The unlikely appeal of nonidealism
Thursday favors me with a link—please note that a link from Thursday is worth two or three, maybe even four, admiring notices in the New York Review of Books—and observes:
However, I would think your hope in the next generation is somewhat misplaced. Pure atheism is just too austere and unappealing a creed to ever gain much popularity, even among the elite. Young people, in particular, are just too inherently idealistic, in the larger sense, to ever embrace anything like it. They want to dream wonderful dreams and believe that they will come true. Sure, youthful rebelliousness will drive a few into the true non-Idealist camp, but not many. The hope that “the kids” will rebel against Idealism reminds me of the hope among traditionalist Christians that young people after the 60s would rebel against their parent’s licentiousness, while totally neglecting the fact that such a backlash goes against the inherent tendencies of youth. Really, they actually expected young people to lead the charge against sex. Expecting young people to lead the charge against Idealism, I’m afraid, is not much less Quixotic. The best we can reasonably expect is a very mild blowback, a kind of Idealism Lite.
Expecting young people to do anything predictable is certainly quixotic. And I am only 33, which is slightly old to be a Youth Leader and far too young to know anything at all. So Thursday’s comment certainly strikes at the heart of my dreams of world domination.
Please note, however, that there was once a time and a place when atheism struck a chord in the young. To be exact: in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing an atheist pamphlet.
Now let’s note that Shelley was (a) a swine, and (b) not a very good poet. Worse, his beliefs, far from the nonidealism (what Thursday calls “cold atheism”) that I advocate, were an almost perfect precursor of the Progressive-Idealist pap now ladled into kindergarteners everywhere.
All this is unimportant. What’s important is that there is no way Shelley could get himself expelled from Oxford, or from anywhere that matters, for writing this rag now. Its sentiments, far from shocking, are profoundly jejune. (“The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.”)
What would young Percy have to write to get himself in trouble with the Man these days? Well, there’s one obvious option: he could be a “racist.”
In fact the word “racism” is applied in almost exactly the same way, by almost exactly the same authorities, as “atheism” in 1811. It is an omnibus epithet for a tremendous variety of ideas and opinions which responsible authorities find dangerous or displeasing.
Some of these ideas are sensible and obvious. For example, one might be called a “racist” for thinking the US should have a fence on the border with Mexico, or for pondering Pinker’s dangerous idea. Others are spectacularly delusional, such as racial idealism or Holocaust revisionism. The racist writing I find most disturbing is the sort that is alternately lucid and absurd, such as the work of the anti-Jewish psychologist Kevin MacDonald.
Shelley’s expulsion may make a little more sense if you consider the fact that, to the people doing the expelling, “atheist” meant someone like Gracchus Babeuf. The good dons of Oxford did not intend their colleges to be plague vectors of madness and destruction. It took them a couple of centuries to realize that Shelley’s “pervading Spirit” could be, if anything, even more the pillar of society than any anthropomorphic Biblical God.
I certainly don’t think of myself as a racist. The concept is too broad and the connotations too nasty for the word to be useful. Nor would I advise anyone to choose selected “racist” views, even well-selected ones, and use this as a basis for adopting the bad-boy label. I do think it’s a good idea to read racist books, but just because a generalist should read all kinds of stuff. After six brutal and rigorous years of training in the mountains of Tibet, the lesson of the Master, Chung-Foo, pierced me in a single penetrating scream, and now I can read books I disagree with—they who know nothing of this art, they should not scoff.
But as I’ve noted before, many of the Progressive-Idealist verities now being inhaled by six-year-olds everywhere are no less crazed than the racisms of the past—indeed, they often include racial idealism itself, just not the Aryanist strain of the bug. Nor are they less pregnant with the potential for epic slaughter. Au contraire—I find it much easier to imagine future massacres in the name of the Environment than the Aryan Folk, or whatever.
(It’s an oddity of its own that so many can worry so hard about a reanimation of such an unfashionable ideal. In fact, it’s almost as if the Progressive-Idealists were still basking in the glory of their last really good war. But nah—couldn’t be. After all, they’re for Peace.)
So there is an excitement to nonidealism. The excitement is in realizing that all the crap that’s being pumped into your ears is exactly that. Remember that my definition of an Ideal is an undefined universal. Humanity fits this definition. So does Democracy. But Truth doesn’t—it’s an axiom, not a mystery. You can’t think if you don’t know what truth is.
The moment in which your doubts congeal into a definite picture of reality, which is yours and yours alone—except of course for everyone else in the dorm—is a classic coming-of-age experience. Ideally this is combined with powerful drugs. (My orange-robed minions are not known for their pharmaceutical inhibitions.) This is no doubt how Shelley thought when he thought about God. Such moments terrify the old and powerful, and it they should.
Realizing that Ideals are mighty strange things to believe in is a moment of logical truth. It is a difficult moment, no doubt about it, and it takes a lot of factual and philosophical background. I have endeavored to supply these goods and I will continue to do so.
But there is a matching emotional truth that demands no training at all.
Possibly the strangest thing about the way young people in the West learn to think these days is that their minds are constantly overloaded with what one might call sentiment. Sentiment is a learned emotional response. It is a kind of practiced empathy, or antipathy.
The idea of sentiment is that if we all genuinely feel the right emotional response to events in the world, this will motivate us to support good works, or to oppose evil ones. This concept is of course derived from Christianity, specifically its pietist, postmillennial Protestant strain. Progressive-Idealism has inherited it almost completely intact.
Of course, there is such a thing as genuine feeling, and there is such a thing as trained feeling. The two are quite orthogonal. A bus plunge is one thing. A bus plunge with your aunt on it is another.
The nonidealist moment is the realization that sentiment is dangerous. It is in fact a hook by which almost anyone can be manipulated in almost any direction.
For example, any side in any war is certain to be committing dark and evil deeds, because war is a dark, evil thing. Any side in any war is also certain to be suffering horribly, because war is a well-known cause of suffering. It is bad for children and other living things. Therefore there are always plausible emotional reasons to oppose War and to favor Peace.
But, of course, neither side in a war wants war and both want peace. They intend to obtain this nice commodity by winning the war. Since few wars end in a mathematically perfect tie, at least one of them will. Thus, the armies of the sentimental, which are more legion every day, can be used to support either side in a war. And typically these days they are.
In some ways, Progressive-Idealists realize this. In fact they are very concerned, indeed bizarrely concerned, about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might be manipulated into sentimental hate. Perhaps this is because artificial hate was one of the favorite tools of their favorite enemies, the racial idealists, whose blackened bones may yet be unearthed in some suburb of Dresden and spring shockingly to life, performing the Hitler salute and screaming skeletal imprecations about die Juden.
Except for these ancient foes, however, and of course their modern descendants the National Socialist Republican Workers’ Party, the PIs are not all that interested in hate. Instead, their favorite sentiments are love, pity, and guilt. Quite a few songs can be built on these three simple chords, especially if you throw in just a touch of hate for the dramatic climax.
The overall sense that history will get from the Progressive-Idealist period, I suspect, is a tremendous taste of saccharine. Love, pity, and guilt are all emotions from the sweet side of the spectrum. When these emotions, which in normal life are relatively uncommon and certainly not felt every moment of every day, are turned up to 11 and pumped out the school loudspeaker in endless, repetitive patterns, the result is a sort of numbing alienation, which I’m sure is often diagnosed as ADHD. Presumably doing a pile of speed with your daily dose of the Environment or the travails of the Indigenous Peoples does something to mitigate the feeling that you’re swimming in corn syrup.
What you realize as a nonidealist is that it’s okay not to participate in these rites. You don’t even need to deny them. You don’t need to raise your hand and say “I hate the environment,” or “I think I might be a racist.” You can practice what Czeslaw Milosz called ketman, not only rejecting the whole ridiculous circus, but deriving real visceral pleasure from the exercise of pretending to conform with it.
And instead, you can love only the things that you yourself love, pity only the people that you yourself pity, and feel guilty only for any crimes that you yourself have committed.
In fact, you should cherish the fact that you live in a society which indulges itself in absurd political parodies of these emotions. Because when you actually feel the real things, and distinguish them from their sentimental counterfeits, you get to feel special. And everyone likes to feel special—not just young people.