More on thought bubbles

Liberals are worried about them too.

I notice, here and in other writings by liberals on this subject, that their concern is with large-scale effects.  What will cognitive segregation do to the country?  How will democracy be able to operate?  Will democracy provide a corrective to this effect, as the above article hopes?  These are good questions, but I tend to be more focused on my own case.  I’ve seen how totally wrongheaded the majority is in its knowledge of conservatives and Roman Catholics.  How do I avoid misjudging other groups this grievously?

The most obvious way is to find the best writings of the other sides and give them a sympathetic reading.  My father-in-law, a liberal, sometimes encourages me to read newspaper editorials.  This is just too painful, though.  I don’t mind having my beliefs challenged, but that’s now what happens.  My beliefs just get insulted.  Okay, New York Times, I get it:  all Catholics are child molesters, and all conservatives are Nazis.  Fuck you.

It seems like listening to the other side shouldn’t have to be so painful.  I have read excellent noncombative books where I’ve seen others explain their belief systems:  Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eton, The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, and even A Theory of Justice, for that matter.  These sorts of books are very valuable to sympathetically curious outsiders.  They’re also hard to find, particularly for me, being a Catholic.  It seems that just about every other religion and ideology puffs itself up by disparaging us.  I know I should be able to put that aside and just try to extract valuable information, but as I get older, my fuse gets shorter, the sensation of anger gets more unpleasant, and the temptation to avoid it gets stronger.  On the other hand, I don’t think that I can just trust people on “my side” to explain other belief systems to me.  That’s no substitute for a genuine encounter with other positions.

I have been toying with the idea of doing something for my opponents who may be in an analogous situation.  It might be useful to write a nonpolemical introduction to conservatism:  “Conservatism for Liberals”, if you will.  The idea is that I explain what we believe but don’t push it and don’t attack other beliefs.  Then a liberal could read this without any unpleasant rise in blood pressure and come out of it knowing a bit about what his enemies actually believe and what motivates us.  I’m probably not the person, though.  I’ve obviously staked out my position on the fringe, and no one not already on the far Right would think me a reasonable guide to anything.

What books have you read that managed to explain a rival belief system without pissing you off?

Borrowed opinions

We usually think it a sign of intellectual laziness for a man to passively absorb his beliefs from his comrades.  Even when someone has proved a reliable guide on one subject, that doesn’t mean we should blindly trust him on others.  But then there’s the dilemma that I’ve brought up often before:  democracy asks us to have an opinion on every issue, and very few of us have the time or intelligence to think through each issue independently.  We prefer to think through a few issues that we care most about, choose our political allegiances accordingly, and then remain agnostic on questions where we have not earned the right to opine.

Even this proves difficult to do.  When one chooses a political team, this usually affects what periodicals one reads and which writers one thinks trustworthy.  It affects what arguments you are more often exposed to.  So, for example, a man may become a conservative over abortion and not care a bit about gun rights.  But once he starts reading, or trusting, conservative journals more than liberal ones, he’s going to see more anti-gun control arguments than pro-gun control arguments.  His beliefs on the issue will drift, especially if he doesn’t give this issue much conscious thought.

Back when I was more-or-less a neoconservative, I read lots of smart neocon publications–or at least they seemed smart to me at the time.  I kept running across pro-free trade articles, and I more-or-less assumed that free trade was the intelligent position to take.  Then I broke with the neocons over philosophical issues that had nothing to do with foreign trade.  I kept reading their journals for a while, but eventually it got too frustrating, because they kept missing (what I now take to be) the point.  I still check them out occassionally, but only in the same way that I’ll check out a liberal author (usually through Arts and Letters Daily)–as someone who might have something interesting to say, but who has alien commitments and should not be trusted.  Now that the paleos were my team, I started seeing more protectionist arguments, and now I lean protectionist.

Now, I have some defense for this.  A big difference between the neos and the paleos is the latter’s commitment to the integrity of regional communities.  A degree of economic independence can easily seem to be part of that.  So my molding extraneous beliefs to fit my new “team” had some justification.  Still, it kind of bothers me.

Reading the counter-revolutionaries

The contemporary Right has not done much to rescue the great French counter-revolutionaries from obscurity.  In fact, they’re done more harm than good by promoting the impression that the French Right was just poorly recycled Burke.  The Anglo-American reactionary who suspects this is not true suffers a double handicap.  First, little of the works of continental reactionaries has been translated into English.  (Why bother?  We’re so convinced that Burke already said it all, said it first, and said it better.)  Second, there is no guide to this tradition to help the newcomer, in the way that The Conservative Mind helps one immerse oneself in the Burkean tradition.

A nice list of English translations of counter-revolutionary writings is given at Ius Honorarium (thanks to Stephen for pointing this out to me).  This is a good website, by the way, although the author is, unfortunately, rather hostile to me.  One can find one-page reviews of some of these books of many of these books at my “book reviews:  political theory” page.  Lots of information about the counter-revolutionaries and their beliefs can also be found at Reggie’s The Counter-Enlightenment.

There are two good anthologies of French counter-revolutionary thinking.  First, there’s The French Right from the Roots of the Right series.  I’m very grateful to Drieu for pointing me to this book, which I’ve just finished.  Although starting with de Maistre, it focuses on non-Catholic, positivist thinkers.  Best of all, it’s got a hundred pages of Maurras’ writings, and that’s something that’s hard to find in translation.  Second, there’s Critics of the Enlightenment, edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum.  This collection nicely complements the first by focusing on Catholic figures, from Chateaubriand to La Tour du Pin.  I first read this book a couple of years ago and I could have sworn that I wrote a review of it, but when Alcestiseshtemoa pointed me to it again a few weeks ago, I checked, and it looks like I must have imagined that review.  Sometime in the next week, I plan to put out a dual review of both books.  The pictures they paint of the counter-revolution differ in interesting ways.

Conservative, traditionalist, reactionary, or authoritarian?

I have a question for readers who are ideologically sympathetic to this blog:  what word would you use to describe our beliefs?  I’ve struggled with this since I started this blog a couple of years ago.  Describing my beliefs in a four-page essay is one thing; picking a single word to designate them is another.  The trouble is that the four main possibilities–“conservative”, “traditionalist”, “reactionary”, and “authoritarian” are all to some extent polluted in current discourse.  They all have associations that will generate confusion.

  1. Conservative“:  I use this one a lot, but it has a lot of drawbacks.  It’s very vague, indicative more of a preserving instinct than a distinct set of beliefs.  And it’s what mainstream pseudoconservatives call themselves.  I sometimes get comments asking me why I want to “conserve” the current order when I disagree with just about everything in it.  They are right to ask.  An outside observer hearing what I want to do to the social order would be more likely to describe it with words like “overthrow and replace” than “conserve”.
  2. Traditionalist“:  I sometimes prepend this to “conservative” to mean “real conservative”, but this is a bit of an abuse, because “traditionalist” already has a more precise meaning.  It means someone who thinks practical public reason should be based on tradition and prudence rather than abstract reason.  I have defended tradition on this blog, but tradition holds a much smaller place in my belief system than it did for a real traditionalist like Russell Kirk.  It’s not a major source of knowledge for me; I don’t hold any of my major beliefs on its authority.  What’s more, I don’t think the appeal to tradition is a good direction for conservatism to be moving toward.  If the reason to follow tradition is merely prudential–i.e. that chucking the cumulative experience of past generations is foolhardy–then it is easily dismissed by appeal to the newness of modern circumstances.  If traditional gender roles are just a matter of practicality, why shouldn’t guns and baby formula cause us to reevaluate them?  If tradition is normative, it must be so because of a precept of natural law.  But then we’re better off just appealing to natural law directly on questions of justice, family, economics, and war.  Finally, traditionalism seems to be something of a modern innovation.  I don’t remember Thomas Aquinas or Dante saying anything about it.
  3. Reactionary“:  The thing I like best about this word is that it’s already considered derogatory.  Nobody can say that I’m hiding my true beliefs behind a respectable label.  There’s something pleasantly bold about owning and redeeming an insult.  And nobody doubts that “reactionary” means “hard-core right-wing”, which we certainly are around here.  So I have used that word for myself and those like me, and I will continue to do so.  My one reservation is that the word “reactionary” highlights a vice in people of my disposition that I’m trying to overcome, namely the tendency to define ourselves by what we’re against rather than by what we’re for.  Our books all have titles like “The Unspeakably Perverse Evil of Liberalism and Why All Liberals are Idiots”.  I’d rather move away from that, and I hope other reactionaries will too.  Our efforts should be toward describing the elements of a good social order rather than toward cursing this one.  Liberals who visit this site should find themselves challenged but not insulted.  This site hasn’t always lived up to that, but I hope that’s the direction it’s moving in.
  4. Authoritarian“:  It’s got this going for it:  nobody else in the world is calling himself an authoritarian.  If I take this word for myself, I can pretty much fit it to my beliefs, because nobody will be contesting me for it.  And overall, “authoritarian” is the best description of the orientation of this blog.  It is positive–it points towards what it is that this blog promotes and defends.  Authority, as Roger Scruton noted long before I did, is conservatism’s ultimate principle–authority in the family, the Church, and the State.  This word certainly carries risks.  Most people think it means “the slightly less extreme version of totalitarianism” or at the very best “lawless and unprincipled government”.  Sometimes it also implies a craving for centralized decision making–an absurd connotation given the localist opinions of undoubted authoritarians like Charles Maurras and myself.  These misunderstandings, however, are pedagogically fruitful ones.  If I can explain to someone why the Soviet Union was not authoritarian, for example, he will come away with a stronger grasp of my core principle.

So, I think the conclusion is that I am an authoritarian, but the branch of conservatism of which I am a part is reactionary conservatism.  I’d like to hear what other people are calling themselves, though.

Bring back the Index!

I’d like to second this comment by JMSmith:

We have a duty to defend holy things and should not confuse forgiveness with simple cowardice. Our best weapon is the economic boycott. It got us the Production Code back in 1930. The laity are not nearly as well disciplined now as then, but it doesn’t take vast numbers to effect change. What is wanting, as always, is leadership, beginning with revival of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

What do Catholic authoritarians want?


Well, really we would like and end to sin and suffering, that God should renew all things and Jesus Christ be all in all.  But we don’t want to put off all of our hopes to the eschaton; for the coming centuries hegemony would do nicely.

What does this mean?  Basically, control of a culture.  Forgive me, that’s still far too vague.  Let’s ask a more precise question:  what would Catholic hegemony mean in majority-Protestant America?  Simple:  it means Catholics and Jews switching places in the social order.

Imagine an America where Catholics hold the same power that Jews hold in the real America.  As there is no law forcing everyone to be a Jew, and no formal penalties laid on Gentiles, so in Catholic America, there would be no legal disabilities set on Protestants or Jews.  We Catholics are a very tolerant bunch when we are in the minority.  Furthermore, I demand that you praise us for this, just as historians uniformly praise the Muslim Arabs for allowing freedom of religion in their empire when they were a tiny ruling minority and for employing infidels to make up for the expertise they lacked–as if they had any practical choice in any of this.

In this alternate America, reactionary Catholics control the media.  (Naturally, we want to eventually eliminate the mass media, not just control it, but let’s say that’s a more long-term goal.  First, we must use the instruments at hand to cement our power.)  Of course, I don’t mean that a room full of cardinals meeting in secred dictates what goes on television or in the newspapers.  I mean that the major media corporations are owned by self-conscious Catholics (with perhaps a few very sympathetic Protestants mixed in) and staffed either by other Catholics or by Protestants indocrinated in our ethos.  We, and those formed in our ethos, dictate the beliefs and, more importantly, the prejudices, of the intellectual elite.  There is complete freedom of expression, but anyone who criticizes the Catholic Church will lose his job and find himself socially ostracized.  Everyone knows this well enough to guard his tongue, but it is forbidded to explicitly acknowledge the grip we hold on public discourse, lest it generate resentment among the masses.  Other religions will exist and self-govern, but their leaders will be obsessed with avoiding charges of anti-Catholicism, so they will praise us to the skies.

History in the public schools is taught from our perspective.  Whenever teaching a historical incident when Catholics clashed with some other group, schools must present the Catholics as blameless victims or courageous agents of justice (depending on who threw the first punch) and their opponents as ignorant, greedy, and viscious.  I actually think that Catholic reactionaries would be more magnanimous than the Jews here.  I think we would permit Protestant schools to teach their history from their own perspective, which will of course be less complimentary to us.  Can you imagine a private school in actual America taking the side of “anti-semites” without facing the direst consequences?

Our beliefs on contested social issues would be written into the law, even where they conflict with majority opinion.  The dominant school in constitutional law will be that the Constitution is a living document which contains Catholic natural law as its implicit basis and which must therefore undergo a process of nautral maturation whereby this basis is more explicitly acknowledged.  Jewish and Protestant politicians may sometimes agitate for liberalized abortion laws, but everyone knows that they’re wasting their time, because the Supreme Court would immediately declare such liberalizations unconstitutional.  This legal hegemony is maintained even though the majority of politicians, judges, and lawyers are not Catholics.  All that matters is that most of them are either indoctrinated by us, overawed by us, or fear us.

Now, no doubt anyone reading this who is not a Catholic authoritarian would say that I have just described the most horrifying imaginable theocratic tyranny.  But how can that be, since all I have done is to swap two groups of people–reactionary Catholics+their conservative Protestant allies vs. Leftist Jews and their liberal Protestant allies?  The fact is, for a society to have any unity at all, it must have shared beliefs.  Some group must have hegemony.  In a diverse society like America, that means some minority must have hegemony.  Catholic authoritarians would naturally prefer to be that group.

What should we make of modernity?

What do we mean to say that we, or the Church, should or shouldn’t “come to terms” with the modern world?  Well, first of all, what do we mean by “modern”.  The standard historical division says that “modern” times began around 1500, and supposedly reactionaries think that that’s when things started going to pot.  If you read the original reactionaries though, especially Chateaubriand, Maistre and Bonald, their idea of the “greatest of centuries” wasn’t the thirteenth; it was the seventeenth.  The real division, I think, comes around 1750-1800.  Before that time, the civilization of Christendom was evolving from its own internal drives.  After that, a new civilization, Western civilization, comes to the fore, and the remains of Christendom mostly just react to this new dominant force.  The Reformation, the scientific revolution, and royal absolutism were all movements within Christendom; the Enlightenment was the incursion of an alien ethos.  So, modernity is all that stuff that’s happened since 1750.

1. Natural Science

Some reactionaries think modern science is flawed in its philosophical foundations.  I don’t see that myself.  Naturalism–the assumption that the natural world is all there is–is a philosophical error, but it seems like the one case when it wouldn’t get you in trouble when the natural world is what you’re actually studying.  In fact, I would think that more reactionaries would be appreciative of natural science because it’s the one thing we moderns are doing that we’re better at than the pre-moderns.  I rather pride myself on having joined up in modernity’s one definite worthwhile endeavor, the one thing where we’re building rather than tearing down, and we’re making a definite gift to posterity.  Humanity has been enriched by relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, big bang cosmology, and the like.

One worry that some have is that by holding science in such high esteem, we will empower some group of scientists to call themselves the voice of Science and impose their will upon the world.  That certainly would be something to resist, and it would definitely be fraudulant.  There is no Science; there are only scientists.  Scientists make no pretense of being infallible.  Instead, we deliberately throw out a bunch of probably wrong ideas, trusting that the truth will come out on top in the resulting inquiry.  We throw together whatever reckless assumptions we need to make to have a tractable model, and then assumptions are refined when the evidence demands it.  It’s not a straight path to the truth, but it usually gets there eventually.  I find it very hard to believe that any significant number of my colleagues would engage in conspiracies to suppress truths from the public.

2. Technology

I like most of it, but we are too uncritical.  Even most reactionaries assume that when a new technology makes it possible to do something not intrinsically immoral more effectively or cheaply, this technology should be allowed if not embraced.  That was certainly once my opinion, before I read The Riddle of Amish Culture and encountered for the first time a rational response to technological innovation.  The Amish are not silly or superstitious.  They don’t imagine that there are little demons hiding inside the hoods of automobiles.  But they don’t embrace technology unthinkingly like we do.  They have a way of life that they want to maintain, so when some new technique presents itself, they ask what it’s effect will be on the social structure.  Is it harmless, or will it weaken virtue or community cohesion?  Efficiency is subordinate to social preservation.  Now, the Amish are trying to maintain a very particular agrarian way of life, and perhaps this has made their very extreme in their exclusions.  Maintaining a more diverse and flexible society might allow more leeway in allowing technologies.  Still, the Amish are asking the right question.  It’s one we should be asking.

3) Liberalism

As a reactionary, I think that the principles of modern political philosophy–the social contract, procedural neutrality, democracy, freedom of speech, separation of Church and State–are misguided and should be rejected.  It seems to me that the Chuch has already “come to terms” with democratic liberalism by rejecting it and explaining what is wrong with it.  In fact, I would say that conservatism is the Church’s response to modernity, the only one she could possibly give.

4) Bureaucracy

Behind democracy and liberalism, perhaps the deeper current driving the others, is the march toward Weberian rationalism.  I wouldn’t reject bureaucracy categorically.  It is very efficient, and I imagine there are many cases where its efficiency can be tapped without injuring the social order.  In this sense, I would say that we should treat modern organizational methods as forms of technology and treat them the way I recommended we treat technology.  We can only use this technology, though, if we have a way of keeping it in its place.  We may not risk letting it extend itself into an attack on traditional structures.  Experts and civil servants must be kept in their place beneath fathers and priests.  How to do this, given the incredible power of rationalized bureaucracy, is a great challenge.

5) Philosophy

Here’s one where reactionaries radically disagree.  What should we make of post-scholastic (and post-Cartesian/post-Liebnitzian)  philosophy?  Is it a good thing like science to be embraced, a bad think like democracy to be rejected, or a mixed thing like technology, so that the good must be disentangled from the bad.  I think most Thomists would say that modern philosophy is junk, and we should just chuck it.  I agree that there’s very little worthwhile in the French Enlightenment, in positivism, in Marxism, in psychoanalysis, in post-modernism, and the like.  These movements must be critiqued and debunked to protect souls, but we don’t expect to learn anything worthwhile in the process.  However, I think that German idealism, Kant and Hegel especially, have made permanent contributions (mixed with their errors) which we must confront and from which we may profit.  Hegel especially, in his Philosophy of Right, has done important work in laying down the theoretical foundations of a conservative social order.  Like many Christians, I also have a soft spot for the early-20th century phenomenologists, especially the great value ethicist Dietrich von Hildebrand.

6) History

We should be grateful to have more facts about ancient times and faraway civilizations at our disposal than people in any past age have had.  On the other hand, there is less historical understanding than ever before, because people are unable to set aside their modernist worldview long enough to really grasp how earlier ages saw the world.  Past ages may have lacked a lot of information about the past (and a lot of the information they did have was wrong), but they had this spiritual connection that let them see deeper into the psyche of their ancestors than the modern historian–rich in data but bounded by prejudices–can manage.  A reactionary historian working in the scientific/archaeological world of today, though?  Imagine the possibilities!

Side benefits of outlawing usury

Being an authoritarian, I’m always excited by the prospect of outlawing something, and my “give tyranny a chance” posts tend to generate some of the best discussions.  I’ve been impressed by Proph’s three-part  post on why we should abolish usury.  More recently, Alte has taken up the call.  The reasons they give are the most important ones:  it preys on the poor, encourages living outside one’s means, and destabilizes the economy.

Louis de Bonald made some important arguments against the toleration of usury two centuries ago.  (You can read his essays related to the subject in The True and Only Wealth of Nations.)  His main concern was to preserve France’s agrarian character.  He thought money-lending was leading the industrial urban sector to dominance, which would have profoundly negative practical and even spiritual effects for his country.  Practically, he was convinced that industry was inherently unstable and dangerously sensitive to changes in demand in faraway places; would have children in good times that they couldn’t support in bad.  Culturally, he worried about what would happen when few people had direct contact with nature, so that when things go wrong they would blame “the system” rather than fortune and seek redress from the State rather than God.  Bonald was uncharacteristically moderate (for him) in his demands:  a restriction on interest to the average annual returns from holding the same amount of money in farmland, to level the field for the latter investment.  He made the classical distinction between lending money for consumption, for which there should be no right to charge interest, and investment in a productive venture, in which case one can legitimately claim one’s share in the profits.

Not being an expert in economics, and having spoken before about the perils of opining from ignorance, I will leave the question of what best promotes the common wealth to others.  There are some side-benefits to abolishing usury that appeal to me.

  1. It wouldn’t be as easy to dismiss ancient and medieval beliefs, or current Christian ones, with comments like “Well, you know the Church also used to condemn usury too, and now everybody realizes how silly that was.”
  2. It would moralize economic life.  Morality doesn’t get real for most people until they are faced with concrete prohibitions.  Vague exhortations to consider the common good don’t do much for us when in the fever of temptation.  Imagine if Catholic sexual morality just consisted of a Kantian imperative not to “use” a person as a “mere” means.  In practice, this wouldn’t influence us much, would it?  We need something solid.

Adam, Eve, and all those extra alleles

There have been some good posts lately on how to square monogenism with the observed genetic diversity of the human race.  See Edward Feser and Mike Flynn.  While not new, these issues have also been dealt with by another illustrious blogger.

The anti-integralist fallacy

Suppose you buy a new dishwasher machine.  Everything about it looks the same as any other dishwasher, except that there is a mysterious red switch in the middle, which can be set in position “1” or position “2”.  The machine is on setting “1” when you bought it, and since you don’t know what that switch does, you just leave it there.  The dishwasher works fine.  One day, overcome with curiosity, you decide to try setting “2” to see what happens.  The dishwasher melts all of your dishes and spews water on the kitchen floor.  Properly chastened, you turn the switch back to setting “1”, and again things work fine.  A couple weeks later, you think to yourself, “I have had no more mishaps with the dishwasher for weeks.  Perhaps I no longer need setting ‘1’, and I can go back to setting ‘2’”.  You put the machine on setting “2” and run a load of dishes with it.  The machine once again melts dishes and spews water.  You think to yourself, “The fact that these old problems started right up again when I switch to setting ‘2’ proves that my going to setting ‘1’ was not a good solution.  It didn’t really fix the problem.  Nay, the underlying cause must have been festering underneath all this time.  Probably it is worse now than if I had left the machine on setting ‘2’ and had everything out in the open.  Bad behavior under setting ‘2’ means that setting ‘1’ is bad.  Therefore, I will leave the dishwasher on setting ‘2’, endure the messes it makes, and hope that the problem will eventually sort itself out.”

Now, nobody would never actually reason like this.  They only expect the Catholic Church to be that stupid.  For it is common wisdom, so common that I’ve never heard anybody else question it, that the post-Vatican II anarchy in the Catholic Church proves that the anti-modernist campaigns of Pope Pius X and his immediate successors were ill-conceived.  The reasoning is the same as above.  There was a problem with priests promoting heresy among the faithful.  The Vatican took disciplinary measures to stop it.  Bingo, the problem goes away, and it stays away until the policy is reversed.  Pope John the Fool decides that priests are such special people that they should be allowed to spread whatever poison they want from the pulpit and still have the laity pay their bills.  The Church immediately goes to pot.  Everyone says that this means discipline was a failure.

No it wasn’t.  Discipline was working fine.  Taking away discipline is what has obviously been a failure, unless your idea of success is reducing the Church to a pile of crap.  “But discipline is wrong, because people are bad when you take it away.”  So don’t take it away.  Duh.

Can someone give me a reason why censorship and authoritarianism couldn’t be maintained in perpetuity, in the Church or in other areas of life?  A priori, it seems like a more stable arrangement than the soft anarchy we have decided is the natural state of ecclesial and social life.


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