OL4: Dr. Johnson’s hypothesis

In the first three chapters, dear open-minded progressive, we’ve tried to build up some tools that will help you evaluate the disturbing proposition we’re about to present.

The proposition is neither new nor mysterious. We’ll call it Dr. Johnson’s hypothesis—from this quip by the great Doctor:

And I have always said, the first Whig was the Devil.

Of course this is not a hypothesis in the scientific sense of the word—we cannot prove it, nor will we try. It is just a phrase you can agree with, or not.

The great advantage of Dr. Johnson’s formulation is that it has a pleasant boolean quality. You can agree or disagree. It is pretty hard to be indifferent. Let’s take it for granted that, as a progressive, you disagree, and we’ll try to figure out what might change your mind.

What does it mean that “the first Whig was the Devil?” What do you think of when you think of the Devil? I always think of Mick Jagger:

Please allow me to introduce myself I’m a man of wealth and taste I’ve been around for a long, long year Stole many a man’s soul to waste

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ Had his moment of doubt and pain Made damn sure that Pilate Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you Hope you guess my name But what’s puzzling you Is the nature of my game

I stuck around St. Petersburg When I saw it was a time for a change Killed the czar and his ministers Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank Held a general’s rank When the Blitzkrieg raged And the bodies stank

Surely we can agree that the Devil rode a tank, held a general’s rank, when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank. What Dr. Johnson is proposing is that the Adversary clapped at the Putney Debates, that he smeared his face and shook his tomahawk on the Dartmouth, that he leered and cackled as he swore the Tennis Court Oath. Not that it’s a short song, but I don’t recall these bits.

Of course, there is that part about St. Petersburg, when it was time for a change… I actually have been holding out on you guys here. I have a little family secret to reveal.

I am not a progressive. But my father’s parents were. Great Neck Jews of the Yiddish variety, progressive is the exact word they always used to describe their views. And they meant exactly the same thing by it that Barack Obama does. One of the last things my grandmother said to me, before she fell down the stairs and smashed her frontal lobe (kids, when your elderly relatives sign living wills, they generally mean it—make sure the doctors are reminded, often), was that Frank Rich is a really, really wonderful writer.

Only, you know what? For Gramps and Grandma, who were about the nicest people you could imagine, who certainly had no interest in the Devil or any of his works, not even Mick Jagger, progressive was a code word. A sort of dog-whistle. What they really were was Communists.

I don’t mean just pinkos or fellow travelers of the “Alger—I mean, Adlai” variety. I mean actual, dues-paying members of the CPUSA. From the ’30s through at least the ’70s. Did they have cards? Did they carry them? Did they ever pull out their Party cards by mistake at Safeway? “I’m sorry, ma’am, this may entitle you to free travel on the Moscow subway, but it does not provide access to our low-priced specials.” I’m afraid these details are lost to history.

But my brother has wartime letters from my grandfather in which he closes by asking his wife to “keep faith with the Party.” My parents recall dinner-table conversations from the early ’70s in which the phrase “party line” was used in a non-ironic context. And the story goes that the two of them actually met at a Party meeting, at which Gramps stood on a chair in someone’s kitchen and made some kind of a rabble-rousing speech.

I am relying on family hearsay here. Because my grandmother would never admit any of it, even to me. Not that I outed myself as a Jacobite, but it must have been clear that I hadn’t been reading quite enough Frank Rich. Once I screwed up my courage and asked her if the story about owing my existence to a Party cell was true. “Oh, no,” she said. “It was a meeting of the American League for Peace and Democracy.” I’m afraid Grandma’s conspiratorial reflexes were not made for a world with Wikipedia.

So, in 2008 terms, what we’re saying when we say that the first Whig was the Devil is that this idea of “progress” might be kind of, well, creepy and weird. As you see, my family background predisposes me to this suspicion. There is no use in trying to convince me that there was never any such thing as an international Communist conspiracy.

As a modern progressive, of course, you are not a Communist but (as Sartre put it) an anti-anti-Communist. You think of Communism as a mistake, which of course is exactly what it was. The anti-Communism of a Joe McCarthy or a Robert Welch still shocks and appalls you. Its opposite does not. “McCarthyist” is a live insult in your mind. So is “fascist.” “Communist,” or any of its variants, is kind of dated and almost funny. “You Communist!”

At most you might say that Obama is a communist the same way Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Romney is not a Mormon because he, personally, read the Book of Mormon and felt the awe and mystery of Joseph Smith’s golden plates. He is a Mormon because his parents were Mormons. Just as Obama’s were communists. (I use the small ‘c’ to mean sympathy, not membership.) Even if you made Romney absolute king of the universe, I suspect that re-establishing the State of Deseret would not be high on his agenda. I’m sure the same goes for Obama and the Politburo.

The anti-anti-Communist theory of history has a special niche for Communism. It is not good, exactly, but it is also not good to attack it. So we won’t. The truth is that Communism is only one small part of the progressive experience. The conclusion that progressivism must be bad because Stalin called himself “progressive” is just as facile and fallacious as the conclusion that reaction must be bad because Hitler (though he did not use the word) was a reactionary.

At best Communism is an example of how “progress” could be creepy and weird. But, because of these historical associations, it’s not an effective example of “creepy and weird.” Here’s a better one: Scientology.

Did you watch the Tom Cruise Scientology video? I really think this is a necessity. If you go straight from this to the Obama We Are The Ones video (not, I hasten to point out, an official campaign production), what is your gut response? Coincidence? Or, um, conspiracy?

What I’m suggesting is that progressivism, from Dr. Johnson’s Whigs (and even well before) to “will.i.am,” is a little like Scientology. Let me emphasize the word little. I’d say progressivism resembles Scientology in the same way that Scarlett Johansson resembles the Caenorhabditis elegans nematode, a Porsche Cayenne resembles a wheelbarrow, or LSD resembles green tea. On the surface, they are totally different things. The similarities are all low-level.

Scientology is obviously creepy and weird. To make the case that progressivism is creepy and weird, we have one overwhelming challenge: the fact that progressives are not, in general, creepy and weird. Progressives are, in general, pleasant, well-educated and well-grounded. This cannot be said of Scientologists.

Then again, there’s another thing that Scientologists don’t have: friends in high places. At least as far as I’m aware. I would like to think that the penetration of Scientology in government and other prestigious institutions is fairly minor. Perhaps I am mistaken about this. I hope not. Because I really have no reason to think that if Scientologists take control of any institution—the CIA, Cirque du Soleil, the New York Times, Starbucks, the NBA, Yale, Apple, you name it—they will ever depart of their own free will. At least if you believe Mr. Cruise, they seem quite sincere about their desire to take over the world. For its own good, of course.

Again, does this ring a bell? Maybe. But there’s only so much we can learn from this kind of innuendo. I’m afraid it’s time for some heavy political theory.

Our concern is the relationship, past and present, between progressivism and American institutions. Clearly a tricky question. There is no plausible null answer, as for Scientology. There is something going on. But what is it? What is the big picture?

Let’s play a fun little game. We’ll separate civilized societies into three types—1, 2, and 3—according to their relationship between opinion and authority. To make the game fun, I’ll describe the classes abstractly, without giving examples. Then we’ll try to figure out which class we live in.

Type 3 is what Karl Popper called the open society. In a type 3 society, thoughts compete on the basis of their resemblance to reality. Institutions which propagate thoughts compete on the basis of the quality of the thoughts they propagate. Is this rocket science? It is not.

Good ideas outcompete bad ideas in a type 3 society, because most of us would rather be clueful than deluded. While many individuals have cognitive biases—such as a natural preference for optimistic over pessimistic predictions, or the reverse—these average out and are dwarfed by the general ambition of intellectuals, to see reality as it actually is. Intellectuals are brutally competitive by nature, and delight in exploding the delusions of others. Nonsense should not last long around them.

Thus, in a type 3 society, we cannot say that everyone will agree and they will all be right. But we can be quite confident that the best thoughts will be readily available to those who care to think them. In a type 3 society there will always be superstitions, because there will always be superstitious people, who may like everyone else think and speak as they please. There will always be differences of opinion, because many questions cannot be answered by precise and objective methods—whose performance is better, Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca or Rutger Hauer’s in Split Second? But since reality is one thing, and people are people, people who are smart and want to understand reality will generally cluster around the truth.

So when you live in a type 3 society, while you can think for yourself, you generally don’t have to think for yourself. Why buy a cow, when milk is so cheap? The type 3 society makes an accurate perception of reality easily available to anyone who wants it. If you want an accurate understanding of history, just buy a history book. If you want a weird, creepy understanding of history, you can probably find that as well, but first you will need to find a group of historians who share your weird, creepy biases. The sane ones will almost certainly be in the majority.

I think you and I can agree that a type 3 society is where we want to live. The question is: do we live in one? Let’s take a rain check on this baby.

Type 1 is basically the opposite of type 3. Let’s call it the loyal society. In a type 1 society, your thoughts are coordinated by the government. Public opinion is a matter of state security.

Why is public opinion a matter of state security? Because people are freakin’ dangerous. Anyone who has ever raised a male child has seen its instinctive affection for weapons. Heck, chimpanzees are freakin’ dangerous. And you’ll notice that most of the earth’s surface is controlled by their hairless relatives, which is clearly not how it would be if our brother apes had their druthers.

In a type 1 society, the State establishes two categories of thoughts: good thoughts and bad thoughts. It penalizes people for expressing bad thoughts, or rewards them for expressing good thoughts, or ideally, of course, both.

A bad thought is any thought that, if a sufficient number of people were to think it, might be threatening to the safety of the State. A good thought is any thought that is useful to the State, even if just because it fits in the spot where a bad one might otherwise go.

To install its good thoughts in your brain, the State supports a set of official information organs, institutions which churn out good thinking on a cradle-to-grave basis. The organs install good thoughts in the young, and maintain them in the adult. Hominids are learning machines. They learn what’s put in front of them. It’s really not that hard.

To keep bad thoughts from spreading, the State uses its powers to discourage, prohibit or destroy unofficial or otherwise uncoordinated information organs. It constructs a legal environment in which direct, person-to-person transmission of bad thoughts is socially and professionally imprudent at best, actionable at worst. It may exempt dissenters from the protection of the law, or impose legal disabilities on them, or on those who tolerate them. Or, of course, it can imprison, banish or execute them.

In a successful type 1 society—there have been many—the range of good thoughts may be rich and broad. Many if not all of them can be quite sensible. It should be possible for an intelligent member of the governing classes to live a normal and successful life without once being tempted to venture off the reservation.

However, from the perspective of the security forces, it may be quite useful to have one or two questions for which the bad answer is true, and the good one is nonsense. Some people are just natural-born troublemakers. Others are naturally loyal. Separating the sheep from the goats gives the authorities a great way to focus on the latter.

Of course, not everyone in a type 1 society needs to be a believer. The more the better, however, especially among the governing classes. An ideal structure is one in which believers are concentrated among the most fashionable and successful social circles, and dissenters (if there are any) tend to be poorly educated, less intelligent, and nowhere near as wealthy. If this can be achieved, the believers will feel a natural and healthy contempt for the dissenters, who will be inclined to abandon any bad thoughts they may have been brought up with if they have any desire to succeed in life.

The sine qua non of a type 1 society is central coordination of information. Because the organs are the instruments which make state security a reality, they cannot be allowed to contradict each other. In a state which is secured purely by military force, can various units of the army and navy get into little catfights with each other? Um, no. Likewise, in a state secured by thought control (as well as probably some military force), any intellectual conflict is a menace of the first order. Even on trivial details, disagreement means instability.

In other words, the information organs of a type 1 society are synoptic. They see the world through one eye, one set of doctrines, one official story. Call it the synopsis.

How does a type 1 state maintain the coherence of its synopsis? One easy way is to have a single leader, who exercises unified executive supervision. Ideally the same leader manages both physical and intellectual security. If the type 1 state doesn’t have a single leader, it should at least have a single authoritative institution. Since security depends on synoptic coherence, any divergence can quite literally lead to civil war.

There is no mystery around the historical identity of type 1 societies. This is an unambiguously right-wing pattern. It is also the default structure of human government: the god-king. The Greeks called it “oriental despotism.” In Christian history it is known as caesaropapism. In Anglo-American history, it is the throne-and-altar state, as represented by the high-church Anglican or Catholic tradition. When Americans express an affection for separation of Church and State, they are expressing an antipathy to the type 1 design.

And, of course, in 20th-century history we see the type 1 state most clearly in National Socialism and Italian Fascism. The fascisms discarded most of the trappings of Christian theism, but reused the basic caesaropapist design. Under Hitler’s supervision, of course, Goebbels was more or less the pope of Nazi Germany. His executive authority over all intellectual content in the Third Reich, from films to schools to universities, was easily the equal of any medieval pontiff’s. (I highly recommend watching The Goebbels Experiment.)

The Nazi term Gleichschaltung, generally translated as “coordination,” is more or less the modern epitome of the type 1 design. The Nazis also used the word Aufklärung, meaning “enlightenment” or literally “clearing-up,” for the inculcation of useful thoughts in the German people. I think of this term every time I see a “public service message.”

We also see the type 1 pattern, if not quite as distinctly, in the Communist states. It tends to be more institutional and less personal. It is easy to identify Communist Hitlers, but there is no clear Communist equivalent of Goebbels. Communist states over time experienced a decay of personal authority, which passed instead to institutions. But the Party in a modern one-party state is more or less equivalent to the Church in the old Christian dispensation, and an established church is an established church whether governed by pope or synod.

The type 1 state is certainly the most common form in history. It is not the end of the world. China today is a type 1 society. It also has the world’s most successful economy, and not such a bad place to live at all. Elizabethan England, which experienced perhaps the greatest artistic explosion in human history, was a type 1 society, with secret police galore. On the other hand, North Korea is a type 1 society, and it’s awful in almost every possible way. I can say generally that I would rather live in a type 3 society than in a type 1 society, but the details matter.

But here is the problem.

The problem is: modern, post-1945 Western society certainly does not match the description of a type 1 society. For example, there is no coordinating authority. Unless you can come up with some conspiracy theory (Joo! Joo!), it simply doesn’t exist. There is no Goebbels who tells writers what to write, filmmakers what to film, journalists what to print, or professors what to profess. There is no Pope, there is no Church, there is no Party, there is nothing. And as we’ve seen, the type 1 design makes no sense without coordination.

On the other hand, however…

One, while our society does not match the type 1 description in this essential sense, it seems to match it quite well in others. And two, while it matches the type 3 description in some ways, it does not seem to match it in others.

In a type 3 society, for example, we should see intellectual inhomogeneities between competing institutions. Harvard and Yale should mostly agree, because reality is one thing. So should the New York Times and the Washington Post. But there will always be sclerosis, stagnation, drift. Competition, not just among ideas but among institutions, is essential to the Popperian ideal. We should see these institutions drift away from reality. And we should see the marketplace of ideas punish them when they do, and reward those which do not.

Do you see this? Because I sure don’t. What I see is a synopsis.

From my perspective, not just Harvard and Yale, but in fact all major American universities in the Western world, offer exactly the same intellectual product. Which institution is more to the left, for example? Harvard, or Yale? You can pick any two mainstream universities, and you will not be able to answer this question. It’s a sort of intellectual peloton.

And it’s not that we don’t see drift. There is plenty of drift. If you ask which is more to the left, Harvard today or Harvard in 1958, the answer is easy. Yet somehow, the entire peloton is drifting in the same direction at the same speed. Does this scream “type 3” to you? And yet, if there is some Goebbels telling Harvard and Yale professors what to profess, the secret is awfully well-kept.

The same is true of newspapers. The so-called “mainstream media” is certainly a synopsis. Just as there is a bright line between mainstream and non-mainstream universities, there is a bright line between mainstream and non-mainstream media. The latter may be all over the map. The former constitute a synopsis. And the journalistic and academic synopses are clearly identical—mainstream journalists do not, as a rule, challenge mainstream academic authority.

These “mainstream” institutions look very, very like the set of information organs that we’d expect to see in a type 1 society. And their product is clearly a synopsis. Yet they are clearly not subject to any kind of central coordination.

I think the post-1945 mainstream synopsis is important enough to be a proper noun. Let’s call it the Synopsis. Let’s also give the set of institutions that produce and propagate the Synopsis—mainstream academia, journalism and education—a name. Let’s call them the Cathedral. What explains these phenomena?

The Synopsis, of course, has an answer. The answer is that we live in a type 3 society, and the Synopsis is the set of all reasonable ideas. As for the Cathedral, it is simply the culmination of the great human quest for knowledge. It is just as permanent as the reality it exists within and elucidates, which is why there will still be a Harvard and a Yale in 2108, 2208, and 3008.

Here again is our null hypothesis. If you believe in the Synopsis and trust the Cathedral, you are either a progressive or an idiot. There is no way to receive a mainstream university education, read the Times every morning, trust both of them, and not be a progressive. Unless, of course, you’re an idiot.

But there is another hypothesis, which is that we live in a type 2 society.

The type 2 society is the consensus society. Its hallmark is the phenomenon of spontaneous coordination. You might call it Gleichschaltung without Goebbels. Spontaneous coordination can produce an official information system which in all other respects resembles that of a type 1 society, but which is not responsible to any central authority or institution.

Basically, a type 1 society is a government in which the State controls the press and the universities. A type 2 society is one in which the press and the universities control the State. It is easy to tell the two forms apart, but the customer experience is pretty much the same.

Like a type 1 society, a type 2 society can be reasonably comfortable and pleasant to live in. The type 2 design is more stable in some ways, and less stable in others. It is not the end of the world. As one who would prefer a type 3 society, however, I consider it pernicious.

Type 2 societies tend to form from the breakdown of central authority in type 1 societies. Recall that in a type 1 society, public opinion is power. It is the power of the mob. A mob cannot defeat an army, but if the army is neutral, whoever has the biggest mob wins.

What happens in a type 1 society when the center fails? When censorship no longer operates, journalists no longer take orders, heretics are no longer burned at the stake, professors are no longer hired or fired for their political beliefs? You might think that the natural outcome would be a type 3 society, a marketplace of ideas in which only freedom rules and thoughts compete on their value alone.

But the connection between public opinion and political power still holds. Therefore, the information organs are still acting as power centers. If their views diverge, as without type 1 supervision they will, they can compete in two ways: on the basis of intellectual righteousness, or on the basis of political power. If they choose the former and abjure the latter, they will be at a disadvantage against those to whom all weapons are friends. Moreover, since political power is a deadlier weapon, successful competitors are likely to resolve any tradeoffs between power and righteousness in favor of the former.

We can describe the type 1 pathology as coercive power distortion. Political power distorts the landscape of ideas, rendering the playing field non-flat. Ideas that the State favors are artificially popularized. Ideas that it disfavors are artificially discouraged.

The type 2 equivalent is attractive power distortion. The coercive State does not exist, or at least does not coerce. But the connection between power and public opinion remains. Ideas, therefore, are selectively favored on the basis of their capacity to serve as standards around which to organize coalitions, which can struggle for power by whatever means are effective.

Again, from the type 3 perspective, attractive power distortion is pathological for the same reason as coercive power distortion. It is an alternative criterion which contributes to the success or failure of ideas, and has nothing to do with their validity.

For example, in many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army. We saw this effect earlier in the cohesive type 1 state, but it works just as well for competing type 2 factions.

This does not explain, however, how the chaotic post-type-1 society congeals into the mature, spontaneously coordinated type 2 society. Why do we have one Synopsis and one Cathedral, rather than a whole host of competing synopses and cathedrals?

The answer, I think, is that even the type 2 society has only one government. It is impossible for two competing information system to capture a single government. And capturing a government gives an information system a considerable advantage over any competitors. It can subsidize itself. It can penalize its competitors. It can indulge in the entire sordid range of type 1 pathologies.

Without acquiring a central coordinator, the Cathedral can capture the resources and powers of the State. It can devise theories of government which it can incorporate into the Synopsis, and which the State must follow. These theories naturally involve lavish support for the Cathedral, which becomes responsible for the production of “public policy,” i.e., government decisions. I.e., real power is held by the professors and journalists, i.e., the Cathedral, not through their purity and righteousness but through their self-sustaining control of public opinion. Lenin’s great question, “Who? Whom?”,1 is answered.

But why does the Cathedral not break into factions? What keeps Harvard aligned with Yale? Why doesn’t one of the two realize that there is no need for a thousand synoptic progressive universities, and a vast unfilled demand for a single top-notch conservative university? Why, in short, is the Synopsis stable?

I think the answer is that the Synopsis includes only political propositions whose adoption tends to strengthen the Cathedral, and weaken its enemies. It rejects and opposes all other propositions. Inasmuch as these sets shift over time, the Synopsis will shift as well. It follows a sort of hill-climbing strategy—not in the landscape of truth, but that of power. Thus, by definition, it cannot be opposed from within.

To be progressive is simply to support the Cathedral and the Synopsis. Today’s Synopsis is the lineal descendant of the first type 2 movement in modern history, the Reformation. Through the Reformation we reach the Enlightenment, whose link to the Synopsis is obvious. The post-1945 Western regime, whose victory over all pre-Reformation or anti-Enlightenment forces appears final and irreversible, is the Whig millennium.

(I mean “millennium” only in the sense of “utopia.” I don’t actually expect it to last a thousand years. The terminal condition of our present system of government is that it satisfies the demand for power only by expanding. As it expands, its policymaking process includes more and more input, to the point at which it is completely ineffective. It can thus no longer expand. I don’t think analogies to the stellar cycle are at all misplaced.)

This analysis, which is obviously broad and facile, still explains a few things. For example, let’s consider the case of libertarianism.

Libertarians often call themselves “classical liberals,” and indeed the word “libertarian” today means about what John Stuart Mill meant when he called himself a “liberal.” In fact, in Europe today, “liberal” still means more or less “libertarian.”

Why (in the US) did the term stay the same, and the meaning change? Because, in fact, the real meaning has not changed. In 1858 as in 2008, a “liberal” is a supporter of the Cathedral: i.e., a Whig, a progressive, a Radical, etc. It is the Synopsis that shifted, and it is today’s libertarians who are not with the program.

19th-century liberal Whigs and Radicals supported economic freedom because economic freedom meant the destruction of Tory privileges, such as the Corn Laws (whose beneficiaries were landed aristocrats), which harmed their supporters and benefited their enemies. This position may have been explained on the basis of principle. But if it had not been politically advantageous, spontaneous coordination would have produced other principles. Either Mill would have embraced these other principles, in which case you still would know his name, or he would have been genuinely committed to economic freedom, in which case you wouldn’t.

By the start of the 20th century, the old British aristocracy was in full flight, only scraps remained of the Throne-and-Altar system, and by the standard of a half-century earlier, basically everyone was a Radical. Therefore, the progressive movement could become socialist, and stand for economic centralization and official charity. These aims were not attainable in the era of Mill, because the Radicals were too weak and the Tories too strong. These tactical changes did not emerge from any secret cabal—spontaneous coordination is entirely to blame.

Libertarianism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has gained little political traction. Why? One, it opposes the Cathedral, which controls most real power and does not deal kindly with its enemies. Two, by definition it has no mechanism for using any power it does gain to create jobs for its followers, because it does not believe in the expansion of government. Three, it either appeals to the anti-Cathedral Townies or “conservatives,” making itself unfashionable, thus unpopular, and thus ineffective as an opposition, or it tries to ingratiate itself with the Cathedral, making itself thus ineffective as an opposition. It has nowhere to go. It cannot recreate the world of John Stuart Mill, with its target-rich environment of Tory landlordism.

Thus we see again Dr. Johnson’s hypothesis: all the principles of Whigs, even those which seem austere and noble, are consistent with the objective of seizing power. Moreover, the Whig is concerned with his own power rather than with the state of society. He would much rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, and he will turn any heaven into a hell to get there. And yet he is quite sincere in all his Whiggery, which makes him all the more dangerous.

Of course, there is also the null hypothesis. Maybe we already do live in the open society, and the Synopsis is no more than sweet reason itself. It would certainly be nice.

But if Dr. Johnson was right, what is the answer? Having left the loyal society far behind, how can we proceed from the consensus society to the open society?

  1. I.e., “Who rules whom?” See part 7
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