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.


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.

Friday, May 13, 2022

How does Calvin Klein do Mother's Day?

Calvin Klein marked Mother's Day in the US this year with an ad featuring a "pregnant trans man". As one news outlet reported:

The caption to the ad read: "“Today, in support of women and mothers around the world, we highlight the reality of new families”, the brand wrote in its description, along with a carousel of photos riddled with images of single mothers and interracial couples.

It's liberal modernity on steroids. We are to be "liberated" from the constraints of nature. A woman can become a man but still be pregnant, her husband can be a woman. Something as straightforward as Mother's Day becomes a statement about "men" being pregnant, or women not needing a husband.

Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, notes that traditional societies saw the human person as being part of a natural order:

Premodern political thought...understood the human creature as part of a comprehensive natural order. Humans were understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and thus humanity was required to conform both it its own nature and, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which it was a part.

What a strand of liberal modernity asserts instead is that we are free when there is no given nature that might constrain our will to do or to be as we choose. If you follow this strand of modernity, then talking about "pregnant men" on Mother's Day will seem edgy in a positive "progressive" way, rather than denatured or disfigured.

Who is responsible for the ad? The current CEO appears to be a woman named Trish Donnelly. She says of herself:

My family is everything. My husband and I have been together for 25+ years and our two kids are in college. I’m a big Premier League fan, love swapping Spotify playlists with my kids

Trish Donnelly
You'll notice that she herself is relatively conservative compared to the norm defying role models pushed by the company she leads. She is in a position where she can safely advertise the dissolving of natural categories because she herself has a stable, supportive family life and because the upper classes are more likely to have the resources to prevent dysfunctional individuals from sliding down into a social underclass.

I'm not sure that the members of this class understand the real world effects of this kind of liberalism on more marginal people. A loss of stability in identity or family relationships can have devastating effects lower down the social scale. It doesn't look trendily edgy anymore. Nor is it usually a status game of "say one thing and do another". It becomes instead a real life question of whether individuals can still hold together.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Standing for truth

I only first watched a Kevin Samuels YouTube video about a month ago. Since then I have watched several more. Sadly, he died of heart issues at the age of 53 just this week.

I obviously do not know enough about his views to give a full endorsement. I will limit myself to one observation, namely that Kevin Samuels insisted on people hearing the truth, as a form of tough love, with the aim of repairing damage done to the African American community. He held not only African American men, but also women, to account for the decline of healthy family formation.  It is uncommon to see someone modelling this type of masculine behaviour, and so he was either condemned for "attacking" African American women or else respected by both men and women as a paternal figure missing in their lives.

I wrote a post last year titled "On being true" and noted that the word "true" has a modern meaning, "consistent with fact", and also a more ancient meaning, "loyal, steadfast, trustworthy, faithful". In a modern, liberal society, the quality of being "true" is in short supply in both senses of the word. I could sense watching Kevin Samuels' videos that he was exasperated by this as much as I am. He wanted people to think realistically about family formation, and was talented at drawing out unrealistic expectations and assumptions. 

Liberalism is based, at least in part, on the idea that we should be free to follow our own will and that anything that limits our will is an unjust constraint that should be remedied by political action or by personal empowerment or by technological innovation. The liberal faith is that there will be "progress" toward these ends.

This is not a belief system that encourages individuals to recognise that there are constraints built into the nature of reality that we must acknowledge and prudently consider when making our life choices. Instead, the mindset of many of the women that Kevin Samuels interviewed was that a decent person should be rewarded by getting what they wanted. These women did not consider what they might contribute to a relationship; what men might be looking for in a woman; what stage of life they were at; where they stood in terms of attractiveness; and what it was realistic to expect of men in terms of employment status or finances or looks.

And here's the thing. As a generalisation women are not meant to be good at providing the reality principle. What we look for from women is emotional warmth, a talent for homemaking, the nurture of young infants, and some of the more appealing soft and sensitive qualities of the human personality. It is mostly a responsibility of men to provide the stable structure within which the feminine qualities can successfully operate and long-term, faithful relationships can be secured. 

Men do not have the same authority in society to carry out this responsibility that they once had. What we can do, however, is to try to model a masculine personality which is tough enough to hold people (including ourselves) to account and to insist on the reality principle, even in a culture that sets itself against the idea that our lives should be ordered to an objective good and to a reality that exists outside of our own will and desires.

In the meantime, the chaos of modern relationships is likely to get worse. On this topic, I'll mention a new book that's just been released, the novel No Hard Feelings. It got my attention because it is set here in Melbourne and describes the life of a young woman, presumably taken from the experiences of the author herself (Genevieve Novak). The 20-something heroine is overworked, survives by drinking too much wine, has a therapist to provide advice, and has a dog and an emotionally unavailable boyfriend. The novel is part of a booming modern genre called "sad girl lit". 

The sense you get from these books and authors is that there is no way out for these young women. Despite expensive therapy, they don't seem capable of critically reflecting on themselves or the culture. They continue to endorse the larger culture and to pursue what they believe to be "progressive" aspects of it. There is a deep gulf between their current state and what they would need to do to have better lives. They do not have the internal means to bridge the divide.

It is going to take a bracing dose of reality to shake things up. There will need to be not just one man or one leader, but a cohort of men who are willing to return to a tough love and a willingness to speak the truth for the culture to change. These men will have to be firm enough to withstand the inevitable criticism and insults. I suspect this won't happen all at once, but that there will be a smaller group of men who start the process and who become models for a larger group of men to follow. 

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Russia, nihilism, utopia

I am currently reading Nihilism Before Nietzsche by Michael Allen Gillespie. The first section is not an easy read, and not a good entry point into philosophy, as it deals with the difficult ideas of German idealist philosophers like Fichte and Hegel. The book, however, is an important one as it ties the ideas of these philosophers to the political nihilism that came later in the nineteenth century.

We often think of nihilism in terms of a depressed person who doesn't find meaning in life. But German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Fichte, had a complex reading of human consciousness in which an "absolute I" attempted to negate the phenomenal or empirical aspects of self and the world around it. So the act of negation becomes central to the activity of self.

Gillespie links this philosophy to the adoption by leading intellectuals of figures like Faust, Prometheus or even Satan as models who were at least partly admired. It's interesting to note that the young Marx fits into this mould. He liked to quote Faust that "Everything in existence is worth being destroyed" and he wrote a drama called Oulanem in which the title character declaims "If there is a something which devours, I’ll leap within it, though I bring the world to ruins–the world which bulks between me and the abyss, I will smash to pieces with my enduring curses."

This emphasis on negation, i.e., on the belief that what exists, whether good or bad, needs to be destroyed, so that a higher aspect of self can be realised, effectively set the self against the existing nature of things. This formula played out in a variety of ways, but I want to focus on one particular instance that Gillespie describes in his book, namely that of the Russian nihilist Chernyshevsky. 

This story begins with a novel written by the famous Russian author Turgenev. Turgenev was influenced by the philosophy of his times, admitting once that "I prefer Prometheus, I prefer Satan, the type who revolts, who is an individual". In Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons the lead character Bazarov is a nihilist:

Bazarov is one of the great Promethean revolutionaries in modern literature...The negative character of Bazarov's greatness, however, is part and parcel of his nihilism. As he himself admits, he does not stand for anything. He wants merely to clear the ground...He is a monster of negation and of freedom...As a nihilist, he stakes out a position against not merely autocracy but nature itself, including his own human nature.

Turgenev portrays Bazarov as a flawed character, who is, as one contemporary critic put it, "destroyed in his destroying":

Bazarov is in rebellion against the world and indeed against life itself. Like Fichte's I, he is a monster of will but his will has no object other than freedom. He is thus a creature of pure negation, a destroyer and revolutionary...As sheer negativity, this will cannot construct a positive new reality...

Bazarov believes he is an autonomous, self-creating being, a Prometheus who has freed himself from the rock of political and theological despotism...Turgenev, however, tries to show us that this heroic Prometheanism is essentially tragic, because it rests upon a faulty understanding of man and nature...Bazarov's belief in his own autonomy leads him to violate "natural laws" and he must pay the price that nature extracts...he discovers he is not thoroughly autonomous but bound by nature in ways he cannot overcome.

Some nihilists admired the character of Bazarov, but others saw in him an attack on the nihilist movement. One of those in the latter group was Nicolay Chernyshevsky, who wrote his own highly influential novel What is to be done?, which was an attempt to show that it was indeed possible to organise love, family and social life so that the individual remained absolutely independent.

In the novel, Vera Pavlovna marries Lopukov, but she then falls in love with Kirsanov. Lopukov fakes his death and leaves Russia so that his wife is free to marry Kirsanov. Vera Pavlovna "is driven by a desire for autonomy, to live as she pleases".

This all sounds tawdry, but according to Chernyshevsky it represents the height of human nobility:

These people, according to Chernyshevsky...are only what all men would be if they were not deformed by corrupt social institutions. Jealousy and all the other emotions that degrade human nature are the result of the corrupt "order of things," that is, the existence of private property. He suggests that in a properly ordered society the ill-tempered will all become kind because it will not be contrary to their interests to be kind."

Chernyshevsky sees human nature as being regenerated to an extraordinary degree, as is described in a dream had by the character Vera Pavlovna:

There is nothing loftier than man; there is nothing loftier than woman...It was her own face, kindled with the brightness of love; more beautiful than all ideals left to us by sculptors of ancient time and by the great artists of the great age of art...I have the reverence for purity which "chastity" possessed. But in me it is not as it was in them, but fuller, loftier, keener...till I appeared, people had no idea of perfect enjoyment of freedom.

Gillespie goes on to describe Chernyshevksy's newly configured world as follows:

It is a world of aluminium and glass, a communal world in which almost all work is done by machines and in which there are few old men and women since they remain healthy and youthful until shortly before they die. There is only freedom, satisfaction, and enjoyment, "an everlasting spring and summer, an everlasting joy".

This reminds me of the vision of a new society by the poet Shelley. He too thought that by overthrowing power structures in society that you would radically regenerate human nature. Shelley wanted an Edenic condition of life and bitterly opposed Christianity for suggesting that man's nature was too fallen to realise such an ideal in this world. 

There is a difficult mishmash of incompatible visions in Chernyshevsky's novel. He wants absolute autonomy for the individual, so that we can do whatever we please. He also wants to maintain traditional European moral ideals, such as nobility of character, purity and faithfulness. But how can you have people acting egoistically and still maintain moral character? 

Chernyshevsky believes that the solution is partly technology (machines will do all the work) and partly social organisation (removal of private property will harmonise my own rational self-interest with a beneficence toward other people).

Even on his own terms, though, the results are hardly persuasive. We are supposed to believe that a young woman who is liberated to act however she pleases, and who therefore leaves her husband for her husband's best friend, is acting according to an unparalleled level of chastity and fidelity. 

And, in practice, we know how the attempt to maximise individual autonomy works out. It means, as a matter of logic, accepting that everyone's choices in life are equally valid. This means that the traditional moral structure collapses. There is no longer noble and base, pure or impure, loyal or disloyal. There is only a technocratic organisation of society for enabling the maximum satisfaction of individual desire. The moral ideals change substantially, to focus on non-discrimination, inclusion, openness and tolerance of whatever people choose to do or to be, rather than on the quality of the choices themselves.

And we have had the liberation of sexual choices for women. It does not bring about the highest possible level of purity, chastity and nobility in either men or women. It does not even lead to people making judicious rational choices for their own longer-term interests. It is gradually having a disordering and dissolving effect, and not just because of the existence of jealousy. 

The main point I would emphasise here is the reliance of the nihilists and other revolutionaries of the time on the idea of a radical regeneration of human nature. They wanted radical autonomy and a pursuit of self-interest, alongside a higher realisation of traditional moral ideals. They pinned their hopes on the idea that something would change human nature so significantly that such an unlikely and seemingly contradictory utopia might be possible. Many hoped that the regeneration would take place once power structures were overthrown, whether these involved kings and priests, or capitalists (or, in today's language, whiteness and patriarchy).

Again, we had the overthrow of private property in Chernyshevsky's own nation of Russia in 1917 (and Lenin was a great admirer of Chernyshevsky). You would struggle, I think, to view the results as being "an everlasting joy" and a "perfect enjoyment of freedom" brought about by the creation of a loftier and nobler human nature.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Florence Gaub & the anticulture

In my last post I discussed these comments by Florence Gaub, a member of the World Economic Forum:

She believes that Russians aren't really European because they do not have a liberal and postmodern concept of life, a life that each individual designs for themselves.

I criticised this way of defining being European, in part because it leads to porous borders as anyone, anywhere can qualify as being European by these standards. A liberal Chinese person, in this way of thinking, would be more European than a traditionalist Dutchman. I noted as well that the liberal principle, by itself, undermines some of the core elements of both classical and Christian Western culture.

A reader left a comment which added very usefully to the discussion. He wrote:

Haven’t they been trying to run this play for a long time? You aren’t a real true American if you’re not liberal; you’re not a real true Brit if you’re not liberal; you’re not a real true Australian if you’re not liberal. Gets a bit old, doesn’t it?

Second, a community (not a voluntary association or group of mutual interest) is by definition a web of interdependencies. If you’re a free and independent individual how can you possibly belong to a community? That would make you dependent on other people and therefore not independent (and in the real world not free to make whatever choices you want).

Third, how can one be culturally liberal? A culture is shared customs, practices, traditions, heritage, identity, and (arguably) beliefs, which the liberal project is opposed to. The ideal liberal society is one where one isn’t bound by any of that and is a completely unique individual, sharing nothing in common (except property, according to the socialist liberals).

It would be more appropriate to call liberalism an “anti-culture” than a culture.

Besides, if we’re all just unique individuals then how can we be commonly defined by one culture anyway? And how can one have a culture where a defining aspect is being able to choose to be part of the culture or not? Wouldn’t that make choosing to not be European (whatever that means) an intrinsically European act in line with European culture? And am I therefore European if I choose to be since by the mere act of being able to freely choose my culture I am being culturally European? Wouldn’t that just mean that “culture” means being liberal and nothing else, except perhaps some superficial distinctions of no consequence like cuisine, dress, language, and entertainment — all of which could be aped by any human being?

It all begs the question of what the point of this category labeled “European” is even for, since it doesn’t really seem to signify anything. Tax residency? Is a “European” just a liberal who happens to be a subject of a government in Europe? Why bother using the word?

The reader makes an important distinction here between community and voluntary association. Liberalism has no issue with voluntary associations; it is perfectly in line with the liberal ethos for someone to join a fishing club or a service organisation. What liberalism has difficulties with are interdependent relationships, which, as the reader points out, are the markers of a true community. In a true community there are mutual loyalties and obligations and a sense of a common identity and a shared fate. These are incompatible with the notion of radical autonomy fostered by liberalism, which is framed around the atomised individual choosing freely from whatever options are left to someone in such a position (they will tend to be relatively trivial lifestyle options).

The reader's next observation is profound. We might talk about a "liberal culture" but this makes little sense, given that the impetus of liberalism is to "liberate" individuals from the shared commitments that form a distinct culture. Liberalism, in this sense, represents an anticulture: it dissolves actual, embedded cultures and replaces them with a relatively homogenised way of life heavily influenced by the global market. I am reminded here of a discussion I once had with a bellicose American liberal who did not think much of culture, seeing it as a threat to his ideal of liberty. He took the view that,

Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked.

In his next paragraph, the reader draws out the lack of coherence in the liberal position:

And how can one have a culture where a defining aspect is being able to choose to be part of the culture or not? Wouldn’t that make choosing to not be European (whatever that means) an intrinsically European act in line with European culture?

That's what it comes to. If being European is defined in the liberal, Gaubian way, then if I choose not to be European I am affirming that I am, in fact, European. The reader's next observation is equally striking:

And am I therefore European if I choose to be since by the mere act of being able to freely choose my culture I am being culturally European?

If we follow the logic of the definition set out by Florence Gaub, then the answer is yes. I become European simply by the act of freely choosing to be European, since that too makes me an individual designing my own life, which is how Florence Gaub defines being European.

So I become European through the acts of either choosing to be or to not be a European. Either option leads to the same result.

Finally, the reader points out that the real content of the category itself, "European", is diminished when it is defined in liberal terms:

It all begs the question of what the point of this category labeled “European” is even for, since it doesn’t really seem to signify anything. Tax residency? Is a “European” just a liberal who happens to be a subject of a government in Europe? Why bother using the word?

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Florence Gaub: Russians aren't Europeans

Florence Gaub is a Franco-German political scientist who works for the World Economic Forum and who advises various governments on international security issues. She works in a field that emphasises "foresight" in politics.

She made some controversial comments in a TV interview, when she argued that Russians were not really to be considered Europeans:

She says in the interview:
We should not forget that even if the Russians look European, they are not European in a cultural sense. They think differently about violence and death. They have no concept of a liberal, post-modern life, a concept of life that each individual can choose.

(A more exact translation of the last part might read "a life as a project that each person designs individually for themselves".)

This is not a good way to think about what makes a European. First, there are distinctions in national character across Europe. If, for instance, you have an Anglo background, then the character of, say, Dutch or German women will seem remarkably blunt and undiplomatic. Who, then, gets to claim to be more European? Thought of in terms of character traits, there would be no unified category of "European", but rather distinctly national, or even regional, peoples.

Second, once you base identity around values alone, then boundaries become porous. If, for instance, you claim that adopting liberal values of a self-choosing individualism is what makes you a European, then anyone, anywhere can be a European, the more so given the dominance of liberal institutions in much of the world. In fact, you could logically argue that some Japanese people were more European than some native Swedes, if those Swedes happened to be conservative or traditionalist rather than liberal. 

Third, if you really had to choose a value as a marker of belonging and identity, then making it the liberal one of an individually self-chosen life is not a great decision. Yes, having some considerable scope to make decisions about your own life is obviously a human good. But the principle cannot work by itself; it is ultimately dissolving of human society and of the human personality. After all, the principle says nothing of what kind of life is worth pursuing. Is a woman opting to make money on Only Fans really as equally valid as a woman opting to marry and have children? According to the liberal principle, the answer is yes - as long as she is choosing it without coercion, it becomes a moral good.

In a society based on liberal values, there is a loss of what was once a notable feature of Western cultures, namely a distinction between the noble and the base within human nature. There is a loss, too, of the Western moral culture that once defended the integrity of the human personality, by rejecting behaviours or influences that were dissipated, or profligate, or incontinent, or dissolute - moral terminology that seems old-fashioned now but which recognised that our moral choices might either uphold or undermine the integrity of our personhood.

Liberal values are also radically individualistic, in the sense that they acknowledge only the life we might design as an atomised individual. What we derive as a person from our membership in larger bodies, such as families or peoples, is neglected. Liberal values, therefore, also undermine what was once a core aspect of Western culture, namely an emphasis on fidelity and loyalty - on being "true". Western cultures are slipping from being high trust to low trust societies as a result, this being most evident in the current state of relationships between the sexes.

Finally, liberal values make it difficult to uphold prudence, this being one of they key virtues in both the classical and Christian West. Prudence is lost because the emphasis in a liberal society is on the freedom to choose in any direction, rather than on natural limitations imposed by the given reality we inhabit. If we can self-define, or self-author, according to our own will, then prudence will be relegated in significance, as increasing numbers of people come to believe that they themselves get to decide their own subjective reality, so that society and the larger world should simply conform to whatever they choose to do or to be.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Are Terfs really any better?

If you were to set out the basic traditionalist position on sex distinctions it would look something like this:

1. We are born male or female

2. If we are born male we are connected in our nature to the masculine; if female to the feminine

3. Masculine and feminine are real qualities. If we wish to fulfil our own created nature, we will seek to embody the better qualities of the masculine if we are men, and the feminine if we are women. In doing so, our self manifests a transcendent good that helps give meaning and purpose to our existence.

I got into a debate yesterday with a group of Terfs on this issue. These are "trans exclusionary radical feminists", i.e. feminists who do not believe that males can suddenly declare themselves to be women. They insist, just like traditionalists, that a woman is an adult human female. They would agree with traditionalists on the first proposition I set out above, namely that we are born male or female.

What struck me during the debate, however, was not the common ground but the vast gulf separating these Terfs from my own politics. I came away thinking that they had extraordinarily awful beliefs about men and women. I think it's useful to set out the reasons why I came to this conclusion.

a) Terfs still reduce the category of womanhood to a point that it becomes meaningless

Terfs might agree with traditionalists on the first proposition, but they entirely reject the next two. What this means is that they define a woman as someone who has female reproductive organs, but that is it. For them, a woman (or a man) can be absolutely anything else that they choose to be. Being a man or a woman has no further relevance to anyone's life, except for the fact of reproductive organs. So why then think it important? What is the point of the category itself if it is irrelevant to anything we might do or be?

In short, Terfs still hold very strongly to the distinction between sex and gender. They accept the fact of biological sex, but they think any sex based characteristics are merely "gender" that is socially constructed and oppressive. 

When I suggested that these Terfs were reducing the category of womanhood to something meaningless, these are the type of responses I got:

As you can see, the Terfs were very firm in asserting that being a woman has no meaning apart from the fact of being born female ("women just exist", "individuals with a female body", "just existing in a way they want to", "a matter of biology and nothing else", "being born female...the beginning and end of how to be a woman"). When I challenged them about whether this was a meaningful category, they gave the only answer that they logically could, namely that the biological facts of menstruation and pregnancy gave a point of distinction between men and women. This, it seems to me, reduces women, as women, to something like "walking wombs".

b) Terfs still pander to transsexuals

Despite the fierce animosity between Terfs and transsexuals, the Terfs are still willing to go to extraordinary lengths to remodel the world so that transsexuals might better fit in.

Their idea is as follows. Let's say you have someone who is male but who wants to be female. What the Terfs want is for our concept of "male" to fully embrace what is female. In this way, the transsexual would not need to transition. Being male would incorporate the desire to be female. 

They are serious about this. Look at the following tweet:


What do the Terfs think we need to do to make transsexuals feel more comfortable in their own bodies? The answer: completely sever any connection between our biological sex and our masculinity or femininity. We are just supposed to "exist with a male body" or "exist with a female body" and nothing more.

I would hope my traditionalist readers would understand by now why I think the Terf position is a complete non-starter for us.

c) The Terfs associate masculinity and femininity with negative life outcomes

The Terfs might argue along the lines of "be whatever you want" but when drawn out in debate they revert to the idea that masculinity and femininity are oppressive social constructs that lead to terrible life outcomes, such as domestic violence, rape and misogyny.

This, of course, raises the problem of what younger people are meant to do in response to these beliefs. Imagine you were a 14-year-old girl and you really believed that your own femininity and the masculinity of the boys around you were going to lead to violence and rape. Would it not potentially destabilise your psychological and emotional development? It seems to me to be a kind of mental trap that is difficult to escape from. If you cannot be feminine, and it is equally wrong to be masculine, and if there is no hope of ever having a happy relationship with the opposite sex (because masculinity is tarnished by its association with rape and violence), then along what lines is positive development into adulthood supposed to occur? Is it any wonder that so many young women are developing psychological issues?

Here is just a sample of what "Alliecat" had to say in relation to masculinity and femininity:

You can see that for this woman "gender" has been cast in the most negative terms. Given that it is such a core aspect of life, you can only imagine the detrimental psychological effects that such a worldview must have.

Something else occurs to me here also. For men to love women, they need to be able to form an idealised view of women as having admirable feminine character traits. Men don't need to believe that women are perfect, but they do need to uphold an image of women as being caring, sympathetic etc. But if young women are led to believe that such feminine traits are merely a path to oppression, then they won't be cultivated. Even worse, if young women are led to believe that womanhood is defined merely by reproductive organs, then this even further shifts the emphasis in relationships from love to sexuality. You then start to get the complaint from men that all women are offering is sex appeal.

d) In spite of all of the above, the Terfs are not neutral between men and women but promote radical female superiority

If all this wasn't enough, some of these Terfs are also committed to the idea of a matriarchal future, in which men have a very limited role in society.

This might seem odd, given all the complaints about patriarchy and misogyny and the like. You would think that the Terfs would envisage some form of sex-blind equality. Instead, you get self-descriptors in their Twitter bios that read "unironic Matriarchy proponent". What does this mean? Here is an example:

They are arguing that the family should be a female sphere over which men should exercise no influence, but should merely support financially. The children are hers alone, she should transmit her culture and values and not him, she should be the one to spend the money even if she does not earn it.

If these Terfs really want to live this way they could move to Japan. My understanding is that Japanese men are expected to work long hours, hand over their money to their wives, receive a small allowance and have little to do with the domestic sphere (Japanese men will often spend the hours after work socialising with other men rather than returning home).

Does the Japanese model work? I don't think so. Japan has falling birth rates (down to 1.36); very low marriage rates; a growing avoidance of romantic relationships; widespread prostitution; and a problem of young men withdrawing from society (hikikomori). Young men describe not wanting to get married because they see marriage simply as a burden. From a Guardian report:

Aoyama says the sexes, especially in Japan's giant cities, are "spiralling away from each other". Lacking long-term shared goals, many are turning to what she terms "Pot Noodle love" – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality "girlfriends", anime cartoons. Or else they're opting out altogether and replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes.

The Terfs are not thinking things through. If men have no respected role within the family, why would they bother committing to it? It will come to be thought irrational.

I'm sorry that I can't report more positively on my debate with the Terfs. I suppose that I can commend a few of them for being willing to debate and not just name call, but that's the only positive spin I can put on it. They are still peddling wildly destructive ideas, to the point that it's difficult to see them as any better politically than their transsexual opponents.