I thought it’d be fun to kick off the year by retro-introducing Unqualified Reservations—for the benefit of innocent new readers, and crazy old ones as well.
Continuing UR readers: obviously, you are not crazy. It is everyone else who is crazy. Thanks for coming back in 2009. If you need a link to introduce your other crazy friends to UR, this may be a good one.
New UR readers: unfortunately, I’m lying. There is no such thing as a gentle introduction to UR. It’s like talking about a “mild DMT trip.” If it was mild, it wasn’t DMT.
UR is a strange blog: its goal is to cure your brain. We’ve all seen The Matrix. We know about red pills. Many claim to sell them. You can go, for example, to any bookstore, and ask the guy behind the counter for some Noam Chomsky. What you’ll get is blue pills soaked in Red #3.
Since we provide the genuine article, UR is pretty much the anti-Chomsky. (As a broad generalization, UR’s stance in any controversy will be the opposite of Chomsky’s.) Take one of our red pills—heck, split one in half—and you’ll be in a completely different world. Like DMT, except that the DMT reality is prettier than your old reality. UR’s is uglier. Also, DMT wears off.
Alas, our genuine red pill is not ready for the mass market. It is the size of a golfball, though nowhere near so smooth, and halfway down it splits in half and exposes a sodium-metal core, which will sear your throat like a live coal. There will be scarring. What can we say? That’s what you get for being an early adopter. At least you didn’t buy a Newton.
When we think about red and blue pills in the real world, obviously, we are thinking about the Orwellian mind-control state. We are not going to cure your whole brain. After the treatment, for instance, you may still be a Celtics fan. Our chemical interest is solely in the political lobe.
Unfortunately, this organ is unusually large and proliferating fast. After the treatment, it will return to its normal marble-like size, and you may hear a hollow sound if you knock your fist hard on the back of your head. That’s because now you know the truth, and you never need to think about any of that crap ever, ever again. Since the shape of your skull is unchanged, the resulting void is percussive.
When we think about the Orwellian mind-control state, we generally think of a few big, obvious examples. The Nazis. The Soviet Union. And so on. These regimes, of course, specialized in implanting bizarre, sometimes murderous, instructions in their subjects’ brains. If you must visualize these implanted Orwellian modules, you can think of them as little worms, like in Wrath of Khan, that crawl into the ear and stay there.
One imagines writing a letter to a dedicated National Socialist, explaining why he should expel his evil neural parasite and instead become a good liberal, signing it “Das Future” and emailing it through a time machine to 1938. Perhaps this could be the original red pill.
Here at UR we have many sinister devices, but a time machine is not one of them. And fortunately, you do not live in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or 1938. And even more fortunately, your democratic education has vaccinated you to perfection against the first, and to an adequate if unimpressive level against the second. And most fortunately of all, your government is nothing like either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. All good. But—
But in 1938, three systems of government were contending for global supremacy. One of them is still around: yours. Anglo-American liberal democracy. Had military luck favored either of the others—National Socialism or Marxist–Leninism—we can also be sure that it would have discovered and reveled in its foes’ every misdeed, and that it would have approached its own, if at all, tentatively and ambiguously.
If only one can survive, at least two must be illegitimate, and irredeemably criminal. And the survivor will certainly paint them as such. But suppose all three are irredeemably criminal? If the third is an Orwellian mind-control state as well, its subjects are unlikely to regard it as such. It will certainly not prosecute itself.
The third, our third, is very different from the other two. We must remember that American democracy is categorically distinct from National Socialism and the people’s democracies in too many ways to count. Since there are too many ways to count, we will not bother counting them. We remain entitled to notice parallels. (For instance, it is almost more aesthetic criticism than political or economic analysis, but do read Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals.)
But no number of categorical distinctions from the other two can alter our estimate of the third’s criminality. There are as many ways to be a criminal as there are crimes. That we hang the murderer does not mean we must award a prize to the thief.
I.e.: the assumption that, since the Third Reich was Orwellian, and Barack Obama is not Adolf Hitler, Washington must not be Orwellian, is completely fallacious. Socrates is a cat; Ribbentrop is not Socrates; therefore, Ribbentrop is not a cat.
(Comparing the totalitarian dictatorships of the mid-20th century to the OECD democracies of the early 21st is like comparing a reptile to a mammal, a propeller plane to a jet plane, or a flashlight to a laser. We may learn something about the latter from the former, but we may not, and we are easily misled. But they are what we think of when we think of Orwell, and the association must be tackled first.)
Anyway, let’s define this vague charge. What do we mean by Orwellian?
I’d say a fair definition of an Orwellian government is one whose principle of public legitimacy (Mosca’s political formula, if you care) is contradicted by an accurate perception of reality. In other words, the government is existentially dependent on systematic public deception. If it fails in its mission to keep the lie alive, it at least stands some chance of falling.
The basic premise of UR is that all the competing 20th-century systems of government, including the Western democracies which came out on top and which rule us to this day, are best classified as Orwellian. They maintain their legitimacy by shaping public opinion. They shape public opinion by sculpting the information presented to the public. As part of that public, you peruse the world through a lens poured by your government. I.e.: you are pwned.
Thus the red pill: any stimulus or stimulant, pharmaceutical or literary, that fundamentally compromises said system of deception. That sounds very medical, but let’s be clear: you are not taking our pill as a public service. At least with our present crude packaging, the remedy is not accessible to any politically significant percentage of citizens. Rather, you are dosing up because you’d rather be high. Despite the agony of ingestion, it’s just too much fun to see your old reality from the outside. This, rather than “society,” is why you will return to UR again and again.
Seen from outside, the Western democracies are particularly elegant examples of Orwellian engineering. They function in the context of a free press and fair, contested elections. They operate no gulags. Not only has UR never been bothered by the authorities, I have not received a single private communication that I would describe as in any sense unfriendly. So how on earth can the system be described as Orwellian?
Easily. Of course, everyone describes it as Orwellian. Professor Chomsky, for one. But UR gets the same result in a very different way.
You now enter a journey from which your soul may not return. Don’t say we didn’t warn ya. The back button is up and to the left. Like yourself the way you are? You might just want to press it.
Okay! It’s actually quite simple to demonstrate how you’ve been pwned. Let’s start the show with one of UR’s earliest Sith mind tricks. (Jedi mind tricks are blue pills. Sith mind tricks are red pills. Suffice it to say that you’ve been exposed to a lot of anti-Sith propaganda.)
We’ll start with a point of agreement. As a good citizen of America, which is the greatest country on earth, one thing you believe in is separation of church and state. I too am an American, and it so happens that I too believe in separation of church and state. Although one might argue that my interpretation of the formula is a little different than yours.
So let’s understand what we mean by the formula, word by word. What do we mean when we say state? We mean, “the government.” I trust that is sufficiently clear.
What do we mean by separation? If A and B are separated, A has nothing to do with B. E.g., whatever church and state are, if separated, they have as much to do with each other as the Albanian Golf Federation and the Alaskan Alliance for Beef, i.e., nothing. I think that’s pretty clear. If the Alaska cattlemen can rent that course outside Durazzo, so can anyone else. Presumably, the opposite, bad if separation is good, would be union of church and state.
What do we mean by church?
Clearly, if we have some general objection to union of church and state, these objections must in some way be derived from some generic definition of the word church. But when we use words like church, religion, etc., while it is very easy to think of examples (the Catholic Church, Islam, etc., etc.), it is considerably more difficult to construct a description which includes all the examples, and excludes all the non-examples. Of course one may have a perfectly reasonable prejudice against the Pope, Muslims, etc.—but if so, why not just say so?
For example, it is very easy to include God or gods in one’s definition of church. In that case, we throw out Buddhism, which is surely a legitimate religion. I assume your version of separation of church and state includes separation of Buddhism and state. Mine sure does. And what about Scientology? Shouldn’t we have separation of Scientology and state? I’m guessing you’ll sign up for this one as well.
The question seems difficult. So let’s procrastinate. For a straw definition of church, though, let’s say a church is an organization or movement which specializes in telling people what to think. I would not inquire into this definition too closely—lest you ruin the suspense—but surely it fits Scientology, the Southern Baptists, Buddhism, etc. That’s close enough for now.
This definition of state, separation, and church gives us three interpretations of why separation of church and state is such a good idea.
One: our definition of church might include the stipulation that a church is an organization that distributes misinformation—i.e., lies, unfalsifiable hypotheses, and other bogus truths. This sounds very sensible, because we don’t want the state to distribute misinformation.
On the other hand, this is not a very useful definition. It is equivalent to a restriction that union of church and state is okay, so long as the state church teaches only the truth. Naturally, according to the church, it teaches only the truth. But it is difficult to imagine a clause in the Constitution which states: “Congress shall establish a Church, which shall Teach only the Truth.” From an engineering perspective, the restriction is more effective if it does not depend on some process for distinguishing true churches from false churches. Ya think?
Two: we might say that whether they teach the truth or not, churches are just a bad idea, period. People should think for themselves. They should not have thoughts broadcast into a little antenna in the back of the skull. Therefore, the state should separate itself from the church, just because a good state should separate itself from all evil things.
But fortunately or unfortunately, there is no kingdom of philosophers. Most people do not think for themselves, should not think for themselves, and cannot be expected to think for themselves. They do exactly what they should be doing, and trust others to work out the large philosophical truths of the world for them. This trust may be well-placed or not, but surely this mechanism of delegation is an essential aspect of human society—at least with the humans we have now.
Three: we might believe that a government should not tell its subjects what to think. Since this is the only option I have left, it is the one I follow. I’d like to think you follow it as well.
If not quite for the same reason. Let’s think about it. There are two kinds of government: those whose formula of legitimacy depends on popular consent, and those whose doesn’t. Following contemporary usage, we can classify these as authoritarian and democratic.
An authoritarian state has no need to tell its subjects what to think, because it has no reason to care what they think. In a truly authoritarian government, the ruling authority relies on force, not popularity. It cares what its subjects do, not what they think. It may encourage a healthy, optimistic attitude and temperate lifestyle proclivities, but only because this is good for business. Therefore, any authoritarian state that needs an official religion must have something wrong with it. (Perhaps, for example, its military authority is not as absolute as it thinks.)
A democratic state which tells its citizens what to think is a political solecism. Think about the motivation for democracy: it consigns the state to the collective responsibility of its citizens, because it feels this is an independent and well-anchored hook on which to hang the common good. Once the republic has an established church, this hook is no longer independent, and the (postulated) value-add of democracy is nullified.
Without separation of church and state, it is easy for a democracy to indulge itself in arbitrarily irresponsible misgovernment, simply by telling its bishops to inform their congregations that black is white and white is black. Thus misdirected, they are easily persuaded to support counterproductive policies which they wrongly consider productive.
A common syndrome is the case in which a purported solution is in fact the cause of the problem. As a Russian politician once said of his opponents: “These people think they are the doctors of society. In fact, they are the disease.”1 (It is indeed surprising that Nassim Taleb has just learned the word iatrogenic. BTW, if you know Taleb, please point him at UR. If you know someone who knows Taleb, please…)
Union of church and state can foster stable iatrogenic misgovernment as follows. First, the church fosters and maintains a popular misconception that the problem exists, and the solution solves it. Secondly, the state responds by extruding an arm, agency, or other pseudopod in order to apply the solution. Agency and church are thus cooperating in the creation of unproductive or counterproductive jobs, as “doctors.” Presumably they can find a way to split the take.
The root problem with a state church in a democratic state is that, to believe in democracy, one must believe that the levers of power terminate with the voters. But if your democracy has an effective state church, the actual levers of power pass through the voters, and go back to the church. The church teaches the voters what to think; the voters tell the politicians what to do. Naturally, it is easy for the politicians to short-circuit this process and just listen to the bishops.
Thus the government has a closed power loop. With the church at its apex, of course. Which is exactly what we were hoping to avoid when we decided to make our state democratic, rather than authoritarian—an independent and unaccountable authority, which is in charge of everything else. In this case our authority is, of course, the church itself. Oops! We have engineered ourselves a big bucket of FAIL.
In other words, our so-called democracy is dependent not on the wisdom of the people, but on the internal power politics of the official church. If these politics produce a political platform which translates to responsible and effective actions, the government will be good. If they don’t, it will suck. Either way, we have consigned the state to an unaccountable conclave of bishops. Why this is an improvement on monarchy, or any other form of autocracy, is unclear.
This political architecture, an abortion by any standard, is commonly known as a theocracy. Oddly enough, the classic historical case of a theocracy is… wait, hang on, I’m forgetting… oh, yes! Right here, in North America. Under those strange people we call the “Puritans.”
(A more precise label would be Brownist—I’m with Shakespeare on this one. Note that, cladistically speaking, we are all Brownists now. And Carter Van Carter has told us all about Whitby—let Daniel Wait Howe fill you in on Scrooby.)
For those who prefer their history fresh rather than aged, we can turn to Darren Staloff, whose Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts is badly-written but quite informative. Professor Staloff writes [italics mine]:
The Puritan ministers […] created a completely new form of political authority—in the Weberian sense of legitimate power—which I have called cultural domination. Cultural domination, as here conceived, requires four formal supports.
First of all, like charismatic authority, it requires recognition in the form of ritual election or some similar mechanism of oath swearing or covenant signing. Fealty is sworn to the “correct” cultural formation, in this case Puritan biblicism, and the officeholder is empowered only as the specially trained bearer and interpreter of that cultural tradition. The “laity” generally conceive of this high cultural training—whether centered around biblicism or some other intellectually legitimating principle like reason or rationality—as being endowed with an automatic efficacy that need simply be applied to any problem to generate a univocal solution. The biblical truth is eternal and immutable, claimed Thomas Hooker, “but the alteration grows, according to God’s most just judgment, and their own deservings.”
Such belief gives rise to the second formal requirement, that officially authorized bearers of the cultural tradition must always agree in their public formulations or at least not disagree. If this condition is violated, the laity may come to see the cultural tradition as an amorphous collection of expressions or principles manipulated by “mandarins” for their own aggrandizement.
The third requirement is that all public expression of the culturally able must be bestowed on these public acts, including forced attendance, titulary homage, and silent obedience. Finally, to ensure the stability of the entire system, unauthorized cultural expressions must be carefully monitored and severely suppressed when they contradict or threaten to “desacralize” the authorized formulas.
The crafty Professor Staloff, like all good historians, is trying to sneak a message about the present into his narrative of the past. Note that quibble: or some other intellectually legitimating principle like reason or rationality. Why would he say this? Professor Staloff, who has clearly been reading too much H. P. Lovecraft, provides a clue in his introduction:
How could an educated elite of ministers (and magistrates, as I learned from Timothy Breen) hold such dominant power in a fledgling colonial settlement? Granted the deference normally accorded a university degree, these educated leaders lacked the large-scale property interests normally associated with a ruling stratum. What were the institutional arrangements and practices that facilitated this remarkable empowerment? Finally, why did this elite choose to use their power to impose an order on Massachusetts derived from academic theology? What did it mean that the Bay Colony was patterned after a high cultural theory?
I sought the answer to these questions in the library of Miskatonic University. Two works in particular—Falconer’s three-volume Cryptomenysis Patefacta, and von Junzt’s strange Unaussprechlichen Kulten—confirmed my most unsettling hunches.
Professional intellectuals and intelligentsia comprised a collective interest. They were the great unexamined class in modern political history, whose will to power occasionally took the form of revolutionary ideological politics. I had a greater appreciation for the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s claim that the Puritan divines were the precursors of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks.
Professor Staloff, we see, speaks elliptically but with great urgency. What, exactly, is his message to the initiated? How can we translate this dark prophecy into the plain, Saxon tongue?
I’m afraid the proposition Professor Staloff is hinting at is that we do have a state church. It just doesn’t call itself that. By this simple twitch of the hips, like a receiver dodging a linebacker, it has faked your intellectual immune system off its feet. Not to worry! Our red pill is here to help.
Like Professor Staloff, I have constructed my definition of church as a trap. If you have been following along without suspicion, you are in the trap. Let us now close the lid.
Notice that our definition of church has not invoked any of the typical attributes of religion. In particular, we have avoided any requirement that (a) the doctrines of the church be either partially or entirely supernatural in nature (think of Buddhism or Scientology—or, for that matter, Nazism or Bolshevism), or (b) the structure of the church be in any way centrally organized (a Quaker theocracy is just as excluded as a Catholic theocracy—and once your church is united with the state, there is no shortage of structure).
We have just said: a church is an organization or movement which tells people how to think. A broad definition, but it turns out to be perfectly adequate to validate our case for separation of church and state. And it contains all our test cases.
There’s just one problem. The definition is slightly too broad. It captures some cases which we obviously don’t want to include. You see, under this definition, Harvard is a church.
And we surely can’t mean that there should be separation of Harvard and state. Yet somehow—this is the result the computer keeps giving us. Perhaps there is some mistake?
We have stumbled, of course, into Professor Staloff’s definition. Unlike the Harvard of 1639, the Harvard of 2009 bases its authority not on the interpretation of scripture, but on some other intellectually legitimating principle like reason or rationality. Everything else is the same.
It could be, of course, that Harvard of 2009’s application of reason or rationality is inherently accurate, i.e., endowed with an automatic efficacy that need simply be applied to any problem to generate a univocal solution. Whether or not this is the case, many behave as if it were.
But even if it is, all we are looking at is a condition we rejected earlier as unsatisfactory: a state church which teaches only the truth. Perhaps Harvard of 2009 teaches only the truth. And Harvard of 2010? 2020? We resign the answer to the tempests of academic power politics. If this is transparent and accountable, so is mud.
The basic security hole is this word, education. Education is defined as the inculcation of correct facts and good morals. Thus an institution which is educational and secular, such as Harvard, simply becomes a “Church, which shall Teach only the Truth.” Like the Puritans of old New England, in seeking to disestablish one state church, we have established another.
It is also hard to argue that we enjoy separation of Harvard and state. Harvard is conventionally described as a “private” university. This term is strictly nominal. Vast streams of cash flow from the taxpayer’s pocket into Harvard’s—as they do not flow to, say, the Vatican.
And we can see easily that Harvard is attached to something, because the perspective of Harvard in 2009, while wildly different from the perspective of Harvard in 1959, is not in any way different from the perspective of Stanford in 2009. If a shared attachment to Uncle Sam isn’t what keeps Harvard and Stanford on the same page, what is? It’s not football.
Except for a few unimportant institutions of non-mainstream religious affiliation, we simply do not see multiple, divergent, competing schools of thought within the American university system. The whole vast archipelago, though evenly speckled with a salting of contrarians, displays no factional structure whatsoever. It seems almost perfectly synchronized.
There are two explanations for this synchronization. One, Harvard and Stanford are synchronized because they both arrive at the same truth. I am willing to concede this for, say, chemistry. When it comes to, say, African-American studies, I am not quite so sure. Are you? Surely it is arguable that the latter is a legitimate area of inquiry. But surely it is arguable that it is not. So how is it, exactly, that Harvard, Stanford, and everyone else gets the same answer?
I’m afraid the only logical alternative, however awful and unimaginable, is the conclusion that Harvard and Stanford are synchronized because both are remoras attached, in some unthinkable way, to some great, invisible predator of the deep—perhaps even Cthulhu himself.
Certainly, the synchronization is not coordinated by any human hierarchical authority. (Yes, there are accreditation agencies, but a Harvard or a Stanford could easily fight them.) The system may be Orwellian, but it has no Goebbels. It produces Gleichschaltung without a Gestapo. It has a Party line without a Party. A neat trick. We of the Sith would certainly like to understand it.
And we are again reminded of the half-mad words of the late Professor Staloff:
…officially authorized bearers of the cultural tradition must always agree in their public formulations or at least not disagree. Cthulhu R’lyeh wagh’nagl fhtagn! If this condition is violated, the laity may come to see the cultural tradition as an amorphous collection of expressions or principles manipulated by “mandarins” for their own aggrandizement.
But if Harvard in 2009 fits this description, how exactly is said agreement enforced? If you’ve ever met any of the officially authorized bearers, you know that the last thing they think of themselves as being is “officially authorized bearers.” And it is one thing to say they must always agree—another to make them do so.
No one does. And yet, they agree. Their views change over time—and they all change in the same direction, at the same rate. There is a strange self-organizing quality about this design. Does the American university system’s maintenance of broad unanimity, despite the clear absence of anything like a coordinating executive authority, make it seem less creepy to you? Or more? I’m afraid I’ll have to go with “more” on this one.
Moreover, if we broaden our focus from the university system to the entire system of “education,” from grade schools to journalism, we see this effect again and again. What, exactly, is the “mainstream media?” If we accept the ecclesiastical metaphor, the newspaper is a perfect analogue of the church proper. It is simply the latest transmission technology for your worm’s daily or weekly security update. And here again, a coordinated message—without any central agency.
Dude, if you don’t find this creepy, I gotta ask: why not? But maybe it is all an abstraction to you. Let’s make it slightly more concrete.
In 1963, a long time ago but in the lives of many now living, the citizens of California, by a majority of nearly two-thirds, voted to pass a law called Proposition 14. This amended the state constitution to add the following:
“Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.”
In other words: if you don’t want to live with persons of color, you don’t have to. The amendment, obviously, turned out to be unconstitutional, just like this one; and we have persons of color to this day in California. In fact, we have so many of them that California in 2008 elected Barack Obama, noted person of color, by almost the same margin that its 1963 predecessor passed Prop. 14.
Part of this political change was due to said demographic shift. But not all. So: how, exactly, did California change from a state that would vote for Prop. 14, to one that would elect Obama? Was this change predictable? Was it inevitable in some sense? Again, we are seeing the movement of a bobber on the water. What is the bobber attached to? A bluegill? Or Cthulhu?
If you are still clinging to the Matrix, you might say the change happened because Prop. 14 was wrong, and the election of Obama was right. Suppose we agree with you. But why, exactly, should we have been so confident in expecting a change from wrong to right? If there is some mechanism large and powerful enough to drag the public opinion of California, in 45 years, from Prop. 14 to Obama—maybe not Cthulhu, but definitely not a bluegill—shouldn’t we expect to be just as easily dragged back from right to wrong? Will segregation make a comeback in San Francisco? If not, why not?
Whatever our Cthulhu may be, it is interesting to note that there is an algorithm for predicting the movement of the bobber. On a number of subjects—not just segregation—I note that the public opinion of California in 2008 is quite similar to the public opinion of Stanford in 1963.
This is easy to explain: in post-1945 America, the source of all new ideas is the university. Ideas check out of the university, but they hardly ever check in. Thence, they flow outward to the other arms of the educational system as a whole: the mainstream media and the public schools. Eventually they become our old friend, “public opinion.” This process is slow, happening on a generational scale, and thus the 45-year lag.
Thus whatever coordinates the university system coordinates the state, through the transmission device of “public opinion.” Naturally, since this is 100% effective, the state does not have to wait for the transmission to complete. It can act in advance of a complete response, as in this case the Supreme Court did in 1967, and synchronize directly with the universities.
This relationship, whose widespread practice in the United States dates to 1933, is known as public policy. Essentially, for everything your government does, there is a university department full of professors who can, and do, tell it what to do. Civil servants and Congressional staffers follow the technical lead of the universities. The residual democratic branch of Washington, the White House, can sometimes push back feebly, but only with great difficulty.
(What’s neat is that because of our armies’ great success in the early 1940s, the governments of other countries respond to American public policy as well. The synchronization is international. Some of America’s little friends overseas, such as Britain, have universities in the second rank. But there is only one global postwar academic system, the American one, and all top-tier universities are in the United States. The con by which policies devised by this system are passed off as global, transcending mere nationality, is sometimes called transnationalism. But I digress.)
The triangle of professors, bureaucrats, and public opinion is stable, because the professors teach as well as advise. Of course, there is a time lag. The system experiences some strain. But it will stay together, so long as the polarity does not randomly reverse—i.e., because Cthulhu decides to suddenly swim right rather than left.
But no. Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left. Isn’t that interesting?
In the history of American democracy, if you take the mainstream political position (the Overton Window) at time T₁, and place it on the map at a later time T₂, T₁ is always way to the right, near the fringe or outside it. So, for instance, if you take the average segregationist voter of 1963 and let him vote in the 2008 election, he will be way out on the wacky right wing. Cthulhu has passed him by.
Where is the John Birch Society, now? What about the NAACP? Cthulhu swims left, and left, and left. There are a few brief periods of true reaction in American history—the post-Reconstruction era or Redemption, the Return to Normalcy of Harding, and a couple of others. But they are unusual and feeble compared to the great leftward shift. Nor, most important for our hypothesis, did they come from the universities; in the 20th century, periods of reaction are always periods of anti-university activity. (McCarthyism is especially noticeable as such. And you’ll note that McCarthy didn’t exactly win.)
The principle applies even in wars. In each of the following conflicts in Anglo-American history, you see a victory of left over right: the English Civil War, the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” the American Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Clearly, if you want to be on the winning team, you want to start on the left side of the field.
And we are starting to piece the puzzle together. The leftward direction is, itself, the principle of organization. In a two-party democratic system, with Whigs and Tories, Democrats and Republicans, etc., the intelligentsia is always Whig. Their party is simply the party of those who want to get ahead. It is the party of celebrities, the ultra-rich, the great and good, the flexible of conscience. Tories are always misfits, losers, or just plain stupid—sometimes all three.
And the left is the party of the educational organs, at whose head is the press, the entertainment industry2 and the universities. This is our 20th-century version of the established church. Here at UR, we sometimes call it the Cathedral3—although it is essential to note that, unlike an ordinary organization, it has no central administrator. No, this will not make it easier to deal with.
This strange chiral asymmetry implies some fundamental difference between right and left. What is that difference? What does it even mean to be left rather than right? How can an entire system of independent thinkers and institutions, without any central coordinating agency, recognize that everyone should go left rather than right?
First, we need to define left and right. In my opinion, obviously a controversial one, the explanation for this mysterious asymmetric dimension is easy: it is political entropy. Right represents peace, order and security; left represents war, anarchy and crime.
Because values are inherently subjective, it is possible to argue that left can be good and right can be bad. For example, you can say that the Civil War was good—the North needed to conquer the South and free the slaves.
On the other hand, it is also quite easy to construct a very clean value system in which order is simply good, and chaos is simply evil. I have chosen this path. It leaves quite a capacious cavity in the back of my skull, and allows me to call myself a reactionary. To you, perhaps, it is the dark side. But this is only because the treatment is not yet complete.
Whatever you make of the left–right axis, you have to admit that there exists some force which has been pulling the Anglo-American political system leftward for at least the last three centuries. Whatever this unfathomable stellar emanation may be, it has gotten us from the Stuarts to Barack Obama. Personally, I would like a refund. But that’s just me.
It is time to understand this force. My theory is that what we’re looking at is the attraction of power itself.4 The left attracts a natural coalition because it always attracts those whose only interest is in the pure thrill of domination. Most will join them through peer pressure alone, leaving only the misfits.
Let’s look, for a minute, at the minds of the people who hold these positions of power. Your R1 professors, your Times reporters, and so on. These are, of course, very competitive jobs, and only a tiny minority of the people who want them and are capable of doing them will get to have them. They have certainly worked very hard to get where they are. And they perceive that effort as one made in the interest of humanity at large.
I think the salaries at this level are reasonable, but it is not money that makes people want these jobs. It is power, which brings with it status. I define power as personal influence over important events; I don’t know of any other definition.
One of the key reasons that intellectuals are fascinated by disorder, in my opinion, is the fact that disorder is an extreme case of complexity. And as you make the structure of authority in an organization more complex, more informal, or both—as you fragment it, eliminating hierarchical execution structures under which one individual decides and is responsible for the result, and replacing them with highly fragmented, highly consensual, and highly process-oriented structures in which ten, twenty or a hundred people can truthfully claim to have contributed to the outcome, you increase the amount of power, status, patronage, and employment produced.
Of course, you also make the organization less efficient and effective, and you make working in it a lot less fun for everyone—you have gone from startup to Dilbert. This is Brezhnevian sclerosis, the fatal disease of organizations in a highly regulated environment. All work is guided by some systematic process, in which each rule was contributed by someone whose importance was a function of how many rules he added. In the future, we will all work for the government. Individually, this is the last thing your average intellectual wants to do, but it is the direction in which his collective acts are pushing us.
In short: intellectuals cluster to the left, generally adopting as a social norm the principle of pas d’ennemis à gauche, pas d’amis à droite,5 because like everyone else they are drawn to power. The left is chaos and anarchy, and the more anarchy you have, the more power there is to go around. The more orderly a system is, the fewer people get to issue orders. The same asymmetry is why corporations and the military, whose system of hierarchical executive authority is inherently orderly, cluster to the right.
Once the cluster exists, however, it works by any means necessary. The reverence of anarchy is a mindset in which an essentially Machiavellian, tribal model of power flourishes. To the bishops of the Cathedral, anything that strengthens their influence is a good thing, and vice versa. The analysis is completely reflexive, far below the conscious level. Consider this comparison of the coverage between the regime of Pinochet and that of Castro. Despite atrocities that are comparable at most—not to mention a much better record in providing responsible and effective government—Pinochet receives the full-out two-minutes hate, whereas the treatment of Castro tends to have, at most, a gentle and wistful disapproval.
This is because Pinochet’s regime was something completely alien to the American intellectual, whereas—the relationship between Puritan divines and Bolshevism being exactly as the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, says—Castro’s regime was something much more understandable. If you sketch the relative weights of the social networks connecting Pinochet to the Cathedral, versus Castro to the Cathedral, you are comparing a thread to a bicep.
We also see the nature of the blue pill here. After completing the UR treatment, it is interesting to go back and read your Chomsky. What you’ll see is that Chomsky is, in every case, demanding that all political power be in the hands of the Cathedral. The American system is very large and complex, and this is certainly not the case. The least exception or (God forbid) reversal, and Chomsky is in on the case, deploying the old principle of “this animal is very dangerous; when attacked, it defends itself.”6 The progressive is always the underdog in his own mind. Yet, in objective reality, he always seems to win in the end.
In other words, the Chomskian transformation is to interpret any resistance, by a party which is inherently much weaker, as oppression by a magic force of overwhelming strength. For example, we can ask: which set of individuals exerts more influence over American journalists? American professors, or American CEOs? American diplomats, or American generals? In both cases, the answer is clearly the former. Yet any hint of corporate or military influence over the press is, of course, anathema.
If anyone is in an obvious position to manufacture consent, it is (as Walter Lippmann openly proposed) first the journalists themselves, and next the universities which they regard as authoritative. Yet, strangely, the leftist has no interest whatsoever in this security hole. This can only be because it is already plugged with his worm. The complaint of the Chomskian, in other words, always occurs when the other team is impudent enough to try to manufacture a bit of its own consent. Hence: the blue pill.
And there is another card I’ve been holding back on. You see, the problem is not just that our present system of government—which might be described succinctly as an atheistic theocracy—is accidentally similar to Puritan Massachusetts. As anatomists put it, these structures are not just analogous. They are homologous. This architecture of government—theocracy secured through democratic means—is a single continuous thread in American history.
An excellent historical description of this continuity is George McKenna’s Puritan Origins of American Patriotism—it gets a little confused in the 20th century, but this is to be expected. However, as a demonstration, I am particularly partial to one particular primary source—“American Malvern” from 1942, which I found somehow in Time magazine’s online archive:
Religion: American Malvern Monday, Mar. 16, 1942
These are the high spots of organized U.S. Protestantism’s super-protestant new program for a just and durable peace after World War II:
- Ultimately, “a world government of delegated powers.”
- Complete abandonment of U.S. isolationism.
- Strong immediate limitations on national sovereignty.
- International control of all armies & navies.
- “A universal system of money … so planned as to prevent inflation and deflation.”
- Worldwide freedom of immigration.
- Progressive elimination of all tariff and quota restrictions on world trade.
- “Autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples” (with much better treatment for Negroes in the U.S.).
- “No punitive reparations, no humiliating decrees of war guilt, no arbitrary dismemberment of nations.”
- A “democratically controlled” international bank “to make development capital available in all parts of the world without the predatory and imperialistic aftermath so characteristic of large-scale private and governmental loans.”
This program was adopted last week by 375 appointed representatives of 30-odd denominations called together at Ohio Wesleyan University by the Federal Council of Churches. Every local Protestant church in the country will now be urged to get behind the program. “As Christian citizens,” its sponsors affirmed, “we must seek to translate our beliefs into practical realities and to create a public opinion which will insure that the United States shall play its full and essential part in the creation of a moral way of international living.”
Among the 375 delegates who drafted the program were 15 bishops of five denominations, seven seminary heads (including Yale, Chicago, Princeton, Colgate-Rochester), eight college and university presidents (including Princeton’s Harold W. Dodds), practically all the ranking officials of the Federal Council and a group of well-known laymen, including John R. Mott, Irving Fisher and Harvey S. Firestone Jr. “Intellectually,” said Methodist Bishop Ivan Lee Holt of Texas, “this is the most distinguished American church gathering I have seen in 30 years of conference-going.”
The meeting showed its temper early by passing a set of 13 “requisite principles for peace” submitted by Chairman John Foster Dulles and his inter-church Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace. These principles, far from putting all the onus on Germany or Japan, bade the U.S. give thought to the short sighted selfishness of its own policies after World War I, declared that the U.S. would have to turn over a new leaf if the world is to enjoy lasting peace.
For at least a generation we have held preponderant economic power in the world, and with it the capacity to influence decisively the shaping of world events. It should be a matter of shame and humiliation to us that actually the influences shaping the world have largely been irresponsible forces. Our own positive influence has been impaired because of concentration on self and on our short-range material gains. … If the future is to be other than a repetition of the past, the U.S. must accept the responsibility for constructive action commensurate with its power and opportunity.
The natural wealth of the world is not evenly distributed. Accordingly the possession of such natural resources … is a trust to be discharged in the general interest. This calls for more than an offer to sell to all on equal terms. Such an offer may be a futile gesture unless those in need can, through the selling of their own goods and services, acquire the means of buying.
With these principles accepted, the conference split up into four groups to study, respectively, the social, economic and political problems of the post-war world and the problem of the church’s own position in that world.* Discussion waxed hot & heavy, with one notable silence: in a week when the Japs were taking Java, discussion of the war itself was practically taboo. Reason: The Federal Council felt that, since five of its other commissions are directly connected with the war effort, the conference’s concern should be with plans for peace. One war statement—the Christian Church as such is not at war—was proposed by Editor Charles Clayton Morrison, of the influential and isolationist-before-Pearl-Harbor Christian Century. This statement was actually inserted in a subcommittee report by a 64–58 vote after a sharp debate. In the plenary session, however, it was ruled out of order.
Some of the conference’s economic opinions were almost as sensational as the extreme internationalism of its political program. It held that a new order of economic life is both imminent and imperative—a new order that is sure to come either through voluntary cooperation within the framework of democracy or through explosive political revolution. Without condemning the profit motive as such, it denounced various defects in the profit system for breeding war, demagogues and dictators, mass unemployment, widespread dispossession from homes and farms, destitution, lack of opportunity for youth and of security for old age. Instead, the church must demand economic arrangements measured by human welfare … must appeal to the Christian motive of human service as paramount to personal gain or governmental coercion.
“Collectivism is coming, whether we like it or not,” the delegates were told by no less a churchman than England’s Dr. William Paton, co-secretary of the World Council of Churches, but the conference did not veer as far to the left as its definitely pinko British counterpart, the now famous Malvern Conference (TIME, Jan. 20, 1941). It did, however, back up Labor’s demand for an increasing share in industrial management. It echoed Labor’s shibboleth that the denial of collective bargaining “reduces labor to a commodity.” It urged taxation designed “to the end that our wealth may be more equitably distributed.” It urged experimentation with government and cooperative ownership.
“Every individual,” the conference declared, “has the right to full-time educational opportunities … to economic security in retirement … to adequate health service [and an] obligation to work in some socially necessary service.”
The conference statement on the political bases of a just and durable peace proclaimed that the first post-war duty of the church “will be the achievement of a just peace settlement with due regard to the welfare of all the nations, the vanquished, the overrun and the victors alike.” In contrast to the blockade of Germany after World War I, it called for immediate provision of food and other essentials after the war for every country needing them. “We must get back,” explained Methodist Bishop Francis J. McConnell, “to a stable material prosperity not only to strengthen men’s bodies but to strengthen their souls.”
Politically, the conference’s most important assertion was that many duties now performed by local and national governments “can now be effectively carried out only by international authority.” Individual nations, it declared, must give up their armed forces “except for preservation of domestic order” and allow the world to be policed by an international army & navy. This League-of-Nations-with-teeth would also have “the power of final judgment in controversies between nations … the regulation of international trade and population movements among nations.”
The ultimate goal: “a duly constituted world government of delegated powers: an international legislative body, an international court with adequate jurisdiction, international-administrative bodies with necessary powers, and adequate international police forces and provision for enforcing its worldwide economic authority.”
*Despite their zeal for world political, social and economic unity, the churchmen were less drastic when it came to themselves. They were frank enough to admit that their own lack of unity was no shining example to the secular world, but did no more than call for “a new era of interdenominational cooperation in which the claims of cooperative effort should be placed, so far as possible, before denominational prestige.”
The nice thing about reading a primary source from 1942 is that you are assured of its “period” credentials, unless of course someone has hacked Time’s archive. The author cannot possibly know anything about 1943. If you find a text from 1942 that describes the H-bomb, you know that the H-bomb was known in 1942. One such text is entirely sufficient.
What’s great about the “American Malvern” article is that, while it describes a political program you will place instantly, it describes it in a very odd way. You are used to thinking of this perspective, which is obviously somewhere toward the left end of your NPR dial, as representative of a political movement. Instead, the anonymous Time reporter describes it as a religious (“super-protestant,” to be exact) program. Isn’t that just bizarre?
We have caught the worm in the act of turning. The political program and perspective that we think of as progressive is, or is at least descended from, the program of a religious sect. Unsurprisingly, this sect, best known as ecumenical mainline Protestantism, is historically the most powerful form of American Christianity—and happens to be the direct, linear descendant of Professor Staloff’s Puritans. (You can also see it in abolitionism, the Social Gospel, the Prohibitionists, and straight on down to global warming. The mindset never changes.)
For a brief snapshot of where it is today, try “The Unitarian Church and Obama’s Religious Upbringing.” Note that Congregationalist and Puritan are basically synonyms, and American Unitarianism is a spinoff of Congregationalism. Of course, these belief systems have evolved since the time when these labels meant anything. Since the 1960s they have merged into one warm, mushy, NPR-flavored whole, which we here at UR sometimes refer to as Universalism. Michael Lerner is perhaps the ultimate Universalist.
Thus we see the whole, awful picture merge together. It is Cthulhu. We don’t just live in something vaguely like a Puritan theocracy. We live in an actual, genuine, functioning if hardly healthy, 21st-century Puritan theocracy.
What this means is that you can trust hardly any of your beliefs. You were educated by this system, which purports to be a truth machine but is clearly nothing of the sort. Since the US is not the Soviet Union, hard scientific facts—physics, chemistry, and biology—are unlikely to be wrong. But the Soviet Union actually did pretty well with hard science.
Other than that, you have no rational reason to trust anything coming out of the Cathedral—that is, the universities and press. You have no more reason to trust these institutions than you have to trust, say, the Vatican. In fact, they are motivated to mislead you in ways that the Vatican is not, because the Vatican does not have deep, murky, and self-serving connections in the Washington bureaucracy. They claim to be truth machines. Why wouldn’t they?
The Cathedral, with its informal union of church and state, is positioned perfectly. It has all the advantages of being a formal arm of government, and none of the disadvantages. Because it formulates public policy, it is best considered our ultimate governing organ, but it certainly bears no responsibility for the success or failure of said policy. Moreover, it gets to program the little worm that is inserted in everyone’s head, beginning at the age of five and going all the way through grad school.
Worst of all, this system is not a new one. It dates at least to FDR. Nor was the pre-FDR system of government in the United States particularly savory. Nor was the one before that—etc. If you want to be completely disillusioned with mythic Americana, I recommend Peter Oliver. It is certainly interesting to know that, ultimately, the reason the Star-Spangled Banner waves o’er the home of the free and the land of the brave is that James Otis’s father was not given a job.7
So it is no use deciding that the solution is to be a “conservative.” It is wonderful that you’ve gotten past progressivism, but you still need the red pill. The problem is much, much older and deeper than you think. I once teased the infamous Larry Auster, proprietor of View from the Right—the Web’s most thoughtful hard-line conservative—that his blog should be called VFR1960, because he sides with the right in every conflict after 1960. Before 1960, however, VFR could be accurately renamed View from the Left. Larry, bless his soul, didn’t like that at all. But it still happens to be true.
This is slightly daunting. But only slightly. We have not even gotten to the active ingredient in our red pill yet—certainly not that awful sodium core. We have presented an alternate picture of reality, in which you live not in the free, post-Orwellian world, but in an Orwellian mind-control state which is a nasty, nasty hangover from the old, weird past. To verify this conviction, however, we need to catch said mind-control state in the act of actually controlling our minds.
Therefore, since we cannot trust our existing beliefs, we need to look at the areas in which our Universalist “educations” may have caused us to misperceive reality, reassess our beliefs, and compare the reassessment to the orthodox or received truth. If we see discrepancies, we confirm the Orwellian interpretation. If we see no discrepancies, perhaps the Cathedral is just a truth machine after all.
4. More specifically, power gained by sowing disorder and subverting natural hierarchy, per the identification of “left” as the direction of increasing political entropy. As Jim puts it in “Socialism”:
Leftism has no essence, it is just a coalition to knock over the apple cart in order to grab some of the apples, so “lefter” is whatever direction looks like some apples could be knocked loose.
6. The original version of this saying is a French rhyming proverb:
Cet animal est très méchant: Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.
This beast is very mean: in fact It will fight back, when it’s attacked.
Otis graduated from Harvard in 1743 and rose meteorically to the top of the Boston legal profession. In 1760, he received a prestigious appointment as Advocate General of the Admiralty Court. He promptly resigned, however, when Governor Francis Bernard failed to appoint his father to the promised position of Chief Justice of the province’s highest court; the position instead went to longtime Otis opponent Thomas Hutchinson. In a dramatic turnabout following his resignation, Otis instead represented pro bono the colonial merchants who were challenging the legality of the “writs of assistance” before the Superior Court, the predecessor of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.