalized it. We believed it.

The underlying belief was that gender was socially constructed by the patriarchy to oppress women and that without the patriarchy all would be equal. But if gender is socially constructed why would the young people following this ideology want to transition to the opposite sex?

According to Tree, many of the trans people he knew did not really believe that they were born into the wrong sex:

Radical transsexuals will admit, to trusted cult members, that they believe gender is socially constructed. They'll admit that they weren't born trans, but chose to become trans.

But why choose to become trans? Tree describes very ably what he calls the "metaphysics" behind the movement - a set of assumptions about the world and human ends. It sounds very much like a modern Gnosticism. If you are familiar with the concept of "immanentizing the eschaton" you will recognise it in his account of the trans philosophy.

In short, Tree describes a vision of the world in which the world as it exists is wicked; in which souls are trapped in bodies ("corrupted material forms"); in which knowledge of evil allows us to be special, to be virtuous; in which this knowledge leads ultimately to a victory over the evil ones and the radical transfiguration of the world into a place of utopian equality and freedom.

He describes the trans philosophy he adopted as a young man as follows:
The world is wicked, and it is that way because it was made wicked by the Enemy...[the "White Supremacist Capitalist Cis-Hetero-Patriarchy"]

One has to understand the nature of the world’s evil before one can repair it. The first step in obtaining that knowledge is realizing that our bodies are not us, but things which we're trapped inside of. We're not humans; we're ghosts haunting rotting corpses. To stop the Enemy, trans people need to make us all understand that our true selves don’t exist in our corrupted material forms. This is what gender identity actually means: We are not our bodies.
This is a view of the material world as fundamentally evil and corrupt which is commonly associated with Gnosticism. It encourages the idea, as Tree points out, that "we are not our bodies" - which then makes possible the disconnect between our physical sex and our personal identity. 

The next step is to believe that some people are marked out in a special way to transcend this corruption. According to Tree, it is those who are most marginalised through their embodiment who, via their suffering, rise to virtue:
Virtuous souls have been unjustly trapped in profane flesh. The most virtuous are those who suffer most from their embodiment: women, “queer” people, the disabled, those lower in the hierarchy of the racial caste system...These are the Marginalized. The Marginalized are the chosen people. They are chosen because they suffer. 

Trans people are especially virtuous within this schema because they choose their own marginalisation: 

If you aren’t Marginalized, you can become Marginalized by deciding to transition. If you’re already Marginalized, you can become even more virtuous through transition...trans people are the converts who have voluntarily accepted Marginalization. They choose to suffer more from their involuntary embodiment. Because of this, they become virtuous. They are saved.

According to Tree, this underlying philosophy leads trans people to be highly motivated activists for the cause, rather than simply wanting to integrate into society. The ultimate aim is the familiar modernist one of maximum individual autonomy, where we can do as we will and where distinctions between individuals have been erased:

The dream of the trans movement is of a world where no one has to do anything they don't want, where no one is forced to work, where everyone can indulge their every desire without fear or shame, where all distinctions between people have been abolished and we're all completely equal. In a word: Utopia.

 b) Helena

Helena's account is longer and more personal, but it overlaps with the previous one. She begins by asking:

But what leads a girl with no history of discomfort with stereotypical “girl” toys and clothes, or even the slightest desire to be a boy in childhood, to want to be a “man” through hormonal injections as she approached adulthood?

She did not have as happy a family life as might have been desired and so at age fifteen found herself on Tumblr as part of an online community of disturbed teenage girls who were prone to self-harm and eating disorders.  

This community was also dominated by intersectional politics, in which being a "cishet white girl" meant having to be apologetic:

On Tumblr, the situation was such that any claim to being “oppressed” would accumulate social credibility, while any unfortunate “privileged” status was justification for verbal abuse. As a “privileged” person, you were expected to constantly grovel and apologize, you had no right to speak on any issue involving the group you were “oppressing”, and you could not object in any way to any mistreatment hurled against you because of your race, gender, or sexuality.

I found myself in a bit of a double bind. On one hand, I had found what felt like the perfect group of friends who understood me on an intuitive level, who I was able to talk to openly about the things I liked and made me “weird” in real life, but on the other hand I was a “cishet white girl” in an environment where that was one of the worst things to be. Since Tumblr users are mostly biological females, the “cishet white girl” holds the position of most privileged and therefore most inherently bad group. In this climate, you are made to feel guilty and responsible for all the horrors and atrocities in the world...

Its understandable that any young person exposed to this kind of belief system would grow to deeply resent being white, “cis”, straight, or (biologically) male. The beauty of gender ideology is it provides a way to game this system, so that you can get some of those targets off your back and enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded youths. You can’t change your race, pretending to have a different sexuality would be very uncomfortable in practice, but you can absolutely change your gender, and it’s as easy as putting a “she/they” in your bio. Instantly you are transformed from an oppressing, entitled, evil, bigoted, selfish, disgusting cishet white scum into a valid trans person who deserves celebration and special coddling to make up for the marginalization and oppression you supposedly now face. Now not expected to do as much groveling and reaffirming to everyone how much you love checking your privilege, you can relax a little and talk about your life without wondering if you are distracting from the struggles of or speaking over marginalized groups, because you are marginalized too. With the new pronouns often comes a wave of positive affirmation from friends and followers, and the subconscious picks up quickly that there’s a way to make the deal of being on Tumblr even sweeter.

So by putting a "she/they" in her bio, she put herself in a much better position within the Tumblr community she belonged to.

From here she started to make rationalisations. She had body image issues and so rationalised that it must be because she didn't like her body being female. She did not have a lot of offline friends, and so rationalised that it must be because being a girl wasn't her authentic self and so on. 

She also became heavily involved in fanfiction, in which the main characters were boys and she began to identify obsessively with their lives; she was too bashful to see herself at this time as developing real life relationships with the opposite sex (she provides evidence here for the idea that trans identity is sometimes motivated by wanting to become the sex you are attracted to).

She provides this well-written summary of the pressures that led her toward a trans identity:

My perception of myself as trans formed in the intersection between overwhelming emotional struggles, heavy fantasy, emotional and intellectual infatuation with males (real people, fictional characters, and the idea of males generally), fanfiction, social and ideological incentives to be trans, and insulation from experiences and perspectives that might have challenged the views I was developing about myself and the world.

She went as far as taking testosterone for a period of time, but this made her emotional and psychological condition only worse and so she decided to detransition. It took several years for this process to take effect, but you can see from the photo below how she has recovered.


It may not be the case that all young people who seek to "transition" do so for the same reasons as the two people I have discussed in this post. Even so, these two accounts should give us pause for thought when it comes to how we approach transgenderism and transitioning.