While reading this article about the trendy socialism among New York City’s “creative underclass,” I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. Then I realized it wasn’t that I’d read the article before; it was that Eric Hoffer had already summed it up much more succinctly in his book The Ordeal of Change: “Nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status.”
extraordinary popular delusions
I would think it obvious that it is essential to human equilibrium and a true engagement with reality to acknowledge that tragedy is the defining part of human life and to accept the limits (and opportunities) this imposes, both individual and political. The effort to deny tragedy was among the fundamental factors responsible for what happened in the twentieth century. Utopianism defies tragedy—and fails.
Two of the individuals most important to my discussion, T. E. Lawrence and Vladimir Peniakoff, found a kind of serenity in resolute acceptance of and engagement with the violence in our nature, deriving from it what I would call the only true solution, the classical one, identified by Aristotle as the pursuit of virtue, the only proper pursuit for a human being.
Such is an uncomfortable route toward a solution since it demands individual self-examination and renounces the consoling ideologies and utopian illusions of a collective resolution of the human problem. Virtue is an all but totally ignored conception today, when narcissism and the (futile) pursuit of self-esteem are the prevailing counterfeits of individual worth and achievement, with death denied in the search for the therapy of immortality.
— William Pfaff, The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia
Pfaff identifies the First World War as the cataclysmic event in which the old certainties were shattered. Since then, we’ve been frantically pawing through the shards, trying to piece them back together, creating various grotesqueries in the process. He also notes the role simple boredom, a frivolous longing for “something interesting,” played in the destruction. A century later, in the midst of unprecedented affluence, other bored people, needing something stronger than video games, prefer to live-action-role-play as Nazis and Communists to make their lives seem significant. As George Santayana said, that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to: strutting and roaring. The alternative, humility, is more painful than battle.
It can be hard, though, to accept that morality motivates violence. Maybe there’s something wrong with thinking of violence as moral. Isn’t the point of morality to care for people, or at least not hurt them?
We are told that a “surprising new scientific theory explains why morality leads to violence.” It turns out that people are willing to be violent over the things they care most deeply about, especially if those things are considered rare and irreplaceable. I suppose this is “surprising” to anyone raised in a Skinner box, unacquainted with the great philosopher-poets who already addressed this inherent shapeshifting, transitory, mysterious nature of life long ago:
“How could anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? Or the will to truth out of the will to deception? Or selfless action out of self-interest? Or the pure sunlike gaze of the sage out of covetousness? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, even worse; the things of the highest value must have another, separate origin of their own—they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, lowly world, from this turmoil of delusion and desire! Rather from the lap of being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself ‘—there must be their basis, and nowhere else!”— This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudice by which the metaphysicians of all ages can be recognized; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this “belief” that they trouble themselves about “knowledge,” about something that is finally christened solemnly as “the truth.” The fundamental belief of the metaphysicians is the belief in oppositions of values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them to raise doubts right here at the threshold where it is surely most necessary: even if they vowed to themselves, “de omnibus dubitandum.” For one may doubt, first, whether there are any opposites at all, and second, whether these popular valuations and opposite values on which the metaphysicians put their seal, are not perhaps merely foreground estimates, only provisional perspectives, perhaps even from some nook, perhaps from below, frog perspectives, as it were, to borrow an expression painters use? For all the value that the true, the truthful, the selfless may deserve, it would still be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to appearance, the will to deception, self-interest, and desire. It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things—maybe even one with them in essence. Perhaps! — But who has the will to concern himself with such dangerous Perhapses!
Yet another reason why many of the arts must rate as unsatisfactory forms of knowledge in the twentieth century stems from the modernist reliance on the theories of Freud… for example, if Freud was so wrong, as I and many others believe, where does that leave any number of novels and virtually the entire corpus of surrealism, Dada, and certain major forms of expressionism and abstraction, not to mention Richard Strauss’s ‘Freudian’ operas such as Salome and Elektra, and the iconic novels of numerous writers, including D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Virginia Woolf? It doesn’t render these works less beautiful or pleasurable, necessarily, but it surely dilutes their meaning. They don’t owe their entire existence to psychoanalysis. But if they are robbed of a large part of their meaning, can they retain their intellectual importance and validity? Or do they become period pieces? I stress the point because the novels, paintings and operas referred to above have helped to popularise and legitimise a certain view of human nature, one that is, all evidence to the contrary lacking, wrong.
[Speaking of my friend Arthur, I found an old email chain in my archives where we were discussing this excerpt, and one of his responses, I felt, deserved to be printed as an essay in its own right. So, allow me to take a seat and turn the microphone over to him]:
How can he lump Salome and Elektra together? Salome’s libretto is taken word-for-word from Wilde’s play of 1891. No Freud there. And to see Elektra as simply Freud set to music is absurdly reductive. Freud aside, it’s the music that made it a sensation at the time, inspiring Schoenberg to make his first serious experiments with atonal expressionism, and it’s the music that keeps it in the repertoire to this day.
And Surrealism, really? If you stop taking the theories of Freud seriously you no longer find anything of interest in the early works of Dali, or in de Chirico, or Magritte? How philistine an idea! It’s as if Watson looked at the melting watch in Dali’s painting and thought: “Just a phallic symbol, totally refuted and outdated.” Insofar as Freud brought both sex and dreams to the foreground in persuasive ways, he liberated the artistic imaginations of these artists. He told them to dream, and in dreams anything can happen. Watson seems to think that because the Surrealists were inspired by Freud, their dreams must be Freudian, and since Freud was wrong, their dreams are wrong. How stupid is that?
Also, his historical perspective is drastically foreshortened. According to this reasoning, Homer should have lost his literary mojo because the Greek Pantheon has been deconstructed as a bunch of myths. Come to think of it, wasn’t the first deconstructionist a guy named Plato? And how many times has Plato been “refuted?” And yet we still read both of them, and they both embody our ideas of what great poetry and great philosophy are. (Plato I tend to think of as half-poet, half-philosopher, and his readability accounts for his perennial hold on us: he’s basically writing philosophical drama, with plenty of wit and irony, and invented urbanity in literature as we know it. He remains strangely modern for these reasons, but not only for these reasons. His ideas still have a hold.
There are still mathematicians who think of numbers as real but ideal entities in a way that affirms Plato and his Ideal Forms to a surprising extent. Philip Ball in Aeon queries the infatuation of physicists with the “beauty” of a theory as a mark of its truth (most notably, perhaps, Einstein). He writes:
This is partly because their field has always been heir to Platonism – the mystical conviction of an orderly cosmos. Such a belief is almost a precondition for doing physics in the first place: what’s the point in looking for rules unless you believe they exist? The MIT physicist Max Tegmark now goes so far as to say that mathematics constitutes the basic fabric of reality, a claim redolent of Plato’s most extreme assertions in Timaeus. [Maybe Pythagoras should have been given a mention here!]
Even if you think Plato is the bunk, he is still so pervasive an influence on Western literature from St. Augustine to Hegel and Shelley to Derrida, who picked on him not just for the shits and giggles but because he recognized him as the source of transcendental idealism which Derrida himself insisted he was working in the tradition of, you’d have to perform a massive cauterization of the Canon if you believe that whatever was written under his influence automatically renders it obsolete.
Kafka? He is way beyond Freud, and I suspect that much of what Watson identifies as Freudianism in his work is ultimately Judaic. Freud made much of Oedipus, but his obsession with the father-figure and the son’s revolt against him is archetypally Judaic, as Harold Bloom is well aware. (He’s built his entire theory of poetic influence on the Judeo-Oedipus complex, with the help of Wrestling Sigmund.) As such, Freudianism’s moral and metaphysical underpinnings have a lot in common with Christianity, which is also about revolt, punishment, and the Father; after all, it’s a break-away Jewish sect. This isn’t to say that Freud wasn’t a severe critic of his own people. As you know, he claimed that Moses was an outcast Egyptian priest who taught Akhenaten’s monotheism to a primitive Bedouin tribe called the Habiru, and his followers eventually murdered him. The Primal Horde, rising up against the Totem Father. But Freud’s arch-patriarchalism is obviously a Jewish inheritance that obsessed him and possessed him, and since Judaism and Christianity also form a complex called Judeo-Christian, in being Judaic he was also sounding a deep chord in the Christian psyche.
Yes, Christianity. Dante will have to go, and a lot of Shakespeare is contaminated by Christian ideas. Milton definitely has to go, and Blake’s work will need to be purged of its giant bolus of Jesuism and antinomian Christian mysticism before we can accept him into the Canon of literature-not-influenced-by-ideas-we-happen-not-to-like-as-of-this-writing.
This brings me to my major objection to Watson’s approach, which is that it is “history of ideas:” works of literature can be reduced to the leading intellectual trends of their day, they live and die by the concepts they merely illustrate or play little variations on. This is an insult to the artistic imagination. What a coarse-grained way of looking at, say, Kakfa! Great writers produce visions that survive ideologies that come and go, they have insights into the human psyche and human culture that are all their own, and often go against the grain of the “official” dogmas they ostensibly accept.
Once again, Dante. If there’s any poet who should have been cast on the rubbish heap of literary history, fit only for antiquarians and social historians, et al., it should be this angry little Florentine man. But he continues to tower, and always will, as long as people have the capacity to be affected by great imaginative literature. His poetic cosmology deviates significantly from Thomistic orthodoxy; he bends theology to his will. He almost ignores Christ. He revives the mother-goddess in the figure of Beatrice, and makes her so dominant a figure that she even blots out God, who is, after all, just a bunch of light. Not only that, Dante in the Paradiso all but proclaims his giant poem to be the Third Testament. On close inspection, the Divine Comedy is a heretical text. Its theology is based on Eros, and is ultimately personal, entirely Dante’s own private mythology, based on exalted puppy love. The Divine Comedy is the sequel to La Vita Nuova and clearly forecast as such at the end of that book. The DC is thus troubadour courtly love ramped up into a monstrous hyperpoem, with an entirely personal stamp. It is a medieval A la recherché du temp perdu: a successful attempt to recapture lost happiness and innocence through the exertion of an almost superhuman imagination. (Beatrice is that lost happiness, she is his Muse and his goddess.)
The DC is also an intellectual achievement far greater than the works of Aquinas, or at least far more durable: once again, the dogma dies, the trickster genius of artistic imagination lives on—I consider Nietzsche one of this species, which isn’t to say he isn’t also a philosopher. Catholic Seminarians excepted, for every 1,000 people who read Dante today, maybe three read Aquinas. And two of those are reading him to better understand Dante.
The Commedia got accepted by the Catholic Church because the Church had no choice: it had to claim as its own an intellectual achievement so powerful. Somewhat like The Song of Solomon, which is a collection of erotic folk-songs so beautiful, haunting, and poetically rich, even the Rabbis couldn’t bring themselves to exclude it from the Canon. A little allegorical tweaking, and in it goes.
Great poets survive ideological trends. Weak poets die with them.
What applies to Dante applies, on a lower level of course, to the writers cited by Watson. Kafka’s work is not “robbed of its meaning” by the obsolescence of Freudianism, it is far too weird and original, pre-Freudian and post-Freudian, for that. What galls me here is that uncomprehending and condescending assumption that artists are just wayward students of intellectuals—as if they were not themselves intellectuals, and highly independent and original ones, at that. (Inside every artist is an intellectual, the saying goes—but not vice-versa.) What bites my butt is the assumption that the kind of writing that wears a white coat or talks about wages and surplus value is the model of knowledge and adult thinking, while art is just what happens when the kids are let out into the playground at recess.
It is our hypnotized obedience to the discursive and our inability to understand that visionary literature is at least as powerful a form of knowledge as the kind claimed by social scientists, who are always being proven in retrospect neither all that scientific nor all that socially useful. Need I be more explicit about Freudian psychoanalysis and its great therapeutic effect on the psyches of its patients? I assume that Woody Allen, who clearly has benefited from the insights of his psychoanalyst, will take him with him into the Afterlife, where he can continue his talking cure into eternity.
Watson thinks of artists like Kafka as if they were versions of himself, i.e., academic scholars, whose work really does tend to grow obsolete as new facts come in. He has a parochial as well as a short-sighted-hindsight take on these things.
Not that I don’t believe there is a dimension that could be called timeless… I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m dipping into the Hermetic Corpus. Why the fuck not? It’s got some visionary stuff in it, and a poet who doesn’t at least take the visionary seriously is just a hipster.
Ultimately, it may all be gibberish. I think it’s from that starting point that Taoism and Zen Buddhism and maybe a lot of Western analogues take off. Isn’t Nagarjuna telling us that when you over-conceptualize the raw encounter that is Being, you end up with gibberish? You get mental cramp, as Wittgenstein put it, and maybe intestinal cramp as well. Hence the urgent need intellectuals feel to bullshit.
Finally, the similar delusion of our time remains the romance of science and its runt offspring, the social sciences, and their runt offspring, Critical Theory. According to my own argument, great literature should be able to absorb postmodernism and survive its obsolescence. Maybe the work of Ashbery and Foster Wallace will do that. Cormac McCarthy’s work may do that—but he’s: a Catholic. But at least as far as poets go, they either kiss the ass of academic theorists in a way that shows a total lack of respect for the power of their own art, plus a total lack of originality; or they have revived Victorian goody-goody moralism, in the form of politically correct whining about their own marginalization—or they just masturbate in print, with no thought or care for poetry as a craft. It just comes out of their narcissistic psyches the way shit comes out of a cow’s ass.
Hegel famously said that if we thought of the succession of philosophers that constitute the philosophical tradition as merely refuted and obsolete, “the history of philosophy would become a graveyard.” He chose rather to see Heraclitus, Plato, even Jacob Boeme (whom he called “the first German philosopher”) as having seen a part of the truth, but not the total picture. Thus they were neither wrong nor right, but part of an evolution toward the absolute truth of spirit which he modestly explained was accurately understood for the first time in his philosophy and embodied in the Prussian state. (What an ass-kisser!) Never mind that part. What I’m getting at is that even here Watson is a bit off: neither Freud nor Marx is entirely refuted or obsolete, they did make contributions to our understanding of the unconscious depths of our psyches and our plight as socioeconomic beings, and are for better or worse now part of Western, and world, history.
But both were true believers in the ideology of science, materialism. Marx tried to separate himself from positivism by mixing in re-tooled Hegelian Idealism, but he remained in essential agreement with the positivist position from the Enlightenment thinkers through Smith and Ricardo that man is homo economicus, and nothing but the sum of his material needs and pleasures, which might include dabbling in a little art now and then. In the absence of God and any ecclesiastical authority, humans were to forge their own destiny, through the science of political economy, the applied science of technology and its modes and means of production, and the applied violence of Revolution. But this optimistic voluntarism was and is undermined by science’s positivistic determinism, or dialectical-materialist determinism. (And as I’ve noted before, learning from Campbell, there is an ancient mythical archetype behind even the most seemingly scientific and sophisticated schemes of reformists and revolutionaries, especially in their Utopianism. It is the Zoroastrian archetype of history as religiously charged with dramatic meaning, where one must either fight for the Darkness or the Light, and where, finally, at the end of history, the forces of (en)light(enment) win out and all conflict ceases.
The religion of scientism consists in reducing what is living to what is dead. Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a physical organ, the brain, which runs on electrobiochemical energy, which can be reduced to inorganic atoms and finally quarks. In the end we are all dead, goes the old saying. But we have created a fully-functional universe of death for the living. I think Freud had some good ideas. One of them was the death-drive. Of course he derived it from a materialist premise, that all animate matter strives for a simpler, more peaceful inanimate state. (While all the while evolving through propagation: that’s Eros or the pleasure principle.) He saw repetition-compulsion, in the wake of the trauma of World War II, as the death-drive in operation, an anti-creative impulse to become as mechanical as possible, to shut down, to become an automaton. I can’t help seeing our present plight under a profoundly materialist, cynical and greedy capitalist system as a crisis of the death-drive. In other words, just as animate matter longs for the restful rigidity of a stone, we in America long for the restful rigidity of Singapore.
As Mark Slouka puts it so well, we don’t want to be citizens anymore, we want to be employees. We are committing suicide as thinking, imagining, potentially unruly because individualistic beings for the sacred cause of maintaining our economic power against increasing competition. This is where bottom-line thinking ultimately leads: to the sacrifice of civil society to the corporate state, and the sacrifice of real diversity on the altar of an ideology of Diversity. Fine, we need to keep up with the competition, we don’t want to see the world dominated by China, but not if that means becoming more like China—or gentler little-brother Singapore.
We were once a place capable of producing Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau. Now we’re a rudderless, witless superpower undermined by 16 consecutive years of corrupt and incompetent leadership, and our cultural hero is Bill Gates, and the question that the universities of this great land put to themselves in all seriousness is: how fast can we get rid of the Humanities so that we can turn out the kind of person Bill Gates would hire? Our universities are turning into vocational schools. Seventy percent of the required reading in the Core Curriculum is non-fiction. Why? Because kids need to be exposed to the kind of things they’ll be reading in their cube farms. The short-sighted circularity of bottom-line thinking, enshrined in the curricula of our nation’s schools…
We are losing our humanity because we no longer believe there’s such a thing (insofar as it includes consciousness and imagination and mystical possibilities open to saints, poets, acid-heads and schizophrenics, and oh, maybe a kind of soul, but that only refers to an outdated Motown style). The irony of the movie AI is that human technology is so advanced that it can program humanity into a robot, but the programmers themselves have lost theirs. And somehow the Faustian technological ambition that finally “succeeds” seems to be part of the reason why the humans’ own humanity fails. This is a parable and an omen.
Yet Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence belongs strangely to the realm of metaphysics and dualism. Its fatalism and determinism contradicts Nietzsche’s exhortation for each of us to become our own masters and to become who we truly are.
West characterizes Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence — live your life as if it will recur again and again eternally, down to the tiniest detail — as “basic self-help stuff.” Self-help, of course, is universally scorned among the media clerisy and the sorts of intellectuals who write books about Nietzsche. It supposedly presents simplistic solutions to complex problems and reduces great art to raw material to be mined by the self-centered for banal “life lessons” — all of which is largely true, even if the scorn is overdone for status-signaling purposes. But I had to laugh at the irony here of West presenting Nietzsche as if he were the slightest bit interested in “each of us” becoming our own masters. He wasn’t. I dare say that this middle-class perspective, for lack of a more precise term, of viewing everyone as more or less on the same moral level, of failing to recognize a genuinely 19th-century aristocratic attitude even as it looks haughtily down its nose at you, is just as much a failure of imagination as anything found in the self-help section of a bookstore. What, you think Nietzsche would have been anything other than repulsed by Spiked magazine and its paint-by-numbers pretensions to be the true voice of the democratic libertarian masses? Ah, right, yes, you probably do.
Nietzsche seemed to hint that Goethe came closest to embodying his ideal of the Ubermensch, a man who “disciplined himself to wholeness,” “a spirit who has become free.” He took it for granted that geniuses like Goethe (or himself) came along once every couple centuries or so, and the best the rest of us could do would be to prepare the conditions where such higher types could flourish. They represent the mountain peaks of human existence; most of us spend our unimportant lives down in the valleys. Their work will endure for millennia like the pyramids; the individual slaves who toiled to lay the stonework are justly forgotten. Who could be so ridiculous as to imagine that the ordinary everyman could rise en masse up to the level of a Goethe or Aristotle? Who could generate an incoherent fantasy of human excellence improving cumulatively and indefinitely? Certainly not Nietzsche. For that, you need the stupendous foolishness of a Trotsky. And who could still be so foolish as to lionize a loathsome man who was every bit as monstrous as his fellow Bolsheviks? Ah, right, Spiked magazine. Suddenly, it all makes sense. From the aristocratic heights of Nietzschean philosophy to the fetid swamps of doctrinaire Marxism, it seems that no matter where the self-absorbed Spiked mindset goes, there it finds…itself. How strangely bourgeois!
It is fair to say that the past decade has not been kind to this vision of electronic community, for reasons that were entirely predictable. When Barlow proclaimed that “we are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” it does not appear to have occurred to him that some people might use this freedom of expression to coerce, harass, or silence other people. Thus, the Internet quickly became infested with all of the same sorts of obnoxious people that exist in the “real world,” such as racists, bigots and sexists, not to mention team-killers, smacktards, cyberstalkers and other “griefers” all too willing to invade privacy, steal identities, harass ex-girlfriends or co-workers and generally make life miserable for other people. Worse, they are able to do so by taking advantage of the very features that were supposed to make cyberspace such a utopia: no laws, barriers or borders, no government or police and almost perfect anonymity. The results confirmed Gresham’s law of cyberspace: bad talk drives out good.
— Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture
This is one of my favorite books. I included it on my list of books that have shaped my worldview. The Lady of the House has heard me refer to it so many times over the years that she finally decided to read it herself. On last week’s trips to Ohio and D.C., she brought it along and read her favorite bits out loud, followed by pauses for discussion. I know reading is largely pictured and practiced as a solitary activity, but you get a lot more out of a book when you read as a team. The conversation helps more of it to stick in your memory.
At any rate, this was published in 2004, which makes its pre-Web 2.0 prescience even more striking. In this excerpt, Heath and Potter were referencing Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which, they accurately noted, “reeks of bongwater.” But jokes aside, let’s spare a moment for people who used to think like this. Imagine what a cataclysmic disaster 2016 must have been for them. It’s often said that an old European way of life, with all its dreams and promises, was brutally murdered in the trenches of Verdun and the Somme; a century later, the, uh, “trenches” of the web were likewise filled with the smoldering wreckage of utopian hopes and the mangled remains of naïve early adopters. Twitter was being blamed for providing a platform to help Trump to the presidency, Facebook was excoriated for corroding the distinction between news, gossip and conspiracy theories, and social media in general had become largely associated with ominous, dystopian data-harvesting schemes and virulent mob behavior. Two years further on, and rather than the global agora filled with philosophical conversation that the founders envisioned, social media can be fairly described as a giant kennel full of Pavlov’s dogs, with Trump as the bell.
For tragic skeptics like myself, all of this was indeed entirely predictable. It seems too obvious to need saying, but any future developments in society can only be built on, or extended from, what already exists. That includes flawed human beings and all their ignoble, contradictory motives for action. There never will be a form of social, technological or political alchemy that will produce a purified form of human nature without all the dross of its past. If you promised to build a third floor of a building that can support itself on thin air and doesn’t require a foundation or two supporting floors, you would be rightly thought insane, but if you promise that a new political arrangement or a new gadget will make people behave in predictably benevolent ways, you’ll be hailed as a visionary. In a couple decades, you can expect to find people similarly shocked by the unintended consequences of gene editing. And on and on it goes.
On the other hand, the policy agenda favored by nearly everyone on the American left resembles more than anything else the political, social, and economic arrangements that prevail in northern Europe, and especially in Denmark. Is Denmark a socialist country? If it is, then there is no meaningful distinction between socialism and liberal democracy — at least when the liberal democracy has a generous welfare state and a modestly regulated, mixed market economy. Given the political history of the United States, doesn’t it make more sense for the left to understand itself, and to explain itself to voters, by making connections with the Democratic Party’s own record of advocating for just such an expansive form of liberalism (rather than “socialism”)?
What the left really seems to want is a return to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — a New Deal 2.0 for the 21st century.
Well, yes. To the extent that the American left can be said to have any serious ideas and proposals for achieving their objectives, as opposed to a vague collection of postures and grievances, it seems clear that they’re motivated by nostalgia for the decades between the New Deal and the Great Society. Of course, those golden years produced a generation of spoiled brats who were convinced that they had grown up in a tyrannical dystopia that needed to be burnt to the ground, so, given that human nature hasn’t dramatically changed in the meantime, I’m not sure why people think we’d be any more likely to appreciate a reinvigorated welfare state this time around. Still, though, it’s true that most of the inane chatter about “socialism” is either fear-mongering or status-signaling. The invasive managerial state grows in tandem with technological sophistication toward a Brave New World future regardless of which party is in power. Like generals fighting the last war, political junkies rehash century-old arguments over socialism and laissez-faire as if it’s relevant. Even the wispy fantasy of a Danish-style social democracy dissipates on contact with cultural and demographic realities.
Yet, as Kristian Niemietz has observed on his side of the ocean, people who used to claim to only want to see their society become a little more like Scandinavia or Germany have held a finger to the prevailing cultural winds and started signaling their affinity for something more extreme. (Thankfully, we seem to be behind the trend over here.) Sure, Owen Jones and most of his fellow Guardianistas have always been fatuous fools. And sure, despite the fact that it would be impossible to imagine teen and ladies‘ fashion outlets fawning over anyone who proudly proclaimed herself on TV to be a national socialist (“I’m literally a Nazi, you idiot!”), it’s also clear that Sarkar is embarrassingly ignorant about what she’s actually saying; she’s only bright enough to recognize a high-status opinion that will win her praise from her peers. But slippery slopes have to start somewhere, and the bromides that pass for received wisdom among cultural elites seems like as good a place as any. Why are we, especially those of us who don’t believe in any sort of Whiggish progression to history, supposed to rest assured that experiments with extreme leftism could never happen again?
Which brings us to the real point — as Jordan Peterson was recently wondering, what is the limiting principle of the left? How far is too far in pursuit of equality? Why do so many people still believe in some Platonic ideal of “true” socialism, existing outside of space and time, independent of all the failed attempts made on Earth to realize it? Why are we supposed to believe that a New Deal 2.0 would be enough, and not a springboard for a renewed drive to eliminate all inequalities? Regardless of how overblown the rhetoric surrounding socialism may be in our political environment, one can still be wary of the unreconstructed left-wing longing for utopia. Too bad our fellow travelers never had to go through the equivalent of denazification after the fall of the USSR.
The forces that Berners-Lee unleashed nearly three decades ago are accelerating, moving in ways no one can fully predict. And now, as half the world joins the Web, we are at a societal inflection point: Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?
This comes near the end of an article about the unintended consequences of Tim Berners-Lee’s invention. You’d think maybe we might have learned something from the utopian predictions that accompanied each stage of the web’s evolution up to this point, but apparently not. In 1994, I heard people telling me how we’d all be able to access the Library of Congress whenever we wanted. In 2011, I heard people telling me how social media was helping to overthrow tyrants and usher in the slightly-delayed End of History. It turns out that most people used the web to indulge in porn rather than expand their minds, and social media is now being blamed for making the arc of history pull a sharp U-turn. And yet, the faith that flawed humans will finally invent a method or a machine that will somehow transcend the conflicted nature of its creators and solve all problems forever remains undimmed. You know that Solzhenitsyn quote about the line between good and evil running through the heart of each individual? It’s true, which is why wherever we go from here, there we will be. Either/or? No, both/and. On and on forever.
Regardless of whether they identify as “cisgender” or “transgender,” the activists promote a highly subjective and incoherent worldview. On the one hand, they claim that the real self is something other than the physical body, in a new form of Gnostic dualism, yet at the same time they embrace a materialist philosophy in which only the material world exists. They say that gender is purely a social construct, while asserting that a person can be “trapped” in the wrong body. They say there are no meaningful differences between man and woman, yet they rely on rigid sex stereotypes to argue that “gender identity” is real while human embodiment is not. They claim that truth is whatever a person says it is, yet they believe there’s a real self to be discovered inside that person. They promote a radical expressive individualism in which people are free to do whatever they want and define the truth however they wish, yet they try to enforce acceptance of transgender ideology in a paternalistic way.
— Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment
The early twentieth-century French writer Charles Péguy wrote, “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” While reading Anderson’s book, I was reminded of that line along with a former reader who used to email me to confess his heretical thoughts on the transgender dogma then starting to take rigid shape on lefty social media. I would chuckle at the desperate way he would always hasten to preface his remarks by stressing that of course he wasn’t saying that trans people should be beaten up or discriminated against by law. There’s a satisfying poetic justice in seeing progressives haunted by their own strawmen.
Of course, he was right to be worried about the social consequences of being found harboring thought-criminals in the attic of his head, even if he was slow to connect the dots and realize that the progressive desire to always appear in the vanguard on “the right side of history,” to maintain a constant posture of indulgent, nonjudgmental acceptance toward “victims” of the conformist, middle-American booboisie, is precisely the Achilles heel being exploited by radical activists. Even Anderson goes out of his way to stress repeatedly that transgender individuals and activists are almost always two different groups with different aims, and the former deserve nothing but compassion and respect. That does nothing to prevent the NYT from soliciting an op-ed contributor to brazenly lie about the book, naturally. You can have the progressive oppression narrative when you pry it from their cold, dead hands.
If you set aside the citations of studies which make up the bulk of the book, you’re left with what should be a fairly mild assertion, that transgenderism is better understood and treated as a disorder akin to anorexia, not as the latest logical extension of the sexual revolution. Accepting that, though, would mean that progressives would have to stop portraying all critics of “progress” as mindless, reactionary denizens of Pleasantville, and honestly, they’ve been leaning on that crutch for so long, I imagine their muscles have atrophied. They would have to stop reenacting culture wars against the skeletal remnants of the Religious Right and acknowledge that the transgender political project is part of an insatiable, subjective assault on the very concept of a shared, objective reality which will inevitably target them as well as “deserving” enemies. They might even have to admit that there isn’t a clear, bright line between “campus radicalism” and “the real world.” I’m not optimistic about any of those scenarios, so I assume cowardice and dishonesty will continue to be the S.O.P.
We have become obsessed with economic equality at the expense of economic growth. Inequality is said to be the transcendent issue of our time. Yet a society that is rich and unequal still beats one that is poor and equal any day of the week.
I don’t know about “transcendent,” but it sure is ubiquitous, at least. I long ago passed through the semantic satiation stage; now, I think I’m in the learned helplessness phase, where I can’t even react to the pain of hearing progressives yammering incessantly and nonsensically about income inequality; I just lay on the floor of my cage and tremble and whimper as if there’s no escape.
In slogan form, the argument often takes shape as a distinction between equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Exasperated, progressives will retort that they’re not demanding equality of outcome; it’s just that there’s no true equality of opportunity as long as there is structural inequality, i.e. privilege. Many will approvingly quote Anatole France’s famous snark about how the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges and steal loaves of bread. Dig, if you will, the picture of society engaged in a race. The progressive perspective is that “equality of opportunity” still allows too many people to have a significant, even insurmountable, head start through “unearned” advantages. The only way the race can be made truly fair is to bring everyone back to the same starting line. Of course, doing so would entail the very same socioeconomic leveling that progressives insist they’re not aiming for. Equality of outcome by a different name — imposing it “before” rather than “after” the race. And let’s be honest — assuming such “true” equality of opportunity was even achievable, why would you fire the starting pistol and allow the same old inequalities to begin asserting themselves again? Are we supposed to believe that our former devotees of equality, possessing the power to eliminate disparities, would suddenly just shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, we ensured absolutely fair starting conditions, so it’s all up to individual skill and desire now. Whatever happens, happens. Let the best man win.”?
William Voegeli accurately noted that no matter how much the welfare state continues to grow (even under Republican administrations), progressives always insist it’s never enough. More specifically, they never make any attempt to quantify what “enough” might finally look like, or how we would recognize it when we get there. How much GDP is the redistributive state entitled to consume? How many new programs do we need? At what point might we factor in that human beings are never satisfied and always complaining no matter what? A cynic might suspect that such vagueness is the entire point, that it’s all about procuring blank checks and ever-increasing administrative power for you and your party by constantly stoking and inflaming moral outrage. No, it’s not that there’s a danger of progressives actually gaining enough power and ability to eliminate all the privileges and talents that give some people an automatic head start in life; it’s that to the extent that such ahistorical fantasies are relentlessly pursued by people too stupid to recognize them as fantasies, they can still cause an awful lot of damage.