Miscellaneous answers to unanswered comments
Having safely arrived in an old Dutch village on the Eastern Seaboard, I find that though my Dutch is nonexistent, they all seem to speak English these days and the Internet works perfectly. So I’m in a position to stave off the growing impression of an abandoned blog.
First, various persons have complained about the monicker “Mencius Moldbug.” I adopted this handle because of my habit of posting as “Mencius” on these blogs and “moldbug” on this rather different one. I agree that it is anything but euphonious, but handles are hard to change—ask The Edge or CmdrTaco, both of whom I’m sure would love to ditch their puerile pseuds. I’d like to think mine is at least better than that. However, it certainly has nothing to do with the Chinese philosopher, Carlos Mencia, fungi, insects, etc., and I apologize if anyone is misled.
In general, if the double-barreled monstrosity is too much of a mouthful to repeat and there is no chance of confusion with the Chinese philosopher, I prefer the name “Mencius.” Because no one really is named “Moldbug”—it only really works as a lower-cased handle.
I’ll probably just unmask myself at some point. I mean, it’s not like I have an actual career, anyway. I’m just very resistant to posting under my real name because, if you knew my real name and you searched the archives of an obsolete network called Usenet for it, you’d get far too many hits. Since I am 34, no reasonable person would associate anything written in 1992 with the individual I am now, but unfortunately, not everyone is reasonable. I recognize that this predicament has nothing to do with anything. But we all have our phobias.
I also want to reiterate that I am not, in fact, reducing UR to one post a week. Rather, there’s a narrative thread that runs through this blog and that has generated some long essays, and I want to make this thread slightly more formal and put it on a weekly basis. But there are also little fuzzy pieces of yarn sticking out in random directions, and these will remain.
(Also, there are now a few people with whose email I am extremely delinquent. If you are one of these people, I will get back to you in the next two days—I swear by Odhinn’s spear. And he didn’t hang those nine long nights for nothing, you know.)
Moving back to actual content, one commenter mentions science fiction as a locus of resistance to Universalism. Indeed, I read a huge quantity of SF growing up (and I don’t mean by this to suggest that the entire genre is somehow automatically puerile). Much of it was libertarian in tone, and even when it wasn’t, the exercise of imagining alternative political systems is automatically liberating. I suspect most anyone reading this had more or less the same experience.
However, if you want to seriously consider alternative political systems, it’s not clear to me that a fictional context—despite its distinguished historical pedigree—makes for either the best argument, or the best fiction. Memorability, while not the be-all and end-all, is often an interesting test of quality, and the SF I remember best after a decade-plus of abstinence tends not to be Heinlein or Stephenson, but more imaginative writers like Paul Park and Lucius Shepard. And if you have something to say, why not just say it?
There’s also a case to be made that the sugar-pill of an imaginative context helps communicate these messages to the masses. Perhaps. But, first, this idea that intellectuals have a duty to lead the non-intellectual masses is a lot of how we got into this mess to begin with. I’d much prefer to live in a world in which the masses can think whatever they want to think, ditto for the intellectuals, and no one’s philosophy affects anyone else. Of course to actually accomplish a transition to such a world, or to modify present political realities in any way, the masses must at least show up and affix their imprimatur. However, this can only happen if it follows an intellectual consensus or at least a movement, and any successful intellectual movement tends to attract the masses whether it wants to or not. So I feel it’s much more useful and effective, for libertarians and other dissidents, to simply focus on being right.
Also, it’s not really clear how well the dissident themes in these books are absorbed. To me it’s obvious that J.K. Rowling has had one too many run-ins with moralizing Universalist bureaucrats, and one would expect her readers to be suitably primed for rebellion. On the other hand, to me it’s obvious that J.R.R. Tolkien—a far greater writer—despised the State and Power in every form, and was horrified by the Universalist belief that this Ring could be used, Boromir style, for good as well as evil. But if 0.1% of the people who have read Tolkien, or seen those awful, tone-deaf movies that were made out of his books, understand this, I’d be very, very surprised.
The same commenter also mentions Congregationalism. Of course, Congregationalists were Puritans and are now Universalists, so the link is entirely justified, and the phrase “mutant Congregationalism” is inarguable. Still, it’s interesting to note that the literal meaning of the name—the principle that each church is intellectually independent, and can decide for itself on theological questions—is in fact the direct opposite to the actual orthodoxy that was imposed under this name. Because the churches did not, in fact, differ, and do not differ to this day. The tolerance is entirely illusory.
These kinds of ironies are very common in the whole Protestant complex. And going back to the biological analogy, they represent a kind of misdirected immune response, an attempt to achieve mental independence which in many (if not all) cases only resulted in a newer, more effective system of indoctrination, that’s worth discussing in much more detail.
Someone else wants to know what I think of Ayn Rand. An excellent question, although it’s one I have some difficulty in answering because I’ve never read any of Rand’s books from cover to cover. I simply don’t like her as a writer, which makes it hard for me to express a fair opinion on her as a thinker.
However, with that caveat, my general view is that Rand’s attempt to break out of the Universalist-Revelationist (aka “liberal-conservative”) dichotomy was a bold one and worthy of much respect. Objectivism is one of the few genuine root nodes in the cladogram of Western thought. You simply cannot describe it as Christian in any way, and as such it represents a considerable achievement. For example, it differs from Rothbardian libertarianism here—Rothbardian ethics are basically Lockean ethics, and Locke was certainly a Christian. Connecting natural rights to the Bible is not hard at all.
But there is something much too Papal about Rand. She essentially constructed a system of morality and required all reasonable people to accept it. I don’t find her solution to the is—ought problem any more compelling than anyone else’s—to me, ethics are fundamentally a matter of taste, and I feel no more entitled to tell someone else they should find X ethical or Y unethical, than to tell them they should like poetry and they shouldn’t like badminton.
I feel that all reasonable people should be reasonable. I don’t ask anything more than this, and I certainly have no intention of asking Universalists to stop being Universalists, Revelationists to stop being Revelationists, Muslims to stop being Muslims, etc., etc.—at least not in the sense of the value systems associated with these faiths. My view is just that a great many beliefs about the real world have become associated with these value systems, and a great many people who are otherwise quite reasonable fail to evaluate these beliefs reasonably.
For example, Universalists (like Revelationists, and basically all Christians) believe that all humans are ethically equal. No rational argument can be made either for or against this position. It is what it is, and I happen to more or less (like Peter Singer, I make some allowance for diminished states of consciousness) share it. After all, I was raised a Universalist.
But Universalists also believe that this proposition implies the proposition that all humans should be governed by “civil servants” of their own race, color, creed, or at least “nationality” (never mind that this concept should be meaningless to a Universalist). Obviously, I find this derivation—which is all the sense I can glean from the bizarre phrase “self-government”—debatable at best and ludicrously incoherent at worst.
I feel this debate is quite enough for anyone to take on. I don’t think that any set of beliefs about the spirit world, theistic or atheistic, are incompatible with an accurate perception of reality. The same goes for any set of ethical beliefs. My quarrel with the various modern religions, including but not limited to the Universalist and Revelationist versions of Christianity, is that they are all associated with beliefs about reality that are transmitted along with them, many of which are quite sound, many of which strike me as extremely strange and remarkably unreasonable.
I’m sure my judgment of many of these beliefs—metaphysical, moral and temporal—is exactly the same as Rand’s. Nonetheless, I don’t feel it helps anyone to attack the metaphysical and moral elements of Christianity, especially not in the same breath in which one suggests that the temporal elements of their received belief system may be complete baloney—or at least that it may be a useful exercise to treat these elements as if they were complete baloney, if only for the purpose of reconfirming them. If this is misguided altruism, call me an altruist.
In my ideal world, there are still Universalists, Revelationists, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. In fact, in my ideal world, I would have no problem in describing myself as a Universalist. But all I mean by this is that my metaphysical and moral beliefs are basically Universalist. In my ideal world, however, your metaphysical and moral beliefs would be entirely orthogonal to your understanding of reality and how it works, and especially to your understanding of such politically delicate fields as history and economics. Obviously, in the real world, this is not so.
Another commenter mentions—among many interesting points (yes, I certainly do see the whole bizarre Puritan obsession with the Old Testament mythos as a fundamental strand in the Universalist creed)—David Gelernter’s new book, Americanism. I have a copy of this book and I intend to review it here, so please stay tuned. (Also, anyone can call me anything they like—so long as they don’t mention my true name, which I received a thousand centuries ago on the fire-planet Zond. I would be forced to return to my original form, and destroy them. And nobody wants that.)
I feel a blockquote is desirable here, for no particular reason:
However, I think serious discussions began on both sides when CFR personnel began appearing on television news programs with the person’s name and the simple title, “Council on Foreign Relations” beneath. Personally, I keep tabs on the world conspiracy by reading Foreign Affairs every month. At $32 a year (two years for $60)you may peer directly into the core of the Progressive-Universalist nervous system, and monitor the most intimate and therfore banal goings on there. Wells was right—the conspiracy is totally open. I mean really—what are you going to do about it? FA is evil at its wonkiest: how best to achieve a federated world state without sexism or racism, managed by transnational NGOs of zero accountability? The rest of it is even more trivial: now that we have the levers of power, what settings are best? The siesta-inducing cover story this month is concerned that globalization’s benefits are insufficiently distributed, which any honest economist (not that there are any living) could have told you would be the case. The apparatchik’s solution: a New Deal for Globalism! Well, that can’t go wrong. Once the UN is granted direct power to tax, all of the successes that the US is currently enjoying from the Income Tax, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement, et. al. can be expanded to encircle the globe. The rough beast come round to Bethlehem at last!
Indeed. As for honest economics, I hope to offer a little in that vein myself, but one could do a lot worse than the Mises Institute.
Another commenter more or less answers his or her own question, but observes that views of the UN have changed over time. Indeed they have—reality has shown many Universalists that the UN is not the organization they want it to be. But this does not change their emotional attachment to the idea of the UN, the ideal of world government that it represents. It simply reminds them that there’s a very long road from here to there. Moreover, I think that the number of die-hard right-wing UN-haters in the US—as represented by the set of people who believe the US should leave the UN, an easily pollable question—has in general declined over time. But I have no numbers on this—it’s just a guess.
Lastly, the question everyone’s been waiting for: why don’t the Universalists do something useful, like legalizing pot? A fascinating question, because one notes that all the hippie ideas of the ’60s that involved making the State bigger and stronger have (pretty much) happened, whereas all the others have (pretty much) not. This certainly deserves its own discussion, but I will say one thing: the answer is in Jouvenel.