Dr. Bruce Charlton published a very insightful essay on group selection last month: “The reality of group selection - and the not-niceness of group selection.” You may find the linked article a bit choppy at first, but stick with it. The pay off is worth the effort.
I have given Charlton grief about his dalliance with Mormonism and his Mere Christianism, but the man is brilliant.
Today, I present another excellent short essay by Anthony Esolen, “The Least of These,” in The Public Discourse. Esolen eviscerates the Great Society and its contemporary spiritless functionaries to reveal the interior rot in the Corpse Politic that the Left never mentions. “Mainstream” conservatives lack the righteous fury that needs to be wielded against the forces of darkness—probably because they play the role of token oppositional zombies in our nation’s onesided Kulturkampf. They have no life. Esolen, however, shows a spark. I heartily recommend his work.
Anthony Esolen has published a brief but fine essay in Touchstone about the dystopic wasteland where the lower classes survive in the wake of the sexual revolution and the consequent social collapse: “Scarborough Needs Men.” Esolen strikes me as a traditional, Christian version of Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple. They are the Zolas of our time, though one wonders if Zola would do Zola’s job today. Would the ascerbic social critic continue to see clearly when the world of his dreams has turned into a nightmare? One wonders.
Kenneth McIntyre published an interesting book review in The American Conservative last month of Gene Callahan’s Oakeshott on Rome and America: “Oakeshott vs. America.” McIntyre by Callahan explores Michael Oakeshott’s criticism of “rationalist” politics and consequently of American political thought. McIntyre explains:
So what is rationalism, in the Oakeshottian sense of the term? First, it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods—and thus it is also a claim that “knowing how” to do something is nothing more than “knowing that” the rules are such and such. Second, because of this denigration of practical knowledge, it is a claim that rational action can only take place following the creation of a theoretical model. As Oakeshott once observed, modern rationalism is literally “preposterous” because theoretical reflection can only occur after a practice already has made itself distinct and more or less concrete.
Finally, as Callahan points out, since rationalism is a mistaken description of human knowledge and its relation to human activity, it is also an impossible way of acting, politically or in any other sphere. Human action, including political action, is inherently an engagement of practical reason working within a particular tradition or and attempting to follow through on some of the inchoate suggestions that the vagueness of the practice offers. The opposite of rationalism for Oakeshott is not irrationalism but authentic practical reasonableness. Thus, and contrary to many of his reading-impaired critics, his critique of rationalism is not a critique of reason but a defense of it against a false modern conception of it.
To use one of Oakeshott’s favorite examples, if one has no knowledge of cookery, a cookbook is useless. If, on the other hand, one is an experienced chef, a cookbook is superfluous. The cookbook is relevant only in a situation where either the great majority of cooks are relatively inexperienced and there is a dearth of connoisseurs or in a situation in which the traditions of cookery are in a state of confusion and a reminder is needed of some of the tradition’s neglected resources.
Oakeshott used the term “ideology” to describe the attempted application of this rationalistic style to political activity. The rationalist’s or ideologist’s desire is to solve permanently the problems of political life and leave everything else to administration. Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth. Instead, as Oakeshott noted, “it is concerned with the cultivation of what from time to time are accepted as the peaceable decencies of conduct among men who do not suffer from the Puritan-Jacobin illusion that in practical affairs there is an attainable condition of things called ‘truth’ or ‘perfection.’”
I had never before heard of Oakeshott, but I see why Paleocons and Burkeans would like him. I, myself, cannot shake a certain rationalism. Practical reason involves action, but there are proper ends for practical action. Among such ends for a political community is justice. Can one be a wise, political leader without concerning himself with justice? “Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth.” If a commonwealth aims not simply for the survival of its people but also for their flourishing, isn’t the truth of human nature—and of the proper human ends—that with which politics should be concerned?
A few months ago, I read an interesting essay by Kenneth Westhues about conflicting modes of discourse in academic “mobbing”: “Why Mobbing Happens.” In particular, Westhues argues that the bullies who make up what we might call the “New Left” operate according to postmodern discourse’s rules. These different rules account for moblike behavior that strikes rational folks, who employ “modern discourse,” as bizarre. I disagree with the Enlightenment (sic) conceit that modern and rational are coterminous; awareness of the intellectual environment of medieval France, for instance, quickly dispels that unfounded libel. However, Westhues appears correct that our po-mo friends have been content to jettison the West’s intellectual and rhetorical heritage of millennia and to revert to a twisted barbarism of the spirit. Westhues summarizes his point:
Drawing and quoting freely from Roberts and Sailer, the paragraphs below profile first the modern mentality and then the postmodern one, and show how this difference helps answer the question of why certain conflicts occur. Then I describe some cases from my own research that illustrate the point. Essentially, what I argue is that in many mobbing cases, a professor cultivating modern discourse in the classroom and other scholarly venues is charged, punished, humiliated, and sometimes eliminated by students, colleagues, and/or administrators of a postmodern bent.
Following are ten key characteristics of modern discourse, what many professors and students even now consider the normal or standard way to think, study and argue in the academy:
• “personal detachment from the issues under discussion,” the separation of participants’ personal identities from subjects of inquiry and topics of debate;
• values on “confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort”;
• suited to a heterotopic space like a university class, scholarly journal, or session of a learned society conference, a place apart much like a playing field for sports events, where competitors engage in ritual combat before returning with a handshake to the realm of friendly, personal interaction;
• illustrated by debate in the British House of Commons;
• epitomized by the debates a century ago between socialist G. B. Shaw and distributist G. K. Chesterton;
• playfulness is legitimate: one can play devil’s advocate, speak tongue in cheek, overstate and use hyperbole, the object being not to capture the truth in a single, balanced monologue, but to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions;
• “scathing satire and sharp criticism” are also legitimate;
• the best ideas are thought to emerge from mutual, merciless probing and attacking of arguments, with resultant exposure of blindspots in vision, cracks in theories, inconsistencies in logic;
• participants are forced again and again to return to the drawing board and produce better arguments;
• the truth is understood not to be located in any single voice, but to emerge from the conversation as a whole.
Over the past half century, a competing mode of discourse, the one I call postmodern, has become steadily more entrenched in academe. Following are ten of its hallmarks, as Roberts and Sailer describe on their blogs:
• “persons and positions are ordinarily closely related,” with little insistence on keeping personal identity separate from the questions or issues under discussion;
• “sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values”;
• priority on “cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus”;
• “seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge,” in the eyes of proponents of modern discourse;
• tends to perceive the satire and criticism of modern discourse as “vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus”;
• is oriented to ” the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum”;
• lacking “means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation,” it will “typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition”;
• “will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.”;
• has a more feminine flavour, as opposed to the more masculine flavour of modern discourse;
• results in “stale monologues” and contexts that “seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers.”
When competing discourses collide
Roberts’s original post describes the competing modes of discourse in rich detail and shows how differences between them play out in today’s culture wars, as “offense-takers” and “offense trolls” use “human shields” and accusations of “hate speech” to silence opponents. That entire post, long as it is, merits close reading. For present purposes I highlight just one of Roberts’s hypotheses: “Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect. Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked.” This is but another way of saying that proponents of the postmodern mode of discourse have a tendency to engage in workplace mobbing, that is, to gang up on opponents and run them out of their jobs. Scapegoating and mobbing, so I have argued elsewhere, are pretty much the same thing. Roberts’s use of the former term probably derives in part from his reading of René Girard, the world’s foremost student of scapegoating, a wise scholar from whom I myself have learned a lot.
The piece is not elegantly composed, but it deals with phenomena relevant to many readers, especially students and faculty members who no longer study and teach in institutions conducive to open inquiry.
Last week, George Michalopulos posted a piece by some folks in the O.C.A. opposed to Bishop Matthias’ (Moriak) resuming his episcopal duties in the O.C.A. Diocese of the Midwest: “The Sons of Job vs Syosset.” I do not have a strong opinion about the matter, as I am not a member of the O.C.A. and because I generally have a strong aversion to penal actions. I am happy to let others deal with punishments; I just want everyone to do what is right. Sadly, men are obstinate in their wickedness, and les gendarmes et alia are necessary in society. Anyway, though I am not a partisan in the O.C.A. bishop’s battle, I did object to the reasoning and language of the “Sons of Job” statement. So, I commented:
While I am sympathetic to those fine Midwesterners who expect their bishop to behave like a bishop, I cringed at some of the statements in this article, especially in the dean’s letter:
When they observe that the Church has lower standards of consequences for sexual misconduct, harassment, and ‘Zero Tolerance’ than the U.S. Military or Corporate America – it is too much.
Both the military and the corporate world are governed by mad leftist worms and by cowards who bow to them and to their demonic ideology. Sexual harassment “law” in the United States is an unpleasant reminder of how weak and pathetic money-worshiping bourgeois society has become. Don’t rock the boat, and you’ll keep your job and paycheck — justice and integrity be damned!
And the language of the Sons themselves shows that they have adopted the mindset of feminism:
We had an archpastor with an immeasurable power differential of age, gender and office . . .
“Power differential,” “gender,” — these are ominous signs that the churchmen have fully adopted the Zeitgeist.
The bishop appears to have poor judgment, where he is more concerned about his own desires than about the good of his flock. There is no need to borrow the contaminating values of the enemies of traditional civilization to call his fitness for the episcopate into question.
This heretical attack on American orthodoxy (though pleasantly in timely accord with the Orthosphere) elicited many negative comment “votes” and even a few critical comments. Commentator “Catholic Observer” added:
I see what you are saying, kinda-sorta, but would you really want to return to the era when there were no sexual harassment laws? As a woman, I sure wouldn’t.
It’s not just leftist whiners who appreciate such laws. It’s any woman who has ever been humiliated by innuendo-laced questions at a job interview. Or who has attended an offsite sales conference that featured a “wet T-shirt” contest. (For female employees only, of course.) Or who has repulsed an attempted RAPE by her boss in the bowels of Widener Library and then received neither credence nor support from her employer, Harvard College Libraries. Or who has been fired from an ad agency after complaining to her superior about an influential client’s repeated sexual advances.
All of the incidents I’ve recounted above are 100% true stories. The first two occurred in my own life; the last two happened to friends.
You may want to go back to those days, before the “leftists” insisted that women have some protection and redress against workplace predators.
As for me…thanks, but no thanks.
(Yes, I am aware that there are male victims, too, but they are outnumbered by female victims, as you yourself seem to concede via your references to feminism.)
Elsewhere, “Catholic Observer” identified himself (I assume) [wrong—I had overlooked “As a woman . . .”] as a Roman traditionalist. He is not your typical “Take Back the Night” marching, Vagina Monologues watching member of N.O.W., but he nevertheless has accepted the feminist (sic) version of society and history. It is for such reasons that I think that our society will perish—not because of the abundance of crazies but because of the dearth of the sane. The leftist invasion of the mind snatchers has been quite successful. I responded:
Oh, absolutely. Those grievous dark days — you know, the 1950′s — when crimes were about transgressing clearly defined boundaries rather than about the subjective, perceived discomfort of “protected classes.” When standards for proper conduct were based upon the common, received morality of a Christian people rather than cowards’ fear of lawsuits by the Left’s designated pet victim groups. When society had the good sense to carve out spheres of sociable interaction for men and women and to regulate, through social force and through law, the necessary decorum and behavior required for a civilized society. After the deluge, when we live in an anarcho-tyrannical state of fear and mistrust, we have far more use, abuse, and degradation of women than existed in those intolerable years before the sexual and cultural revolution. Would I return society to civilization and away from barbarism? Definitely!
This prompted “Pere LaChaise” to write:
Joseph, you write like a true zealot for a vague reminiscence of things that were better before women and people of color got involved. Welcome to the past, sir.
I rather fancy the word “zealot.” I have often written that, to the consternation of my fellow wayfarers and to the dismay of my betters, I have a leftist personality. Unlike the Left, though, the past truly is welcome to me; I feel neither temporal alienation nor the burden of my predecessors. I just do not have those “Daddy issues.”
Well, I normally ignore leftist trolling and snarks, but I took the bait. Most readers of Monomakhos are generally conservative Orthodox Americans from the more modernist jurisdictions. They are like Republicans; the leftist transformation of society upsets them but they lack clear principles to know why it is bad. Hence, they usually adopt the framework and the principles of the enemy unaware, and they thus eventually fold like cardboard housing in a storm. I figure that my insignificant witness online and in person may help to counteract the incessant onslaught of confusion for the few with ears to hear. So, I replied:
Leftist regimes are unsustainable. For they misunderstand human nature (egalitarianism, refusal to acknowledge sex differences and roles, inconsistent awareness of the tribal reflex in man, and pretty much everything else characteristic of their insanity) and they aim for improper ends (autonomy of the individual will, fulfillment of the appetites, destruction of any hierarchy of values, priorities, or tastes beyond the individual’s choosing, overturning of all traditional, time-tested restraint, and the necessary, unavoidable contradictions of trying to impose liberalism – a glorification of the self – on others). And so they will not last long. The more successful they are in implementing their perverse understanding of justice, the quicker they will kill their host society. They are thus bad parasites (bad for the host and, in the long run, for themselves). One would think that so many who claim Darwin and natural science as unassailable authorities would apply the concept of fitness to their own political situation.
It is fitting that you take the name of a graveyard; it reminds me of Dostoevsky’s famous line about Europe. In that lovely Parisian plot lies the corpse of Jim Morrison, whose own life manifests well the disorder of the new regime and of the new man. In it, also, are the bodies of Héloïse and Abélard, who dealt with the injustices of the old regime—though a regime capable of regularly producing such beautiful and noble souls that transcend the shortcomings of an unjust world. In any human society, comprised of fallen men, there will be ugliness and rot. Some societies, however, cultivate virtue and goodness. Ours gives us Sandra Fluke. I’ll happily remember (through cultural memory, not my own) the time before sluts as sluts became our society’s heroes.
Do you blame the involvement of women and “people of color” [per Lou Grant—which color?] for the fall? Or is their lack of involvement all that matters? So, a strong, prosperous, socially (comparably) unified republic—1950’s America, where, incidently, Americans of all “colors” and sexes were more involved in their communities and with each other than in our age of increasing alienation—is to be condemned because women still largely ran domestic and unofficial civic affairs rather than the corporate world and elected offices? Because American blacks lived, depending on their location, with state-sponsored or state-tolerated segregation? Behold the liberal’s true mind-set! He would rather everyone live in equal misery in the husk of a decaying commonwealth than for people to live happily unequally in a stable and generally healthy society. For women and blacks are less happy now than in those terrible days before the 1960’s, but liberals can only process information with images of white cops with billy clubs and riot gear and the poor, eternally oppressed Negro. Where is the concern for blacks’ welfare as a result of Orwellian named “welfare”? Where is the concern for blacks’ moral goodness? Where is the liberal’s self-righteousness when lower end American blacks now live in a culture so filthy and bleak that even the Hobbesian state of nature looks more human and ennobling by comparison? In the terrible days of Jim Crow, it was much easier to find intact black families, solid and packed black religious congregations, black neighborhoods where crime was low and trust was high, and individual black Americans of developed virtue and good sense. The civil rights movement was useful for the talented tenth, but things took a nosedive for everyone else once whites started “helping” the poor blacks of neverending victimhood. This should not surprise anyone honest about human nature, but liberals do not believe in human nature. Moreover, for liberals, blacks are not moral agents—not human beings who choose right or wrong like everyone else—but rather sacralized objects of devotion by which liberals may practice their substitute heathen religion on the altar of white guilt (not their own, mind you, but others’). Every misdeed by a black is not a sin, crime, or moral failing, but rather the collective responsibility of “racism” – particular or “institutional” and “systemic.” To blot out these transgressions, the white liberals atone for the sins – of others. They are like Christ—indeed, better than Christ—since Christians are such bigots, you know. Every lefty is a little John “more popular than Jesus” Lennon who glows in self adulation, knowing that he is the redeemer of the world. Verily, verily, he is the one that he has been waiting for.
It is an unworthy but nevertheless bountiful offering of traditionalist points of which many (most?) of Mr. Michalopulos’ readers have been sadly unaware. Let us all do our part to plants seeds, though we do not know when and where kernels will fall on fertile ground. Moreover, if we occasionally have the pleasure of shoving such seeds in leftist eyes, it is so much the better. We all have our sinful indulgences.
Update: One of Michalopulos’ readers who is a proud representative from the Old Left objected to my characterization of leftist regimes as “unsustainable.” He offered Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Cuba as examples. I commented:
Take Sweden, for instance. Its ideology has reduced its birthrate, made its people into heathen hedonists incapable and unwilling to uphold their own nation, and invited alien hordes into its cities — an invasion that will lead to population replacement and to a very different cultural and social regime. In the meantime, when the less than leftist newcomers rape the women and assault the men, the society is voiceless and unable to address the problems (due to its ideology). Instead of identifying the causes behind the sharp spike in sexual assaults, the Swedes double down in their error and increase their estrogenized Orwellian policies, further emasculating Swedish men — the natural protectors of their compatriotes in a sane society. Similarly, when the newbies paint religio-ethnic slurs on synagogues and render some of the most Jew-friendly cities in the world dangerous to Jacob’s children, the elite worries about the rise of the “far right.” It’s beyond dystopic fiction, beyond farce. What has led those well ordered Scandinavians to such madness? Their autophagous leftist ideology, which will destroy their society, unless, as we hope, they will repent of it before it consumes them.
Last Friday was the one hundred thirty-second anniversary of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s death according to the Church’s calendar (February 9 O.S.). Recently, Mark Hackard republished “Dostoevsky on Modern Conservatism” on Alternative Right. In alt-right speak, Hackard’s piece on The Possessed is quite the “untimely observation.”
How strange it is that an apostate German linguist and a Russian Orthodox novelist, both from the nineteenth century, were, are, and will continue to be modernity’s greatest critics and prophets.
Update: Alternative Right appears to be going through a transition with new software, and Hackard’s article is currently unavailable. I expect the link to be repaired in the future, and I’ll leave the post. In the meantime, given Mark Hackard’s Russian expertise, here is some Friday frivolity to end this fast free week:
Reddit asks its readers what President Putin must have said to terrify the boy. They, however, do not know much about Russian Orthodoxy. What really scares the child is the prospect of acting out of line in front of Vladimir Vladimirovich, in the Lord’s house, during the divine liturgy, in the midst of pious Russian women. Those бабушками are the real enforcers of order and Orthodoxy.