The Market for Sanctimony,
or why we need
Yet Another Space Alien Cult
Peter A. Taylor
Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm. But the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
— T.S. Eliot
1. Table of Contents
Q. Obviously this is a joke.
A. Sort of. I have some serious points to make, but there are some aspects of human nature that I find it hard not to make fun of.
YASAC started out as a joke on my then 12-year old son's part, making fun of religion. I admit to having egged him on. But we parted ways, partly because I am more interested in politics than in religion, and partly because I want to be taken at least semi-seriously. This essay is a sort of meta-FAQ, an adult-level explanation of how to start an attractive cult religion, and why this is a good idea.
One claim I make is that Kurt Vonnegut's view of religion in Cat's Cradle is largely correct, as well as the fact that many other kinds of associations are essentially similar to religious ones. This is especially true of political movements.
I hope to do a better job of explaining why this is the case than Vonnegut did. I also hope to point out some of the consequences that this has for political behavior. Many people have observed that politics is often a substitute for religion, but I have seen very little discussion of the implications.
I begin with a discussion of religion from the perspective of a disgruntled Unitarian Universalist. But what goes on in UU churches is not all that different from other liberal churches or from the unchurched "reality-based community." Basically, the unchurched have social institutions, too; they just don't call them "churches."
Q. Is this "meta-FAQ" about promoting a better society, or about your personal experiences (ie. at church)?
A. It's impossible to separate how the world works at a macroscopic level from how beliefs propagate on a microscopic level. Everyone I talk to claims that they deserve to be respected for promoting a better society. But good government is a public good. Mancur Olson wrote in The Logic of Collective Action about needing "selective incentives" for people in voluntary organizations to produce public goods. I'm trying to get a handle on how these selective incentives work.
I'm also trying to be up front about my own changing attitudes. To some extent, I am trying in this essay to rationalize, or apologize for, my support of a church that I accuse of engaging in quite a bit of intellectual mischief.
Q. Who are you?
A. I am a hawkish libertarian atheist who goes to a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church.
Q. Okay, you already have a church. So what's the problem?
A. Well, any church that allows human beings to become members is going to be messed up, but I'll try to be more specific. Officially, UU does not have a creed. A consequence of this is that any psychological needs that depend on getting together with co-believers are likely to be frustrated at a UU church. This in turn leads people to promote hard left-wing politics as an unofficial creed. As a libertarian, I am appalled by the amount of bloodshed in the last century that I think is fairly attributable to the hard left. I also find left-wing apologetics to be at least as irrational as Christian theology or pseudo-scientific nonsense (ie. "creation science"). (I will file some specific charges against "The New Left" after I sketch out my view of human nature in general.) Thus a church that prides itself on not asking people to check their minds at the door ends up doing it anyway, just in a different fashion. I call this "conservation of irrationality." This problem appears to be common to liberal churches in general, as well as to atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who set store by their rationality. YASAC for me is a thought experiment in trying to minimize the harm associated with meeting the aforementioned psychological needs.
Q. Is the problem that UU needs a creed and doesn't have one, or that UU already does have a de facto creed, but you disagree with it?
A. I think there are three problems. One is that it's hard to hold a satisfying church service when the minister can't assume that the congregation believes anything in particular. The second is that I disagree with a lot of what we teach. The third is that the beliefs that threaten to become de facto creeds, even if they were true, are not psychologically satisfying (not "deep" enough). Rev. Davidson Loehr regards the 7 UU Principles as a creed, but belittles them as "the seven banalities." In his article, "Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying," he says that what we need is a "salvation story:"
By "salvation story," I don't mean anything supernatural. I mean a tradition's understanding of the human condition, its malaise, and its prescription for satisfying the deep yearning that has always marked serious religions, and its sense of how and why living out of this story makes our lives more fulfilling and useful to the larger world.He continues,
...many people are hungry for truths that can set them free, rather than political posturings that merely draw attention to them.I urge you to read the whole thing for a good exposition of how politics replaced theology in UU (and liberal Christianity in general).
I'm really more concerned with the wrongness of modern pseudo-rational
intellectual fads than with their superficiality, but I can't separate
people's beliefs from the question of what is wrong with the human condition
that causes people to cling to falsehood so. Here is my attempt to answer
Rev. Loehr's challenge to provide an understanding of the human condition:
3. The Basic Principles of Yet Another Space Alien Cult (YASAC)
1. The modern hard science world view is basically right. The universe is roughly 15 billion years old. We evolved from single-celled organisms. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is pretty much correct except for his discussion of religion.
2. Human beings are, first and foremost, biological organisms. We need to take evolutionary psychology seriously. We may choose not to reproduce as much as we can, but survival and reproduction are what we are geared for. Specifically, we are a hierarchical social animal, and our reproductive prospects are sensitive to social status.
Update: several people have argued that group identity is more important than social status, especially for women. Perhaps, but I'm more interested in social status, especially when it comes to explaining how ideologies evolve. For inter-group rivalries, I don't think the difference in motivation between social status and group identity matters much.
3. Consequently, a fundamental part of the human condition is a craving for social status, including tokens or proxies such as ego justification and prestige. The competition for social status has a large element of being a zero-sum game, but social status and especially ego justification are also subjective, context-dependent, and sensitive to self-fulfilling prophecies and various kinds of misrepresentation and fraud. Social misrepresentation is an important part of human affairs. We fight over social status, and we fight dirty.
We also fight both individually and in groups. Competition for social status is often a team sport.
One example of the importance of context is Frank's Paradox: We are judged on our apparent motives as well as our accomplishments, and an overly transparent attempt to raise one's prestige makes one seem insecure, which will actually lower one's prestige. Consequently, people routinely lie about their attempts to impress one another (and psychologists write papers on how to brag).
Robin Hanson offers numerous examples of the importance of social status in the article, "Politics isn't about Policy." If a jock wins the election for student council president, from the voters' standpoint, the most important effect that this has is that it increases the social status of jocks at the expense of other groups. Hanson claims that this is basically true for all elections. (Regarding regular elections, Megan McArdle observes: "People don't know what's in various bills, because bills are very complicated, so they just project whatever they think would be neat onto the ones authored by politicians they like....")
I also highly recommend chapter 4 of Jonathan Haidt's book, The Happiness Hypothesis, for an excellent discussion of moralism, righteousness, and hypocrisy from a psychologist's viewpoint. He writes (p. 77),
The first step is to see it as a game and stop taking it so seriously.
See also the discussion of "paranoid" thinking patterns in the hilarious pop psychology book, Families and How to Survive Them, by John Cleese (yes, him) and Robin Skynner.
4. The human brain is essentially a very kludgey control system for a social animal. Self-deception is extremely difficult for human beings to avoid. Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, p. 43) describes experiments on people who have had the nerve bundle (corpus callosum) connecting the two hemispheres of the brain cut. The left hemisphere, asked to explain the person's response to a stimulus that was only received by the right hemisphere, will fabricate an answer without hesitation and with no awareness that it is doing so.
...the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right.
The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient's left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind--the self or soul--is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.
Pinker also quotes Robert Trivers on p. 263:
If...deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray--by the subtle signs of knowledge--the deception being practiced. Thus, the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naïve view of mental evolution.
5. Religion is, among other things, part of the human reproductive system. One of its purposes is to raise the apparent social status of its adherents, improving their reproductive prospects. Churches usually do this by claiming to hold or to deserve positions of moral leadership.
Corollary 1: Since social status is largely a zero-sum game, no religion can ever really be universal.
Corollary 2: Because of Frank's Paradox, no church can ever write an honest mission statement.
6. One way for an organization to claim a position of moral leadership is to hold its members to higher standards than competing organizations. A second way is to exaggerate its members' accomplishments. A third way is to slander its competitors. The first method is hard to use. The latter two methods are hard to avoid using, and usually result in the production of scapegoats and boogiemen. In practice, it is impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation about religion (or social institutions in general) for very long without addressing self-deception and moral fraud ("fighting dirty" for social status).
Two unspoken questions that religions and quasi-religions, in practice, have to answer are "Whom do I have permission to use as a scapegoat?" and "What lies may I tell myself in order to feel morally superior to my competitors?" In Jerry Falwell's church, you have permission to use homosexuals as scapegoats. At a Green Party meeting, you have permission to use capitalists as scapegoats.
Update, 4-26-2016: A fourth way to compete for moral leadership is to manipulate your community's moral standards. Dividualist calls this "hijacking the status assignment engine". Note that the correctness of a set of moral standards is a credence good, something that in practice can't really be verified.
7. There is a high degree of substitutability between churches and other organizations, especially political ones. For purposes of understanding the human condition, the supernatural beliefs that are normally associated with religion are not especially important. Coalitional psychology is essentially the same whether we observe it in the form of religion, politics, sports fandom, computer operating system advocacy, or any other social or intellectual fashion, pseudo- or quasi-religion, or within professional societies. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, "Every cause wants to be a cult" (followup). For a classic discussion of the substitutability between religion and politics, see Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. As Henry Sumner Maine put it, (Popular government, 1886, p. 114), "the relation of Whig to Tory, of Conservative to Liberal—is on the whole exceedingly like that of Jew to Samaritan."
Kurt Vonnegut coined the word, "granfalloon," in the novel, Cat's Cradle, to capture the similarity among the manifestations of coalitional psychology across religious, political, and other kinds of organizations. Wikipedia states, "The most common granfalloons are associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise." Frank's Paradox reinforces Steven Pinker's "baloney generator" in making it almost impossible to get useful information about people's motivations. However, Vonnegut erred in defining a granfalloon as a "proud but meaningless" organization. Pride is the meaning. They are meaningful precisely because they are proud.
As Bryan Caplan wrote in The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,
Political/economic ideology is the religion of modernity.
Usually, when an atheist compares politics to religion, what he means is that someone else's political views resemble a fanatical cult, as opposed to his own, which are perfectly rational. The most obvious error here is usually a lack of introspection, but I want to make a more subtle point: it's wrong to equate religion with fanaticism. Transubstantiation is a religious doctrine. If I believe in transubstantiation, but I am not a fanatic about it, that doesn't mean that my version of transubstantiation is scientific. It is still a religious doctrine. Eric Hoffer argued that political fanaticism resembles religious fanaticism, but Caplan's point is broader. Political moderates also behave like religious moderates.
8. When it becomes too embarrassing for people to engage in a particular kind of moral fraud, they will usually substitute a different kind of moral fraud rather than give up their feelings of moral superiority. Thus, to a first approximation, we have a principle of "Conservation of Irrationality:"
(1) much of the irrational behavior associated with religion is related to people having a craving for ego justification,
(2) changing a person's theological beliefs has little effect on his tendency to crave ego justification, and
(3) politics is the continuation of religion by other means.
Corollary 1: At least one of my most cherished beliefs is utter nonsense.
Corollary 2: I won't be able to figure out which of my cherished beliefs is wrong until after I have replaced it with another, roughly equally wrong belief.
Corollary 3: Any church that tries to be welcoming to atheists, such as most UU churches, will tend to be overrun with political kooks unless they find another way for their members to get ego justification that doesn't involve supernatural beliefs.
9. Organizations that engage in high levels of moral fraud tend to take on much of the flavor of a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) fantasy role-playing game. (See Tooby and Cosmedes on Stephen Jay Gould or Lee Harris on Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology. Update: AKA "ideological LARPing".) You need "orcs" (scapegoats or boogiemen) and suspension of disbelief (a "dungeonmaster" who can paint a vivid verbal picture of an "orc"). A key difference is that D&D players have a wide selection of boogiemen (the Advanced D&D Monster Manual) and tend to have a relaxed attitude toward their orcs-du-jour. Politico-religious zealots tend to hold their scapegoats in a death-grip. See John McCarthy's "Ideological Tribalism" points 7, 8, and 9 and his comments about organizational "hysteresis."
Scapegoats are important. To play this game, you have to have a utopian (romantic) eschatology and a path to get there, with a removable roadblock. Scapegoats or boogiemen give you a removable roadblock.
I will also tend to have an acrimonious relationship with anyone whose narrative conflicts sharply with mine.
10. Organizations that engage in high levels of moral fraud tend to embrace "romantic" as opposed to "classical" views of human nature (see McCarthy). Thomas Sowell describes these in A Conflict of Visions respectively as "unconstrained" and "constrained" views, and elsewhere as "utopian" and "tragic" views.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn takes the classical view:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
J. R. R. Tolkien's elf, Elrond, takes a classical view of human nature with the statement, "Men are weak," but the overall plot of The Lord of the Rings illustrates the romantic myth: Evil is largely external to human nature in the form of Sauron and his Ring, but some day soon, Frodo is going to throw the Ring into Mt. Doom, and human society will be radically transformed.
The romantic view allows its holder a greater sense of moral superiority than does the classical view.
11. Political movements tend to get in trouble by having too strong a grip on too small and simple a set of scapegoats. For some examples, see "The Care and Feeding of Scapegoats." To maximize ones feelings of moral superiority, one needs to avoid moral complexity. (Sophistication and nuance are defensive tools for when one's allies have been caught misbehaving.) But it's impossible to diagnose a problem correctly if the actual cause is not a member of the approved boogieman list, and one is committed to only blaming members of the approved list (having "ideological blinders" or what Eric Raymond called "historical baggage").
Leftists often disparage the religious right as being morally simplistic, with "Manichean" notions of good and evil. This is partly projection. Conservative Christians may indeed tend to be Manichean regarding sex, but change the topic to, say, waterboarding, one where leftists perceive that they are at a moral advantage, and the roles are reversed.
For a more realistic discussion of the nature of evil, see Mencius Moldbug on D&D alignments.
If I claim that my benighted enemies are consistently guilty of (Manichean) black-and-white thinking, and that my enlightened friends are consistently innocent of this, that is itself an example of black-and-white thinking. But sometimes moral "bright lines" are appropriate. Denying uncertainty and exaggerating uncertainty are both forms of lying.
The Social Sciences
12. In contrast to the hard sciences, the social sciences are in a state of disarray. It is harder to do controlled experiments there, the costs of errors tend to be public rather than private, the incentives for self-deception are stronger (people get more emotionally engaged regarding theories about people than theories about quarks), and there is more pressure from outside the field to get a socially palatable answer.
A simple example of this disarray is the "secularization thesis," "...the popular but untenable view of religion as a fading vestige of prescientific times." More generally, in the lead article in The Adapted Mind, Tooby and Cosmedes complain of a "standard social science model" that flies in the face of much of the evidence about how the human mind works. Jonathan Haidt makes the same complaint.
John Derbyshire describes three prevalent views on human nature: the "Abrahamic" traditional religious view, the "Darwinian" view implied by evolutionary biology, and the politically correct "Boasian" view. Derbyshire argues that the Darwinian view is the odd man out here, that the Boasian view appears to be a scientistic derivative of the Abrahamic view. Derbyshire writes,
As an empirical view of living matter, chasing down its truths one by one through thickets of patient observation, Darwinism is bound to offend systems derived from introspection, revelation, or social approval.
13. The disarray in the social sciences is a parallel development to the turmoil within Christianity. Keith Windschuttle describes this turmoil in terms of a schism within the Enlightenment, between the "radical" and "skeptical" flavors. My take on this is that, as it became increasingly difficult for scientifically literate people to take traditional Christian cosmology seriously, one group of people modified Christianity to make the cosmology less important. This group generally favored the classical view of human nature and formed the "skeptical Enlightenment." Another group discarded the outward forms of Christianity but recreated much of the inner structure with a scientistic veneer. This group tended to favor the romantic view of human nature and formed the "radical Enlightenment." Today this movement might be better described as "secular romanticism." A third group clung to old-fashioned Christianity by selectively rejecting scientific literacy. This group also favored the romantic view but formed the Counter-Enlightenment.
The radical Enlightenment, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is a continuation of Christian romanticism by other means. Thus it is not so much a farewell to the irrationality of religion as it is a new religion, or more precisely, an evolving family of new religions. It is analogous to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which, last I heard, was at version 3.5 with version 4.0 coming out soon. Lee Harris described the evolution of "Marx Without the Realism:" Pre-Marxist utopianism; Marxist immiserization thesis; Lenin's delayed immiserization and imperialism; Eduard Bernstein's relative immiserization; and Baran/Wallerstein global immiserization. Eric Raymond describes the influence of Soviet apologist Antonio Gramsci on Western "volk-Marxism."
A popular and dangerous new version of this game came out in the 1960s, for which I regret having no more descriptive term than "The New Left." I discuss this in more detail below.
Since it is relatively easy within the social sciences to go off the rails, and the radical Enlightenment took on scientific airs in order to make its romanticism more believable, it is easy for these two intellectual pursuits to become fused. To a considerable extent, this appears to have happened.
Mencius Moldbug calls the new religion "Universalism" and argues that a critical mutation took place about 1945. In his view, a group of mainline Protestants filed the supernatural serial numbers off of their religion and were able to get the US government to teach it in the public schools as "science."
There is a discussion in Rationality and the Religious Mind, by Rodney Stark, Laurence Iannaccone, and Roger Finke, of how religious beliefs vary among different academic departments. Anthropologists and non-clinical psychologists have very high rates of anti-religious sentiment (p. 2). They go on to say (p. 23),
We are inclined therefore to side with the sociologist Robert Wuthnow (1985: 197), who argues that the social sciences lean toward irreligion precisely because they are "the least scientific disciplines." Their semi-religious reliance on nontestable claims about the nature of humans and human society puts them in direct competition with traditional religions (something Comte explicitly acknowledged when he coined the word "sociology" more than 150 years ago).
14. The standard libertarian "slippery slope" explanation for the growth of government is wrong. As David Friedman (The Machinery of Freedom, 2nd ed., ch. 36) expressed this position, "The logic of limited governments is to grow." This explanation views voters' beliefs about the optimum size of government, in so far as they are relevant, as being dependent variables, largely determined by the current size of government (Hayekian "conservatism").
It's true that there are conflicts of interest that cause actual democratic governments to be marginally larger than most voters want, but I think this explanation gives the status quo far too much credit for determining voters' beliefs. I regard voters' beliefs as being independent variables. Voters choose their beliefs based on psychological factors that have little or nothing to do with objective reality. This is more consistent with how Friedman (ch. 44) suggests that medieval Iceland "was subverted by an alien ideology—monarchy."
Part of the reason for the "slippery slope" phenomenon is that Progressivism is a positional good. The point of Progressivism is to distinguish oneself as being smarter than and morally superior to the average voter. One consequence of this is that Progressives have no fixed goal for the optimal size and scope of government. There is no such thing as "enough." Whatever the average voter has become acclimated to has to be "not enough" so that the Progressives can be smarter than average.
Update, 5-2-2014: Here is a nice article by Kristian Niemietz on political correctness as a positional good.
The solution for out-of-control government is not constitutional change, but psychological change. To paraphrase what Andrei Codrescue said of the USSR, what we need are not economic advisors (or constitutional lawyers), what we need are psychiatrists.
As Arnold Kling put it in a discussion of Sowell's A Conflict of Visions,
My own view is that the constrained and unconstrained visions are held by elites. The masses operate on the basis of what I call folk beliefs. Elites compete for power by appealing to and manipulating these folk beliefs. At the moment, I believe that those elites who hold the unconstrained vision are at an advantage in making such appeals. Arguably, they have had an advantage for nearly a century.
Lifeofthemind writes, "What the totalitarians have succeeded in doing is poisoning the fruit of the wisdom of crowds."
15. Sociologists (and economists) of religion (e.g. Laurence Iannaccone, Why Strict Churches are Strong) view churches as lying on a spectrum from "lenient" ones, which are in a state of low tension with the surrounding society (just regular folks), to "strict" ones that maintain a high level of tension (e.g. tithe, dress distinctively, no drinking or dancing). I think of this "strictness" as a measure of what David Harsanyi called "moral exhibitionism." Liberal religion in general, and UU in particular, is conflicted about whether they want to follow the low-tension church model based on liberal theology, or the high-tension church model, based on leftist politics. The church leadership tends to favor the high-tension model.
I've been describing the human condition in Darwinian terms, in terms of "moral fraud," but from a psychological standpoint, we experience this as sanctimony. Sanctimony is somewhat analogous to alcohol*. Attending a church that is low-tension (low sanctimony) on both the theological and the political axes is kind of like going to a family restaurant where very little alcohol is served. Going to a UU church and not being a Progressive is like going to a bar with a really good liquor selection and drinking a cola.
*Update: Cartoonist Jonathan Rosenberg depicts moral superiority in terms of cocaine.
16. Different flavors of moral fraud may be equally irrational, but they are not equally harmful. By analogy, smallpox and cowpox are both diseases, but smallpox is very often fatal, whereas cowpox almost never is. Furthermore, cowpox provides immunity from smallpox, just as, to a lesser extent, I claimed above that different flavors of moral fraud (ie. various flavors associated with Christianity and Socialism) tend to compete with one another (conservation of irrationality). Mencius Moldbug describes "Revelationist" Christianity as a "counterparasite" for "Universalism" (the modern Left).
Political beliefs in general tend to be more dangerous than traditional religions for two reasons. One reason is that traditional religions tend to concern themselves with things like hypothetical afterlives that don't necessarily have much to do with real life. Traditional religion allows people to be irrational about things that have little relevance to practical decisions (e.g. how many angels can dance on the head of a pin). Politics-as-religion, on the other hand, invites people to be irrational about affairs of state.
The other reason is that, in a society such as the US, that does not have a state religion, there is no particular reason for churches to consolidate into cohesive organizations that are large enough to direct majorities of the overall population. The sum of squares of market shares (Herfindahl index) for Protestant denominations in the US is well below 0.1 (See "Deregulating Religion"). Political organizations, on the other hand, have to come together to form majority coalitions in order to get anything done in the legislature. Being selected as a scapegoat by a political party with support from 51% of the population is far more dangerous than being selected as a scapegoat by a church denomination with the support of 5%.
How harmful a particular belief system is also depends on circumstances. The foreign policy differences between the major US political parties became pivotal during the 2002 elections partly due to external factors.
During the 30 Years' War, Christianity may have been as dangerous as secular romanticism is now, but modern (skeptical Enlightenment) Christianity is like cowpox. In so far as modern Christianity is distinct from the radical Enlightenment, it is generally beneficial, and next to WWII or the Great Leap Forward, any harm that it does is comparatively trivial.
Toward Better Religion
17. We know enough about the sociology of religion to identify a number of key properties that a good religion should have. A successful religion will inevitably have scapegoats; ideally these scapegoats should be beyond human capacity to harm, and should also be unlikely to inflict harm on humans as a result of being vilified. Gods or god substitutes (demigods) are also pretty much unavoidable, for reasons that are outside the scope of this essay. (See Paul Bloom regarding people's cognitive biases, but also Laurence Iannaccone on the advantages to practitioners of the supernatural of having gods on whom to blame their failures. Supposedly irreligious people often project semi-divine qualities onto the State.) A low religious Herfindahl index is good for society, so it is desirable if a religion forms schisms easily or can be given features that limit its market penetration to a few percent. It is desirable for a new religion to have a cosmology that is compatible with its target audience (we need naturalistic demigods, not supernatural ones, to attract scientifically literate converts). A spectacular eschatology (ie. fire and brimstone) is also nice to have to add color and purpose. Any scientific claims that an attractive religion makes should be at least as plausible as global warming catastrophism.
In short, I want YASAC to be at least as plausible as secular romanticism, but less destructive by at least an order of magnitude. If YASAC results in the deaths of more than ten million people, I will consider it a failure.
18. All roads lead to Roswell. Although space alien cults have developed a bad reputation in the last few years, being associated with groups like the Heaven's Gate cult and Scientology, and television shows like the X-files, they have the potential to solve a number of the problems I alluded to above.
A. Bad space aliens make ideal scapegoats, being difficult or impossible for to humans to injure and, apart from occasional unsubstantiated allegations, showing no capacity or inclination to harm humans. (One exception to this is John Trebes' allegation that sometime around 1980, all of the people who knew how to write software documentation were kidnapped and replaced by space aliens.)
B. Good space aliens can easily serve as non-supernatural demigods, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in Rendezvous with Rama, one of whose characters was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, Astronaut.
C. Space alien cults offer spectacular eschatologies and can provide people with a sense of purpose in other ways. One example is SETI, which David Brin argues is already quasi-religious. Another example is that space alien cults provide people with external enemies, such as the Army of Mars in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.
19. The point of the above reasoning is not that space aliens exist. Nor is it that we should believe in space aliens whether they exist or not. The point is merely that the world would be a better place if large numbers of adherents to the radical Enlightenment would abandon current intellectual fashion in favor of joining relatively harmless space alien cults.
This concludes the basic principles of YASAC.
4. The Noble Rubber Chicken
Q. So you're advocating some sort of Straussian "Noble Lie?"
A. No, I'm advocating something more along the lines of a "Noble Rubber Chicken."
Since secular romanticism in general, and the New Left in particular, is a bad thing, and since (I believe) people believe in the New Left largely because it appeals to their cravings for social status, it follows that reducing the social status of New Leftists through mockery is a public service, and brings credit to the mockers. Besides, social status is a zero-sum game, so successful mockery tends to raise the status of the mockers even if the targets are harmless. With apologies to H. L. Mencken, it seems that social status is a thing best got by taking it from Leftists.
A YASAC member gets extra credit for converting a New Leftist to believing in a relatively harmless space alien cult, but this isn't necessary. It is sufficient to promote the idea that it would be a good thing if a bunch of them converted. YASAC members themselves are not really expected to believe in space aliens either. With apologies to Robin Hanson, YASAC isn't really about space aliens.
Since the stated purpose of YASAC is to transfer social status to its
members from a particular group of non-members, YASAC creates an exception to
the rule that no religion can ever write an honest mission statement. But this
is true only as long as we are committed to the Noble Rubber Chicken paradigm.
Since YASAC is advocating beliefs that are not necessarily those of its
members, if we ever start asking people to take the space alien shtick
seriously, YASAC would essentially become a
religion. In that case, the "inner circle" might be able to write an
honest mission statement, but we would not be able to acknowledge it publicly.
5. Obvious Drawbacks to YASAC
This is actually not the religion I had in mind when I started this project. While YASAC may be attractive in terms of saving lives relative to secular romanticism, from my perspective, it has a number of drawbacks. One of these is that it is not compatible with my previous efforts to use the space program as a substitute for religion. My earlier thinking was that space alien cults don't necessarily require actual space aliens as normally understood. In fact, I was going to propose a schism over the definition of "space alien," which would be good because it would lower the Herfindahl index. Is a "space alien" a creature with extra-terrestrial DNA, or anyone who visits Earth, but who lives elsewhere, regardless of ancestry or place of origin? The latter, relaxed definition is tempting because it brings in some additional opportunities for eschatology that are both spectacular and scientifically highly respectable. Earth could easily be destroyed (again) by an asteroid or comet, which we might be able to deflect. We have the Y1G problem: in a billion years, the sun will have left the main sequence, and the Earth will be uninhabitable. We will want interstellar space travel long before then. Earth could also be sterilized by a cosmic ray burst. Predicting that the Earth will be destroyed by space aliens, as the Church of the SubGenius does, is almost gilding the lily in terms of eschatology. These problems demand that humanity expands into space on an industrial scale. Similarly, the manned space program provides a plausible eschatology in that it appeals to a sense of manifest destiny. As John Marburger put it, the space program promises to bring the resources of the entire solar system within the human economic sphere. We have to become a permanent spacefaring species. To paraphrase the leader of what appears to me to be a competing cult,
We are the space aliens we've been waiting for.
In addition to this eschatology, my theoretical, economically-oriented space program religion allows me to feel superior to advocates of the actual, national prestige-oriented space program whom John Carter McKnight called, "The Association Living in Camelot Fairyland." (Space travel isn't about exploration.)
Unfortunately, this approach is not only incompatible with the Noble Rubber Chicken paradigm, it also eliminates the advantages in principle 18, parts A and B, above. I regard part A as a vital firewall. Therefore, this sort of belief should be discouraged among all but the most experienced, responsible space alien cultists. With deep regret, I fear I must denounce myself as a heretic.
A second problem with YASAC, especially if it becomes really successful, is its tendency to decay into a mystery religion. I regard this as both unpleasant and dangerous. By "really successful," I mean that substantial numbers of people would get their psychological needs met (ie. sanctimony) by looking down on space aliens instead of by being Leftists. We would have to be careful not to let genuine space alien cultists in among us poseurs. The genuine article would form a de facto "outer circle," which would not mix well with the "inner circle" who would get their need for sanctimony met by looking down on Leftists. If you try to hold a church service where the minister can't count on the congregation being able to agree on whether to blame their problems on space aliens or an opposition political party, you might as well be a Unitarian Universalist.
One source of danger in a mystery religion comes from the fact that the outer circle, not being privy to the true mission of the church, can't be trusted to make doctrinal decisions. Heaven's Gate and Scientology show that space alien cults can absorb toxic doctrines as well as any other belief system. These need not be formal doctrines: Paul's statement (2 Corinthians 3:6) that "the letter kills but the spirit gives life" could easily be turned on its head. Unfortunately, the inner circle can't really be trusted, either, and the imbalance of power gives them potential conflicts of interest, as well as stability problems as the inner and outer circles threaten to trade places.
Another problem with mystery religions is that they are hard to propagate. That's partly why Mithraism lost out to Christianity in the Roman Empire. You can't just post your inner circle's doctrines on the internet and have it still be a mystery religion. (Oops?) A further problem with mystery religions, if you want your doctrines to be realistic, is that secret information can't be "peer reviewed" in the sense of being seen by the fresh eyes of people who are not already among the initiated (ie. part of the "echo chamber").
If we were to deliberately embrace the mystery religion model for YASAC, an additional personal difficulty emerges for me. The success of YASAC would depend on members of the inner circle being able to attract Leftists to drop their political doctrines in favor of some superior psychological rewards that we would have to offer them for being genuine space alien cultists of the YASAC outer circle. We would have to be respectful towards the genuine cultists. As a libertarian at a UU church, this wouldn't be as hard for me as being respectful towards the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, but it would still be pretty much a busman's holiday.
A third problem with YASAC, in its current, admittedly stalled state of development, is its incompleteness. Raising members' apparent social status is only one aspect of what religion is about. I have argued that space alien cults have a lot of potential for meeting people's psychological needs, but what I have isn't really a space alien cult. Even as a mystery religion, the psychological benefits of a space alien cult don't apply to the inner circle. Part of this incompleteness is that YASAC doesn't appear to demand enough of its members. Like Unitarian Universalism, YASAC sets the bar too low on what it takes to be considered a good person. It is too far toward the low tension end of the religious spectrum. As Orson Scott Card put it,
Here is one simple truth, borne out by statistics over many decades and generations: The religions that demand of their members some real and rational degree of sacrifice, obedience, and adherence to faith are growing stronger and stronger; while the ones that say, in effect, that you can do what you want and God doesn't expect much of us anymore, except to be vaguely nice - they are losing members rapidly.It isn't enough for a good religion to provide a social outlet for its members and encourage them to denounce a few of the most troubling contemporary fashions in moral fraud. A successful religion needs to be able to make a plausible claim that its members hold themselves to higher standards than their competitors.
Because if it doesn't matter what you do, then why would you bother to belong?
I want to break this feature, holding ourselves to higher standards, into three components. One component is high moral standards, the "don'ts." People need a good set of ethics and the humility to not think they're too smart to need to adhere to those ethics. A second component is positive accomplishments. We need specific things that we do that make life meaningful (or at least, that reflect well on us). Dr. Betty Sue Flowers talks of "the path of service," and warns that it is counter-intuitive: "It has to be taught." The third component is mental growth.
One aspect of mental growth has to do with "making meaning." I think of this in terms of an analogy of life being like a relay race. During the earlier phases of life, we are handed a baton, or rather, we are handed a basket with some batons in it, and we start collecting more batons. Towards the end of life, we pass our batons on to our teammates. A good life consists partly of enjoying and tinkering with our batons as we carry them, and partly of the satisfaction of passing the batons on, with modifications, to our teammates. Christians think there's a Head Coach watching from somewhere up in the bleachers, and that there will be a big after-event party. On the other hand, for atheists like me, in order for life to be "meaningful," to be about more than hedonism, we have to not only care about the batons we carry but also about the teammates to whom we deliver them. (One of Sam Keen's seven basic questions that any good religion has to answer is, "Who are my people?")
But another important aspect of mental growth, which is more to the point of YASAC, has to do with self-deception. Christians talk about being "God-fearing." I'm not afraid of God. I'm afraid of self-deception, in myself as well as in others. Fear of the consequences of self-deception is what keeps people honest with themselves. In contrast, it seems to me that the defining characteristic of a political "hack" is a lack of fear of self-deception. A good religion should teach people to be scared of the right things, and the main thing I want people to be scared of is self-deception. (My "liberal" friends tend to blame the world's problems on ignorance and stupidity. I think they should be more worried about conflicts of interest and self-deception. It often seems to me that smart, well-educated people are just better at coming up with rationalizations. And the line between education and indoctrination is a delicate one.)
I had to qualify Principle 8 by saying that Conservation of Irrationality was a first approximation. Children are supposed to grow up eventually. Heroin users are supposed to switch to methodone and eventually get clean. People are supposed to learn eventually to compete for status less through fraud and more through genuine good behavior. A good religion encourages this, and discourages self-deception. The point of Conservation of Irrationality was not that people can't grow psychologically, but that being rational is a whole lot harder than the "reality-based community" likes to pretend. The "reality-based community" sees itself as a sword drawn against religion. I see it as another religion; to paraphrase Ivan Stang, a religion so dumb it doesn't even know it's a religion. As James Russell Lowell put it,
Whatever you are sure of, be sure of this—that you are dreadfully like other people.
6. Christianity, Discordianism, and the Church of the SubGenius
Q. If you're not a Christian, why do you say that Christianity is "generally beneficial?"
A. Being an atheist means that I don't take Christianity's claims about the supernatural seriously. This includes Christianity's origin stories and its claims for the provenance of its moral teachings. However, I do take Christianity (at least certain versions) seriously as a wisdom tradition, valuable because it has been extensively tinkered with and tested, not because of its origins. I also take Guenter Lewy seriously when he writes in Why America Needs Religion that traditional religion is "a highly valuable, not to say essential, social institution" in preserving and transmitting the moral heritage on which civilized society depends.
As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, morality is largely a matter of imagination. I claim that traditional Christianity did a relatively good job of training the moral imagination, and that Marxism does a disasterously perverse job of this. For example, Christianity teaches that envy is a sin, whereas Marxism treats it as a sacrament. Almost all religions seem to teach that lying is generally sinful, but that it is permitted to lie to an enemy during wartime. But Marxism teaches that we are in a state of class warfare, in a much more literal sense than any sentiment expressed in "Onward Christian soldiers." As Lewy writes, "The urgent task for believers and nonbelievers alike, I submit, is to replenish the moral capital that was accumulated over many centuries from a unique stock of religious and ethical teachings, a fund of treasure that we have been depleting of late at an alarming rate." My emphasis in this essay is on moral fraud, so it sounds like I take a very negative view of religion, but my overall view of religion is mixed. My negativity is a reflection of my view of human nature. You can think of religion as an evolving set of software patches for a buggy operating system.
Q. If Christianity is "cowpox" to the Socialist "smallpox," why don't you embrace Christianity?
A. Do you mean "embrace" in terms of me joining a Christian church, or "embrace" in terms of applauding the spread of Christianity? I am relieved to hear reports of evangelical Christianity spreading in China and Latin America. Also, as a living religion, Christianity continues to evolve, so I think it's possible that some new versions of it will make a major comeback in the first world. But as it stands, Western intellectuals have had plenty of exposure to it, and they have turned their noses up at it. And it is the rich, powerful West, where I live, that I most care about. So I do embrace Christianity in the sense of wishing there were more "skeptical enlightenment" Christians in the West, and fewer "radical enlightenment" types, but I'm not holding my breath. Also, I don't really trust Christianity in any of its many versions not to revert to its romantic roots, which historically is where much of the impetus of the American "progressive" movement came from (Jonah Goldberg documents this in Liberal Fascism, for example pp. 215-220). In other words, the Christian "cowpox" doesn't provide reliable enough immunity to the Socialist "smallpox."
As for me personally, every so often the thought occurs to me that, politically, I would be more comfortable in a Methodist church like the one where Rev. Donald Sensing preaches. But then I think about the fact that the Bay Area UU Church puts up with me and my political heresies, and allowed me to form a "Conservative Covenant Group" as an official group within the church. What would be the odds of a Methodist church with Rev. Sensing's political outlook allowing me to form an atheist covenant group? I'll stay where I am, thanks.
Q. Why is there so much hostility among atheists towards Christianity?
A. I was raised Christian, and like many other atheists, I was taught that I was morally obligated to take religion seriously, to think for myself, and to tell the truth. But then, when we come to what I think is a perfectly reasonable conclusion, we atheists are told that we are inherently incapable of having a meaningful system of morality. This is personal. I feel betrayed. I also feel put down by people who don't have as much intellectual integrity as I think I do. On an emotional level, I am therefore quite sympathetic to Richard Dawkins' attitude towards traditional religion. I fall out with him partly because I think he has some of his sociological facts wrong, partly because some of his arguments are invalid, and partly because I have other fish to fry.
One of the interesting things about religion from a biologist's standpoint is that there is a correlation between religion and birthrates. Traditionally religious people have more children than atheists and the apathetic. I suspect that part of what is going on is that there are "old school" and "new school" visions of the good life. The religious, "old school," view is that children are an essential part of the good life, and that there should be a division of labor with regard to children. One parent, usually the father, specializes in earning money, and the other parent specializes in child care, et cetera, or perhaps is more of a generalist. A career is nice, but is primarily a means to support one's family rather than an end in itself. The "new school" view is that children are optional, careers are of primary importance, and there should be no division of labor between men and women. The new school vision of the good life is basically the same for men and women, whereas the old school visions are different.
Q. What's wrong with the Church of the SubGenius (CotSG)?
A. The Church of the SubGenius is a mostly a reaction against Christianity. They may pride themselves on being freethinkers, but they are pretty much stereotypical Leftists. From my perspective, they are part of the problem. Also, I intend YASAC as a teaching tool, where the CotSG tends to be just randomly weird and stupid. I am not just flinging poo in every direction. I take careful aim as I swing my Noble Rubber Chicken.
Q. What's wrong with Discordianism?
A. Discordianism (see the Principia Discordia) is a reaction against control freaks. Discordianism is fun, but I think the real problem with human nature is that too many people are sanctimony freaks. Control freaks are a secondary problem.
One thing I like about Discordianism is that
their saints are ranked.
Actual human beings are restricted to Saint Second Class.
The fictional Yossarian, from Catch-22, was promoted to
Lance Saint. I'm still not sure human beings
should be allowed to join YASAC at all.
7. The Left-Right Political Spectrum
Q. Do you consider modern conservatism a quasi-religion in the same way you think the New Left is a quasi-religion?
A. No. I think of most conservatives in the US as having a religion, usually some flavor of Christianity, rather than thinking of conservatism as being a religion. I see politics, as opposed to traditional religion, as much more central to where leftists get their psychological needs met than it is to most conservatives. In my own UU church, John Lennon's "Imagine," which openly condemns "religion" in general, is often sung as a hymn. Some versions of Libertarianism look like quasi-religions, but they are tiny and have no influence.
The other reason why conservatism doesn't look like a religion to me is that there is too much substantive disagreement within it. The left has a reputation for acrimonious in-fighting that makes it seem more ideologically diverse than it really is. (Bear in mind that the bloodiest war in per capita terms that the US ever fought was a civil war.) I see no ideological splits on the left that are as severe as the split between Christian social conservatives and Libertarians on the "right." My perception is that the ideological disagreement within the entire left is comparable to the disagreement within the Libertarian movement, which is small compared to the overall diversity within the right. There is also a part of the "right" that consists of Hayekian "conservatives" who have little or nothing in the way of a vision of where society should be headed, and are content to travel toward Socialism, but who merely want to go there slowly. Rev. Dabney described these "conservatives" as Progressives' "shadows."
My perception is that the left-right political "spectrum" is mainly an artifact of the need to form coalitions in order to pass legislation. This often has more to do with horse-trading than logical consistency. As John McCarthy asks, what does abortion have to do with nuclear power? People form alliances for reasons of short term expedience, but after people have been carrying water for one another for some length of time, the alliances tend to become permanent. The spoiler effect limits the number of major political coalitions to two. We are left with two somewhat accidental but semi-permanent coalitions, and attitudes toward nuclear power become correlated with attitudes toward abortion. These coalitions are given post hoc theoretical rationalizations which are often little more than propaganda (it suits the left's purposes to misrepresent libertarian atheists who oppose the public school monopoly as authoritarian Christian fundamentalists). The best justification I have seen of the left-right split as reflecting meaningful philosophical differences is Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions, which associates the left with an "unconstrained" (romantic) view of human nature and the right with a "constrained" (classical) view. There is some truth in this. People with similar views of human nature have an easier time forming alliances than people with dissimilar views. But mostly I take McCarthy's view that the left-right split doesn't bear up well under philosophical scrutiny.
However, there are two important qualitative differences between the left and right. One is that the New Left seems to be able to marshal the numbers to form a majority coalition without having to compromise as much as their competitors on the right. The modern left is an alliance among Marxists, economic populists, atheists who despise all religion, new-fashioned religious people who despise certain kinds of old-fashioned "patriarchal" religion, people who think that education is a panacea, various special interest groups, various incompatible groups of hatemongers, and people who for various reasons refuse to be serious about foreign policy. But the internal conflicts on the right are worse. The other difference is that the left seems to have overwhelmingly more support among intellectual fashion-setters, the "people who buy ink in barrels" such as the Sulzberger family, Hollywood, and the academics who push the Standard Social Science Model (Tom Wolfe's "clerisy"). The left is better able to sing from the same sheet of music, and is able to dictate the terms of debate. The left gets to define what is "left" and what is "right." The right, in comparison, is a hodge-podge of people who are opposed to various of these fashions. Consequently, instead of a political map consisting of a single line going from a point labeled "left" to a point labeled "right," the political landscape looks to me more like a map of the North Pole, with the New Left at the center. If you're standing at the North Pole ("No enemies on the left"), every direction is south. Occasionally, there will be a fashion-quake, and the Pole will move slightly.
Imagine how silly it would be to try to plot all religions on a scale going from Mormon to anti-Mormon. We could then have pointless arguments over whether Taoism and Aztec religion are fundamentally similar in their degree of anti-Mormonness. Is anti-Mormon a religion?
An alternative to the North Pole metaphor would be to ask in which direction the winds of highbrow political fashion blow. By definition, the wind blows to the left. Eugenics was "left" under Woodrow Wilson, but now the "left" has disowned it and projects racism onto the "right." Using these political labels is like trying to navigate a ship when the only directions the helmsman understands are "upwind" and "downwind."
Part of my complaint here is about what I consider a blood libel, labeling Libertarianism and National Socialism as both being on the "right." Jonah Goldberg makes similar complaints in Liberal Fascism. Fascism (and the similar German National Socialism) was on the "left" before the Spanish Civil War, then on the "right" until the signing of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact, then on the "left" again until the German invasion of the USSR. Now it is on the "right," and it always was.
As "EV" posted regarding National Socialism:
Now in what conceivable universe is this a "right-wing" program in the Anglo-American sense? Sure, Hitler hates the Bolsheviks, but that's like saying because the Crips hate the Bloods, they're on the side of law and order.
I also recall a conversation where I mentioned abortion and nuclear power, and a leftist friend was arguing for a logical relationship between the two. These "post hoc rationalizations" remind me of a Petr Beckman joke about dialectical materialism on p. 58 of Hammer and Tickle: Clandestine Laughter in the Soviet Empire:
Kohn was studying dialectics in preparation for one of the periodic purges. But he could not make head or tail of it, so he went to his Rabbi.
"Dialectics?" says the Rabbi. "Easy. I'll explain it to you. Two chimneysweeps fall down a chimney into a fireplace. One is clean, the other is black with soot. Which one goes to wash himself?"
"The dirty one, of course."
"Wrong! The dirty one sees the clean one and thinks he's clean, too; the clean one sees the other covered with soot, so he goes to wash. Let's try again. Two chimneysweeps fall down a chimney. One is clean, the other is dirty; which one goes to wash?"
"Why, you just said the clean one."
"Wrong! Each looks at his own hands, and the one with dirty hands goes to wash himself. Try again. Two chimneysweeps fall down a chimney. Which one goes to wash himself?"
"All right, the dirty one, then!"
"Wrong! Neither. The dirty one sees the clean one, and the clean one looks at his own hands. Try again. Two chimneysweeps..."
"Stop, Rabbi, stop!" cries Kohn. "You're simply twisting things to make them come out whichever way you want!"
"Now you've got the idea!" says the Rabbi. "That's what dialectics is all about..."
The way another friend put it is that political movements are like mystery religions, with inner and outer circles, only there are multiple competing factions all claiming to be the inner circle. The New Left and Christianity seem to have the most plausible claims to be the inner circles in the left and right, respectively, with the New Left being in the stronger relative position. These I consider de facto religions. But I do not consider economic populism in general, or "conservatism" in general, to be functionally "religions."
William Gibson described the US in one of his novels as being engaged in a "cold civil war" (Ayn Rand said it in 1962.), but it's hard to find a clear and meaningful way to describe the sides. Steven Den Beste used the terms, "empiricism" vs. "philosophical idealism." (Mencius Moldbug has similar thoughts here, although elsewhere he describes the problem in terms of class conflict between "Amerikaners" and "Brahmins.") I want to describe the sides roughly as "Christians" vs. "Marxists" or "cultural Marxists," but I am struck while reading Liberal Fascism by how unclear the term "Marxist" is. In a narrow sense of believing that the Communist revolution will come first in the most highly industrialized countries, no one in modern times is a "Marxist." But in a broad sense of being influenced by the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which is associated with Marxism, many if not the majority in the United States seem to be "Marxist." To use such a highly charged yet ambiguous word in a rant such as this would be an invitation for anyone hostile to my message to deliberately misconstrue my claims.
I should probably justify my association of Marxism with the SSSM. Shortly after the collapse of the USSR, I asked a Rice University sociology professor and well-known "liberal" Democrat at a church party what was new in the sociology world. His answer was that they were looking for something to replace Marxism as their central paradigm. The "Marxist" nature of the SSSM is not something I made up, and it's not just David Friedman being snarky (audio tape, "What a Libertarian Economist Does").
I have similar problems with the word, "liberal." Strictly speaking, I am a liberal, or as Will Wilkinson describes himself, a "neoclassical liberal." In it's original meaning, "liberal" referred to people like Adam Smith and John Locke. Karl Marx was the opposite of that, which is an authoritarian. But the word "liberal" is now used in the US mainly as a euphemism for "socialist."
8. The New Left and Pacifism
Q. If you find the Unitarian Universalists easier to get along with than the Methodists, why don't you just get over it? What exactly is the New Left, and why is it such a big deal?
A. First of all, I apologize for using confusing and sometimes inconsistent political nomenclature. Elsewhere I use the term "Large-P Progressive" to describe dogmatic leftists. I keep wanting to say "Socialist," but that seems to imply that the conflict is primarily over economics, which is wrong. I have only recently begun using the term "New Left."
One aspect of the New Left is ideological environmentalism. Ordinary environmentalism is about the promotion of legitimate public goods in well-disciplined ways. Ideological environmentalism is about moral fraud and the removal of checks on government power.
Hostility towards property rights has always been a core value for the Left, but now we see this hostility couched in terms of protecting the environment rather than trying to copy the economic wonders of the USSR, especially since 1989. A secondary but persistent tendency of the Left has been hostility towards traditional Christianity, a theme which has become more important as the economic failure of Socialism has become more visible, and "patriarchal" religion (which in practice means Christianity) has become increasingly unfashionable among Western civilization's opinion forming organs. Michael Chrichton and Freeman Dyson describe how Environmentalism has adopted leftist political themes and displaced traditional religion in detail.
The way the producers of South Park put it is that the ideological environmentalist movement isn't about smog, it's about smug. It's not that a nice environment isn't important, but that the modern environmentalism-based pursuit of moral superiority has gone over the top. It has become a public nuisance and, with policies like "cap and trade," a vast swindle.
Another important aspect of the New Left is "identity politics." This is often lampooned as teaching that certain groups of people have "certified victim status." It requires the cultivation of corresponding sets of boogiemen and scapegoats. For reasons that John McCarthy explains, coalition partners over time tend to embrace one another's propaganda, and consequently adopt one another's boogiemen. You don't have to be a member of a certified victim group in order to enjoy feeling morally superior to that group's favorite villains. This occurs on both the left and the right; I just happen to be focused here on the left, and the preferred villains of the left. Jonathan Haidt (p. 72) summed up the moral history of the 1990s as Desperately Seeking Satan: "The cultural right vilified homosexuals; the left vilified racists and homophobes." (Part of the reason why the left has been ascendant in recent decades is that they have more believable scapegoats.) Racism and homophobia are particularly delicate topics at my church, but being more foolish than angelic, I will return to them later.
Fashionable views of US foreign policy have also changed radically with the New Left. In the 1960s, a Democratic President (JFK) could say without irony,
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
In contrast, Jimmy Carter condemned "an inordinate fear of Communism," and modern Democratic politicians are often quite touchy about their patriotism being questioned.
The main reason that resisting the New Left is a big deal is because of a widespread refusal on the part of the Left to be serious about foreign policy. (I'll discuss a specific example in detail after I've sketched out the overall pattern that I see.) Prior to 9/11/2001, I regarded the War on [Some] Drugs to be the most important political issue in the US, and the Democratic Party seemed marginally less bad than the Republican Party. That changed during the 2002 election cycle. Politics is supposed to stop at the water's edge. I could forgive the left for economic populism and the animus towards Christians, but lack of moral seriousness during wartime is potentially catastrophic.
A person in a civilized country who believes his own government's propaganda may be a fool, but a person who believes the propaganda of the enemies of civilization is a damned fool. Eric Raymond calls this "idiotarianism." (He points out that it is not limited to the left, but in my view, that's where the worst of it is.) Steven Den Beste has some examples in his "fanmail from flounderers" post. Norm Geras discusses some examples of moral unseriousness in an essay on the reaction in The Guardian to the London tube bombings. I caught a lot of this at my church. Conversations about foreign policy were full of misrepresentation, character assassination, and double standards in how the outcomes of different people's behavior were judged, and devoid of any discussion of strategy. The animosity I encountered towards G. W. Bush appeared to have more to do with his having given a stump speech at Bob Jones University than any of the relevant facts.
We can refer to this lack of moral seriousness about war generally as the "anti-war movement," but it is a multi-faceted phenomenon, and I want to examine several of the facets in detail. One way of looking at this is in terms of what Eric Raymond called, "Gramscian damage." Raymond views this movement in terms of successful Soviet propaganda. It is analogous to the play, Hamlet, where Hamlet kills Laertes, but not before being fatally poisoned himself. But as Eric Hoffer put it, "Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves." I agree with Hoffer. The question for me becomes, "Why do people want to be deceived?"
One reason people might want to blame American militarism for creating our foreign policy problems is that people don't like being scared, and engaging in domestic politics is less scary than fighting a foreign war. A friend described this as people wanting Mommy to reassure them that, "No, Virginia, there really aren't any scary monsters under the bed." If everything is our fault, all we have to do is leave everyone else alone, and all of our problems will go away.
A second reason to "blame America first" is some form of "principled" pacifism. By "principled," I mean that it appears to me to be motivated by sanctimony rather than fear. Andrew Klavan nailed this with his Bumper Sticker Police video. "Principled" pacifism became very popular among people who didn't want to fight in Viet Nam, but who also didn't want to lose social status relative to people who were willing to fight. "Principled" pacifists and quasi-pacifists claim to have more benign motives, more wisdom, or more courage than the rest of us. This brand of moral fraud comes in several flavors. (If you think I'm being harsh on pacifists, please be patient. When I get around to discussing libertarian anarchists, you'll see a pattern.)
Strict pacifists like Thich Nhat Hanh refuse to acknowledge the need for military force under any circumstances. This is an unusual position, because it is fairly obvious that, as George Orwell put it in Notes on Nationalism, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf." This takes a lot of chutzpah.
Eric Hoffer observed in The True Believer (p. 81) that many people protect their utopian beliefs from exposure to real-world tests by deferring the promised result until either an afterlife or some otherwise indefinite time in the future (the eschaton).
We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand....
If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine.
I will call the class of quasi-pacifists who follow Hoffer's formula "eschatalogical pacifists." These people admit the need for military force in the world as it is now, but they have what Blackadder fans will recognize as "a cunnin' plan" to bring about a transformation of human society that will eliminate this need. This is called "immanentizing the eschaton" in the Christian tradition. It typically involves behaving to some degree as if the transformation has already happened. In practice, this means trying to promote peace by creating incentives for other people to start wars. This strategy allows quasi-pacifists to make a show of moral superiority in situations where there is plausible deniability of the advisability of military force, without having to carry their arguments to their logical conclusions in cases where this would be embarrassing. The net effect is to provide an ideological justification for character assassination of anyone who makes a judgment call differently than they do.
There is a third version of quasi-pacifism that I call "pacifism lite." Like eschatological pacifism, its supporters engage in character assassination of people whose judgment calls are different from theirs, but they differ in either being too lazy or too embarrassed to provide an ideological justification. Instead, they protect themselves from criticism by being inconsistent. When challenged directly, they deny being pacifists, but otherwise, they use pacifist rhetoric ("strong is wrong") and pacifist arguments (arguments that are only cogent for pacifists). Most supporters of "pacifism lite" will acknowledge the need for military force in some specific cases, but there are also ones who seem to have no ideas that they are willing to put into practice whatsoever other than pacifist ones. (Kenneth Anderson calls this "functional pacifism, the denunciation of the US using force that does not quite have the courage to speak its name.")
There are also outright frauds, who simply have different standards of behavior for their friends and their enemies. They insist that their enemies be judged by pacifist standards (violence never solved anything; break the cycle of violence), but find violence to be excusable when it is committed by their friends (if you want peace, work for justice; people have a right to resist oppression). This kind of "pacifist" holds your arms behind your back while his friends punch you.
Richard Fernandez marvels at some of the resulting inconsistencies:
Imagine a world where nuclear weapons are simultaneously a factor for stability to be invoked when arguing against US missile defense, something to be abolished when arguing against the US arsenal, and something to be feared when describing terrorism, at a time when those who seek nuclear weapons are within an ace of being left alone to develop them undisturbed, save for diplomatic inconvenience. What would you call this world? Why, our world.
...But it seems exceedingly difficult to square a circle in which missile defenses are eliminated because they undermine deterrence, deterrence is undermined in the name of Global Zero, and anti-proliferation is undermined by ceding space to rogue and terrorist groups. That is the worst of all worlds. What is even more astounding is if all three are pursued in the name of each other. But we live in an age of miracles.
Here is Mencius Moldbug deconstructing Samantha Power's wildly inconsistent moral standards. He also explains the mystery of pacifism: "Social justice" is a euphemism for "righteousness." Any outcome that does not produce righteousness is a recipe for war. "Peace," therefore, is in practice a euphemism for "victory" on the part of Socialists or their proxies. There's more here and here:
A Petri dish is not inherently bacteria-infested. There is such a thing as a sterile Petri dish. But the combination of world domination and profound self-righteousness is a bath of nutrients as nourishing as evil has ever found. And bacteria are not in short supply.Moldbug explains that the US Government can only be understood if one realizes that it contains both a "Red Empire" and a "Blue Empire," and that these have been at war with one another for several decades. Samantha Power is part of the Blue Empire.
The US, being the arsenal of democracy, is a favorite scapegoat of pacifists. The West, in general, is also the most convenient target for the attentions of Western quasi-pacifists. It is also the safest target for pacifists in general, because of Western tolerance of criticism. While quasi-pacifists may talk of "speaking truth to power," it is usually more accurate to describe this as "speaking sanctimony to safety."
A third reason for "blame America first" is a sort of reverse jingoism. Regular jingoism is chauvinistic nationalism, an attitude of "My country is better than yours. Nyah, nyah, nyah." Gilbert and Sullivan had great fun with this in the operettas H. M. S. Pinafore and Ruddigore. Reverse jingoism is an attitude of "I'm better than you because nationalism is a form of bigotry, and I'm not nationalistic like you are. Nyah, nyah, nyah." They had equally great fun with reverse jingoism in Patience and in The Mikado, in which the Lord High Executioner complains of
...the idiot who praises with enthusiastic toneEssentially, reverse jingoism is bigotry masquerading as opposition to bigotry. It is by no means a recent development, having been a subject of derision in Victorian times, but it's popularity in the West increased tremendously after two World Wars which have been blamed largely on nationalism. The "people who buy ink in barrels" are eager to distance themselves from nationalism.
All centuries but this, and every country but his own....
European leftists seem to have the best of both worlds in this regard. They can be jingoistic in looking down their noses at the US, while engaging in reverse jingoism towards Western civilization in general. (One element in European pacifism is that, having underfunded their militaries for decades, there is a tendency towards making a virtue of necessity.) In contrast, in the US, jingoism and reverse jingoism come into more direct conflict with one another, and what in Europe would be called "anti-Americanism" is accompanied by the indignant demand, "Don't question my patriotism!" This reverse jingoism is sometimes described as "self-loathing," but this is a mistake. The leftists don't hate themselves. The people they hate are their fellow countrymen on the other side of the political aisle.
A good example of the "functional pacifism" that prevails in UU
churches is the recent UUA Peacemaking
Statement of Conscience (SOC). I find this hard to read without wanting to
do a "fisking" (going through it line by line refuting something in practically
every sentence), but readers who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism
may want to verify my characterization of UU pacifism. I will just flag a few
of the relevant points: The SOC is unwilling to take sides with respect to
strict vs. functional pacifism. Strict pacifists should be able to avoid
military service without losing social status. Functional pacifists can keep
all the same options open that the supposed warmongers do, but they get to
brag about how loving and tolerant they are, and they get to libel their
Note the characteristic political misrepresentation,
describing an opponents' conclusion as an "assumption." [Removed from the
current version, as of 1-10-2010.]) The SOC incorporates a number of unlikely
New Left fetishes, such as environmentalism and the enshrinement of the UN as
the ultimate moral authority [The adoration expressed for the UN also appears
to have been toned down from my recollection of an earlier version.]. Other
than the reverence for the UN, the one place where the SOC does seem to differ
in substance from G. W. Bush's foreign policy is by using language opposing
"preventive" war. However, no argument is given for why "preventive" war is
necessarily distinct from the "defensive" or "humanitarian" wars that the SOC
fails to oppose, and no explanation is given for how much current or past
violence and provocation it takes to make war permissible. (Would it have
been "preemptive" if France had enforced the Treaty of Versailles when Germany
reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936?) The result seems more semantic to me than
substantive. The bottom line is that the UU Social Justice fetishists have a
platform from which to engage in character assassination of their political
opponents, but they have enough wiggle room that they have not placed
themselves under any new moral constraints. They just have an additional
"lack of UN approval" excuse for not sending troops on humanitarian
A logical consequence of pacifism is the need for moral inversion. When barbarians threaten to bring down civilization, in order for pacifists to claim moral superiority over the people who wish to defend civilization, the pacifists have to blame the barbarians' behavior on civilization's defenders. So when barbarians use human shields, and some of the human shields are killed, despite the best efforts of Western soldiers, Unitarian Universalists who purport to be espousing Just War doctrine can almost always be relied upon to turn Just War doctrine on its head by blaming civilian deaths on the side that is not using human shields. (I base my statements on Just War doctrine on the discussion in Robert Poole's Defending a Free Society.)
The net effect of all this moral fraud is to make it impossible for the West to defend itself in a rational way. Someone, commenting on the Western response to Islamic supremacism, said that it was as if Western politicians had studied European history in the days leading up to WWII, and were trying to recreate it in detail. Another analogy for the tendency of Western political factions to be more interested in fratricide than mutual defense is the battle of Manzikurt, which the Byzantine empire lost because one general wouldn't cooperate with another from a different faction.
As Richard Fernandez writes in his "Three Conjectures" essay on the consequences of nuclear terrorism, the war with Islamic supremecism has the potential to get extremely ugly.
I should also point out that gun control isn't about reducing violence.
Much of the support for gun control is not utilitarian or instrumentalist in character: that is, many people support gun control even though they do not believe it is an effective tool for reducing violence. Instead, positions on gun control seem symptomatic of culture conflict, with gun law used as a way of declaring gun ownership and gun owners to be morally inferior, parallel to the way alcohol prohibition was used as a way for older Anglo-Saxon Protestants to condemn the culture of supposedly free-drinking Catholics from Irish or Southern and Eastern European backgrounds.
-- Gary Kleck, Guns and Violence: A Summary of the Field
9. Economics and Evolutionary Psychology
While foreign policy has generally been more important than economic policy, especially since 9/11, historically, economics has been central to "the left," including the New Left. Given that economic theory has been fairly well understood for over 200 years, in a sane world, it would not be terribly controversial. However, on Earth, irrational hostility towards markets is a huge political force. I already mentioned a book by Bryan Caplan on cognitive biases in political economics and an article by David Friedman on evolutionary psychology and economics. People intuitively believe that prices are set by monopolies rather than by supply and demand, that wealth grows on trees rather than being produced in factories, and that there are always good reasons for ripping off the more fortunate. While searching unsuccessfully for an article by Arnold Kling on evolutionary psychology and envy, I found a short article by Will Wilkinson that I recommend highly. Wilkinson writes that we live in two worlds, the personal world of our families and friends, which is fundamentally similar to our "Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness" (EEA), and the impersonal world of modern industrialization and trade, which is deeply unintuitive. He quotes Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit:
If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.
Our ability to override our cognitive biases and live in a modern, civilized society depends on culture, which in turn depends in large part on religion and quasi-religion. Do we follow religions that help us overcome our worst tendencies, or religions that reinforce them?
Unfortunately, as the current US health care controversy makes painfully clear, the dominant quasi-religion in the modern US is one in which the central paradigm for economic thinking is class warfare (which is why I keep wanting to call it "Marxism"). Again, it makes perfect sense when viewed in terms of a Dungeons and Dragons game. Leftists divide the world into the good guys (the deserving poor and the leftists who purport to be struggling on their behalf) and the bad guys (the evil rich and their libertarian running dogs). Claims that big government will save money are mostly circumstantial ad hominems. In practice, economists' arguments about efficiency and the advantages of treating efficiency and distributional justice as separate problems are ignored because they aren't really relevant. From the average voters' standpoint, the purpose of health care policy is not to heal the sick, it is to enable one group of voters to use the government to validate their claims of moral superiority over another group of voters. This is true regardless of whether we are talking about the New Left or the old left (or conservatives, for that matter).
10. Introduction to Identity Politics
Having dealt with the relatively harmless subjects of nuclear war and socialized medicine, let me return now to the subject that is likely to really get me in trouble: identity politics. (See also votebank politics.) The three flavors of identity politics that I see a lot of at my church represent themselves as gay rights, feminism, and anti-racism. There is also the related phenomenon of multi-culturalism.
Multi-culturalism appears to be a sort of handmaiden of post-modernism. A friend of mine descibes post-modernism as the idea that, "There's no such thing as right and wrong, except that you're still wrong." Mark Steyn expresses my view of multi-culturalism better than I can in his book, America Alone:
In a culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" — the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."
India today is better off without suttee. If you don't agree with that, if you think that's just dead-white-male Eurocentrism, fine. But I don't think you really believe that. Non-judgmental multiculturalism is an obvious fraud, and was subliminally accepted on that basis…
I regard multi-culturalism as a variation on reverse jingoism. It attempts, through fallacies of ambiguity, to portray political opponents as bigots. Culture is more ambiguous than nationality. Is "culture" about social norms, values, and self-fulfilling prophesies, or is it about trivia like what spices grandma puts in her chicken stew? If I say something positive about my culture, I am promoting healthy values. If you're a political opponent of mine and you do the same thing, you're a bigot, even if you're a member of the same culture I am.
Before I go any further, I need to lay out a few more principles.
11. Some Auxiliary Principles of Yet Another Space Alien Cult (YASAC)
20. As Peter Wright put it in the book, Spycatcher,
If you look for a pattern hard enough, you're going to find it whether it's there or not.
21. One of the differences between a true friend and a false friend is that, if I'm screwing up, a true friend will pull me aside and tell me that I'm screwing up. A false friend will say, "There, there, it's not you're fault."
22. One of the differences between different cultures is that some are better than others in their ability to discriminate between true and false friends. A large part of what is wrong in the Middle East is that the Palestinians have a lot of false friends, and the Palestinians aren't very good at identifying them. The problem is widespread.
23. Success can sometimes be more threatening to a movement or an organization than failure. Failure typically means that nothing has changed, and the organization can try again. Success often threatens the organization's reason for existence. When the dragon is slain, the knight has to either find another dragon to slay or get out of the dragon-slaying business. If a convenient dragon does not present itself, the knight who is not yet ready for retirement may be tempted to slay a succession of things that are less and less dragonish. A transition from heroism to villainy often occurs when a successful hero refuses to put down his sword.
An example of this is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD has gone from advocating better enforcement of reasonable drunk driving laws to the general persecution of drinkers of vanishingly small amounts of alcohol.
End of Auxiliary Space Alien Dharma
12. Gay Rights and Feminism
The gay rights movement is currently threatened by its own success. It's
success is real. The battle for gay rights is essentially won with the
popular acceptance of the Supremes' decision in Lawrence v. Texas.
main serious grievance remaining is the ban on gays in the military. The
rest is mostly semantics, minor legal conveniences, and fine points of tax
policy. The "knights" have had to move on to something "less dragonish."
The gay rights movement is controversial now mainly because of activists'
attempts to bypass the democratic process and use the courts to make detailed
policy decisions. This is something of a manufactured crisis. In defense of
the current gay rights movement, there are still people on the right making
implausible claims about homosexuality affecting the lives of heterosexuals.
But the behavior of the left has little to do with addressing those claims.
Instead, many people on the left are trying to turn questions of semantics
("marriage" vs. "partnership") into a litmus test for bigotry. It's like
arguing that a particular animal is properly known as a "chicken," and only a
bigot would distinguish between a "rooster" or "hen." This is basically a
silly argument, but it's hard to let go of a good boogieman.
Part of the problem is that the gay rights movement is only partly about gay rights. One libertarian lesbian said that the real problem is that too many gays and lesbians are statists who are looking to the government to provide them with unconditional love and acceptance.
Incidentally, while the use of the term "teabagger" by the left for their political opponents is not necessarily a reflection on the gay rights movement, it does indicate some lack of sincerity on the part of the left. At the very least, there is a double standard. Conservatives who use references to homosexual acts to disparage their political opponents are bigots, but if someone on the left does this, he gets a pass.
Feminism is more complicated, partly because there are so many different versions of it, and partly because it's harder for heterosexual men to shrug it off. Sam Keen usefully distinguishes between "prophetic" and "ideological" feminism. In my view, the "prophetic" feminists' battle was essentially won when women gained the right to own property independently of men. But as with gay rights and the US health care controversy, the "ideological" feminist movement continues, in part because many people are looking to the government, and other institutions (ie. churches, private schools) that are invested with authority, to validate their claims of moral superiority over other groups. A former member of my church described a former minister, who was a staunch feminist, as believing in "original sin, but only for men."
Men do the same thing, and historically, they've been caught at it at
least as often as women. For example, there is an old cowboy song called, "No
Use for Women," in which the girlfriend is implausibly blamed for the
protagonist's impulsive murderous rage. So there is male propaganda and
female propaganda, neither of which deserves to be taken seriously. If you
take your own gender's propaganda seriously, you're a fool. If you take the
opposite gender's propaganda seriously, you're a damned fool. Modern Western
"politically correct" social norms actively support female propaganda. It's
obvious that this is bad for men and boys--whoever is in the out-group needs
to be taught not to internalize the in-group's propaganda. The legal
principle, "innocent until proven guilty," is also not applied consistently.
But "ideological" feminism is often bad for women, too. Apart from "women's
studies" courses being useless in terms of acquiring salable skills, they are
likely to reinforce any tendency a woman might have towards learned
helplessness, and encourage her to pick fights with men indiscriminately.
The point I'm trying to make is not that misogyny, racism, and scapegoating of homosexuals are good things, but that once-noble and genuinely heroic efforts to combat these evils have too often degenerated into counter-productive witch-hunts or excuse-mongering for irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive behavior. In all these areas, but in particular in the case of the civil rights movement, there is a strong flavor of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Race is still a very touchy subject in the US. I'm reminded of Ralph Peters' comments in New Glory about Germany suffering from a collective shame about that country's history in the last century regarding militarism and anti-semitism. This shame makes it difficult for Germans to talk about either of those topics rationally. Americans have similar problems talking rationally about slavery and racism.
Race is a particularly sensitive topic in the typically highly partisan environments within UU churches. Rev. Tom Schade has an excellent paper, The Present Moment: The Crisis in the Political Theology of Liberal Religion, in which he discusses the history of the civil rights movement in a UU context. He describes this history in terms of a classically liberal civil rights movement having ingested totalitarian Marxist theories with morally disasterous consequences. As he says in his opening words,
Something quite fundamental is going on in Unitarian Universalism, something quite dangerous to our future as a religious movement in the United States. The situation of the world, and of the United States, is changing dramatically, and this religious movement is NOT responding to the changing situation out of the depths of its core religious insights, but out of the shallows of our recent fads, fashions and enthusiasms.
Shelby Steele writes about how ashamed white Americans in general are about the country's history of slavery and racism, and how the resulting painful "vacuum of moral authority" among whites has secondary effects on modern blacks. Black people cease to be individuals, and instead become props in white people's moral dramas. Steele asks, as a black man,
What institution could you walk into without having your color tallied up as a credit to the institution?He has a book out on the topic called, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. (Helen Smith has a nice review of it called "The Psychology of Victimhood.")
Steele also prompted Robin Hanson to add to his "isn't about" list: Affirmative Action Isn't About Uplift. Hanson quotes from an article by Steele in The Washington Post:
Affirmative action has always been more about the restoration of legitimacy to American institutions than the uplift of blacks and other minorities.
I agree with Steele's view that blacks are being used as props in whites' moral dramas, but as you will probably guess after having read this far, I think that guilt is less of a factor for whites than is sanctimony. Also, the game is being played not so much between white and black sides, with the whites trying to recover some lost moral authority from blacks, as it is between different groups of whites who are slandering one another (and blacks) for psychological and political gains. Blacks like Al Sharpton and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who try to exploit this situation, are mainly auxiliaries to one of the white factions, and have been compared to Civil War era carpetbaggers.
As with feminism, race hustling is bad for any blacks who take it seriously, if for no other reason, because it leads to learned helplessness. Larry Elder discusses this at length in Ten Things You Can't Say in America. Alternately, in Rev. Davidson Loehr's words,
Without a group of people to define as victims and speak for, the salvation story of political liberalism is bankrupt. This wasn't just a problem of "UUs," but of the whole gaggle of cultural liberals. This is also a problem with the Democratic party, and probably one of the reasons Bush won a second term.
Perhaps a word about what's wrong with defining human beings as "victims" in order to feel it necessary to speak for them, and to feel virtuous for having done so. Defining someone as a "victim" demeans them by taking away their dignity, their resolve and their power.
Of course, it's not real good for whites, either.
I am not claiming that racism is no longer a problem in the US, but that the signal-to-noise ratio in almost all conversations about racism is so low that it's practically impossible to carry on an intelligent discussion. The genuine racists are lost in the chaff and clutter. Sometimes it seems to me as if the whole multiculturalism shtick is a gigantic chaff dispenser to prevent people from being able to distinguish between race and culture issues, except that the dispenser is mounted on the supposed pursuing aircraft rather than on the supposed target.
Hurricane Katrina presents a graphic example of the politics of racism. There was a widely publicized aerial photograph of a parking lot in New Orleans after the storm filled with flooded school buses. The means to evacuate had been locally available. The mayor of New Orleans was black. Who gets blamed for the failure to evacuate New Orleans? The minister at my church blamed New Orleans' problems largely on racism on the part of the Bush administration.
In terms of Robin Hanson's student council analogy, it is obvious that a black president raises the perceived social status of blacks. But if politics isn't about policy, what might our new president represent for his white supporters? One possibility is simply that playing the race card is fun. It makes people feel both powerful and morally superior. The ideal candidate from this perspective is a Marxist who is extreme enough to deeply offend conservatives and libertarians, but who does plausible deniability well enough that the opposition he generates can be misrepresented easily. Candidate and now President Obama fits the bill nicely, and thus presents leftists with an exhilarating opportunity to make accusations of racism in reckless disregard of the truth.
A great number of people have claimed either that we have a "post-racial" president who will heal America's racial wounds, or that we have gone so far with the "boy who cried 'wolf'" phenomenon that claims of racism in the future will no longer have any political effect. On the contrary, there are two reasons why I think that racial McCarthyism will be with us for a long time. One reason is that there are always a few exceptional idiots who can be trotted out as alleged examples of the typical member of the opposition. My understanding of evolutionary psychology is that people have a natural tendency to react more or less favorably to strangers according to the degree to which the strangers look like kin. A friend described this as a sort of "original sin." So the supply of idiots will never entirely go away. But in addition to these exceptional idiots, there is an abundance of marginal idiots, people whose crime is less that their beliefs or actions are objectionable than that they can not or will not express themselves in ways that are consistent with modern social norms. The question is whether there are enough idiots to enable their political opponents to see a pattern. This brings me to my second reason, Peter Wright's aforementioned observation that "If you look for a pattern hard enough, you'll find it whether it's there or not." There are huge political and psychological incentives for people to find a pattern of racism within the ranks of their opposition. People look for this pattern very, very hard. So my prediction is that the knights of "anti-racism" will continue swinging their swords for a very long time.
[Update, August 2010: I seem to have gotten this wrong. It is now safe for Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore to openly mock Maxine Waters for playing the race card.]
One of the things that makes it easy to see a pattern of racism is ambiguity over what "racism" means. Race overlaps confusingly with class and culture. Who is a "racist?" Consider some hypothetical examples:
There are a number of points I want to emphasize here. One is that libertarians are firmly committed to the individual as their unit of moral analysis. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated judging people on their character, not their skin color. Libertarians see progressives who profess to follow King's lead, but then insist on using the ethnic group as the unit of moral analysis, as hypocrites. Libertarians oppose affirmative action not because they think times have changed, but because, for fundamental philosophical reasons, it never made one iota of sense to them in the first place. Progressives might hope to construct cogent practical arguments for affirmative action (highly unlikely, IMHO), but they do not have a prayer of ever constructing a moral argument for it that libertarians will find cogent.
My second point is that I don't trust the government to second-guess people on their decisions about whom to associate with (ie. admissions and hiring decisions, etc.). In some cases, these decisions are a subjective guessing game, sensitive to factors that are hard to articulate and impossible to quantify. To have the court system intervene in these cases undermines the rule of law and promotes ill-will. In other cases, there are objective reasons for selecting one candidate over another, and I don't trust the State to put justice or the public good over politics or theater.
In order to say anything further, I have to talk about statistics and narratives. Arguments about the prevalence of white racism mostly revolve around statistics. We start with some ugly statistics: whites are richer than blacks and have better SAT scores. There are three obvious stories or "narratives" people can tell about why this is the case, and a number of possibly appropriate responses. The Woodrow Wilson-era story was that these statistics were mainly due to genetics. The current "politically correct" story is that they are mainly the result of white racism, augmented by other, unconscious biases. The modern "politically incorrect" story is that these differences are mainly due to culture.
Outside of a small handful of nutcases, nobody nowadays believes that there are enough genetic differences between whites and blacks to matter as far as government policy is concerned. The argument is between what I consider to be "true friends," who say that blacks' problems relative to whites are because they participate too heavily in a dysfunctional poverty culture, and what I consider to be "false friends," who say that these problems are the result of white racism.
My third point is that, if the "cultural" explanation is correct, free-market hiring decisions will reflect these cultural patterns even if employers have perfect information about prospective employees. For example, Larry Elder writes of visiting a library and seeing a bunch of Hispanic kids outside practicing on their skateboards, then seeing a bunch of Korean kids inside studying. This is not racism, but it does have economic consequences. If voters decide that the resulting hiring patterns need to be overruled in the name of racial harmony, there are going to be legitimate arguments about how the costs should be distributed. Arguing about how the cost of government should be distributed is not racism.
My fourth point is that there are some inconsistencies in the stereotypical leftist narratives: "Corporations and their stockholders are greedy, and racism is stupid, but government has to have an adversarial relationship with corporations in order to stop racism." If the government has enough information to be able to second-guess hiring decisions made by corporate officers, the obvious thing for the government to do would be to share the information with the stockholders, and perhaps assist them in actions against officers who violate their trust. The adversarial approach looks theatrical to me. There is also the question of how sensitive markets are to modest amounts of irrationality. If they are competitive markets, the answer is not very. Irrational businessmen tend to either go bankrupt or refuse to participate in lucrative deals. Either way, they tend to make themselves irrelevant, which is how economists can get away with assuming that behavior in competitive markets is generally rational. Again, the standard New Left narrative, that modest amounts of racism on the part of, say, bankers, has a large effect on the ability of blacks to buy houses, doesn't make a lot of economic sense.
Finally, this brings us to probabilistic decision-making (still in the context of academic admissions and corporate hiring). I am still left with an awkward question: Who should bear the burden associated with uncertainty over the extent to which a member of some ethnic group participates in any negative cultural attributes that are associated with it? If the State is involved, I probably want the State to bear the burden. Otherwise, I see this as an open question. There is no "fair" answer. Someone is going to bear a burden associated with behavior that is not his own. I say this in the knowledge that I am leaving myself open to accusations of endorsing "prejudice." My defense is that there is no clear distinction between "prejudice" and imperfect information, and perfect or even "good enough" information is simply not always available. There is nothing that is within my power to do that will cause the Earth to be flooded with perfect information.
As with so many other aspects of human behavior, it's hard to carry on an intelligent conversation about identity politics without addressing moral fraud. The effects of this fraud on American society have been a disaster. Statistically, identity politics, together with the welfare state and the general lawlessness resulting from the War on [Some] Drugs, have left American blacks worse off in several respects (broken families, incarceration, unemployment) than they were under Jim Crow. The overall incarceration rate, for example, can be blamed on the War on [Some] Drugs, but the difference between the black and white incarceration rates has to be some combination of black culture and white racism. I think (1) it's mostly the former, (2) identity politics has contributed to creating this culture, and (3) we can't address the problem intelligently because we can't talk about it honestly because of racial McCarthyism. At least, we can't talk about it honestly at a UU church.
Come to think of it, I don't think it's possible to carry on an intelligent conversation about the welfare state or the War on [Some] Drugs for very long without talking about moral posturing. But I digress.
While identity politics doesn't have the potential to be as big a
disaster as New Left foreign policy, it is a big deal, and it deserves
14. Fellow Travelers and Further Development
Q. If you're a libertarian, and you say that some versions of libertarianism are essentially religious, why don't you promote Libertarianism as a religion to compete with the New Left?
A. My relationship with libertarians is a case of "Love the sin, hate the sinner." While I consider myself a moderate libertarian, the movement as it currently exists is too screwed up to be useful.
The main problem with contemporary libertarianism is that it has done with foreign policy what the Unitarian Universalists have done with race: ingested vast amounts of propaganda from its ideological enemies. It's easy enough to see how this happened. Libertarianism is a reaction to overreach by the US government, so the US government serves as a sort of built-in scapegoat. Since, where foreign policy is concerned, the US government is also a favorite scapegoat for almost all foreigners as well as the large fraction of Americans who are into reverse-jingoism, there is a vast quantity of available propaganda that leads to a conclusion that libertarians like: that the US government is to blame for a whole bunch of problems. The libertarian movement succumbed to this temptation, and drank its worst enemies' Kool-Aid. Thus, at a time when foreign policy issues are the critical issues of the day, the libertarian movement has become so tainted with morally inverted reverse-jingoism that it has become a net liability to the cause of liberty.
Another example of "Beltway" or "establishment" libertarians drinking their enemies' Kool-Aid is immigration policy. (Steve Sailer and Carter Van Carter are more succinct.)
If we want to use Libertarianism as a religion, one of the sacred duties of religious Libertarians has to be to dope-slap one another occasionally for going overboard in scapegoating the government. See Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn't Hate Government.
In addition to being fully represented in the four pathologies of quasi-pacifism that I described earlier, the libertarian movement also has a parallel set of four pathologies of its very own. These are the four flavors of anarchism. As with pacifism, we get (1) the purist "abolitionist" anarchists, (2) the eschatology-oriented "gradualist" anarchists, (3) the "functional" anarchists who dare not speak their own name, and (4) the outright frauds. It is not clear to me to what extent the libertarians' anarchist tendencies are caused by their notorious fear of slippery slopes and to what extent the fear of slippery slopes is a post hoc rationalization for a prior dalliance with anarchism. In any case, the libertarian movement has some severe structural damage that they have papered over. As Will Wilkinson put it, "I think this divide [between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians] is far wider than is reflected in the libertarian community, and part of the reason is that limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should."
I tend to think of the Objectivist movement (Ayn Rand's followers), perhaps wrongly, as a subset of libertarianism, but to their credit, they seem to have dodged both of the above bullets. The Objectivists have firmly distanced themselves from both anarchism and leftist foreign policy propaganda. I suspect that this is a side effect of Rand having grown up in the USSR, combined with a movement that has a formal leadership structure able and willing to excommunicate apostates (giving it an unusual degree of organizational "hysteresis)," rather than a direct consequence of the philosophy itself. But in any case, they got a lot of things right.
A number of things do bother me about Objectivism. Eliezer Yudkowsky complains of cultishness (in his view, a characteristic of people, not ideas). Eric S. Raymond writes, "There are specific features of the awful mess called 'Randian epistemology' that are conducive to map/territory confusion, specifically the notion that the Law of the Excluded Middle is ontologically fundamental rather than a premise valid only for certain classes of reasoning." One of the problems I have is that Objectivists annoy me with what I consider to be "word games," using words like "selfishness" in confusing and nonstandard ways. I regard this as a cheap debating trick: nonstandard constructions cause misunderstandings which Objectivists can then use as evidence that their opponents are a bunch of boneheads. Another problem I have with Objectivists is that they seem to do what was known in my undergraduate thermodynamics class as a "Shazam transform," skipping over difficult steps in a long proof. The crime here is claiming that the political and moral controversies we are considering are simpler and their answers are more certain than they are.
But if what I am looking for is a quasi-religion, isn't this sort of behavior exactly what I am claiming is inevitable? People fight over social status, or "face," and they fight dirty. No religion can be universal; it can't be psychologically satisfying to insiders without being at least a little irritating to outsiders. The disturbing aspects of Objectivism appear to me to be close to the minimum level for any real-world quasi-religion. If only I could figure out how to combine it with the Church of the SubGenius, it might be just what I am looking for.
Q. What other religious traditions have you considered?
A. I'm interested in the Buddhist martial arts tradition. I will have more to say about this as soon as I get my reading queue beaten down a little.
I definitely like the "winners and losers" aphorisms on p. 12 of the Kuk Sool Won Student Handbook. I think that would make a fine catechism.
I actually think of myself as something of a Taoist. There is a lot of material in the Tao Te Ching that lends aid and comfort to libertarians. Maybe I should reframe YASAC as the Church of the Latter Day Taoists.
Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
It also occurs to me that the Freemasons may be on to something. If I want a low Herfindahl index and don't want members of different religions to offend one another, the fact that a religion keeps many of its doctrines secret may be a feature rather than a bug. In fact, I anticipate that many, and perhaps both, of my readers will regard this epistle as one that would have been best withheld as part of a private "book of shadows."
Q. Do YASAC members pray?
A. Theoretically, I suppose one could pray to "good" space aliens, but I haven't been able to think of a plausible mechanism by which they could hear the prayers, or a plausible reason why they would care.
We do, however, have the internet. Tom Smith suggested in his filk song, "On-Line Religion," that people could "email [their] confessions and do penance virtually." In the Catholic tradition, confessions usually require a human priest, but this might not be absolutely necessary. Perhaps writing and sending the email is sufficient, as long as one doesn't actually know for sure that the email is not being read by anyone but the Department of Homeland Security (which I am afraid is irredeemably profane). Another possibility is that artificial intelligences will be developed in the future that will solve the problem of whom to pray to.
This brings me to the subject of eschatology. John McCarthy writes of some of the social and political advantages to be had from modest levels of artificial intelligence. He is on a quest for objectivity. We need something that thinks more or less as well as a man, but has no ego that it needs to protect through self-deception, and can articulate its reasoning processes. That's my vision of the Kingdom of God: everyone would have access to a known working bullshit detector. In terms of Discordian sainthood rank, fictional humans should be able to rise higher than real humans, and real space aliens should be able to rise higher than fictional humans, but a real AI should be able to rise all the way to the top.
Q. You complain about YASAC being incomplete. Why don't you flesh it out more?
A. I was thinking of compiling a list of liturgical music. The first item on my list would be Gilbert & Sullivan's "Patience."
We also need some sacred literature. Several of James Branch Cabell's works should go in here, such as Jurgen ("a sense of humor incompatible with good citizenship") and Figures of Earth ("Mundus vult decipi").
Another essential part of the YASAC canon is God's Dog: Conversations with Coyote, by Unitarian Universalist minister Webster Kitchell. As Coyote explains in the Postscript,
At least half the stories the Navajo People tell of me have to do with me not listening because I was too smart.... In the other half of the stories the People tell of my tricks, I am a liar in some way. The stories of the Trickster all have to do with either not listening to what's been said or not telling the truth. And almost always the trick backfires on the Trickster.
There will of course be a list of commandments. One of these will ban polygamy. Apostasy, on the other hand, is a sacrament, especially if it leads to a decrease in the Herfindahl index. Another commandment is to be a fan of a college or professional sports team. Or maybe two: one team with a winning record to provide some bragging rights harmlessly, and one with a losing record to encourage humility. There is, however, no requirement for celibate clergy. I think the Jews got this one right: rabbis should be married. (In YASAC, this is desirable, but not required.) Other commandments are needed to maintain moral superiority over the "bad" space aliens (if not over the Socialists), mainly involving good personal hygiene. Wash, brush your teeth, use deodorant, eschew cannibalism, and read the holy books by Pinker and Haidt. YASAC members have standing permission to blame the "bad" space aliens for promoting bad ideas a la Gesargenplotzianism, in both religion and politics. In fact, members are encouraged to blame space aliens for just about anything, as long as they make it clear that they remain committed to the Noble Rubber Chicken paradigm.
Like all other religions, we need rituals, and these rituals require scapegoats. However, here the old ways were best. When we do a ritual that requires a scapegoat to be physically present, we should use real goats. Remember, we're trying to set an example for the Socialists.
Dale McGowan (hat tip: Less Wrong) has a top ten list of things that make the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture successful. Number one: "A warm welcome." This is consistent with my (limited) reading of the sociology of religion literature: people join churches where other people are nice to them. The formal doctrines are largely irrelevant. "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life."
...The question I hear more and more from freethought groups is, "How can we bring people in the door and keep them coming back?" The answer is to make our groups more humanistic — something churches, ironically, often do better than we do....
If I lived in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture would get my sorry butt out of bed every single Sunday.
And that's saying something.
Since one of the purposes of a church is to teach morality, I should also lay out some doctrines on moral philosophy (more here and here).
I recently read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This belongs in the YASAC canon. See the EconTalk podcasts, an html version, a modern language version, and a podcast with Smith biographer Nicholas Phillipson. Smith's "impartial spectator" may be the answer to the question "To whom should I pray?" I also approve of Russ Roberts' substitution of single malt scotch for sacramental wine, where financially practical. I'll have more to say about morality in another essay.... Update: Here it is. What Does "Morality" Mean?
Update, 4-25-2014: I have changed my position somewhat, largely in response to Adam Smith. See Why Johnny Can't Proselytize. I'm now in the "moral sympathy" school, and regard consequential arguments as necessary, but limited tools. My attitude toward deontology has softened slightly.
I've said almost nothing about the internal organization of good churches, but that's an important topic. There is going to be an inevitable social hierarchy within any church, but these differ in their transparency and abusiveness. UU women's groups are notorious for pretending to be non-hierarchal, but in reality they have denied, opaque hierarchies. My martial arts school, in contrast, has a hierarchy that is transparent to the point of being ostentatious. I greatly prefer the latter. But while this hierarchy is conspicuous, it is also benign. The lowliest white belt is treated respectfully. The stakes in the status game are low. In contrast, the stakes are very high in societies that practice polygamy--some men have multiple wives, and many have none. This seems to correlate with violence.
However, YASAC is really intended as a thought experiment rather than anything that has the potential to be turned into a real religion like Marxism. I really have no intention of fleshing it out very much.
Update: I have more comments on good and bad religions in my review of Michael Strong's Be The Solution.
Further update: I have a new article on religion and moral education,
The Baby and the Bathwater, in which I advocate
starting The Church of Glaucon, following Jonathan Haidt's recent book,
The Righteous Mind. I also have some thoughts on church polity in
Designing the Church of Glaucon.
My secular, liberal friends clearly derive much of their identity and their rootedness from their political faith. I do not begrudge their having a political faith. I just wish they had chosen more wisely.
-- Arnold Kling
I am trying to persuade people that what's wrong with the Western world is a sociological problem rather than an information or logic problem. The fix is emotional, not intellectual. It's good to read Friedrich Hayek, but we also need to read books like Fundamentals of Psychotherapy, by Glen A. Holland. Bryan Caplan says something similar in The Myth of the Rational Voter when he explains how to teach economics effectively. Putting a lot of facts and argument in front of students isn't enough. These need to be bundled with strokes for the students' egos, emotional reinforcement for going against both inherent cognitive biases and the dominant intellectual fashions. Up to a point, you can embarrass people with logical arguments and get them to back away from a quasi-religion, and this is necessary and useful, but in order to defeat a religion decisively, you eventually need to offer them something better, something that satisfies their emotional needs. Upton Sinclair wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on not understanding it." This is true, but it's even more difficult to get a man to understand something when his sense of moral superiority depends on not understanding it.
Sean Gabb spoke to the Tories recently with great alarm of how thoroughly successful the Socialists have been in taking over the establishment in Britain (Antonio Gramsci's "long march through the institutions"). The left has been only slightly less successful in the US. Gabb would like to recapture these institutions. But the problem is worse than Gabb seems to realize. You have to have a religion before you can capture institutions to propagate it. You can't beat something with nothing.
Ridicule, the Noble Rubber Chicken, may be a useful tool in the short term, but in the long term, I have two suggestions for "something" to beat the New Left with. One is to promote something that looks like traditional religion, but without the supernaturalism. Supernaturalism is a liability if you're fighting over the education establishment in the US, due to the First Amendment. More importantly, supernaturalism is a liability if you're hoping to recruit from the same demographic pool as the "reality-based community." To me, the most obvious candidate for church without God is something derived from the Buddhist martial arts tradition. Another candidate is something derived from the C. G. Jung psychology tradition.
My other suggestion is Objectivism. This is more dangerous because it is directly political. The same organization that I suspect helps it resist being poisoned by leftist propaganda also has the potential to lead to large scale mischief, although it is hard today to imagine Objectivism dominating the marketplace of ideas. For the foreseeable future, the problem we face will be cobbling together enough disparate groups of non-Leftists to form a majority coalition. This means that the traditional Christians and the libertarians (including Objectivists) need to cooperate with one another far better than they have in the recent past.
I will close with two aphorisms:
"It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into."
-- Jonathan Swift
"Movements born in hatred very quickly take on the characteristics of the thing they oppose."
-- J.S. Habgood, Archbishop of York
Thank you for your time.