A Gentle Introduction to Mencius Moldbug's
"A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations"
Peter A. Taylor
February 19th, 2013
(revision B January 1st, 2014)
There is no such thing as a gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations.
— Mencius Moldbug,
"A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations"
Libertarianism vs. neoreaction
I used to call myself a "libertarian". Lately, I have been telling people that I'm a libertarian on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a neoreactionary on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends. I find myself continually tempted to link to, or quote from, Mencius Moldbug at the blog, Unqualified Reservations, whom Nick Land described as "the supreme Sith Lord of the neoreactionaries".
But I often refrain. Moldbug is perhaps the most entertaining writer since H. L. Mencken, and maybe even my favorite ever. He is often informative and insightful. He can also back up what he says with a seemingly infinite supply of obscure or archaic literature. But he is also offensive, internally inconsistent, and sometimes nonsensical. Often I can't tell if he's joking. I was tempted to borrow the title "Guess which parts are sarcasm" for this article from Wyoh over at Simon Jester. I have sometimes described Moldbug as a "troll", who seems to be willing to say anything he can think of to jerk Progressives' chains. He tends to write long serial essays that start out brilliantly, but after the second installment or so, he typically goes off on a tangent into some intellectual territory that strikes me as utterly indefensible. Often, I suspect him of circumstantial ad hominem fallacies, saying insincere things that Progressives will find attractive in order to get them to read further than they otherwise would, the better for him to jerk their chains later.
The purpose of this article is to enable me to talk about Moldbug's worldview more easily, partly by identifying a few of his most memorable essays, but mostly by distancing myself from the most unreasonable bits. Having established a clear separation from the most radioactive parts, I can then allow myself to be associated with the good parts.
First of all, what is a "neoreactionary"? Arnold Kling wrote, "I call the outlook neoreactionary because it is sort of like neoconservatism with the gloves off." I think of them as feral non-Progressives, as opposed to domesticated "conservatives" such as National Review editor Rich Lowry (see Mark Steyn regarding the Derbyshire affair) or, in my opinion, Jonah Goldberg. (Lowry's "defenestration" of John Derbyshire (more here) reminds me of the recurring scenes in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run where he keeps taking off and smashing his own glasses in order to preempt people who threaten him.) There was also a discussion of "reactionary" recently in the comments at Dennis Mangan's blog ("A reactionary is someone who vomits when something unpalatable is shoved down his throat; which happens now about once every half-hour."). Kling listed Mencius Moldbug, Jonah Goldberg, and Angelo Codevilla as examples of neoreactionaries. But I also disclaim Codevilla as a neoreactionary. He seems too much like a paleo-conservative: staunchly Christian, socially conservative, and not radical enough in his critique of democracy. I also take the prefix, "neo", to mean that a person's views have undergone radical changes. Codevilla seems like he was born that way. On the other hand, I take Moldbug to be the very model of a neoreactionary: an atheist with classical liberal (libertarian) values, but who rejects libertarian moral and political theories and engages in radical criticism of democracy. Moldbug seems more like the rationalists Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote about, who realized that the people around them (e.g. their parents) were insane, and had to go to heroic lengths to filter out the madness. Like Moldbug, my sympathies are libertarian, but libertarian political philosophy often strikes me as hopelessly naive.
The fundamental diagnosis of libertarianism - that today's democratic governments are much larger and much more intrusive than they should be - is obviously correct. The remedy proposed, however, does not have anything like a track record of success.
Oh, and you kind of have to be a little bit gay for Thomas Carlyle. Moldbug describes reaction as "the pure opposite of progressivism", and says it is "long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle...." (I've only read a little bit of Carlyle. He's bombastic, which is fun, but as far as substance is concerned, he seems overrated.)
Immigration policy in particular illustrates the divide between libertarians and reactionaries. More generally, libertarians tend to take political stability for granted and take economics textbook assumptions too seriously. Reactionaries in general worry about political stability, and probably go too far in the other direction, sneering too much at economics textbooks. Libertarians tend to be into deontological moral theories, only loosely connected to utilitarianism. Neo-reactionaries tend to be explicitly consequentialist if they discuss moral theories at all.
Neo-reactionaries tend to take a different posture toward the classical liberal tradition in general; libertarians tend to jump up and salute it, emphasizing its historical respect for property rights, where reactionaries tend to view it at best as a stalking horse for socialism and mob rule. Reactionaries tend to make specific, politically radioactive criticisms of democracy, where libertarians vacillate between disliking all government in the abstract and supporting Progressive ideas such as open borders and birthright citizenship in practice. Libertarians are committed to the individual as their unit of analysis. They say, "Lose the 'we'." Reactionaries are often willing to lump people together and look at tribes and cultures as their unit of analysis. For example, as a libertarian, I don't believe in collective punishment. As a reactionary, I am afraid that we might have to consider it in response to suicide bombing.
Also, a point of order: it's hard to find specific old posts on blogspot, where Unqualified Reservations resides, so you'll need an index. Fortunately, some anonymous nice person has made a very good start at producing one, at a website called Moldbuggery. There is also a dribble of Moldbuggy quotations (lightly edited) on Twitter, but unfortunately, they are impermanent. Martin Regnen has a good synopsis of Moldbug's views posted here. He links to the same Moldbug "Open Letter" series that Kling links to (which I discuss below). Moldbug himself presents a synopsis of his views in this YouTube video, but I'm afraid that neither the format nor the time limitations do justice to them. Update: you can download many of Moldbug's essays in pdf, epub, and mobi formats from More Right.
Progressivism as religion
Any compilation of Moldbug's greatest hits would have to include "A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations" (part 1, part 2) and "How Richard Dawkins got Pwned" (part 1, part 2). These are long series, and I don't especially encourage you to read past the first two posts in each series. See Moldbuggery if you want to read the rest. I link with some reluctance to Gentle, part 3 because Moldbug gets into somewhat radioactive territory regarding race.
My ideal future is one in which governments pay at most minimal attention to race. If that makes me a racist, so be it. But Orwell just came in his pants.
(In fairness, my problem in this particular case isn't so much that I think Moldbug's statements are technically wrong, as that he offers his enemies too great an opportunity to engage in racial McCarthyism. Moldbug uses a pseudonym. I do not. When I approach a topic that is capable of being conflated with race, I have to approach it with more delicacy than he does.)
The major theme in these four installments is the relationship between Anglo-American Protestant Christianity and what Moldbug usually calls "Universalism". Roughly, this is Progressivism or modern Political Correctness. I don't like the term, "Universalism", but as a member of a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church, I have to conceed that I am unable to identify much daylight between "Universalism" and what is typically preached in UU churches, so it seems like a fair cop. Moldbug uses Dawkins' analogy between genetics and the spread of ideas (Dawkins coined the term, "memes"), and claims that Universalism is an evolved form of Protestantism. I think Moldbug pushes this genetic analogy a bit too far, as I discuss in Appendix A, on "Crypto-Calvinism". (Update: see also Appendix B.) But Moldbug's larger point is correct: Progressivism is functionally a religious movement, and it has largely replaced Christianity. These four installments are a real delight to read. If you read nothing else, read Gentle Intro, pt. 1. (But in order to experience the cream of the jest, you really need to follow the link to Professor Staloff, to appreciate how close Moldbug's version is to the original.)
Moldbug makes a similar point in "Why do Atheists believe in Religion?" and Our Planet is Infested with Pseudo Atheists. Is "religion" a useful philosophical category? We have the Disestablishment Clause in the US Constitution, but the distinction between "religion" and functionally similar "political ideology" obscures more than it illuminates.
Incidentally, the word "universalist" has at least three different meanings:
Identity politics is a form of particularism. My understanding is that, in order for democracy and trial by jury to work, the overwhelming majority of the people need to be universalist in the second sense, and not in the third sense.
Another major theme of Unqualified Reservations is "formalism" or "neocameralism". Moldbug discusses this in terms of Dungeons and Dragons alignments in What if there's no such thing as chaotic good? There are two important points here. One is that "good" is subjective, so when "good" people act in undisciplined ways, the result is, at best, people working at cross-purposes, and at worst, civil war. This result is "evil" for any normal person. The other point is that a great deal of the evil that governments do is done as a side effect of insecure governments trying to stay in power. Libertarians dislike governments that are "strong" in the sense of overfunctioning. Moldbug likes governments that are "strong" in the sense of not having to do desperate things in order to stay in power. I agree with his point that "chaotic good" in theory means "evil" in practice, but he likes to play word games (e.g. with "strong"), and I find this unhelpful.
Part of formalism is that the Just War doctrine applies to civil war: it's immoral to kill people unless there is a reasonable expectation of making an omelette that's worth the eggs you're going to break. In practice, this comes very close to being equivalent to the divine right of kings, or in other words, "Might makes right." This theme resurfaced just the other day.
Divine right of kings also has the advantage of giving the ruling family incentives to have a very long planning horizon. Moldbug seems to prefer a sovereign corporation, but considering our modern problems with corporate governance, perhaps the old ways were best. (He is inconsistent—sometimes he claims to be a neo-Jacobite and endorses the Stuart line.) Democracy, with its regular elections, suffers enormously from what in game theory is called the "last period problem". Congressmen seldom have more than a two-year planning horizon. See Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on John Adams as a "lame duck". There is also a saying that Bill Clinton could rent out the Lincoln bedroom, but he couldn't sell it.
There is partial truth in the claim that the evil governments do is in order to stay in power, but Moldbug carries this too far. See the Fnargland thought experiment. This thought experiment is intended to illustrate that greed in a truly secure sovereign is relatively harmless. As a quick counter-example, listen to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on EconTalk talking about King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo. [Update: some pushback on Leopold II. Hat tip: Radish.] Only some misgovernance is the result of actual or potential power struggles. Consider Eugen Richter's view that socialism wasn't corrupted, it was "born bad". Some tyrants are gratuitiously cruel (e.g. Stalin: See The Last Bolshevik and Trotsky.)
Another recent post also features the "might makes right" theme. But ask yourself what the purpose of some recent political maneuvers is. The Texas Republicans require women seeking abortions to undergo unnecessary, intrusive medical procedures, and the Democrats at the federal level require Catholics to pay for birth control. Are these measures necessary in order for the respective political factions to remain in power, or are they gratuitious attempts to humiliate political enemies, to the long term detriment of maintaining political power? Maybe this is how you maintain power as leader of a mob, but I have no confidence that gratuitious abuse will decrease if one political faction attains a more secure grip on power.
Moldbug's Patchwork series is as good as any illustration of the indefensible tangents that I complain about. He has a science fiction scenario involving soldiers whose guns have cryptographic locks, so that the authority that controls the cryptography keys can disable any weapons in the hands of soldiers staging a coup, rendering the authority secure. But the association between a government being secure in power and its being benign is a half-truth. The cryptographic lock trope carries a half-truth to its logical conclusion, but Moldbug never acknowledges it as a half-truth. In practice, I think he overstates both the stability and the orderliness of monarchies.
Part of his defense of formalism is the claim that his reactionary state will be attractive because it is an exit system rather than a voice system. The underlying idea is sane: Arnold Kling says that "If you value freedom, then I think that exit comes out way ahead of voice as a mechanism by which people can express their preferences." The Lenny Bruce version is that if you "get really rank with the clerk" at Macy's, you can always just go down the street to Gimbel's. That's an exit system, or "Capitalism". If you get rank with the phone company (the old land line monopoly), you "end up like a schmuck with a dixie cup on a thread". That's a voice system, or "Communism". (Hat tip: David Friedman, p. v.) The voice vs. exit issue is why Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman are so interested in seasteading. The problem is that voice vs. exit has nothing to do with the government's security against turnovers. The Kim dynasty in North Korea is less vulnerable to turnovers (including elections) than the US government, but there is no right of exit from North Korea. Or think about the Berlin Wall. And in practice, what made the US work as well as it did for so long may well have been the existence of a frontier, making the cost of a de facto exit from an overactive political system lower than it would otherwise be (see Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations).
One final point on formalism: From what does a government get its legitimacy? Another answer Moldbug gives, apart from "Might makes right", is by being "lawful", which I interpret as honest; following its own laws and telling the truth. In Gentle, part 1, he writes,
I'd say a fair definition of an Orwellian government is one whose principle of public legitimacy (Mosca's political formula, if you care) is contradicted by an accurate perception of reality.
On the face of it, honesty seems like a very bad answer to the legitimacy question. Can't a government be honestly tyrannical? Theoretically, yes, but in practice, governments that are behaving badly almost always lie about it. So as a proxy to the question of how legitimate a government is, you won't go far wrong if you ask instead how honest it is. He quotes Carlyle (here, for example),
No, at all costs, it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease.
But who lies more in practice, democrats or monarchists? I note that Moldbug seems to directly conflict here with Bernard Crick in In Defence of Politics, 4th ed., p. 182: "One peculiarity of the political system is that it is the only system of government in which telling the truth about how the system works does not endanger the system." Crick's "politics" is defined in terms of conciliation and compromise, if not democracy, and appears to me to be diametrically opposed to formalism. (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita also seems diametrically opposed to formalism: the path to benign government is to broaden, not narrow, the coalition that it needs to stay in power.)
But Crick also warns (p. 22) "Advocates of particular political doctrines...should beware of denying the context in which their doctrines can operate...." What is the context in which democracy can operate successfully? Moldbug has an excellent discussion of this context. (Update: his sick journey is also worth reading for the context in which libertarianism can work.) Are those conditions still met in a society that is as driven by identity politics and half-assed socialism as ours is? Crick writes that in Northern Ireland, democracy is part of the problem. Think about Yugoslavia and Iraq. Monarchy appears to be less sensitive to context. Benjamin Franklin wrote,
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
Moldbug also invites you to join The Froude Society by reading Henry Sumner Maine's 1886 Popular Government (nice pdf here). Reflecting on our Civil War, Maine writes (p. 123),
The short history of the United States has, at the same time, established one momentous negative conclusion. When a democracy governs, it is not safe to leave unsettled any important question concerning the exercise of public powers. I might give many instances of this, but the most conclusive is the War of Secession, which was entirely owing to the omission of the "fathers" to provide beforehand for the solution of certain Constitutional problems, lest they should stir the topic of negro slavery. It would seem that, by a wise Constitution, Democracy may be made nearly as calm as water in a great artificial reservoir, but if there is a weak point anywhere in the structure, the mighty force which it controls will burst through it and spread destruction far and near.Elsewhere he writes,
This warning deserves all the attention of Englishmen. They are opening the way to Democracy on all sides. Let them take heed that it not be admitted into a receptacle of loose earth and sand.
It is not at all easy to bring home to the men of the present day how low the credit of Republics had sunk before the establishment of the United States.
Nick Land also quibbles with Moldbug over formalism. He makes some good points with regard to the nature of property rights.
Update: Scott Alexander has a long but excellent article on reactionary philosophy with a good discussion of the fable of Fnargl and "The Uncanny Valley of Dictatorship".
Oh, and Moldbug's claim that sovereignty is conserved is bullshit. (Update, 1-19-2014: As David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom, 2nd ed., p. 18, puts it: "Power is diminished when it is divided. If one man owns all the food, he can make me do almost anything. If it is divided among a hundred men, no one can make me do very much for it; if one tries, I can get a better deal from another.")
Update, 1-19-2014: There's a widespread impression that "neoreactionary" more or less implies "monarchist". This is not correct. The point is that these questions (democracy vs. monarchy vs. ???) have been reopened, for both flippant and serious discussion. Everything is on the table.
Moldbug has written a number of excellent, relatively short essays on specific, relatively technical topics. One of these topics is Keynes-Fisher macroeconomics (KFM). My favorite of these macroeconomics essays is his "Straightforward Explanation": Why do banking systems explode? Learn Nitroeconomics while exploring the Dungeon of Yendor. Seriously, I have read some of Milton Friedman's popular writings about the fractional reserve banking system, but I found Moldbug's discussion of maturity mismatch and maturity transformation more helpful. Part of his worldview is Austrian economics (i.e. Ludwig von Mises). He has also written a number of articles about fiat money vs. a gold standard, etc., but I don't understand the issues well enough to have much of an opinion about this.
Another recurring technical topic is scientific misconduct, especially in the context of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). He discusses this in some detail in Gentle Introduction pt. 3, but I especially liked his comments in "UR is on vacation":
Now, if we compare (a) the organizational structure of post-WWII Western science, to (b) the organizational structure of pre-WWII Western science, to (c) the structure of Soviet science, we see that (a) looks a lot more like (c) than like (b).
As an aside, you can get some interesting perspectives on the economics of global warming from David Friedman and Robert Laughlin.
The Civil Service
One of the "internally inconsistent" aspects of Moldbug's writing is his stance on democracy. Sometimes he claims that the problem with the US is democracy (Gentle, pt. 4),
For example: WTF is wrong with Washington? Why, for example, is it so grimly and joyously intent on crushing productive industries and rewarding inept ones? Such are the psychic mysteries that have baffled many a thinktank. Yet the royalist surgeon steps into the room, glances quickly into America's open skull, and scribbles a diagnosis as obvious as it is concise: republicanism. ("As bad a case as I've ever seen. Very little hope, I'm afraid.")
and sometimes he says that the US is run by unaccountable civil service personnel, and isn't really democratic at all ("Open letter to Ron Paul supporters").
As I've mentioned a couple of times, I come from a civil-service family. Horrible as it may seem, I was raised and educated on your tax dollars. And if there is one modern production which everyone who I have ever met who had ever been involved in government considers an accurate portrayal of the actual thing as it actually is, it is, of course, Yes Minister.
My own view here, having read some Nelson Polsby (The New Federalist Papers) and some Bryan Caplan is that these subordinates really are subordinates, subject to laws that Congress can change at their pleasure. They can be fired or drafted into the Army and sent to Greenland whenever a consensus develops within Congress that they've gotten too uppity. They have influence, not control. (Caplan writes of lobbyists, etc., only being able to operate successfully along voters' "margins of indifference".) Congress keeps them around because they are doing exactly what Congress wants them to do: providing Congress with plausible deniability. But my point here is to complain that Moldbug is inconsistent in blaming America's problems on a democracy that he denies we have. Maybe his claims could be reconciled by a more careful explanation of different meanings of the word, "democracy", but then I'm back to accusing him of playing unhelpful word games.
He's at it again in his most recent post, lampooning Charles Stross:
Could any more penetrating portrait of an American election be penned? "Not fundamentally different from calligraphy lessons."
This denies any moral agency to the American voter. I call bullshit on this. The American voters did not have the Social Security Ponzi game forced upon them, they supported it, and they have repeatedly punished any politician who dares touch this "third rail". The serpent can offer Adam and Eve the apple, but the decision to bite into it belongs to Adam and Eve. It isn't the serpent that we should fear, but the rationalization hamster internal to Adam and Eve. What is the difference between the "Democracy, cis and trans" that Moldbug writes about? The difference is whether or not the voter has a strong enough sense of honor to stand up to the rationalization hamster.
Incidentally, another juicy quote from the "Open letter to Ron Paul supporters":
If you're trying to save the old libertarian America, you've arrived on the scene a little late. Electing Ron Paul is like showing up at an autopsy with a live human liver. Yes, it's true - the patient did die of liver failure. But that was a week ago. I suppose it can't hurt to try and put the thing in, but I really doubt it will do any good.
I note that Moldbug has advocated voting for Obama on several occasions in order to hasten the collapse of American democracy and the restoration of order, if not monarchy. I thought I remembered a post from right after the 2008 election, mocking US voters for having made a horrible choice, but I can't find it.
[Update: Here it is. "Basically, dear Americans, this disqualifies you from voting ever again. You've been pwned. You're out. As I told the IvyGate blog:
There are - or at least, were - lots of plausible candidates for chief executive who don't have any kind of murky ties to murderous political fanatics. I mean, duh, you know, if history teaches us any lessons, I think one of them is: 'don't elect leaders with murky ties to murderous political fanatics.'"]
My initial reaction was that Moldbug can't be serious about wanting to hasten the collapse. I think it's stupid, and that we should want people to have as much time to rethink their views (and deal with the loss of face) as possible. As "Tedd" put it at Samizdata, "[T]he argument against collectivism and progressivism needs to be won before the collapse happens. Once the system collapses, people will assess blame according to the political paradigm they already subscribe to...." But Perry de Havilland pretty much takes Moldbug's view, and de Havilland seems to be serious. This makes no sense to me. Moldbug's comment that "Doubt is a slow flower" seems to contradict his enthusiasm for shock treatment.
Update (from the same update link above): Here's a relatively plausible Moldbug argument for hastening the collapse. The whole thing is worth reading.
But if you have fantasies of reforming this thing, of making it conservative or libertarian or whatever, you're either a fool or a fraud. Now and for the foreseeable future, you are for Washington or you're against it. And if we have Barry Obama to thank for that, God bless Barry Obama.
The next topic I would like to take up is what Moldbug calls "The Cathedral", known in other circles as "The Clerisy" (e.g. Tom Wolfe). This consists of the press plus academia plus the entertainment industry (e.g. Hollywood). I like to refer to these as society's "opinion-forming organs". This topic is hard for me to address because it's hard to separate from social class, political nomenclature, and quasi-religion. But I don't recall anything in Moldbug's discussion of the Cathedral from which I feel a particular need to distance myself.
You may find my view of media bias in an appendix to my review of Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter. Several Unqualified Reservations posts figure in it: America: vampire of the world (part 1), The Crimes of James von Brunn and Marcus Epstein, and Is Journalism Official?
The Cathedral is a continually recurring topic of discussion at Unqualified Reservations, but really, it's hard to beat part 1 of Gentle Introduction.
Certainly, the synchronization is not coordinated by any human hierarchical authority. (Yes, there are accreditation agencies, but a Harvard or a Stanford could easily fight them.) The system may be Orwellian, but it has no Goebbels. It produces Gleichschaltung without a Gestapo. It has a Party line without a Party. A neat trick. We of the Sith would certainly like to understand it.
There is another post that I think is particularly worth noting for its discussion of the Cathedral: Another interpretation of Obama at Columbia. It also illustrates the difficulty of discussing the Cathedral independently of social class. Maybe separating the two is a fool's errand. Normally, I don't read the comments, and normally, Moldbug doesn't participate in the comment section, but this post is an exception to both rules. This is some of his best explanation of how the Cathedral works. The signal to noise ratio is much higher than usual. From the comments section:
[P]rogressivism is a communicable disease, and stupidity provides immunity. The smarter you are, the more ways you have to fall for one of its little Jedi mind tricks.
A little further down:
These people just cannot conceive of a world in which they are wrong, and the Sarah Palin troglodytes are right. Unfortunately, democracy is a terribly efficient mechanism for making bad ideas fashionable. This means the good ideas tend to be unfashionable, although not all the unfashionable ideas are necessarily good. Understanding this principle is what makes one a reactionary.
Incidentally, this discussion of media behavior reminds me of Jesuitical reasoning.
George Tyrrell (1861-1909), once famous as a Catholic modernist and no admirer of the Jesuits, wrote that if you accused them of killing three men and a dog, they would invariably produce the dog alive and prove you wrong.
Moldbug also posted a lengthy excerpt from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, As breathing and consciousness return. Apart from being a fine rant against the intellectual corruption modern people have experienced on both sides of the iron curtain, it explains why people are willing to tolerate poor quality in alternative media, and pleads for people, even if they are forced to participate outwardly in lies, to refuse to internalize the lies.
By the way, Eric S. Raymond had a nice comment recently on charisma. Refusing to internalize lies is part of the trick.
Most people are half-aware that they are almost constantly surrounded by a net of lies.... The charismatic who is honest and fearless brings a gift.
Finally, I get my news from the internet, from places like Instapundit, so I don't really have an opinion about Fox News, but Moldbug had an interesting comment about it in his Actual letter to a liberal friend:
One easy reaction is to blame Fox News. It is true: for the first time in a long time, the peasants have an exclusively peasant-themed mass propaganda channel. However, the objective observer notes quickly that Fox News is not so much telling its audience what to think, as telling them they are allowed to think what they already think.
Update: I suspect that the belief in "The Cathedral", the belief that Western civilization's opinion-forming organs are systematically corrupted and infested with groupthink, is the single most important characteristic of the neoreactionary movement. The best explanation of The Cathedral I have found is in Open Letter part 4. Basically, there are three ways to acheive consensus: 1. central command and control ("coercive power distortion"), 2. spontaneous coordination with everyone following intellectual fashions ("attractive power distortion" or an "intellectual peloton"), 3. scientific convergence on reproducible evidence (Karl Popper's "open society"). The Cathedral is an expression of method 2. Read the whole thing (part 4).
[I]n many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.
Another recurring topic at Unqualified Reservations is social class. Here the challenge for me is to disentangle social class from race, culture, and religion. Mostly I like to talk about culture, but I like to talk about it in terms of quasi-religion (see The Market for Sanctimony or my reviews of Lewy's Why America Needs Religion and Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter). Moldbug often writes about social classes or "castes", although he seems to view this as having more to do with the prestige of one's educational background than birth. One of his earlier discussions of this was a five caste system. A far more entertaining treatment was his later discussion of Sarah Palin: the proletarian candidate in terms of a three-caste system.
Earlier I complained about not being able to tell when Moldbug was joking. I'm pretty sure he's joking here:
Two years before each election, each candidate or potential candidate for the Outer Party nomination must submit to a secret ritual conducted in the license-plate room of the Skull and Bones house. First, trained ferrets relieve them of any remaining fringes of their original manhood. Candidates then receive 250ug Delysid. When the drug begins to take effect, the candidate is locked in a closet with a DVD player and the complete, 7-disc Yes, Minister series. The course ends with a West Point-style trivia drill on the machinations of the devious Sir Humphrey. Brief waterboarding sessions occur throughout. The full training takes a couple of days, but produces a highly tractable Republican "politician."
You see, there are all sorts of problems with Governor Palin. She does not fit the profile. She displays no appearance of any awareness that the reality show is rigged. She might even think that the "President" actually is the CEO of America. And I'll bet no one even told her to show up at Skull and Bones.
I'm 90% sure the bit about the trained ferrets was a joke.
Another post, Actual letter to a liberal friend, mentions Detroit and illustrates the difficulty of separating class from either race or ideology.
This three-caste system, and its relevance to the fate of Detroit is strongly reminiscent of the three-caste system described by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their allegorical fantasy novel set in prehistoric Los Angeles, The Burning City. Some of the character names are anagrams. The elite "Lords" had long ago formed an alliance with the low-class "Lordkin" against the middle-class "Kinless". But these classes are based on kinship. My friends and aquaintences are all pretty much middle class, yet they are predominantly Progressives. Are they Lords or Kinless? Devin Finbarr makes a distinction between economic and social classes. His social classes are "SWPL" (Stuff White People Like), "Amerikaner", and "Ethnics". Elsewhere, I described the conflict as between "Roundheads" and "Cavaliers", with the armies being divided into "officer" and "enlisted" ranks.
It seems to me that it makes better sense to look at these divisions in terms of quasi-religion. What do I have to do or say in order to have high social status within my peer group? And how difficult would it be to switch peer groups? But I still feel like I'm missing something.
What insight can I glean from the fact that one of my co-workers has a tattoo? I don't have a clue.
Race, culture, and human neurological uniformity (HNU)
Race is such a thoroughly radioactive topic in US politics that I hardly know where to begin. The argument is sometimes made (e.g. by Foseti) that there are some topics (e.g. "strangely effective malaria control") that it is impossible to discuss honestly except using a pseudonym, and that this is one of them. Unfortunately, I need to distance myself from parts of the neoreactionary movement with regard to race, including both Mencius Moldbug and John Derbyshire, so I don't really have the option of ignoring the issue. Plus, I already brought the issue up in The Market for Sanctimony in the process of condemning racial McCarthyism. I may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.
One of the staples of political argument is the fallacy of ambiguity. The way this works is that political partisans use two or more implicit definitions of a word, and they quietly switch definitions in the middle of their argument. So there are weak definitions of "racism" that allow, for example, the villians in David Reich's thinly fictionalized memoir, The Antiracism Trainings, to define essentially anyone and everyone as "racist"; and there are strong definitions that apply only to people who are profoundly evil and stupid. Playing fast and loose with these definitions allows political partisans to "prove" that their opponents are profoundly evil and stupid, pretty much regardless of the facts.
Update: a friend suggests the following definition of racism: "Racism is making a judgment based upon a person's or people's race within a context where their race isn't relevant. When a person's or people's race is relevant, a judgment based upon their race is racial rather than racist. The political left thinks unclearly about race issues because it fails to distinguish between the terms 'racial' and 'racist'." I think he's being too generous regarding people's motives. But there's also the question of when race is relevant. When is it morally permissible to apply Bayes' theorem?
Another common fallacy of ambiguity exploits the ambiguity between "race" as being about genetics and "race" as being a sort of indicator variable reflecting a variety of other things (class, culture, etc.). For example, Larry Elder writes in Ten Things You Can't Say in America of visiting a library and seeing Hispanic kids outside the library on skateboards, and Korean kids inside the library studying. This is dangerous territory. Anyone who tries to carry on an intelligent conversation about culture is likely to be accused of "racism" and cast into the outer darkness. For example, Moldbug links to a Robert Weissberg essay describing the fate of Stuart Nagel.
There are also false dilemmas: Statistical anomalies are either 100% attributable to genetics or they have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with genetics.
It is generally impossible to get away from these fallacies and have an honest discussion because too many egos and too many political careers are dependent on them. Also there is a huge amount of hypocrisy, denial, and projection going on.
For the record, I am in the Mark Steyn camp.
I didn't agree with Derb on many things, from Ron Paul and talk radio to God and science. For his part, he reckoned I was a bit of a wimp on what he called "the Great Unmentionables." He thought that neuroscientists and geneticists' understanding of race trumped my touching belief in "culture." I'm not so sure: Why is Haiti Haiti and Barbados Barbados? Why is India India and Pakistan Pakistan? Skin color and biological determinism don't get you very far on that.
[Update: Pushback from Nick Land here and here.]
Also Charles Murray (Losing Ground), and many other writers have pointed out that prior to a number of genius Progressive policy moves (to be fair, not all cultural changes are politically driven), social statistics for American blacks (e.g. out-of-wedlock childbirths) used to look a lot better than they do now. Genetics doesn't explain how the statistics have changed over time.
[Update: Pushback from Handle here.]
So on the one hand, the so-called "race realists" are correct that it is not biologically plausible to anyone who takes the theory of evolution seriously that evolution, which differentiated humans from chimpanzees, should suddenly stop at the human neck. There is abundant evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are measurably smarter on average than Gentiles, to take one example that has a relatively short half-life and appears to only be an alpha emitter. So our social statistics are never really going to look pretty, and there isn't really anything the government can do to "fix" this other than falsify the data. On the other hand, I think Steyn is correct in accusing Derbyshire for the most part of barking up the wrong tree. Derbyshire should be far, far more worried about culture than about genetics.
Derbyshire only dug a deeper hole for himself with his recent vade mecum. He does the same thing the multiculturalists do (including libertarians like Bryan Caplan), defining "culture" in a trivial way (e.g. Caplan: watching Seinfeld) so that he can dismiss it as unimportant, leaving his preferred story as the last narrative standing. Derbyshire's equating "culture" with "history" is like arguing that if a Windows computer has been in the same room with a bunch of Linux computers for several years, then any important differences between the computers can't be due to the software that is installed; it has to be due to hardware.
Having said that, I see no reason whatsoever not to mock the race hustlers mercilessly. In fact, in the name of sense and decency, it is a moral obligation. And done by a master, it is a thing of beauty.
Here is my modest proposal for healing the open sore of race in American society. This solution, though some may find it shocking, has two key advantages. First, it's a Pareto optimization - it makes life better for everyone, or at least everyone honest. Second, it is reactionary to the bone, freezing your soul with its deep Sith chill. You may feel it's wrong. But can you say why?
Step A is formalization. It's a reality of modern American life that race confers privilege. As a reactionary, how can I possibly object? A society without hereditary privilege is like a cheeseburger without cheese....
Technically it's not quite a Pareto optimization, but only if you're committing race fraud.
We move on to step B, which will warm the cockles of Hayek's dead heart and bring happiness to liberaltarians everywhere. Advancing from status to contract, we take our newly-securitized race rights, and make them transferable. Let a sweet wind of capitalism blow!
Moldbug may be a sort of "troll", but he is a sophisticated, brilliant troll, and most of the people he is trolling richly deserve it.
We have already seen Moldbug practicing his Sith mind tricks in his Actual letter to a liberal friend. Also, Moldbug's aforementioned excerpt regarding Stuart Nagel, Since some people seem to still think I'm exaggerating this stuff, is short and well worth reading as a reminder of the moral imperative of mocking political correctness.
Finally, although Dale Amon is a libertarian rather than a reactionary, he seems to embody Arnold Kling's "gloves off" attitude and not being afraid of being hanged for a sheep, so I'll give him the last word on this topic:
I was struck by the tone of an article I recently read by a conservative journalist who simply could not understand why libertarians have not abandoned Ron Paul now that the supposedly deadly leftist power word has been uttered against him along with great waggling of magic wands.
My answer to him and others is that we are a tough lot and I laugh in the face of the PC power words. Unlike Conservative journalists I do not wet my knickers at the thought of someone attempting to tar me with it. Since I know I am not a racist, I simply do not care what anyone says or writes. I am immune, and that is perhaps one of the things which makes people like me and other libertarians even more frightening to the powers that be. We lack proper fear.
History and US foreign policy
US foreign policy is another one of those areas in which Unqualified Reservations takes on that "guess which parts are sarcasm" flavor. Parts of the worldview he describes are truthful and brilliantly stated, if perhaps exaggerated. Other parts appear to me to be designed to maximize Progressives' consternation, in reckless disregard of the truth.
A theme I take to be serious, if exaggerated, is his division of the US government into a "Red Empire" (most of the Department of Defense) and a "Blue Empire" (just about everything else, but especially the State Department) that have been working at cross purposes, often to lethal effect, for many decades. (See The secret of anti-Americanism.) His critique of pacifism appears to me to be spot on. His comments about counter-insurgency warfare seem fairly reasonable (i.e. mostly consistent with Ralph Peters' views in "COIN Lies We Love", Armed Forces Journal, May 2009, or Endless War). His comments on the American Revolution (e.g. Gentle Intro, part 2, and especially Thomas Hutchinson's, Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia) are mostly reasonable and help explain some anomalies I discovered while helping my daughter do research for a paper on the American Revolution. I note that William Bernstein's explanation of the Boston Tea Party makes much better sense than the standard history book my daughter was working from: Yes, it was a tax revolt—smugglers (e.g. Samuel Adams) were protesting a reduction in taxes, which undercut their business model. Moldbug's old-right isolationist views are also, in my opinion, generally reasonable. He likes the Treaty of Westphalia. (There's no such thing as chaotic good.) He doesn't like Samantha Power.
The polite version of isolationism was perhaps best articulated by John Quincy Adams (speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821):
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
Moldbug's impolite version was articulated by Thomas Carlyle's fictional character, Flimnap:
Tumble and rage along, ye rotten waifs and wrecks; clash and collide as seems fittest to you; and smite each other into annihilation at your own good pleasure. In that huge conflict, dismal but unavoidable, we, thanks to our heroic ancestors, having got so far ahead of you, have now no interest at all. Our decided notion is, the dead ought to bury their dead in such a case: and so we have the honor to be, with distinguished consideration, your entirely devoted,--FLIMNAP, SEC. FOREIGN DEPARTMENT.
So far, so good. We have a patriotic Red Empire trying to protect American interests oversees, and a quasi-religious Blue Empire trying to undermine any power, foreign or domestic, that competes with it for social status, including most especially the Red Empire. This Blue Empire is supported by the Cathedral to such an extent that it is hard to distinguish between the two. While it is an oversimplification, the broad outline of this Red Empire vs. Blue Empire view of US foreign policy makes a lot of sense to me. See also neo-neocon on Vietnam (parts 4A-4C and 7B) in her series, A Mind is a Difficult Thing to Change.
This leads to some interesting interpretations of the relationship between the US and USSR in general, and the Cold War in particular. A Progressive would probably say that Joseph McCarthy was wrong in saying that the State Department was full of Soviet agents. A "domesticated" conservative might look at the evidence and say that McCarthy was right. Moldbug looks at the evidence and says, no, McCarthy was still wrong, because he had it backwards: it wasn't so much that the State Department was full of Soviet agents as that the Soviet Union was a State Department pet.
There is a kernel of truth here. The US Government does seem to have been on both sides of practically every conflict that came along within the last hundred years. Political ideology (i.e. quasi-religion) has a lot to do with this. But the problem with Moldbug's writing is the signal-to-noise ratio. His kernel of truth is embedded in a series of fallacies of ambiguity as bad as those of David Reich's race hustlers. The worst of these fallacies of ambiguity involve political labels such as "left" and "right", but that is an entire subject unto itself. For now, just consider the question of moral agency: to what extent are American Progressives responsible for the chaos and destruction associated with foreign governments that are nominally either independent of the US or hostile? Moldbug's answer (Gentle, part 8) is,
The Anglo-American progressive establishment, having spawned the Bolshevik monster in their minds, inflicted it on the chief backwater of Europe, shielded it from its foes in its youth, and fed it money and equipment, not to mention lives and territories, in its prime. It is therefore indicted, on the good general principle of Roman law in which the master is responsible for the deeds of his servant, for the crimes of the Soviet Union.
That it never actually ordered the murders at Katyn, for example, is not particularly relevant. It arguably made them possible. It is certainly an accessory after the fact, because it accused the Nazis of having perpetrated them, while knowingly closing its eyes to the truth.
And if you want to know how I can put USG in the same category as the Third Reich, that is my answer. I consider both criminal regimes which history will rejoice to see abolished, because I feel that Washington can no less escape the crimes of Moscow than the Wehrmacht can escape the crimes of the SS.
I agree that English-speaking Leftists share some responsibility for the crimes of Moscow, but Moldbug is too quick to excuse the non-English speaking idiots in this sordid tragedy, and too indiscriminate in his assignment of blame among the English-speakers. By Moldbug's standards, was Ronald Reagan a "Progressive"? Was Reagan part of the problem or part of the solution?
In The secret of anti-Americanism Moldbug writes:
The US Army did not shoot all the professors in Europe and replace them with Yankee carpetbaggers, but the prestige of conquest is such that it might as well have.
This is complete nonsense. The German economic miracle depended precisely on Ludwig Erhard not deferring to Lucius Clay. It certainly doesn't correspond with my recollection of US relations with France and Germany in the last half century. It doesn't even make chronological sense. How did France get into trouble in the first place? Was it a hotbed of monarchism and capitalism from, say, 1789 to 1938? Richard Fernandez quotes Paul Berman, explaining the Socialist French government's acquiescence in Germany's occupation of the Rheinland:
The anti-war Socialists of France did not think they were being cowardly or unprincipled in making those arguments. On the contrary, they ... regarded themselves as exceptionally brave and honest. They felt that courage and radicalism allowed them to peer beneath the surface of events and identify the deeper factors at work in international relations-the truest danger facing France. This danger, in their judgment, did not come from Hitler and the Nazis, not principally. The truest danger came from the warmongers and arms manufacturers of France itself ... who stood to benefit in material ways from a new war.
To what extent can fashionable opinion makers in one country dictate intellectual fashions in other countries? Is this a one-way street, or are there feedback mechanisms? Is this a monopoly or is there joint production? In so far as one clique are the leaders and other cliques are followers, who gets to be Batman and who is stuck with being Robin? Perhaps we should ask someone from the Frankfurt school? I note that the printing press has been around for a very long time, and has been available on both sides of the Atlantic (and English Channel). The same is true of the telegraph and trans-Atlantic passenger service. Radio has been around since about 1907. All of these things provide two-way international communication. I also note Moldbug's recognition of traditional "Revelationist" Christianity as a counterparasite for "Universalism". But the counterparasite population collapsed far earlier and more completely in Europe than in the US. These "stitches" in Moldbug's story are at least as difficult to explain as the ones he complains about in the Progressive narrative.
Moldbug has lots of interesting essays on foreign policy, but his foreign policy essays always seem to end up in self-parody because of his tendency to deny moral agency to anyone but English-speaking leftists.
Slow history and the mysterious 20th century
The Reuther memorandum, 1961
The kiss: "Stalin was feeling extremely gay"
America: vampire of the world (part 1, part 2)
In Slow history, he writes,
Communism is a form of American liberalism, or progressivism. It is not, as so many anti-communists liked to suggest, an exotic foreign import. When imported from exotic lands, it's because we exported it there in the first place. In America it may speak with a Russian accent; in Russia, it speaks with an American accent....
America has no surviving intellectual tradition besides progressivism - which is no more than a synonym for communism.
Was Ronald Reagan a "communist"? I'm okay with defining a word in a very weak sense, so long as you are clear that that's what you're doing. But here, the fallacies of ambiguity have gotten so out of control as to put us in Discordian territory:
All statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.
At the risk of engaging in Bulverism, Moldbug is a zealot. He wants so badly to rub the Progressive puppy's face in the poo on the rug! And rightly so. The tragedy is that he undermines his own argument because he over-reaches so far.
What do "left" and "right" mean?
In many ways, Moldbug's An open letter to open-minded progressives (part 1) seems like a distillation of both his best and his worst writing. It's full of juicy bits:
It is good, very good, to be a black nationalist.... On the other hand, it is bad, very bad, to be a Southern nationalist.... Similarly, it is good to be a Vietnamese nationalist. It is still bad to be a German nationalist, or a British nationalist, or even a French nationalist. Germans, Brits, and Frenchmen are supposed to believe in the common destiny of all humanity. Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs are free to believe in the common destiny of Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs. (Actually, I'm not sure about the Czechs. This one may have changed.)
But the series also contains some of his worst nonsense, namely where he tries to depict National Socialism as an ill-conceived reactionary backlash against Progressivism. (part 2)
Unfortunately, the waters here are freshly muddied by a half-educated bestseller which argues that fascism was really a left-wing movement. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a far better writer, made the case far earlier and far more eruditely. He was still wrong.
My initial reaction to this Open Letter was that this was a circumstantial ad hominem, bait to draw in Progressives so that Moldbug could better humiliate them. On a second reading, I'm not sure.
There are really two questions here. What does "the Left" mean (when used by someone honest)? And what does "fascism" mean (ditto)? To belabor the obvious, different people use these words differently. What does "Left" mean?
Maybe Moldbug really does look at politics through the lens of social class to such an extent that he classifies doctrines according to the social class of the people who typically hold them rather than according to the doctrines themselves. (I think it more likely that he is (1) trying to puncture the Progressives' image of themselves as underdogs by making them seem invincible and (2) trying to depict the Progressive movement as more cohesive than it really is.) Part 1 again:
The status relationship between Brahmins and Townies is clear: Brahmins are higher, Townies are lower. When Brahmins hate Townies, the attitude is contempt. When Townies hate Brahmins, the attitude is resentment. The two are impossible to confuse. If Brahmins and Townies shared a stratified dialect, the Brahmins would speak acrolect and the Townies mesolect.
In other words, Brahmins are more fashionable than Townies. Brahmin tastes, which are basically better tastes, flow downward toward Townies. Twenty years ago, "health food" was a niche ultra-Brahmin quirk. Now it's everywhere. Suburbanites drink espresso, shop at Whole Foods, listen to alternative rock, you name it.
Look at the entire lifecycle of conservatism. The whole thing stinks. Virus X replicates in the minds of uneducated, generally less intelligent people. Townies are, in fact, the same basic tribe that gave us Hitler and Mussolini....
Chaos umpire sits,But what about when power is secure? Did Cromwell switch from left to right (or right to left?) when he became Lord Protector?
And by decision more imbroils the fray
By which he reigns
Suffice it to say: unless you're over 78, America is a communist country and has been for your entire life. What is communism? Democracy without authentic political opposition.
I'm going to go with 5b for present purposes: in so far as the "Left" label has any enduring meaning at all, it means contempt for private property. This is not clearly distinct from 7 if you're a Brahmin. But the vast majority of left-wing voters are not Brahmins.
And what does "fascism" mean?
Before we go any further with this, I highly recommend George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality....
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.
I also refer readers to Sheldon Richman's entry on fascism at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer.... Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society's economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners.
As Bryan Caplan explains it (referring to Herman Rauschning's book, Hitler Speaks),
We don't need to take your cow so long as we own you. Who cares about whether we actually own the firm in name? So long as we have complete control over the people running it, that's good enough.
My reading of Liberal Fascism is that the divisions Goldberg describes within socialism are analogous to some divisions I've seen within libertarianism. (I am using the word "socialism" here as a broad category, as Goldberg does, unlike Richman.) Within libertarianism, there are several limited government factions, but there are two distict anarchist factions: "abolitionists" and "gradualists". The abolitionists (e.g. Murray Rothbard) want to abolish our government now, and think we'll do fine without it. The gradualists (e.g. David Friedman) want to dismantle it slowly, piece by piece, and think that there are parts of it that we haven't yet figured out how to do without at all. There is a similar division among socialists, between revolutionary and gradualist types: what Goldberg calls "Marxist" and "non-Marxist". Revolutionaries want to create their utopia immediately, through violent class warfare. The various evolutionary or gradualist socialists want to build the same basic utopia, but want to get there with less bloodshed (at least internally). This has led to a number of fundamentally similar gradualist socialist movements, including Fabians, Progressives, Fascists, and National Socialists. (Also, despite the supposed internationalism of the Communists, they were too closely associated with the interests of the Soviet state.) There was also the fact that socialists in countries like the US and the UK simply didn't have the political support necessary for a successful revolution.
The "non-Marxist" label strikes me as misleading. The fascists took Marxist moral premises ("From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs") and ideas about class warfare very seriously, and went to great lengths to use nationalism as a tool for avoiding the latter (at least the worst excesses). Fascism is "non-Marxist" just about the same way that Iceweasel is "non-Firefox". In Richard Fernandez' words, it's the same dog with a different collar.
Honesty is also an issue. The "capitalist veneer" is a genuine difference between fascism and honest socialism. The Canadian health care system is honest socialism. The American system is privately owned in name, but tightly controlled by government in reality. The essence of ownership is control, so the US system is fundamentally dishonest (i.e. "fascist" in the Sheldon Richman sense).
So how did fascism and National Socialism get classified as "right-wing" (i.e. lumped into the same category with libertarianism)? Elsewhere, "EV" asks,
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.
Jonah Goldberg explains (ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1, p. 9):
After the war, the American progressives who had praised Mussolini and even looked sympathetically at Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had to distance themselves from the horrors of Nazism. Accordingly, leftist intellectuals redefined fascist as 'right-wing' and projected their own sins onto conservatives, even as they continued to borrow heavily from fascist and pre-fascist thought."
To throw one of Moldbug's most memorable quotations back in his face (Gentle (part 8)),
The 20th century was the golden age of lies. The liars of the 20th century, like the painters of the 16th, will be remembered forever as the Old Masters of their art.
For a trivial example of the gleichgeschaltet media redefining labels in order to allow Progressives to hide their embarrasing historical ties, note Tim Russert's reversal of the colors red and blue for left and right on the US electoral map.
Moldbug mentions the Overton Window in Gentle, part 1. This is an important point. It's hard to carry on an intelligent conversation with a leftist if he's measuring distances relative to the leading (left) edge of the Overton Window in 2013, and I'm measuring distance relative to James Madison or Calvin Coolidge. But this also presents another opportunity for a fallacy of ambiguity. How do you describe the people on the trailing (right) edge of the Overton Window? They are left-wing when Moldbug wants to depict the entire country as being "communist", but they are right-wing when he wants to isolate the Puritans as being especially closely related to Progressives.
Update: I think Moldbug makes a better statement of his right=order, left=chaos viewpoint in
From Mises to Carlyle: my sick journey to the dark side of the force. Maybe what Moldbug is really trying to do is to shock libertarians into rethinking some of their positions (i.e. better distancing themselves from political correctness) rather than taunting Progressives. He has some valid points about flaws in the classical liberal and libertarian traditions, which I
intend to write more about elsewhere. But Moldbug's statements on order and chaos are as confused as the ones he's criticizing. His formalist ideas call forth the same
T. S. Elliot rebuke as do libertarian ideas about "self-enforcing constitutions":
They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and withinMoldbug complains in the comments here of libertarianism having a spiritual component that he doesn't understand. It's simple. As David Friedman explains in The Machinery of Freedom, the restraints on a sovereign government are fundamentally internal to the men with guns. (Or in Moldbug's case, the men who control the cryptographic locks.)
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
What is the relationship between classical liberalism and socialism?
Earlier I mentioned the Roundheads vs. the Cavaliers as a metaphor for modern Anglo-American social and political conflict. This analogy was first brought to my attention by Iain Murray, who used to blog at a site called "The Edge of England's Sword", named after a line from Thomas Babbington Macaulay's poem, Naseby. Daniel Hannan used this same analogy in The New Road to Serfdom. Hannan described the American Revolution as the second act in the English Civil War, and the current Tea Party movement as a third act.
Recall the Moldbug quotation, "When Brahmins hate Townies, the attitude is contempt. When Townies hate Brahmins, the attitude is resentment. The two are impossible to confuse." Now read "Naseby". My reaction is that it is impossible to overlook the seething resentment of the Roundheads for the Cavaliers. And it is hard to argue that Macaulay is making this up. Are King Charles and Prince Rupert low-class, and the Puritans upper class? Clearly the Puritans are right-wing if we take Moldbug's view of social class seriously.
But his crypto-Calvinism claim depends on the Puritans being left-wing. In The ultracalvinist hypothesis: in perspective, Moldbug links to a Wikipedia article on the Diggers. The Diggers are certainly "left" in my book. The Diggers were basically communists, but they were only one faction, and they were not accepted by Cromwell's faction. The whole situation strikes me as a complete muddle. Moldbug wants his readers to accept that classical liberals, with their stereotypical concern for "life, liberty, and property," are the same thing as socialists, who are utterly contemptuous of property and whose concern for liberty is limited to things that piss off conservatives, like flag-burning and pole-dancing. But if we strip the fallacies of ambiguity and the false dilemmas from his argument, there is nothing left.
My explanation of the relationship between religion and property is that they are basically orthogonal. People have biases that made sense in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), 100,000 years ago. Many of these biases are maladaptive in a society that practices agriculture and has more than a few hundred people in it (i.e. for much of the last 10,000 years). When new religions spring up, they are usually started by crazy people with romantic ideas about living in harmony with cognitive biases that haven't made sense for 10,000 years. When religions start to be successful, they are usually taken over by relatively sane people, but there are constant waves of reformers who want to take the religion back to its romantic roots. (Perhaps I am overgeneralizing in extrapolating to other religions, but Christianity at least seems to have had romantic ideas about what human societies can be like from its inception.) There is nothing especially Calvinistic about this. What is important about leftist apologetics, whether you associate it with Protestant "social gospel", Catholic "liberation theology", or Humanist "scientific socialism", is that it relies on intuition (i.e. cognitive biases) and pseudo-rational "analysis", and has no respect for historical experience.
I mentioned false dilemmas. Moldbug falls into the authoritarian "conservative" stereotype that F. A. Hayek complains about in "Why I am Not a Conservative".
Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule.
Moldbug seems to regard anything that limits the arbitrary power of the sovereign as a form of communism. You are either a Jacobite (authoritarian) or a communist (authoritarian). Fine. But this kind of reasoning looks very familiar to me. Moldbug claims to be a Jewish atheist. If I wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine, based on his penchant for false dilemmas, I could claim him as a Christian by invoking Matthew 12:30.
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
I address crypto-Calvinism specifically in Appendix A (and again in Appendix B). My point here is not that it is silly to equate Calvinism with Progressivism, but that it is silly to equate the classical liberal tradition with socialism. I will grant that classical liberalism was flawed, but it wasn't that flawed. There was an ill-considered and internally controversial "Democracy über alles" theme (always of dubious sincerity), but property rights were critical. The relation between personal liberty and legal protection of property was unclear. The relation between freedom and political schism was unclear. The relation between private property and sovereignty was unclear. The moral arguments were too closely tied to religion. I agree with Moldbug (and Crick) that Locke's "right of revolution" is nonsense. Crick, p. 27:
There is no possible "right" of revolution to check this, as John Locke tried to argue: revolution is the destruction of a particular order of rights.
To elaborate on the insincere support for democracy, the game is played like this: if my faction has a majority, then "democracy" means majority rule, and it is a moral imperative that we get our way. If your side has a majority, then what "democracy" really means is not majority rule, but protection for human rights, which my side gets to define. But my point is that the protection of private property is a core value of a classical liberal, and the erosion of it is a core value of a Progressive. In H. L. Mencken's words,
To argue that these aims are identical is to argue palpable nonsense.
Update: Note also Nick Land's comments on the promotion of both socialism and democratization by the Tories as weapons against the Whigs here and here.
Appendix A: Crypto-Calvinism (revised 12-30-2013)
My understanding of the crypto-Calvinism thesis, briefly, is that (1) Progressivism (Moldbug's "Universalism") has similar characteristics to Calvinism (not common to mankind in general) because of (2) a common, deep heritage that (3) can be accurately drawn on a cladogram. In other words, Progressivism is an evolved form of of Calvinism — specifically, the Puritan or "Roundhead" version. For the long, canonical version of this thesis, I suggest the complete pdf version of How Dawkins got pwned.
My initial reaction to crypto-Calvinism was that I couldn't tell if Moldbug was sincere or if he was acting as a troll. I leaned towards the latter. Crypto-Calvinism looked to me like an ill-conceived propaganda device. Subsequent exchanges with people like Maurice Spandrell and Nick Land have forced me to take it seriously and to be more judicious in my criticisms of it.
There is widespread agreement, outside of Progressivism and Calvinism, that these two groups have a lot more in common that either of them care to admit. But I and various people I read and interact with disagree on details, on matters of degree, and on our underlying explanations for these similarities. Some of this disagreement is over semantics. Can you reasonably call someone a "Christian" because of his cultural baggage even though he's an atheist? Some of the disagreement is over the usefulness (and propaganda value) of the cladogram. But mainly, this is an argument over the underlying nature of various religious and political movements.
Much of our disagreement is expressed in terms of cladograms. The cladistic metaphor implies that the important features in a religion are mostly transmitted by descent from an ancestral religion, as opposed to what in biology would be called "horizontal gene transfer". Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land both take the cladistic metaphor very seriously. I don't. I tend to think of religions, and especially political movements, as picking entrees capriciously off of a "Chinese menu" (one from column A, one from column B., etc.). Another question about religion and quasi-religion is how seriously we should take their formal doctrines. Moldbug takes formal doctrines seriously. Land apparently doesn't and I don't. A third question is the "unit of analysis". How many people's ideas can we lump together for purposes of thinking about religious and political movements? Moldbug tends to paint with a broad brush: often there's just left and right. Land points to a reactionary "trichotomy" and multiple paths to small-c communism. I complain about incoherence within these groups.
Moldbug's position is probably weakest in terms of doctrine. Consider the four main points that he associates with Calvinism in The ultracalvinist hypothesis: in perspective and Cryptocalvinism, slightly tweaked. We have (1) the universal brotherhood of man, (2) the futility of violence ("Violence only causes more violence."), (3) the fair distribution of goods (Rawlsian social justice), and (4) the managed society (mandarism).
There is nothing in "the brotherhood of man" that is peculiar to Calvinism. Jesus was telling the parable of The Good Samaritan nearly 2000 years ago. It seems like every religious kook in history has said something like that, except for jokers like Malaclypse the Younger ("If they are our brothers, how come we can't eat them?"). These impulses are part of standard human evolutionary psychology. Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind (p. 220) of humans being "90% chimp and 10% bee". The brotherhood of man is the "hive switch" being triggered. It is everywhere in religion (see Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh). Emile Durkheim (Haidt, p. 225) said that Homo sapiens was really Homo duplex, existing at both the individual and group level.
Was Calvin acting on a belief in the futility of violence when he had Michael Servetus burned at the stake? Is this what informed Cromwell's behavior at Naseby, and in beheading Charles I? Is this what motivated the American Revolution? How did pacifism inform the Union's behavior during the American Civil War? Was the Republican Progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, also a pacifist? Was the Democratic Progressive, Woodrow Wilson, motivated by pacifism in pulling the US into WWI? What about Franklin Roosevelt and WWII—was that also an expression of pacifism?
Moldbug would have been better off taking the opposite tack, and saying that Progressivism is full of the "Onward Christian Soldiers" vibe. He even seems to acknowledge this in The mystery of pacifism. He can only rescue his thesis by redefining "pacifism" as a form of insincerity. Is there a pattern here at all? Yes, but it's the one that Jonah Goldberg identifies: Progressivism is a quasi-religion, and its zealots are perfectly willing to use violence on its behalf, although they have also often engaged in denial and projection. But their fellow travellers over-did the violence, and so, ever since WWII, Progressives have been over-doing the denial and projection.
The fair distribution of goods is another evolutionary psychology invariant. Did economic demogogery originate in Geneva? Funny that it's a Greek word. The ancient Jews had their jubilee. The Romans had their panem et circenses. You can rationalize away the "circuses" part, but it's hard to make the "bread" part go away. And if this is a Western European idiosyncrasy, then Mike Munger's explanation of microfinance stops making sense.
And if "the managed society" is a Western European idea, why does Moldbug turn to Chinese to find a good word for it (mandarism)? This is warmed-over aristocracy, which is as old an idea as greed, pride, and idolatry. Homo sapiens has been a hierarchal social animal since before we separated from chimpanzees.
I don't recall Moldbug mentioning this, but I note that Calvinist TULIP "total depravity" and UU "basically good" blather are diametrically opposed. (I heard a "people are basically good" sermon at BAUUC just a few weeks before uploading the original version of this article.) If Moldbug is trying to connect the doctrines of John Calvin with the "Universalism" that is preached in Unitarian Universalist churches, he is arguing that the thing is the exact opposite of itself. If there's a doctrinal connection here, it's no more direct and convincing than the connection between Tamurlane and Mother Teresa.
In order to make sense of crypto-Calvinism, we need to look at deep heritage, and the formal doctrines are not very deep. Thus, the first step in rescuing crypto-Calvinism from its foremost proponent is to stop taking doctrinal statements at face value and think of them more as propaganda. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "Our real religion is the one we behave." How do Progressives and Calvinists behave?
There is one characteristic in particular for which Progressivism and Calvinism have similar reputations: their tendency to try to impose their views on outsiders. For lack of a better word, I'll call this "moralistic aggressiveness". Lots of religious and political traditions have this tendency, but they are not all equally bad about it. Islam also has a reputation for being one of the worse religions in this regard. Buddhism has a reputation for being one of the least aggressive. Also, bear in mind that we're talking about general tendencies, so there are lots of counter-examples. What does Moldbug's argument look like if we focus on moralistic aggressiveness?
Suppose, following Wikipedia, we divide European Christianity into four groups: Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Arminian. (Note the acronym, TULIP.) My understanding of Moldbug's argument is that:
I concede that Christianity is one of the more aggressive religions, but I'm agnostic about how Calvinism fits in. Calvinism has a reputation for having been in its heyday one of the more aggressive groups within Christianity, but it isn't clear to me whether this is because of (a) some deep heritage within Calvinism, (b) the circumstance of having been in a relatively powerful position, with the abuse of power being perfectly normal, or (c) an artifact of selective memory, Calvinism having been a version of Christianity that caused a lot of trouble in England.
Is Moldbug cherry-picking? The Catholics (and Lutherans) have their share of naughtiness, too (South America, 30 Years War....). This probably has more to do with the political environment than with doctrine. See Laurence Iannaccone, The Market for Martyrs, Deregulating Religion, and Introduction to the Economics of Religion. "Bloody" Mary Tudor was Catholic. The Spanish Inquisition was Catholic.
How did Anglo-American ultra-Calvinism cause the American revolution to turn out better than the revolution in Catholic France? If hostility towards monarchy and order is a peculiarity of Calvinism, how come the people of Israel and Judea were having similar arguments 3000 years ago? Why does the English Whig vs. Tory split resemble the Taoism vs. Confucianism split?
Why don't the Scots (Presbyterians) and Scots-Irish have a similar reputation as English Calvinists? Why did the New England states disestablish their state churches prior to being forced to by modern interpretations of the 14th Amendment (extending various Constitutional restrictions that were placed on Congress to the States)?
The Blackwood author contradicts himself somewhat by blaming much of the Americans' problems on immigrants from Ireland and Germany (i.e. Catholics and Lutherans). See the Curley effect.
It's also not clear whether the aggressiveness of Progressivism is a result of characteristics that it aquired from Christianity or characteristics it aquired from being a democratic political, rather than a traditional religious movement. Serious political movements, ones that attract professional politicians, are under tremendous pressure to form majority coalitions in order to aquire temporal power. A church denomination that serves 1% of the population may be viewed as a successful firm that serves a niche market. On the other hand, a political party like the Libertarians, with 1% of the vote, is an exercise in frustration. The logic of coalition forming puts political movements under much more pressure than religious movements are under to proselytize, to persecute, and to make unsavory alliances.
The Progressive heritage
A part of the heritage question of particular interest to libertarians is socialism. I assume that socialism is an essential element of Progressivism. Progressivism is definitely "left", but since we have no reliable definition of "left", even this is not entirely certain. Maybe Progressives will throw socialism under the bus someday. My impression is that Calvinists are all over the map here. Again, Cromwell may have allied with the Diggers, but he was not one of them. The early American Pilgrim colonists experimented with socialism, but quickly abandoned it. Modern American socialism has more to do with Rousseau than with Calvin. Having abandoned socialism early, Americans were late to take it back up. Generally, American intellectual fashion has been a puppy chasing a European train. I don't see historical continuity here for socialism.
I also don't see much historical continuity for Progressive theology. This is partly the result of personal bias. I hang out with a lot of atheist and de facto atheist leftists, and so I tend to think of modern politics in terms of "the death of God". I tend to view the relationship between Progressivism and Christianity as like that between a hermit crab and a nautilus. The hermit crab did not evolve from the nautilus, the nautilus died, and the hermit crab took up residence in the empty shell.
I am used to seeing Progressivism as a competitor for traditional religion. On an emotional level, Progressivism looks like a form of idolatry, worship of the State in place in God. It is what happens when traditional religion has broken down. On a doctrinal level, my impression is that much of what's wrong with Progressivism is a lack of institutional wisdom associated with any meaningful religious heritage. The "institutional wisdom" of Western civilization, closely associated with traditional religion, seems to have had a big RESET with the "death of God". There is a Neo-Pagan joke that you should never trust a religion that's less than 5000 years old. Progressivism is still very young, and contemptuous of what heritage it has. Thus, my view is that the Progressives' big problem is the exact opposite of what Moldbug says it is.
The tendency for Christianity to act as a "counterparasite" for Progressivism is a point in favor of this hermit crab metaphor. Where the nautilus lives, there is no hermit crab. People who get their emotional needs met through God don't engage in a lot of idolatry. But the hermit crab metaphor runs into trouble when we consider historical examples where Christianity has promoted socialism (e.g. something that arguably looks essentially like Progressivism). This suggests other metaphors. Is socialism a recurring infection that afflicts Christianity, like shingles? Or is it closer to a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" relationship. Maybe Christianity is like an alcoholic who repeatedly sobers up, and functions well when sober, but who keeps falling off the wagon. And how does Progressivism relate to socialism? Is modern Progressivism a plate full of early Christian-style socialism with a side order of non-Christian idolatry, or a plate full of idolatry with a side order of socialism? In order to rescue my hermit crab metaphor, I need to argue that State-idolizing Progressivism is distinct from earlier forms of Christian socialism. I'm not sure Theodore Parker would agree with this. Moldbug claims that "Universalism" crossed over from "religion" to "science" in around 1945. How does this fit on a cladogram? Is socialism more central to Christianity than theism? If Progressivism is a shapeshifter that can switch back and forth between being a cow or a jellyfish, having a theistic backbone or not having one, cladistics is not going to be very helpful. Or maybe the unit of analysis is radically wrong, and I need to completely re-think what Christianity is about.
UR commenter Rob S. (RS) has mentioned the genetic fallacy. What can you deduce about an organism based on its ancestry? My first thought was that it's a bad analogy: if belief systems are analogous to species, they don't reproduce sexually. Individuals reproduce sexually within species, but species don't reproduce by having sex with other species. What is the unit of analysis, the belief or the belief system? Belief systems mostly do reproduce in a way comparable to a genetic algorithm. Different belief systems combine their memes, and the offspring belief systems inherit more or less random combinations of the ancestors' beliefs. But this analogy depends on treating each belief system as an organism within a pool of potential mates that are all of the same species. If Calvinism is a species or genus, and horizontal gene transfer is minimal, either atheism and idolatry have to be found within Calvinism, or else cladistics loses its plausibility.
But even if memetic DNA actually existed, what does it prove? Can you conclude that similar-looking creatures are closely related? Ants and termites have similar bauplans, but they are genetically very different, related, respectively, to wasps and cockroaches more than to each other. Is my son's black dog closely related to my daughter's black cat? Can you conclude what characteristics something has from studying its ancestry? If there is historical continuity leading from John Calvin to Unitarian Universalism, does that mean that UUs are theists? If porpoises are mammals, does that mean they are good at climbing trees?
Puritanism and Universalism do share ideas about congregational polity. (Moldbug might actually be able to get somewhere by discussing the implications of congregational polity, but judging by my reading of Larry Iannaccone's Deregulating Religion, it isn't likely to be anywhere to Moldbug's liking. Update: see here and Appendix B.)
What's the point of the cladistic metaphor?
One possibility is that it matters because of an implicit belief that certain flaws are inherent in Christianity, and those flaws are also inherent in Progressivism; neither Christianity nor Progressivism is capable of being meaningfully reformed, and must be completely abandoned. To make sense of this claim, we need a deep understanding of which features are fundamental and which are superficial. (I take a stab at this in Appendix B.)
Another possibility is that cladistics is useful as a propaganda device. Nick Land linked suggestively to an H. P. Lovecraft story about a man who commits suicide after finding out about his ancestry. But so far, no prominent Progressives seem to have taken the hint.
Appendix B: Crypto-Calvinism Revisited (1-1-2014)
The cladistic method chokes on creolization.
Moldbug seems to be serious, and most of the people who comment on neoreactionary websites take this crypto-Calvinism thesis very seriously. Note the Moldbug quotations in Nick Land's Questions thread (via "Rasputin") discussing Christianity.
Rather, I see religions (and idealisms) as patterns of thinking. These patterns tend to be relatively conserved, which is why we can name and classify them....
Christianity is a fascinating and impressive belief system in many ways, and perhaps one of the neatest things about it is that, historically, it is really two belief systems in one.
Christianity, to me, is half Roman state religion, half communal ecstatic fraternity. I find the Anglican terms high church and low church useful in describing these phenomena, even outside the bounds of Anglicanism proper....
Elements of both these strains can be found in every Christian tradition, not least because (a) no one has found a way to live without government, despite all efforts; and (b) so much of the emotional appeal of Christianity is in the fictive-kinship idea that all men (or, depending on your theology, all Christians) are brothers.
Another, slightly harsher, way to put this is that the New Testament includes a complete and tested blueprint for a revolutionary communist cult. Small wonder the medieval Church kept it under wraps!
Moldbug has a point. Consider the story of Ananias and Sapphira in The Acts of the Apostles, chapters 4 and 5. On the other hand, consider 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11 and 1 Timothy 5:8. The Bible is a very heterogeneous book.
Also note Land's claims of Christianity being uniquely sanctimonious in the comments here.
We are inheritors of a long, increasingly-complicated blame game, which cannot have any simple origin. My (provisional and low-value) intuition is that Christianity-Calvinism-Puritanism-Progressivism (-Neoreaction?) represents a process of consistently exacerbated sanctimony — which should not be hastily dissolved into its human-biological substrate. To use a word I tend to rely upon excessively, this is a process of successive hystericizations, so that a judgmentalism already universally demonstrated in our species (as 'altrustic punishment', for e.g.) is carried to ever more unrestrained forms of expression — one might say it is progressively 'liberated'.
So I do think that Christianity is the world's most sanctimonious religion, Protestantism is the most sanctimonious species of Christianity, Puritans are abnormally sanctimonious Protestants, and Progressives are — even by the standards to be expected of Neo-Puritans — best characterized as an adventure into the psychotic outer-reaches of uninhibited sanctimony.
See the followup here and here for a discussion of what Land means by "sanctimony".
I'm going to backpedal a little bit and start over. Part of my problem with crypto-Calvinism is nomenclature. We've been throwing around terms like "Progressivism", "political correctness", "socialism", "democracy", "Whig", "communism", and in my case, "secular romanticism". Moldbug usually calls leftist politics and quasi-religion "Universalism". One of the bones of contention regarding crypto-Calvinism is the degree to which these terms are interchangable. Another bone of contention is who the weirdos are. Are the problematic behaviors we're looking at common to all societies pretty much uniformly, or are they pretty much concentrated among specific groups of people. And if the latter, which ones? But mostly, I want to argue about ideological cladograms. I want to see what I have to do in order for ideological cladistics to make sense.
What is the nature of this memetic torch that is supposedly being passed from generation to generation through this "Calvinist" or "Puritan" religious or cultural lineage? What is the memetic analog of DNA? Some possibilities:
Christianity places an extreme emphasis on the use of beliefs as shibboleths. This is especially true of Protestantism. (Protestants are typically into salvation by faith alone, where Catholics throw good works into the mix.) Buddhism, in contrast, famously emphasizes practices over beliefs. Similarly, Stephen Prothero writes in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (p. 32) "...Islam inclines toward Judaism and away from Christianity by emphasizing orthopraxy (right action) over orthodoxy (right doctrine)." Prothero also associates Confucianism with rituals and Yoruba with stories (p. 69).
One could say that there are four religious phyla: those that define themselves by beliefs, by practices, by stories, and by kinship. I would be more comfortable describing belief, practice, story, and kinship as four components of an "ideological momentum vector" rather than in terms of cladistics. Baptists aren't allowed to go out drinking or dancing; practices are important. Are they still in the Christian clade? The genetic metaphor seems quite unhelpful here. You can have momentum components in several axes at once, but you can't breed cows with jellyfish even a little bit.
An unavoidable side effect of using beliefs as shibboleths is a certain degree of potential indifference to rational argument. This is what I think Nick Land means by "sanctimony". I would call it "magical thinking" or "simple distraction". Whether the beliefs you espouse are true, or even sane, isn't necessarily important. What's important may be that you swear fealty to the in-group by reciting the creed. This is especially true if Laurence Iannaccone is correct in thinking that stigmas are helpful in binding the members of a "strict" church together.
A certain degree of mental compartmentalization is necessary in order to cope with this irrationality (Gould's non-overlapping magisteria).
The "nice doggy" style of moral philosophy that I complained about elsewhere (emotional appeal with no logical substance) may be a manifestation of the same problem as Land's "sanctimony". Is this a particularly Western (i.e. Christian) phenomenon? In any religion, there are going to be high-level "dharma talks" for the serious students and low-level emotional reinforcement speeches for the proles. Are Christian dharma talks consistently stupider than Buddhist ones? I don't have a feel for this.
Maybe it's not enough that I swear fealty. Maybe you need to be convinced that I really believe the creed in order to trust me, or in order to enjoy the fruits (e.g. Rodney Stark's "compensators") that come with suspension of disbelief. Promoting credence goods (e.g. eternal salvation) appears to be more of a problem for Protestants than for Neo-Pagans. Margot Adler writes of Neo-Pagans in Drawing Down the Moon (p. 20), "In my fifteen years of contact with these groups I was never asked to believe in anything." Credence goods are important to Iannaccone's view of religion, and central to my view of both religion (here and here) and politics. (But modern popular Taoism is into believing weird things.)
Protestants specifically focus on the Bible rather than on more malleable Church teachings as shibboleths. As Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote,
With Protestant ministers, the Bible is a fetish; it is so with Catholic priests likewise, only to them the Roman Church is the master fetish, the "big thunder," while the Bible is but an inferior and subservient idol.... No doctor is ever so subordinate to his drug, no lawyer lies so prone before statute and custom, as the mass of ministers before the Bible, the great fetish of Protestant Christendom....
I had not long been a minister, before I found this worship of the Bible as a fetish hindering me at each progressive step.
Calvinism added another layer of weirdness to the Protestant gene pool by having nested in-groups. There are believers, most of whom still go to Hell, but then there are the Elect, who don't. In practice, being among the Elect is signified in large part by wealth (a combination of hard work and luck). This may have tended to make competition for social status within the Calvinist church more intense than in other branches of Protestantism, at least at one time.
Pushback: note "the law of prayer is the law of belief". To what extent is the belief/practice distinction meaningful? To what extent is it a recent perversion or heresy? (The "fundamentalist" movement is only maybe 150 years old. To the extent that it is a recent perversion/heresy, it seems to support Moldbug's thesis.) To what extent is it a straw man?
A friend told me about a church marquee that said, "Faith is not belief without evidence but trust without reservation." The word, "commitment", might have been a better choice than "trust". Similarly, the Marines' motto, "Semper fideles", does not mean "always gullible". It means always loyal or committed.
Belief in God is part of the Christian DNA if anything is. Dawkins is an atheist. Call him a "post-Christian" if you will, but find another name for him besides "Christian".
But Christianity is not just any old kind of theism. It's monotheism, with a Zoroastrian good vs. evil dualistic streak. (Manichaeism goes on to associate matter with evil and spirit with good, but that's another issue.) Even if you think of the Trinity, Satan, and Catholic saints as multiple gods, Christian "monotheism" teaches that there is only one ultimately legitimate opinion of what counts as good behavior. Santerian orishas may be capable of being disguised as Catholic saints, but different orishas really do have multiple, independent opinions. Christians and Muslims both seem to be more heavily influenced by Zoroastrian dualism than Jews. Zoroastrian dualism seems thoroughly alien to the way I would expect a biologist or an economist to think.
Christianity is also not Deism. The moral authority of Christian religious leaders depends on people believing in a God who actually gives a shit. It is somewhat misleading to refer to this problem as "the death of God". Most Americans still believe in some sort of God, but the God most of them seem to believe in is more like the God of Deism than the God of the Bible. He certainly doesn't care enough about human behavior to construct a Hell. In fact, He doesn't care enough to make His intentions known, or give us reason to take seriously any of the people who claim to speak on His behalf. Christian leaders have little authority over people like Warren Zevon who believe in "the vast indifference of heaven".
The Christian God also differs from the Islamic one in that it is easier to have a personal relationship with Him. Prothero writes (p. 30) on Islamic "salat" prayer: "You don't make this prayer up as you go along, chatting informally and familiarly with God as evangelical Protestants do." Sufis may get personal with Allah, but they are the exception.
Another piece of Christian memetic DNA is that, unlike Taoism or Epicureanism, the Christian church is a drama queen. While nominally monotheistic, Christianity has devils and sins to struggle against and to be saved from (theodicy). Also, even though Christians are nominally in a majority in the US, there is a certain "underdog" shtick, a heroic struggle against fantastic odds, and yet, in the end, victory is assured (teleology).
| Der alt böse Feind,
mit Ernst er's jetzt meint;
groß Macht und veil List
sein grausam Rüstung ist,
auf Erd ist night seinsgleichen.
| For still our ancient foe |
doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow'r are great,
and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
| The arc of history of long, but it bends toward justice. |
Christianity thus has much of the flavor of a fantasy role-playing game (FRPG).
This has implications for the Christian moral apparatus. Satan is external. The rationalization hamster is internal. Am I trying to raise an army to fight off a military invasion, or looking for a higher power to help me resist temptation? Do I need to "flip the hive switch", exercise rational self-discipline, or set up some kind of external reward structure? A particular version of Christianity could be seen as biased more towards fighting external enemies or towards internal ones, depending on whether it emphasizes fighting Satan or resisting sin.
I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around Moldbug's "fictive-kinship" or "communal ecstatic fraternity". This seems to be what Jonathan Haidt calls "flipping the hive switch". I don't know whether to think of it as "bee mind" or "camaraderie". There are a number of different things here that are similar enough that they will inevitably bleed into one another, but I need to separate them in order to be able to think about them clearly. For example, Moldbug makes light of the distinction between "all men are brothers" and "all Christians are brothers", but from a game theory standpoint, this is important.
There is Mother Teresa's charity work, which makes little, if any, distinction between in-group and out-group. I don't know what to say about this. I don't feel any burning desire to see my children following in Mother Teresa's footsteps, but at worst, her behavior is not obviously suicidal.
Other Judeo-Christian impulses, if acted upon, do seem suicidal:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
Another example is on p. 263 of God Is Not One, where Prothero seems to applaud a state of mind that strikes me as maudlin sentimentality. Is this bee mind, or is this the antidote, the complementary opposite of bee mind, that helps people return to normal from some other, more martial, mental state?
In a Purim sermon I heard once at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, an Orthodox rabbi spoke of driving into the city every day through an Arab section and greeting the people he saw there with joy rather than panic. He then urged his listeners to drink of wine and God until they could not tell the difference between enemies and friends, Arabs and Israelis, the cursed Haman and the blessed Mordecai.
I don't want to confuse bee mind with the moral fraud that Steve Sailer is complaining about (universal love being used as a weapon):
In contrast, modern liberals' defining trait is making a public spectacle of how their loyalties leapfrog over some unworthy folks relatively close to them in favor of other people they barely know (or in the case of profoundly liberal sci-fi movies such as Avatar, other 10-foot-tall blue space creatures they barely know).
Also, bee mind is a state of mind. It is not an airy ethical theory from Richard Weissbourd (which I discuss here).
I'm going to take a scene from the Wagner opera, Parsifal, as an illustration of what I think of as bee mind, or at least, the most interesting part of bee mind. Near the end of Act I, at the climax of a communion service conducted under the influence of the Holy Grail, the Knights sing,
| Nehmet vom Brot,
wandelt es kühn
in Leibes Kraft und Stärke;
treu bis zum Tod;
fest jedem Mühn,
zu wirken des Heilands Werke!
Nehmet vom Wein,
wandelt ihn neu
zu Lebens feurigem Blute.
Froh in Verein,
zu kämpfen mit seligem Mute!
| Take of the bread, |
turn it confidently
into bodily strength and power;
true until death,
steadfast in effort,
to work the Saviour's will!
Take of the wine,
turn it anew
into the fiery blood of life.
Rejoicing in the unity
of brotherly faith,
let us fight with holy courage!
The Grail ceremony promotes my idea of bee mind. This is internal to the Brotherhood of the Grail. It overlaps with some universalism vs. particularism issues, but only partially. A full discussion of universalism vs. particularism is like talking about military Rules of Engagement (RoE). It's not a simple either/or. There is a very complicated set of rules that go something like, "If conditions A, B, and C are met, but not D, E, or F, and there's a war going on, do X, but if there's not a war going on, do Y, but not Z." Perhaps in a universalist view, my initial move in a game of Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma with an outsider should be to cooperate, where in a particularist view I should defect. A topic related to RoE is how the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system works. The word "shibboleth" was famously used by the Gileadites as an IFF system, to separate the in-group from the Ephraimite out-group during a war. Bee mind has to do with how I treat people whom my IFF system flags as in-group. Acting in a state of bee mind, I would treat everyone within the in-group as close kin. J. B. S. Haldane reportedly said, "I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one, or to save eight cousins but not seven." Under bee mind, I have no "cousins" in my in-group, only "brothers".
This is an emotional state, not an ethical theory. The Grail Knights are emotionally primed to go out as a group and cut Klingsor's head off with a broadsword. Again, the distinction between "all men are brothers" and "all Christians are brothers" is important. There is normally an in-group and an out-group. There may be circumstances like Haidt's asteroid impact scenario where everyone on the planet is in the in-group, but these are the exception. The general rule for Christians is that all believers are brothers. Non-believers are eligible to convert and you should court them (Prothero notes on p. 85 that Christianity is "a missionary religion"), but you also have to be prepared to fight. As the US Marines say, "Be polite to everyone you meet, but have a plan for killing them." The Amish have outsourced their violence to the USG, but they still make in-group/out-group distinctions.
In Hindu mythology, the goddess Kali has a necklace that can switch from flowers to skulls and back in the blink of an eye. The universalism vs. particularism debate is like that. There are honest arguments within any tradition about when to switch to flowers and when to switch to skulls. The "Universalism" that Moldbug condemns is different. It isn't honest. See his comments on "callous altruism". Moldbug's Universalism isn't an authentic core belief of Christianity or a philosophical absolute. It's a style of posturing.
I don't see much difference among the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) class of religions, but it's plausible to me that this is significantly less pronounced, e.g. in Buddhism. What about Prince Asoka in the Bhagavad Gita? I don't have a feel for this. Haidt seems to imply that these "hive switch" issues are common to all religions and all people. He says (The Righteous Mind, p. 223) "[H]uman beings are conditional hive creatures." Also (p. 228), "People describe nature in spiritual terms—as both Emerson and Darwin did—precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole." This sounds suspiciously like the Buddhist doctrine of "no-self". But let's suppose that Moldbug is right, and that Christianity places an unusual emphasis on camaraderie. What consequences follow from this? Is ostracism (excommunication?) a scarier threat in Christian circles than in Confucian or Buddhist ones? Ralph Peters' book, Endless War has a chapter or two on how Islam used to be more effective than Christianity at getting soldiers to cooperate on the battlefield, but later, this pattern reversed. What changed? Is group cohesion a "Tinkerbelle" phenomenon, something that goes away if people stop believing in it?
Consider camaraderie in terms of the relationship between malaria and sickle-cell anemia. One copy of a certain gene is good because it gives you some resistance to malaria. Two copies are bad because they give you sickle-cell anemia. Is the problem with Progressivism that it is too much of a good thing? Orson Scott Card seems to think that the exact opposite is true, that Christian values are far more communitarian than Progressives'.
What is the relationship between camaraderie and egalitarianism? My thinking was that these are clearly not identical. Paul wrote (Galatians 3:28) "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In Paul's view, you can have slaves, but you have to be nice to them. But a Catholic friend thought of the same passage and had the opposite reaction, that Paul was calling for spiritual egalitarianism. (This can also be used as a weapon: I'm better than you are because I'm more committed than you are to equality.)
I have a hard time explaining charity in general. Christian charity is partly a consequence of fictive-kinship (sometimes taken to the point of resembling a fetish), partly missionary work (courtship of potential converts), and partly a competitive sport (internal status competition)? This doesn't seem like a very satisfactory explanation. I don't do a lot of charity work, but I have a hard time explaining my motivation even for what I do.
"Christianity is a missionary religion." Or as I said above, it is moralistically aggressive. That's sufficiently different from "communal ecstatic fraternity" or universalism to warrant it's own strand of DNA.
Another possible kind of religious DNA is how the moral apparatus works. Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind that "Religions are moral exoskeletons." How does this work? How do the priests get people to do "the right thing"?
Part of the answer is extrinsic rewards, which are probably mainly in the form of social status. If the minister at my church is able to increase or decrease various members' status through public recognition, he may be able to steer me and my friends so that we compete for his accolades by doing "good works" instead of accumulating conspicuous wealth. My friends and I may compete at helping people in New Orleans rebuild instead of competing by buying expensive cars. My impression is that JCI clergy have traditionally been more into charity work than Eastern religious leaders, who tend to be more fatalistic (and more afraid of rewarding irresponsible behavior).
Haidt is generally more concerned with intrinsic rewards, hence his interest in the "hive switch". How does Christianity flip the hive switch? I think this is Moldbug's "fictive-kinship". Part of the trick is using doctrine as a substitute for kinship. Get people together in groups and create an illusion of consensus over doctrine.
Another method of using intrinsic rewards is to train people to use their imaginations in the way that Adam Smith described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments with his "impartial spectator", an internalized omniscient judge or conscience. I don't literally feel your pain; I have to imagine it. This depends on a mixture of habit, training, and will. (Another way of looking at universalism and particularism is that they are social norms relating to how use my imagination regarding members of out-groups. Universalism says to imagine the outsider's pain as if he were kin. Particularism says not to imagine his pain.) It's not clear to me how much this training of the conscience overlaps with "fictive-kinship" or with monotheism. A personal relationship with God is reportedly extremely helpful for internalizing social norms and for impulse control. If the clergy are generally successful in training people to use their imaginations this way, this would lead to a "guilt-culture" as opposed to a "shame-culture".
Moldbug has a slightly different take on monotheism, which he describes in a beautiful tribute to the late Lawrence Auster.
When we say "God," we know what we mean - it is a shorthand for the superhuman and perfect, for infinite wisdom and intelligence, just as the character of Hamlet is a shorthand for a mercurial and hesitating character. What, pray tell me, is the Flying Spaghetti Monster a shorthand for?
I keep wanting to look at God as a sort of Lagrange multiplier that causes the constraints of living in a society with other people to look like prices. Moldbug seems to be describing God as a reference for perfection, something more like an atomic clock at the US Naval Observatory. Read the whole thing.
Extrinsic earthly rewards (e.g. public recognition) require leadership that both makes rules and enforces them. Priests function like league officials and referees in a recreational hockey league. Some of this is formal, some informal. A defenseman gets informal bragging rights for a good sweep check, but a formal penalty for a cross-check. The most important job of religious leaders is probably to keep people honest, and especially to call people on self-deception, at least outside of the context of whether the official theology makes sense. The "self-exculpatory and paranoid" behavior that Salman Rushdie complains about needs to be challenged, not abetted. We need to keep the rationalization hamster on his meds. As I wrote elsewhere, "In some cultures, I may count you as a friend because you let me get away with face-saving nonsense. In other cultures, I may count you as a friend because you don't."
One problem with this sports analogy is that I have been claiming that morality, the set of rules that religious leaders promote, is a credence good. This is not true in sports. In hockey, I don't really care if the rules about how to score a goal are "true" or "optimal" in some sense. I only care that the rules are known and enforced, and that it's in my interest to follow them. My morality is only a credence good if I claim it is special in some way that I can't really prove: metaphysically "true", or more or less optimal from a utilitarian standpoint, not just something my beer buddies agreed to. This specialness is important if my tribe is claiming moral superiority over some other tribe. For most people, the stakes are higher in religion than in sports: trustworthiness is more important than athletic prowess. In sports, I want to avoid appearing a fool who has forgotten the context of friendly competition. Religion may be more of an indication of how I will behave when lives are at stake.
I want to push on the Lagrange multiplier analogy a little. I mentioned the role of clergy in rewarding morally exemplary behavior, but I also claimed that moral correctness is a credence good, something difficult to verify. Is the main problem here (1) figuring out what right doctrine is or (2) getting people to follow it? For atheists like me, the "right doctrine" problem shows up as a meta-ethics problem: How do I construct a moral argument that will be cogent for someone who doesn't already agree with me? I can't understand why my Libertarian and Objectivist friends don't seem to see this as a problem. It's not that they've been spectacularly successful at converting the Progressives. So I have a meta-ethics problem, and morality looks to me like a credence good. Christians, on the other hand, have God to tell them what's right and wrong. The problem Christian clergy have is getting people to believe in God (the easy part) and then getting them to believe that the clergy have the authority to speak on God's behalf (the hard part). So God looks to me like a Lagrange multiplier that transforms a meta-ethics credence good problem into a theological credence good problem.
How did Mother Teresa's mind work? Her motivation wasn't an intellectual relationship with an "impartial spectator" but a personal, emotional relationship with her God.
See also Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment. Got a problem that is intractable in real life? Transform it into fairyland, solve it there, and transform it back. Like Fourier transforms.
Promises of posthumous rewards and punishments have to be acknowledged, too. I don't take them seriously, but lots of other people apparently do.
I note that, in so far as social status is being used as a reward, it implies a degree of social mobility. I think of sanctimony (in the common usage) as moral fraud, cheating in a social status competition. It doesn't make sense for me to cheat at a game that I'm not allowed to play. Also, I am going to be more tempted to cheat when the stakes are high than when they are low. So one of the variables we need to consider in explaining why a particular population is especially sanctimonious is that this may just be a side effect of a high level of social mobility.
The crucifixion story may play a role in limiting this "self-exculpatory and paranoid" behavior.
I've been to the Mideast a few times. All I can say is that they'll never run out of the equivalent of Jews, even if they do manage to run out of Jews. They are the most conspiratorially-minded people in the world, which makes sense, since they are the most conspiratorial. But that means they have [no] ability to stop their imaginations from running wild, usually with sinister delusional hatred. There is always some 'other' just other-enough, suitable for the propagandist's purposes, on which to blame everything. If it's not the Jews, it'll be the West, or the US, or Russia, or China, or India, etc. Always, always THEM.
Likely this was the killer-app of Christianity: the ability to push through the whole issue of scapegoatting in heterogeneous societies (via a story from the goat's POV), thus lubricating (cautious) mutually-beneficial exchange with those outside their monkeyspheres.
Peter A. Taylor:
I was thinking that the subtle wisdom of the crucifixion story was that there were reciprocal obligations between leaders and followers. Usually the followers have to bleed for the leaders, but the crucifixion story says that sometimes the leader has to bleed for the followers. But I like your interpretation better.
That's the Nietzschean version, and it has some merit, but Thales' has a lot going for it. I'd add that undermining the conspiracy mindset is personally useful too. You have to stop looking to blame somebody for being a screw-up before you can really tackle being a screw-up, and the man on the cross is a good tech for that, especially for down-and-outers.
It would be hard for us to fully grok all of the Christian killer apps, though, as most of them will just be cultural commonplaces that we take for granted.
Another interpretation is that the crucifixion is a tool for flipping the hive switch. Jesus offers the ultimate example of meaningful, necessary self-sacrifice; in Haldane's terms, jumping into a river to save billions of brothers. To an Objectivist, this is exceedingly sinful, because the explanation for why the sacrifice is necessary doesn't really make sense and you're not really all that closely related or probably all that emotionally connected to that many people.
Another kind of religious DNA is church polity. I'm looking to religion to provide people with Haidt's "moral exoskeleton". I'm looking to church leaders to produce and impose moral doctrines whose correctness is a credence good, whose advantages are subtle and effectively unprovable, and which often fly in the face of not only people's individual self-interests but also their cognitive biases. This means I need institutions that can put the right people in key leadership positions. As far as I can tell, Catholicism and possibly Orthodox Christianity and Mormonism seem to be the only major religions that are geared up for this (I'm not considering non-denominational Christians). Prothero writes (p. 232), "...Yoruba does not evangelize or anathematize." On p. 105: "Confucianism has ... almost no congregational life." On p. 103, he says of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, "...in China the Three Teachings mix and mingle quite amiably.... According to a popular Chinese saying, 'Every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe, and Buddhist sandals.'" This sounds like Laurence Iannaccone's "portfolio religion", an extremely lenient kind of religion that has pretty much no interest in enforcing anything (see Risk, Rationality, and Religious Portfolios, unfortunately moved behind paywall).
In terms of church polity, there is a huge gap between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholics approach moral philosophy as a job for professionals. Protestants approach it as a job that can be easily performed by amateurs. Catholics have a Pope who appoints Cardinals and Cardinals who elect Popes, insulating the Church hierarchy from popular fads about as far as is humanly possible. Presbyterians, along with every other kind of Protestant I know of except Mormons and some non-denominational churches, are religious democrats. Unitarian Universalists are practically religious anarchists.
Protestant Christianity also has a strong tendency toward recursive schisms. There are advantages to this (quite apart from the obvious point that abusive leaders can't get away with as much). It's hard for the Catholic Church to change its mind or admit error on a major topic, or respond to technological change. Protestant churches can fork. Iannaccone (Deregulating Religion) sings the praises of religious freedom and a low Herfindahl index (sum of squares of market shares) in promoting religious competition, which motivates clergy to work hard to meet the spiritual needs of their supporters, unlike the "indolent" clergy of state-monopoly religions. This makes sense as long as the standard economics textbook assumptions are reasonably satisfied: people are "rational" enough to know where their bread is buttered in the long term, and the goods and services produced by churches have minimal spillover effects on outsiders.
But if these assumptions are not met, in a competitive environment it's easy for religious morality to become a "race to the bottom" where people can shop around for the most permissive church. Even without much competition, democratic governance allows mob rule. Either way, whatever Catholic Church governance had going for it was abandoned by Martin Luther.
(I discuss the difficulty of moral education in more depth in The Baby and the Bathwater. I discuss church polity in more depth in Designing the Church of Glaucon.)
That Religious Portfolios paper brings up another point. Iannaccone elsewhere divides "religion" from "magic" as being about supernatural negotiation as opposed to supernatural production. Here he distinguishes between producing collective vs. private supernatural goods. From a Greco-Roman standpoint, Judaism and Christianity (and now Islam) were weird collective action religions, as opposed to more private contemporary Pagan religions. Asian and New Age religions are generally private. "Sectarian" Protestant churches are more collective where "Mainline" Protestant churches are more private. Collective religion involves higher levels of commitment and participation. Jahweh is a jealous god. One adhered to the Cult of Isis but one belonged to Christianity.
Note an apparent contradiction between Iannaccone and Haidt, below.*
The purpose of all this DNA talk is that we're trying to make sense of patterns of behavior that are pretty widely recognized. Can we explain these similarities between seemingly disparate social movements in terms of what we know about historical continuity?
Take Mormonism, for example. Is Mormonism "genetically" Christian? There was no pre-existing Christian denomination that gradually shifted its doctrine and morphed by imperceptible degrees into becoming Mormonism. It was more like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Joseph Smith raided the tomb of Protestant Christianity in order to get some body parts that he stitched onto his absurd polygamy cult, overturning millenia of Christian social engineering. (Early Mormonism has also been described as an organized crime family with religious overtones.) So in terms of historical continuity, it doesn't seem to me that Mormonism should be lumped in with Protestantism. But in other respects, it seems very Christian. Actually, in terms of polity, it looks almost like a reboot of Catholicism.
I feel the same way about Objectivism. Moldbug writes,
Someone else wants to know what I think of Ayn Rand. An excellent question, although it's one I have some difficulty in answering because I've never read any of Rand's books from cover to cover. I simply don't like her as a writer, which makes it hard for me to express a fair opinion on her as a thinker.
However, with that caveat, my general view is that Rand's attempt to break out of the Universalist-Revelationist (aka "liberal-conservative") dichotomy was a bold one and worthy of much respect. Objectivism is one of the few genuine root nodes in the cladogram of Western thought. You simply cannot describe it as Christian in any way, and as such it represents a considerable achievement. For example, it differs from Rothbardian libertarianism here - Rothbardian ethics are basically Lockean ethics, and Locke was certainly a Christian. Connecting natural rights to the Bible is not hard at all.
But then he immediately goes on to say how much Objectivism has in common with Christianity:
But there is something much too Papal about Rand. She essentially constructed a system of morality and required all reasonable people to accept it.
Ayn Rand is not nearly as far outside the Christian fold as Moldbug gave her credit for being. Doctrine as shibboleth? Check (although her use of language as shibboleth is even more pronounced and closer to the original Gileadite usage). Her speech at the Naval Academy is classic "nice doggy". No theism, but Zoroastrian moral dualism? Check. That's the "objective" part of Objectivism: there is only one legitimate opinion of what's good (which flies in the face of basic economics, pt. 1). Drama Queen? Check. Fictive-kinship? Sort of. They seem to find fictive-kinship in the denial of fictive-kinship. Moralistic aggressiveness? Check. How does the moral apparatus work? I don't know, but it seems to involve a lot of excommunications. It sounds suspiciously like Stark and Iannaccone explaining the need to drive out apostates in Why the Jehovah's Witnesses Grow so Rapidly: A Theoretical Application (J. of Contemporary Religion, 1997, p. 152). Jehovah's Witnesses found that it was "necessary to keep the front door of the church open, but that it was necessary to keep the back door open, too." Crucifixion story? I'll give Moldbug that one. I don't know enough to comment on Objectivist church polity, and Christians are all over the map here. Collective goods (group reassurance of moral superiority)? Check.
Recall that it wasn't hard to connect communism to the Bible, either. Again, the Bible is a very heterogeneous book.
The Khmer Rouge
Tom Wolfe wrote about
...one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.
Well, communism landed pretty hard in Cambodia. How come? According to the crypto-Calvinism thesis, communism is supposed to be closely related to Christianity. Why did they get Pol Pot instead of Mother Teresa or Jimmy Carter? Moldbug's explanation is
This is certainly not a point of view that leads us to agree with Hassell's Osservatore Romano, in its judgment that Bolshevism is "an indigenous European growth which by chance has matured in one country (Russia)." The opposite hypothesis is suggested: that Bolshevism is an exotic, non-European growth. Ie, an American growth. Ie, when America infects Russia with liberalism, the spore (lacking native enemies) grows into its malign form of Bolshevism. Contra Hassell, democracy and communism are two forms of the same disease.
I'll return to that "democracy and communism" comment later, along with another Moldbug statement that "... progressivism ... is no more than a synonym for communism."
Why might Buddhism be an effective enemy of Christianity, and Christianity at least a somewhat effective enemy of communism, but Buddhism not effective against communism? One possible reason is a tradeoff between fictive-kinship and rationality. If the primary draw of communism is "communal ecstatic fraternity", it's possible that serious Christians just aren't all that impressed with it. They could be thinking, "Yeah, that's nice, but I've seen better." It might be a bigger deal for practitioners of Asian religions to belong rather than adhere. On the other hand, Buddhists and especially people with Confucian influences might find communism more attractive than Christianity, despite superior Christian fictive-kinship, because of communism's pretense of scientific rationality. (Prothero writes on Confucianism, p. 105, "Here, making sense of ultimate reality takes a back seat to just making sense.") The irrationality of communism was able to fly under the radar in a way that Christian theology couldn't. But Westerners know too much about economics to be as impressed with "scientific socialism", and are too used to the mental compartmentalization by which religious doctrines are isolated from experimental evidence, to be bothered by Christian quirks like the trinity. But wasn't Russia Orthodox Christian? And why is Singapore sane, but not North Korea? Iannaccone's explanation seems more parsimonious: that religious (and quasi-religious) violence has more to do with the political environment than with formal religious doctrines. Osama bin Laden also had a pretty good explanation for why Communism made more of an impression on Cambodians than Christianity: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse."
The Social Gospel
How does the counterparasite phenomenon work?
I'm having trouble with nomenclature. A number of leftist political movements bleed together, and people use "left" and "right" labels inconsistently. I want to say "secular romanticism" as a generic term for leftist thought, but that begs the question of what is the fundamental relationship between Calvinism and Progressivism.
What is the relationship between the Social Gospel and Marxism? Christianity doesn't seem like all that good a counterparasite (but better than Buddhism?). Is Catholicism (afflicted with Liberation Theology) more or less resistant than Protestantism? Are Christianity and socialism orthogonal?
Considering that people who take traditional religions seriously seem to have higher fertility rates that secular people, maybe we should quit referring to these religions as "parasites" and think of them as "symbionts". From this perspective, Progressivism seems to be a predator that attacks and displaces symbionts.
Elsewhere I suggested that the "romantic tendency" (socialism) in Christianity is a recurring infection, like shingles. Another model is a "brood parasite", such as the cuckoo that Richard Dawkins describes on pp. 246-52 of Unweaving the Rainbow, which parasitizes birds like the reed warbler. What makes the cuckoo model interesting is egg mimickry. The variety ("gens") of cuckoo that exploits reed warblers lays eggs that look like reed warbler eggs. It's not that cuckoos are related to reed warblers, but that that particular gens evolved to mimick a particular feature of reed warblers. Did Progressivism evolve to mimick certain aspects of Christianity? Perhaps Buddhism is like a dunnock, that hasn't been parasitized by cuckoos long enough to have evolved the defences necessary to detect and reject cuckoo's eggs. Can we tell whether Progressivism is a descendent or a mimick of Christianity? No, because we can't agree on what the defining characteristic of Christianity is. The genetic analogy isn't good enough to allow us to talk meaningfully about how far back the most recent common ancestor lived.
The Transient and the Permanent in Meta-Christianity
(with apologies to Theodore Parker)
Looking at Unitarian Universalism makes me mourn the death of God. Pascal wrote, "There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man...." I feel this vacuum in my own life. Surrounded by atheists and agnostics who are also socialists, it's easy to forget that there have been and still are other kinds of socialists. Thinking about the Social Gospel makes me much more sympathetic to crypto-Calvinism. Christians don't have to wait until the death of God in order to become socialists. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony certainly didn't. So the "shingles" metaphor is plausible, but the "hermit crab" metaphor only seems to make sense if we think of Progressivism as being more about idolatry than about socialism.
I still don't like cladistics. Part of the problem is confusing the transient and the (relatively) permanent. We have the appearance of evolution because of a mixture of static features and varying features. At the societal level, the cladistic analogy may not look too bad, but at the micro level, it's horribly confusing because the most obvious features are the most ephemeral, and don't follow lines of descent. It's like talking about the color of a chameleon in terms of genetics. I can predict based on genetics that a baby chameleon will have four legs and a tail, but what color it will be can change from minute to minute. In religion and politics, as often as not, the pieces fit together like the "monsters from the id" from the movie Forbidden Planet.
Let me propose some amendments to the crypto-Calvinism thesis to see if I can produce a minor variation of it that I can accept.
Drop the "Blame the Americans" shtick. There is too much blame to go around, and there was too much trans-Atlantic communication to distribute it so narrowly. Also, the Red Empire/Blue Empire or "cold civil war" model of the US makes too much sense to allow us to treat the US as monolithic.
Drop the focus on Calvin. Luther is a more plausible villain, but even he was late to the game if the New Testament had a "communist cult" already built in. Lots of silly people in England were Calvinists, but there were plenty of other silly people elsewhere who were Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, or Jewish. Or Chinese, if we can ever figure out whether the words "left" and "right" actually mean anything or not.
Religion is too much of a "Chinese menu" operation for a cladogram to make very much sense. It makes more sense to me to talk about a momentum vector or a state vector.
I have a semantics problem calling an atheist any sort of "Christian", or even calling atheism a "religion" without some sort of modifier. Let's call the set of religions and quasi-religions we're interested in "meta-religion".
There is a class of meta-religion that resembles a fantasy role-playing game (FRPG). Let's call this meta-Christianity. These FRPGs can be romantic or classical in their views of human nature, popular or insulated in their governance, theistic or atheistic in their theology, and strict or lenient in their membership demands. Looking at religious history is like looking at a kaleidoscope.
Meta-Christianity uses beliefs as shibboleths, is a drama queen, tries to exploit fictive-kinship, is moralistically aggressive, and depends on collective efforts to reassure members of their moral superiority over outsiders. It varies in terms of whether it is theistic, how the moral apparatus works, whether it includes certain "killer apps" like meaningful crucifixion stories (Spartacus doesn't count), and organizational polity.
We may need to add a few more variables. We can rate different groups according to the amount of moral fraud they engage in. This is dictionary "sanctimony": my 1962 Webster's says "assumed holiness; pretended piety; religious hypocrisy". Does your group enforce high standards on itself, or does it slander its rivals instead?
We can also distinguish between classical vs. romantic views of human nature. This goes by many names, including constrained vs. unconstrained and tragic vs. utopian. What I'm getting at is how sympathetic people are to the natural law tradition and the need for private property vs. collectivization (e.g. the screwball ideas that got most of the Pilgrims killed off) or totalitarianism.
Another important variable is attitude towards the use of force. This includes attitude towards the use of force by the state on behalf of religion. A bunch of hippies living voluntarily in a commune is a far cry from the USSR. This may be hard to separate from moralistic aggressiveness and the political environment.
Another candidate variable is the level of respect for tradition.
I add these variables reluctantly because I'm not sure they are readily separable from each other and from how the moral apparatus works and organizational polity. I don't see how an honest man can look at the Pilgrims' or anyone else's experiments with socialism and not admit that they were failures, and often catastrophic failures. So I'm not sure I can separate a group's attitudes towards private property from the group's overall amount of moral fraud (self-deception and deceit). An honest man should also admit that we don't have very good sociological analysis tools, and should be cautious about going against tradition. But a high level of moral fraud seems to suggest either that the moral apparatus isn't working, or that the social norms that are set by the group's leaders are perverse, which suggests something seriously wrong with the group's polity. I'll go ahead and add them, because it's uncertain whether they can be combined. And we should make allowances for people to make mistakes, provided they correct their mistakes reasonably quickly. It's also possible that a good organizational system can still be taken over by bad people.
Here's a crude, poorly-informed stab at how various meta-Christian groups of interest stack up:
Y/N = yes/no, H/D = hierarchical/democratic, L/M/H = low/medium/high, C/R = classical/romantic, I/V = insane/variable
The death of God is not entirely a red herring, because Christianity is still somewhat disharmonious with at least modern Progressivism. But the questions of whether someone believes in God and whether he wants to be a member of the dominant social clique even though they have idolotrous attitudes towards the state are mostly orthogonal.
I don't have a good handle on moral apparatus in general, and on comparative moral apparatus in particular. Nick Land mentioned altruistic punishment. My impression is that theism is essential to the way the Christian moral apparatus works. Without God, Man stands naked before the Rationalization Hamster. Or something like that. Jonathan Haidt is probably the best source I know for insight on morality and religion. I think that social status and fantasy probably figure strongly in all of these "meta-Christian" groups, but I don't know enough to say more than that. I expect, though, that competitive self-deception is a dangerous sport without firm, wise, and benevolent supervision.
Here's a teaser on where Haidt is going with his moral axes or "foundations".
The Moral Foundations website explains,
The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. The culture war in the 1990s and early 2000s centered on the legitimacy of these latter three foundations. In 2009, with the rise of the Tea Party, the culture war shifted away from social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and became more about differing conceptions of fairness (equality vs. proportionality) and liberty (is government the oppressor or defender?).
Are these really foundations, or merely styles of pleading? Opposition to nuclear power is typically pitched in terms of care/harm, but it looks to me like a sanctity/degradation or "purity" issue. And for people who supposedly don't use the loyalty/betrayal axis much, some of my UU friends get awfully defensive if you criticize the Donks.
* I notice, looking back at The Righteous Mind, that Haidt seems to contradict part of my story. First, note that "communal ecstatic fraternity" (axis 4) seems by definition to be conflated with collective action (axis 9). Haidt says (p. 224) that collective ecstatic dancing was common in ancient Greece (e.g. the cult of Dionysus) and in early Christianity. It was the evolution of the WEIRD culture (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic), starting in the sixteenth century, that changed this. "The WEIRDer you are, the harder it is to understand what those 'savages' were doing." Moldbug views Christianity and Progressivism as weirdly hivish (Haidt's language) and everyone else as normal. Haidt (p. 95) views educated Westerners (i.e. Progressives and Libertarians, as found on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and including people like himself, myself, and presumably Moldbug) as weirdly individualistic and resistant to normal moral and sacred patterns of thought (presumably including hivishness); and everyone else, from Hindus to Appalachian Christians to people in the West Philadelphia working-class neighborhood not far from the Penn campus, as being normal.
Something therefore seems to be seriously hosed up in this discussion of "communal ecstatic fraternity".
Haidt sees political ramifications to WEIRDness. In the context of a quotation from Benito Mussolini, Haidt writes, (p. 242-3) "Let's imagine two nations, one full of small-scale hives, one devoid of them." Think of Burke's "little platoons".
A nation of individuals, in contrast, in which citizens spend all their time in Durkheim's lower level, is likely to be hungry for meaning. If people can't satisfy their need for deep connection in other ways, they'll be more receptive to a smooth-talking leader who urges them to renounce their lives of "selfish momentary pleasure" and follow him onward to "that purely spiritual existence" in which their value as human beings consists.
Was Russia in 1917 as WEIRD as Germany and Italy in the 1930s? Is the level of WEIRDness in the respective populations a significant difference between Russian Communism and German and Italian Fascism? Haidt's "WEIRD" is practically synonymous with "Progressive". In so far as Russian Communism was less WEIRD than German Fascism, this would suggest that Moldbug, if he must reduce everything to left vs. right, has his left-right axes reversed in his discussion of Communism and Fascism.
Progressivism as Calvinball
(the game from the "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon that is never played the same way twice)
And what of the Transient in socialism in particular? There have been many different versions, some compatible with Christianity and some not. The version of Progressivism I encounter at my UU church looks like a FRPG where the object is to slay a two-headed dragon, whose heads, respectively, are Christianity and Capitalism. But this also is a "Chinese menu" operation. You can try to lop off either head, ignoring the other, or both. With the fall of the USSR, the emphasis generally shifted from fighting Capitalism to fighting Christianity. Progressives have been inconsistent about racism, foreign military adventures, concern for workers vs. environmentalism, democracy vs. dictatorship, sexual license vs. "protecting the vulnerable", etc. But these are all on the menu, and you may ignore them or combine them any way you like.
To clarify, almost everyone pays lip service to "democracy", but as Orwell said in the earlier quotation, "Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way."
In my view, Fascism is a minor fork of Marxism, which differs mainly in terms of its open exploitation of nationalism, with slightly greater patience with economic "reform", and possibly some minor differences in polity and the degree of contempt for tradition as well.
Progressivism definitely exploits people's impulses towards fictive-kinship. This typically involves a swindle of some sort. But there are a number of different swindles that could be involved. One swindle is to substitute an abstraction for feedback from a real human being. C. S. Lewis made a point in his poem, "The Genuine Article", of the difference between "the proletariat" vs. any actual "workers fed on mortal food".
Who, that can love nonentities, would choose the labour
Of loving the quotidian face and fact, his neighbor?
Maurice Spandrell described another swindle, offering ordinary people the benefits of tribal membership without the costs.
In the end what old cults have in common is that they provide marriage partners and employment to their members. There's a lot of crap that a single, poor and depressed person will do in order to find himself a tribe. Liberal society tells you that you don't need to put up with the bad parts of belonging to a tribe, and still live a happy life. That's false for 95% of people.
Other forms of swindle involve double standards and false friendship. The leadership of Plymouth Colony seemed sincere. Governor Bradford had "skin in the game", and faced starvation with the followers. Nikolai Bukharin seemed sincere. In contrast, Charles Murray (Coming Apart) complains that the "Belmont" elite whites have good practices, but they don't preach what they practice to the "Fishtown" proles. Some people appear to support the welfare state because they sincerely believe it is helping the poor on net. Other people seem to want to use the welfare state as an excuse to demand free stuff. The same is probably also true of loose immigration policy, but this is supported mainly by leaders, with little support from followers. Loose immigration policy seems like relatively unsubtle betrayal. The welfare state is a better example of false friendship. The most colorful description of this false friendship I've read is Nick Land's:
Anything that needs bailing out is rotten. Making rotten 'friends' (clients), by influencing them to rot more profoundly, is leftism. Eventually, if all goes 'well', the leftist apparatus can become a zombie-lord of awesome power, as putrid legions of the demented and dysfunctional thrill to the pulse of its drip-feed. Who could fail to be inspired by such moral majesty?
One can also distinguish between modern, liberal- or liberaltarian-flavored Progressivism and the older "fellow traveller" totalitarian-friendly version. Eugen Richter took the view that socialism didn't get corrupted by power or adverse selection. It was "born bad". It's original supporters started out as totalitarian "idealists" (I would say, "criminally insane power freaks") who knew exactly where they were headed from the start. Some Progressives were okay with this and some weren't.
Recall Moldbug's essay, "What if there's no such thing as chaotic good?" I agree that chaotic good quickly degenerates into evil, but we are still left with both chaotic evil and lawful evil. Bad polity leads to a rationalization hamster jailbreak (chaotic evil). The Gramscian "long march through the institutions" doesn't have to engage in active indoctrination in order to lead normal people into bad behavior. All the "parasite" has to do is displace and passively disable the "symbiont", the pre-existing traditional systems of moral education that train people to resist the hamster. But we can also easily have lawful evil: sound organizational frameworks with bad people in them. This may or may not quickly degenerate into chaotic evil.
Units of analysis
Let's go back to Moldbug's claims that "democracy and communism are two forms of the same disease" and that "progressivism ... is no more than a synonym for communism." It's easy to get people to agree that X is a subset of Y when we don't care if they agree on what X and Y are. There are too many different versions of all these things, democracy, progressivism, and communism, for these statements to mean much. Progressivism in particular seems like the AIDS virus. It mutates so fast that it seems impossible to make any firm statements about it.
Moldbug's original crypto-Calvinism thesis thus strikes me as being almost too incoherent to rebut. Is communism the form of democracy that we don't have, yet which is to blame for everything that has gone wrong for the last 400 years? His argument is too full of fallacies of ambiguity. Furthermore, his arguments are based on points of doctrine (e.g. the futility of violence) that are too superficial, ephemeral, or full of malarky, to be taken seriously. It's like trying to understand aerodynamics by studying aircraft camouflage paint schemes.
Nick Land has been defending a version of the crypto-Calvinism thesis, but it's significantly different. If I understand correctly, Land is agnostic on the question of whether democracy is necessarily a bad thing. Is there a long-term tendency for democracy to lead to a rationalization hamster jailbreak? Maybe, but this is not proven, and the relationship is far from being an identity. The relationship between communism and progressivism is not an identity, either. He writes,
Quick and dirty answer: every culture has its own road to communism, so — yes — progressivism has to be a distinctive one (marked by Puritan themes of dissenting sectarianism).
Land's distinction makes a huge difference to me. He is dropping the parts of "communism" that fit least well with Christianity and keeping parts that fit best. I'll add this to my list of amendments to the crypto-Calvinism thesis to make it seem less unreasonable to me.
I want to say just a bit more in defense of my "state vector" metaphor, as opposed to the cladistic metaphor. There are two reasons why horizontal gene transfer (Nydwracu's "creolization") is such a problem in religion. One reason is that many of the important ideas that churches are trying to promote are credence goods, which they promote largely by creating an illusion on consensus. These illusions of consensus are hard to maintain in the face of neighbors who are trying to create opposing illusions of consensus. They tend to interfere with one another. The most prestigious side tends to win. This is usually the side the government is on, unless the government screws up really badly.
The other problem is membership flux in religious and political institutions. People quit one church and join another, bringing their old ideas with them. Arguably, the unit of analysis we're looking at should be the individual meme, not the church denomination. A church may be more like an ecosystem, one pond among many that is frequented by boaters. The boaters often come bearing gifts of zebra mussels and water hyacinths from neighboring ponds. We should be drawing cladograms for zebra mussels, not for ponds.
If we take the cladistic analysis seriously, Progressivism and Christianity are supposed to be like humans and chimpanzees. They're not supposed to be able to interbreed. And yet "conservative" Christians keep adopting Progressive political positions. It's as if female chimpanzees starting growing breasts because of too much fraternizing with humans. Other metaphors — the state vector, the hermit crab, or the Chinese menu — seem much more realistic to me.
But I don't think excessive amounts of horizontal gene transfer is really my problem with the evolution metaphor (cladistics). Whether the evolution metaphor or the hermit crab metaphor is more appealing to you will depend on whether you think the similarities between Christianity and Progressivism are more important or less important than the differences. I think my problem is that essential bits of "Christianity" seem to have been dropped. It's like leaving the butter out of my mother's recipe for chicken stuffing. Some critical ingredient is missing that, in the case of religion, makes the difference between a symbiont and a parasite. I'm trying to identify the missing pieces. The death of God is part of the problem, but it's not just God. Several Eastern religions seem to do fine without God. But in the new, Progressive replacement for Christianity, some critical part in the moral machinery is broken.
Update: James A. Donald offers a cancer model of leftism. I propose a wolf in sheep's clothing model as a complement to the hermit crab model (pre- and post-death of God). Nick Land explains the main motivation for cladistics as "getting beyond crude condescension viz Puritanism. This dispels the fake (cheap) detachment of the Neoreactionary critique. Outsideness has to be earned."