Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Catholicism, the Cult of Progress, and the Alt-Right (Part 2 of 3)

A lot of smart people are raised without any particular religion. Perhaps you are one of them. Or maybe you were raised religious as a child, and have since opened your mind and left. (Since religious people produce most of the children, you are more likely to fall into the latter category.) In either case you may feel, consciously or unconsciously, very reluctant to discard Progress—and understandably so. After losing the purpose given to you by religion, Progress has given you a reason to live. It’s centered your thinking. The liberal way of seeing things has provided you with immuno-responses against extreme ideologies—including racist, anarchist, and violent ones. But you should be aware that there are other sources of these benefits, even outside the Western tradition. Buddhist meditation presupposes no metaphysical unprovables, and trains your mind to quiet itself, which gives strong immunity against ideas or memes run amok. Learning formal mathematics, as Plato asked his disciples to do, can also give you more control of your thinking, and gives you rational tools for contemplating the abstract realm of ideas. You can learn prayer from the New Testament or from any Muslim or Hindu. (There must be a reason prayer is so common in traditional, that is, long-lived societies. In fact, its health benefits have even been measured.) Just as important is to read ancient, living texts, also known as classics or great books. Being old is not enough. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest texts that still survive, but it is dead. It wasn’t passed down to us by monks copying old crumbling manuscripts for generations. Rather, some archaeologists found it on buried clay tablets; it’s almost literally a fossil. Its myths no longer live on in the popular consciousness, as do Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. There must be something more profound about the latter. The Tao Te Ching is an even younger text, yet its impact has been equally great. Personally, I prefer the Bible, as interpreted by modern Christianity, as my source of bedrock values. It’s my heritage. I was raised on it. Reading it helped save me from endless, pointless, abyssal philosophizing. It re-centered me.

Don’t worry. Christianity may be an irrational germ, but it’s not a Bad Germ. It’s a Good Germ.

We used to all know this. Lacking all religion, that is atheism, used to be seen as an unhealthy thing. The source of modern anxiety is really Progressivism, which has given us an idol—material prosperity for all—that we now hold as the greatest good in the world. Progress has become our exclusive object of worship, to the neglect of older and healthier ideals.

Having materialistic idols is a common thing for powerful empires like ours. The Romans, to a large extent, worshiped Rome itself. It deified its emperors. The gods it had inherited from the Greeks its poets made still more violent, selfish, capricious, and rapacious. It worshiped them as idols, and even imported idolatrous cults from other nations. Babylon, Sumeria, Egypt—all the same story. Worship became an entertaining pastime; power itself (not even love, though this can also become an idol) was often the primary object of admiration. This is all part of the phenomenon conservative thinkers call “decadence,” that is, the disintegration of culture, becoming spoiled by one’s own success.

We are indeed becoming spoiled by our own (temporary, materialistic) success. There’s a reason the Bible warns against seeking wealth, worshiping physical idols, and discarding spiritual tradition. When a culture seeks wealth and worldly goods, and abolishes spirituality, all its striving is thrown at things that are imperfect, fleeting, unworthy, and often impossible for this world. Unless you have a higher ideal you are quite simply setting your sights too low. You get leaders who want nothing but money or power or fame. You get a populace that is selfish and greedy rather than unselfish and idealistic. You get cynicism rather than hope. There is a reason that religions like Christianity have won out again and again. And that reason is that they teach you to meditate on and strive toward the ideal good, that is, the Good, that is, God. Read some Catholic theology and see that God is not anything like an existing material being, but is rather an immaterial, infinite, ultimate Ideal that transcends all human experience. By praying to God, that is, meditating on the Good (which is what even Plato, Confucius, Lao Tzu and all the great philosophers taught) you center yourself in what your instincts and your tradition have passed down to you as the best way to be, whether you want to describe that goodness in terms of evolution (for these doctrines are well-tested by evolution), or material success (for the holy texts teach that goodness does tend to bring prosperity), or in terms of Godliness itself, the last of which is ultimately the best and least materialistic way to look at it.


With that immuno-boost, if you absolutely refuse to call it a faith-boost, we are ready to take an excursion into the ugliest, swampiest part of our ideological jungle, get our hands mucky, and face down some petty memetic demons. (All demons are petty by nature, being materialistic, i.e. short-sighted. Lets put some glasses on them.)

Many have come this way before, heretics fleeing the decayed Temple of Progress, lacking sometimes even sword or shield or armor or antibiotics to protect them. Among the most famous of these (at least for the last 15 minutes or so) are the members of that infamous excursion party known most commonly as “Neoreaction,” the “Dark Enlightenment,” or the “Alt-Right.”

But why do we care to follow their trail? It leads through some excessively difficult and dangerous swamps: the Bog of Biological Differences among Races and Sexes; the Marsh of Memetic Frogs; the Haunted Ruins of Absolute Monarchy; the Fen of Frustrated Fascism Fascination; etc.

We care, well, because everybody seems to care, whether positively or negatively. Hillary Clinton has found them important enough to publicly denounce them. Meanwhile, the Alt-Right is recruiting stray conservatives in droves, especially young nerds, and it’s got them working on some huge projects. It’s trying to drain the whole region, known collectively as the Swamp of Old-School, I Mean Really-Old-School, I Mean Dead-and-Gone Fossil-Species Conservatism. It’s been submerged for ages, but they might even succeed, especially if that up-and-coming Conquistador, good old Donny “I Didn’t Say That” Trump, becomes the next president and their biggest sponsor.

Also: there are some incredibly intelligent people on the Alt-Right. You might even call them philosophers. Some of what they say is inspired and even true. Some of it is merely partisan. Some of it is virulent.
I hope you’ll forgive me that off-the-wall preface. I’m not sure how else to summarize the meaning of such an uncentered movement.

I’d like to give a fair assessment. Being fair is essential in this case because fairness, as it so happens, is exactly what has been lacking in how Progressives have been reacting to the Alt-Right, and vice versa. Dialogue has broken down, and with it our ability to reliably distinguish the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of these various ideological organisms.

The Alt-Right is not a unified movement. It includes everything from atheistic neo-Nazis to fundamentalist Catholic monarchists to apocalyptic ultra-capitalists. Some of them have said that what unites them is an opposition to what they perceive as the unconstitutional tyranny of political correctness. They just want the freedom to be honest about their views about sex, race, and class. Others have said that all that unites them is an opposition to mainstream conservatism. But this can’t be right because that makes me automatically Alt-Right, as well as this guy, who rightly challenges the assertion. Because from what I can tell the Alt-Right does have something more specific that unites them. This common thread is the philosophy of Mencius Moldbug as expounded on his blog Unqualified Reservations. Moldbug believes that democracy is rotten to the core, a brain parasite (he uses such terms) and that it should be surgically removed so we can finally see the truth of absolute monarchy, particularly of the Jacobite sort from 17th-century England.

If you’ve never heard of this before you’re going to wonder: Why bother? It’s obviously crazy, right? Well, yes and no. There was a time when Nietzsche was considered obviously crazy. But he’s had a huge impact. Moldbug’s philosophizing is in fact so carefully analytical and in a twisted way fun that you can’t help but hear him through and try to figure him out. (Don’t believe me? CAUTION: ingest at your own risk.

Moldbug’s thesis includes the correct ideas that Progress is an illusion and civilization is in decline. Such truths are dangerous for Westerners who are unprepared for them. They are glaringly obvious if you think about them at any great length. We’re destroying our environment, we’re letting our culture decay, and we’re even letting our DNA mutate out of control. The Temple of Progress is a temple to an idol—our own success—and we know it’s not a real god because it’s decaying before our eyes.

Well, not exactly before our eyes, slowly, but Moldbug gives us photographs of what the idol looked like at various points over the last two centuries, citing little-read primary sources with vivid descriptions of each stage of its decay. Proliferating Democratic freedoms, he claims, have caused the bloodiest wars and revolutions, the increases in crime, the dissolution of the family, the loss of sexual morality, and the disappearance of civic consciousness. He gives us decent-enough eyeglasses to see it. He’s a demon who’s slightly-less short-sighted, and in the land of the short-sighted demons, he’s king.

Horror of horrors; our god is a mortal god. A dying god. Who is to blame? Well, democracy for one, or so he says. It’s been a brain parasite all along, spoiling the uneducated masses of voters with promises of free goods (welfare, minimum wage, etc.) that pave a broad road to totalitarian communist hell. The harder conservatives fight, it seems, the farther left the nation moves. The conservatism of today would have been the extreme liberalism of 50 years ago, and unthinkably radical 150 years ago. But we’re no better off than we were back then. No progress has occurred. Instead, politicians promise more and more, government debt explodes, and we march inexorably toward communism and social decadence. Every year conservatives are forced to retreat and let age-old institutions, such as marriage, decay. Every year divorce rates rise. Every year faster-breeding immigrants pour over our borders, bringing their own culture and diluting our own. And every year political correctness renders it harder to protest. Despairing, self-mutilating his own brain to get the democratic parasite out, Moldbug fled into the swampy ruins of Anglo-American culture, leaving us his snarky trail of clues, and now spends his days attempting to unearth, revive, and polish up, for some reason, idols still older, more decayed, and more primitive than Progress. Idols that were whipped by Progress before, unfairly, and which now just need a second chance to show their true potential. Class hierarchy. Nobility. Aristocracy. Divine Monarchy. If we had only held true to these doctrines, the American and French Revolutions, which essentially gave the power to rabble-rousers and uneducated mobs the world-over, would never have happened. We need to bring Absolute Monarchy back, he says.

But was it ever even possible to stifle the budding power of the people? Or was this force—whether entropic decay or true progress—a part of the inevitable maturation of industrial society? I would lay my bets on the latter. The obvious ridiculousness of attempting to revive those dead idols is the main reason Moldbug’s sanest supporters are Christians. His atheist followers have gone as morally insane as he has, and so typically lack the eloquence for evangelism. His Christian followers have naturally strong immune systems and are thus stronger, more beneficial hosts and carriers. They get that progress is pagan idol. They move on. They fare much better than poor allergic Moldbug in the swamp. They can help him uncover the old idols not to revive them, but as memories of a better time, as promises of worldly goals more fulfilling than Progress, or simply as warnings against idolatry. And the saner of his followers that are non-Christians are philosophers, such as this guy. These philosophers at least have the notion of Platonic good to guide and protect them, if little else.

I had a dream the other night that Freud had an affair with his own daughter, and the two committed suicide together. When I woke I realized I had a perfect allegory for the Alt-Right. It’s a reverse Oedipal complex. Bring back patriarchy; marry your own father. His whacked theories were respected enough in their day, sure, but they were ultimately suicidal. To revive dead traditions rather than learning about live ones is, in essence, a kind of cultural incest.

The postmodern philosopher Nick Land is perhaps the most famous of Moldbug’s followers. While his conclusions are more original, they are for this reason even more mutated and tragically flawed. Land was a philosophy lecturer at the University of Warwick for about a decade, but also writes horror fiction and poetry, does performance art, and dabbles in the occult and psychedelic drugs. His essay, “The Dark Enlightenment,” starts, very reasonably, with Moldbug’s insight that our civilization is not progressing but decaying. After touching on the politically- and socially-corrupting power of democracy, the ongoing breakdown of race relations, the hollowing-out of the American “inner city,” and the resurrection of white nationalism—all rightly identified as signs of this decay—he concludes with a deeply vexing analysis of what kind of future we might expect.

Option (1), according to Nick Land, is “Modernity 2.0.” He thinks China would be most likely to form the center of a second spurt of global modernization. Option (2) is what he calls “Postmodernity.” He calls this future “a new dark age, in which Malthusian limits brutally re-impose themselves.” Option (3) is a “Western Renaissance,” in which the West reboots its traditional power structures—just as Moldbug himself suggests—leading to a renewal of civilization.

What strikes me most about these options is that they are non-options. Options (1) and (3) reduce to the suggestion that some new political idol replace that of Progress. Land’s discussion makes it clear that he sees the best such idol as some form of libertarianism, or monarchy, or libertarian-monarchy. I guess he’s just helping Moldbug polish off another fossilized monument to Absolute Hierarchy. Option (2), while perhaps the most realistic, is presented as a form of nihilism and thus vanishes as a possibility. But in reality, Option (2) is inevitable, and this is why we need an abstract notion of good and not a materialistic one. We need to be ready to face the next Dark Age with as much integrity as we can muster, as the Christians did when Rome fell. It is lacking an abstract Good or God that dooms Land to the realm of politics-for-politics’-sake.

Nick Land’s anti-spirituality becomes most glaringly clear at the tail end of his conclusion, when he considers humanity’s coming ability to engineer its own DNA. Since it is inbred groups of organisms that tend to evolve most quickly, he concludes that some small, incestuous group of cybernetically-engineered humans will achieve a superiority to the rest of humanity so vast that all other racial differences will be rendered non-existent by comparison.

The image is terrifying, but the prospect vanishingly unlikely. We have enough trouble as it is engineering a decent dairy cow. It is hard enough to educate children, let alone build their DNA from scratch.

But the image itself, and the assumptions behind it, and the fact that so many are buying it—here we might say that Nick Land has succeeded in mastering the art of horror, if it can be called an art. For what could be more horrifying than the rise of a new civilization built around the worship of a new master race? We know that he is not talking about a morally superior race. Morality precludes setting oneself up as god. No, he is talking about a demoniacally superior race—a politically and economically superior race. He is talking about deifying greed itself.

What more appropriate climax could the Cult of Progress ask for? We now have philosophers attempting to set up idols whose materialism is so naked it can be called (forgive me but the accusation must be made) pornographic. We are seeing the height of perversity. It pains me to foretell that in our decadence we may yet see higher. As Land himself exultingly proclaims, “a time of monsters is approaching.”

There are, of course, already the neo-Nazis and neo-fascists. Like Land and Moldbug, they tend to be atheists. Catholicism has managed to cure many of these. Still, such extremists are rare, and the last thing I want to do is help destroy dialogue between progressives and conservatives by focusing on the worst aspects of either. When Trump is derided as a fascist or Nazi, this is guilt by association. It’s pure rhetoric; it’s irrational. Among progressives are corporations destroying the biosphere for profit and using propaganda and lobbyism to cover their tracks. But most progressives don’t condone this behavior and it shouldn’t be assumed that they do. Likewise, we should assume that the vast majority of conservatives would fight as hard as anyone to prevent a neo-fascist revolution from taking hold.

The dialogue between left and right has largely degenerated into mere name-calling. If we fail to heal this divide, we hasten the day when confrontations become—for lack of any other mode—violent. I wonder if this outcome is somehow unavoidable. Even if it is, if only a few of us can discuss our disagreements sanely, maybe we can help revive a philosophical ecosystem, at least in patchwork, whose seeds can blossom and help renew our culture after the dust settles.

Despite the fame of Moldbug and Land, I think the most interesting reactionary insights can be found among the Christian Alt-Right. They represent, at least, a faint possibility of reconciliation on the basis of shared moral values. I’m going to focus on a group blog, “The Orthosphere” which has served as the hub for this school of thinking for several years. (For an overview spanning several blogs, go here.)

There is good here, but also plenty that is bad and ugly.

Good? In this article J.M. Smith of the Orthosphere draws parallels between the modern world and Biblical Babylon, where the Hebrews, like us, faced the challenge of not becoming corrupted by the “delectable fruits” of civilization. This single article speaks volumes of the continued relevance of the Bible. (If you're interested in a Good theistic website, but employing a scientific, evolutionary viewpoint, try Anonymous Conservative.)

Bad? In Bonald’s manifesto, the authoritarian beliefs of the movement are honestly stated in their full absurdity. “For the citizens of a ‘moralized’ society, all the major aspects of existence are colored by ideas of duty, loyalty, and status. ... Neighbors become countrymen; power becomes authority ...” This is a very Moldbug-like way of understanding politics. Power becomes authority. According to Moldbug, the depraved essence of democracy is a bending of authority to the spoiled wishes of the people. He concludes that authority must always be taken as absolute. Power becomes authority? This is simply another way of stating the formula that Plato’s Republic was written to destroy: Might makes right. Such a formula can accomplish nothing better than rigidification—ultimately fossilization. The essential question of politics is not what power can do but what it should do. To glorify power itself—whose naked image is Absolute Monarchy—is the poisonous formula that transforms monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy alike into tyranny. We should never define morality as authority or hierarchy or even good government. This is a materialistic, empty, and dangerous reversal. What we should always strive to do, rather, is give authority to what is moral, wise, and good. First, do what is right. Authority will come of its own accord. Let’s not make of it a new idol.

Ugly? Many articles in the Orthosphere and elsewhere use rhetoric like this: “the future of religious liberty under an administration of vindictive social justice warriors.” SJW (social justice warrior) is the label reactionaries like to use to throw discredit on anyone who uses labels like “racist” to discredit others. It’s nothing more than tit-for-tat name calling. This, more than anything else, is causing the split that is dividing the web into mutually-exclusive domains, each allergic to the other.

This is the trivial state of the dialogue. I’ve been accused of being sexist for criticizing Hillary. I’ve been accused of giving the presidency to “Hitler” for refusing to vote for her, even by intelligent people who I have a great deal of respect for. At the same time I’ve been called a “cuck” by equally intelligent reactionaries when they find out I believe in God and democracy. Atheists on the both the left and right have told me I’m holding on to dead ideas.

The truth is, these ideas are nowhere near dead. Nearly a third of the global population is Christian, and this percentage is projected to remain steady for the next four decades. And most Christians are of the most traditional sort, Catholic.

Catholic theology is an interesting system of philosophies to read about, and I find it healthier than much else I can find in conservative literature. Catholicism has a way of respecting and absorbing everything from classical Pagan philosophy to the findings of modern science. The most frequent objections I hear to taking Catholicism seriously are not very serious. (1) “It has perverted priests.” But no man-made institution lacks crooked members, even in leadership. Humans are fallible. This is another case of guilt by association. (2) “It’s about fear and guilt.” But this is a good thing. People need fear and guilt as much as they need hope and love. One should be afraid of sinning. One should feel bad when one does wrong. This is called learning. One should also hope to do the right thing, and have faith that right action will have the best outcome. As long as we are fallible mortals we need these emotions to guide us. Absolute freedom from guilt is freedom to harm yourself, your children, and your neighbor. The word “sin,” before it was ridiculed by modern atheists, simply meant “error.” Is no error to be avoided, then? A fitting formula for producing the modern age.

The Alt-Right, it seems, has absolutely nothing good to say about democracy—it is the ruin of civilization. But some of the best defenses of democracy come from Catholic thinkers. G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic writer who published books through World War I and the rise of Nazism, believed that democracy was—while flawed—a better application of Jesus’ teachings of compassion than either Fascism or Communism. He was a vocal opponent of both eugenics—the breeding of a better race—and Aryan Nationalism—the championing of a master race. Influenced by Chesterton was Tolkien, who issued a formal protest when Germany demanded his genealogical records before he could publish the Hobbit there. Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis, the great conservative Christian philosophers of the 20th century, all opposed extreme reactionary thinking and defended—Lewis and Tolkien in the trenches, all three in word—the right of democracy against authoritarianism.

The ideal of democracy has influenced almost every government and national leader in the world. It is a living ideal, if imperfect. Its previous rivals, Communism and Fascism, squashed and sterilized their respective philosophical ecosystems—a poisonous, incestuous, and ultimately fatal strategy. Free speech is a healthy symbiont that allows for the most reasonable and vital ideas to thrive. For as much ridicule as the Alt-Right pours on political correctness, the Alt-Right’s ultimate goal is a new, sterilized form of PC, entirely under the control of the state. Molbug demands a new University, what he calls the “Antiversity” devoted to “pure truth.” It’s the word “pure” that’s dangerous here—a term for sterile.

What is healthy about political correctness is that it opposes stereotype. But as it is used today, it often abuses stereotype, as sometimes with the terms “racism” and “sexism.” Such terms have lost their original, correct meaning: one who withholds opportunities from others or abuses others on the basis of race or sex. Mere unconscious bias for or against shouldn’t count—then we’d be talking “thought crime.” Nor is discrimination simply any comment that could possibility lead to bias—then we destroy free speech. Used in these ways, we end up with such a broad definition of discrimination that all conservatism becomes classed as racist. Consider the reaction to the Hispanic woman who told the news camera that she supported Trump’s plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Conservatives immediately applauded her because they felt that now they could express this idea without being accused of racism. Liberals, nevertheless, were appalled and reflexively scrambled for terms like “self-discrimination” or “indoctrination” to explain the anomaly. In this way the notion of discrimination is stretched so thin—so stereotyped—that most conservatives have trouble taking it seriously any more. “Conservative” and “discriminatory” become synonymous. And this is bad. We need these notions to be different. We need a notion of conservatism that means tradition, respect for the past, and respect for values. This is what conservatism is for. But we also need to be able to criticize people for discrimination, racism, and sexism. In other words, we need political correctness. And we need this to be distinct from liberalism, which is not simply “the stifling of free speech” as reactionaries would have it, but the right to bring new points of view into the discussion, especially minority points of view. If we begin suppressing all liberalism we suppress, along with it, most of the stories and insights coming from non-whites and non-males. In allowing these stories to be heard and acted on, however, we should not at the same time exclude white males from all discussions of race and sex. It doesn’t matter that white males tend to be richer and more powerful. So do Jews, and even more so. Neither should be excluded from having their say.

Dialogue absolutely must be possible, or the foundation of freedom that our country was built upon will be destroyed. When that is lost, all is lost. Violence will be the result.

I propose we start using the term over-generalization. It’s politically neutral. When a liberal says or implies that conservatives are automatically bigots, it’s over-generalization. When a reactionary says or implies that the left is a bunch of social justice fanatics, it’s over-generalization. Over-generalization is bad, whether it comes from the left or the right. And this is why I will hear what you have to say, whether you’re Hispanic, Jewish, female, Alt-Right, atheist, liberal, or black. And I will try not to criticize you based on generalized stereotypes of any of these groups. And if I make a bad joke or a Freudian slip that reveals bias, I trust you will laugh it off, maybe call me out, and move on. I trust that you will not demonize me and never listen to me or my kind again. Because such demonization is the road to war.

The term “cuckservative” should be banned. Also, the terms “fascist,” “nazi,” and “racist” should never be used except to describe those tiny minorities to which they strictly apply. Guilt by association must stop.

If you are unthinking toward your opponents, they will be equally unthinking and vicious toward you. If you are generous to them, you will have a better chance of being heard out yourself.

1 comment:

  1. A visit to the optometrist always helped me see clearer. But what can we do for the blind but see how well they hear.