The metahistorical attack on Western civilization

Once, history was the story of civilization.  Then, writers like Toynbee (or more recently, Samuel Huntington), argued that really we should structure our thinking around there being multiple civilizations, and only our “Eurocentrism” had kept us from noticing that they are all on a roughly equal footing as far as the part they play in humanity’s story.

Today, educated opinion is moving toward something closer to the original story of monocivilization, emphasizing that different civilizations did interact with and influence each other.  The goal is to delegitimize any defense of Western Civilization by claiming that there never was any such thing as Western Civilization.  One way to go about this would be to emphasize migrants from other cultures–extend the whole “nation of immigrants” line of attack to Europe–but there’s not much mileage in this, because no one doubts that the number of Indians, Chinamen, etc. in Western Europe has historically been small.  Much more dangerous is the line of attack based on influence:  Western Civilization doesn’t exist because all its features–literary forms, food ingredients, core technologies,…–are borrowed from what we would think of as other civilizations.  The West is unoriginal; therefore it doesn’t exist.  Again, Eurocentrism is supposed to be the reason we don’t recognize this truth.

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Vatican attack on integralism

Antonio Spadaro SJ and Marcelo Figueroa at Civiltà Cattolica accuse conservative Catholics and American Evangelicals of practicing an “ecumenism of hate”.  The article is, or at least should be, an embarrassment to all Catholics.  Really, the awfulness of the thing, the offensiveness fortified by intellectual incompetence, must be read to believed.

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On equality

Full equality is nowhere to be found in the world of men.  The predestined and the reprobate, the baptized and unbaptized are not equal in the eyes of God; nor are industrious and lazy employees equal in the eyes of their employers; nor are the homeowner and the burglar equal before the law.  Citizens and aliens do not have equal rights.  The noble and the degenerate are not equal in dignity.  No one treats strangers and friends equally.

The believer in “equality” will insist that this is not what he means, that he only condemns iniquitous inequalities, and that, for example, judging employees solely by their unequal productivity is treating them equally in this refined sense.  And indeed it is a part of justice that organizations should only discriminate according to qualities relevant to their function.  In a modern business corporation, two employees with the same work history should get the same promotion.  Things like that.  Note, though, that this sense of “fairness” cannot be elevated into a fundamental political principle.  It’s only once the purpose and structure of an organization is given that we can distinguish relevant from irrelevant qualities.  In a family business, ownership does not pass meritocratically to the best employee but by inheritance, and this is justified by the purpose and structure of the business.  Similarly, only once the structure of an organization is given and spheres of sovereignty established can we speak of freedom within these spheres.

Contour plots are a useful way to visualize multidimensional functions.  Each organization defines a status function on the space of personal qualities, and for each of these functions one can define isostatus contours which in general will differ for each organization.  “Equality” only deals with people on one of these hypersurfaces, and it is a derived concept.

Thus, we cannot say a priori that a hereditary aristocracy is unjust because unequal.  The isostatus contours defining “fairness” can only be known after the state is fully understood and the status function defined.  The aristocrats may have some useful role; they may serve some identifiable good; their existence may be somehow tied to the state’s self-understanding.

This is what conservatives mean when they claim to be non-ideological.  Political abstractions like “freedom” and “equality” are not considered to be fully formed principles existing apart from society, able to judge them “from the outside”.  They are analogical, not univocal, and their concrete meanings only emerge within an existing society.  Within the social order, there is plenty of room for moral critique using the emergent political concepts, but these tools of critique cannot be turned against the order itself, which is what makes the non-ideological position conservative.

Imagine never being confused

I’ve written

It occurs to me that Leftists may have a very different personal experience with morality than Christians.  While Christians all to some extent fail to follow our own moral code, and are thus confronted with our own personal weakness and viciousness, Leftist morality, being a matter of attitudes, can be quite easy.  It’s not hard to avoid having negative thoughts about blacks, especially if your only exposure to them is The Cosby Show. Nor am I impressed with so-called “liberal guilt” which always seems to mean condemnation of one’s ancestors for failing to meet one’s own standards.  The fact that this is what passes for guilt with them just illustrates how different are their moral experiences.  For us, morality usually means confronting ourselves; for them, it mostly means confronting evil others.  What if many on the social justice warrior Left have never, or almost never, felt personal guilt or shame?  Wouldn’t their personalities be very different from those of ordinary mortals?

Continuing my meditations on our oh-so-righteous undergraduates, it occurs to me that they may also have a very different intellectual experience than ordinary mortals.  Just as they have not had to confront their moral weakness, perhaps they have not had to confront their intellectual weakness.  They don’t know how ignorant they are.  Faculty are right to protect students from embarrassment or discouragement–to, for example, make sure no one is afraid to a ask a “stupid” question.  To be frank, we try to treat our students like equals because we imagine our own superiority is so manifest that the only danger is that we might intimidate them.  But perhaps their epistemic inferiority is not obvious to them at all.  Professors are also right to make material as clear as possible.  We don’t want the difficulty of the material to intimidate them.  But they need to know when we are simplifying.  And they need to have the experience of confusion, of things not making sense until the end of a long struggle when everything finally “clicks”.  They must get the experience of accepting a plausible model, working with it, and then finding that they must abandon it.  Incorrect assumptions must become a live possibility for them, not just for the stupid ancients.

Our students are above average in intelligence but have been fed a diet of very simple ideas.  The simplicity is artificial–it relies on language and social taboos sweeping lots of assumptions and ambiguities under the rug–but it feels utterly natural.  If a life without guilt seems foreign to us ordinary people, how unfathomable is a life without confusion.

The mystical majority

Jules Evans at Aeon writes

The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent. In a survey I did in 2016, 84 per cent of respondents said they’d had an experience where they went beyond their ordinary self, and felt connected to something greater than them. But 75 per cent agreed there was a taboo around such experiences.

Interesting that the number has changed so much.  I suspect that people in 1960 had stricter criteria for what constitutes a “mystical experience”, but you never know.  I have never had a mystical experience, cannot imagine what it would mean to transcend my ego.  I’m religious but not spiritual.  I’m in it for the rules, rituals, and dogmas.  One wonders how valuable these feelings of connection could really be if they can be produced just as well by drugs.  I do in fact recall some of the Christian mystics talking about these happy moments when God seems near, almost dismissively as enticements God sends to beginners to motivate them for the really important contemplative work that happens in times of His perceptual absence.

Still, while it may not have been a transcendent experience, it was pleasantly disorienting to read Philip Pullman, the atheist fantasist (the anti-Inkling, one might say), going on like Bruce Charlton about the universe being alive and full of purpose.

Conservatives telling ourselves that we’re not alone

We counter-revolutionaries sometimes tell ourselves things to help fight off the feeling of isolation.

  1. Liberalism is just a fashion.  The weight of tradition is against it.  And the past persists in the present.  Institutions that have lasted a long time have deep roots.  Liberals betray their temporal provincialism when they demand everyone bow to these moral imperatives they just invented yesterday, as if traditions with thousands of years of experience and philosophical reflection are going to say “Gee, you’re right!  All these rules are just being mean to other people for no reason.  Why didn’t we think of that?”
  2. Liberalism is just a Western fashion, perhaps just an urban Western fashion.  There are other great civilizations, and none of them are buying this BS.
  3. Everybody is conservative about what they know best.  The elite may seem to be all on board with progressivism, but in the areas that involve work with the real world–e.g. engineering–there are probably a lot of people who don’t buy the grand-patriarchal-conspiracy nonsense but are just keeping their heads down to go about their work.

Unfortunately, whenever I’ve made a prediction from these comforting thoughts, it has turned out to be wrong.  Millennia-old traditions are pushed over in a day.  It’s not true that liberals have all the reasons and we have nothing but unexamined prejudices, but our priests’ manifest embarrassment of their official beliefs certainly makes it look true.  There are multiple distinct great civilizations, not all of whom have historically gotten along with each other and none of whom have historically organized themselves along secular egalitarian lines, but in their attitudes to the West, the liberals seem justified in thinking of them all as an undifferentiated mass of “people of color” boiling over with resentment toward the white oppressor-devil.   Nor should we put our hopes in STEM being a bastion of sanity.  It’s the demographics.  Most of the kids going into the sciences come from urban, liberal families and inherit their loyalties.

Weaker versions of these same consolations do work.  Traditions may fall, but the past itself is indestructible.  There will always have been a Christendom.  All the colors of the world may join together in screaming “racist!” at whites, but so long as each remains loyal to its own kind, the principle of particularism still lives.  While we will never see chemists, mathematicians, or electrical engineers come out against social justice, when they go about their technical work competently, they will be making little patches of the human world uncontaminated by the fundamental dishonesty of social justice.

Students don’t realize how ignorant they are.

Teaching a survey class for non-science majors year after year has taught me unexpected things about college students.  These provide some insight into their recent behavior.

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