UR is one madman’s search for existential anomalies in conventional belief systems. An anomalous belief is one that everyone, or at least everyone sane, believes, which is simply wrong. The anomaly is existential if it entirely invalidates the entire belief system—or, at least, that field in which it resides.
If you discover such an anomaly, there are two possibilities. Either you are effectively insane, or everyone else is. For example, if you discover that our President, B. H. Obama, is in fact a giant alien predatory lizard, you are insane or everyone else is.
Fortunately, UR is not dedicated to critical analysis in presidential xenobiology, or quantum physics, or even mere philosophy. Rather, it restricts itself to economics, verse, programming, and 20th-century history. Mainly the last. And, of course, that your 20th-century history is bad does not mean your 19th-century history is any damned good. It probably isn’t. And don’t even start me on the 18th.
Let me throw a quick anomaly at you to explain where I’m coming from with this.
Globally, who is the most revered political figure of the present era? If you ask this question of a random sample of Americans, Americanized Europeans, etc., etc., a significant percentage will say: “Nelson Mandela.” Moreover, and more important, almost all of those who chose someone else will agree that, yes, “Nelson Mandela” is a perfectly good answer to this question.
Try this experiment: get a friend of yours to agree with this statement. Then say: “okay. Now, pretend I’m an alien. To Planet Earth, I have just now come! And I don’t know anything about Nelson Mandela. Really. Nothing at all. You say: Nelson Mandela is the most revered figure of the present political era. So tell me: who was Nelson Mandela? And what did he do?”
Although this objection may produce some elaboration, the odds are overwhelming that the first answer you receive will be phrased in entirely magical terms. For example, your friend might say: “Nelson Mandela led his people to freedom.”
This sentence, which though wilfully egregious is not at all atypical, can be divided into four fragments: “Nelson Mandela,” “led,” “his people,” and “to freedom.” The first fragment is phrased in historical terms: “Nelson Mandela.” The other three are entirely magical.
It is safe to assume that, by “Nelson Mandela,” me, you and your friend mean the same historical individual. We can state as a definitive matter of history that some process somehow involving this individual, Nelson Mandela, brought about a transition in the government of South Africa, to wit: the transfer, in 1994, of effective sovereignty from the Nationalist Party, dominated largely by persons of Afrikaner descent, to the African National Congress, dominated largely by persons of sub-Saharan descent. Surely you, I, and your friend can agree on these facts.
Which is easy to take for granted. But absent in the case of many other magical figures in history—Romulus, Lycurgus, the Yellow Emperor, etc. The people who believed in Lycurgus and the Yellow Emperor, and there were many, did not even know if such individuals had ever existed. Or if they did—we don’t. So Nelson Mandela certainly earns his first point in this category. He exists. He is therefore entitled to be mentioned in a history of the 20th century, and not just in the chapter of its public myths.
But in order to even begin to assess the magical parts of the claim, we have to interrogate the rest of the statement. For instance: “led.” What was Nelson Mandela’s personal responsibility in the movement to end apartheid? Was he, individually, the person Nelson Mandela, a figurehead, or an administrator, or both? He was certainly at least the first—Without Nelson Mandela, would apartheid still be firmly in the saddle? Or might some other figure have sufficed for the same purpose? Can an accurate account of history really canonize Nelson Mandela, or anyone, without asking basic questions of this sort?
Moreover, if we were to perceive that movement behind Nelson Mandela, without any particular interest in Nelson Mandela himself, how would we characterize it? The anti-apartheid movement does not mind being called by that name, but it was clearly in no way sui generis—for instance, it had substantial overlap with the antiwar movement, the green movement, etc.; and nor is it restricted to the present, but extends indefinitely into the recent past.
If we wanted to describe this entire activist complex, perhaps across the entire 20th century, what would we even call it? (I have a name: “New Exeter Hall.”) Surely, if you’re going to canonize Nelson Mandela, you must first define and evaluate the cause of which he was a part. Anything can appear as good, if the good parts are defined without the bad. Somehow I suspect you have not heard from the prosecution in this case. (Perhaps the prosecutor was shot in a police-station bathroom.)
And then we have “his people.” Whose people are Mandela’s—and whose ain’t? Please be specific. Or “to freedom.” Which individuals have gained which life options from the transition from Nationalist to ANC rule? What were the oppressed peoples of South Africa allowed to do in 1995, which they weren’t allowed to do in 1993? Please be specific. More broadly, who has experienced improved quality-of-government from this transition?
Surely, if Mandela is the greatest political leader of the era, through his own personal initiative he must have brought much better government to millions of people. Surely, if one sought an objective determination of the effect of changes in government on some group or groups X, you would say: did group or groups X experience better government under the old regime, or the new regime? Furthermore: was this result, if surprising, surprising to the entirety of humanity? Or were there some predicted it? If so, who were these accurate predictors?
Anyway. Nelson Mandela is not the subject of this post. But the point is: your friend actually knows nothing about Nelson Mandela, the historical figure. He cannot answer any of these questions.
What he knows is Nelson Mandela, the magical figure. He is experiencing history via magic. Nelson Mandela is not really a historical figure to him; Nelson Mandela is simply a saint in his TV-age religion, which like all major religions practices magical thinking. I urge you to cease and desist from this practice. It is detrimental to the neurons. You will feel much better when you are all done with it.
UR does not urge you to correct your historical interpretation of Nelson Mandela. (If you want to, start here. This book is not at present available in the United States. But it looks quite riveting.) UR does not urge you to replace your TV-age religion, at least not with another TV-age religion.
UR urges you to finish entirely with the TV age—and the radio age, and the penny-newspaper age, and even the pamphlet age. The 21st is a new century. It will think for itself. The digit change is arbitrary, I admit. But what excuse does the open mind need?
To be a rational human being, and to think about Nelson Mandela—or any other individual whose picture your children might find in their friendly local kindergarten—in the old, magical way, is simply to neglect your civic responsibility as a literate and civilized adult. A child acquires judgments by osmosis and keeps them by default. Adults can make an effort.
What we find when we abandon magical thinking in our interpretation of the 20th century is that we know nothing at all about it. The magic is merely a veil. It is of no importance at all. What matters is the absolute and unrelieved ignorance which your TV-delivered reality conceals. This ignorance is to be approached with great humility and respect; in it lies the lives of many men. Who, like Nelson Mandela, existed. Who, unusually for the historian, are living today.
No, this is not another South Africa post. Really. But I’d still like to mention a comment I saw recently, somewhere out there on the hairy-backed Boersphere. The poster, who I’ll bet was a bit of a Nazi himself, recounted that he’d been talking to his aged father, who had flown with the RAF in World War II. “Son,” his father said, or words to that effect, “I’ve finally realized what the problem is. I was fighting for the wrong side.”
I don’t believe this. Honestly, I don’t believe any of the 20th-century wars were good wars on any side. I would have tried to stay out of them, on all sides.
Nonetheless, a British author has collected the perspectives of a large number of living World War II veterans, few of whom go quite so far as the aforementioned Afrikaner—but few of whom live in the new South Africa. If the selection is honest, almost all of those still living are amazed and horrified to see the results of the victory they fought for.
This reaction, however righteous or wrongtious (surely, old people are not always right, just because they’re old—maybe they just don’t get it) puts a blunt new twist on the latest blitz of World War II nostalgia. There is a terrible dishonesty in worshipping those of the past who would condemn you if they lived, and a still more terrible brazenness in doing so while some do live. This brazenness is in itself an existential anomaly. No one notices it. Who would?
This is the blindness of the migraine: a sparkled spot that does not not exist, until you look at it. And fail to see whatever was behind it. Surely something was? Ah, many whorls hides the spot. They can spill out, and cover a hemisphere. They will. Woe! Woe is us! Deeply-woven is the lie. It has no name until you name it.
So that you’ll acknowledge a gaping, blatantly mortal wound in the magical 20th century (that is, the tissue of quasi-mythical heroes and villains that forms your narrative of this period), I’m going to clock you with another brutal hardball from out of left field: Israel.
Last time we asked: are you pro-black, or anti-black? Your support for the incredible PR deluge under which the old South Africa knuckled, though you thought it was pro-black, and you remember it as pro-black, actually turned out to be objectively anti-black. As in: you thought your kneejerk PR response, which various good hearts were playing like a violin, would have a positive material impact on the existence on South African blacks. But it actually had a negative material impact.
Which is not to say, of course, that the end of apartheid had no positive impact on South African blacks. It had a significant positive impact on South African blacks: an emotional impact.
Of course, this is not exactly a defense! Presumably the emotional impact of the change of government was based on the belief that, under the new, improved, black-staffed government, their lives would improve—relative to the old, bad, white-staffed one. (Or more precisely, the old, bad Dutchman-staffed one.) Since, on average, their lives did not improve and in fact got worse, you have compounded your mistake with the even more sinister act of deception.
But the winners write history. For now. And you celebrate your victory, which is nominally the victory of your client—“a man and a brother.” However, suppose the net effects of this struggle, for whatever reason, leave said man and brother far worse off, in all measurable capacities and by simple inspection, than if you’d never been involved. You feel pretty good, however. Your government has certainly not gotten any worse!
Have you aided him? Of course you’ve aided him! You’ve withdrawn him from the clutches of your enemies—typically, other white people. White people just like you, only worse. Needless to say, any ill that comes to the man and a brother, in the battle or after, is their fault.
Thus, for instance, colonial Africa was substantially demolished, with countless millions of deaths, in the end of colonialism. In all measurable capacities and by simple inspection, it has nowhere near recovered. Naturally, both these assessments of the present (which almost everyone acknowledges) are accompanied by the caveat that all destruction and decay, present or past, is attributable in some magical sense to… wait for it… colonialism.
I mean—imagine postcolonialism debating colonialism on the subject. The former would be laughed out of the courtroom. The attacker is prosecuting the victim. But postcolonialism need not argue. For colonialism is dead; for no such court is ever held. Gentlemen, this is not a way to settle history! Sooner or later, the past must have its voice. There are no Mausers in the stacks. All those who dispute are dead as each other, and the worms alone prevail.
So again, in the consensus interpretation of present world history, we see an irrevocable commitment to magical thinking. But I digress. Israel. Here again we find an existential anomaly in your present history. The Israel anomaly is not just exclusive to the present political left; it exists all along the spectrum, exclusively on the far left and often on the far right.
The question this time is: are you pro-Israel, or anti-Israel? Which seems like an easy question. However, as we’ll see, there are two entirely different ways to answer it, both of which are apparently correct, and which almost always conflict.
The first answer is the conventional answer. That is, if you support conservative policies on Israel, you are pro-Israel. If you support liberal or progressive policies on Israel, you are anti-Israel. Somewhere between these must be a bipartisan center, neither pro-Israel nor anti-Israel. Perhaps this center is the habitual position of our own dear State Department. Or perhaps State’s Israel policies are too pro-Israel; or perhaps they are too anti-Israel. But we can easily see who is for Israel, and who is against it; and there must be a center between them.
Unlike the nature of Nelson Mandela, this judgment is not obviously magical and democratic in nature. In fact, the Israel problem appears so dry and bureaucratic, not to mention unsolvable, that it is the farthest possible thing from magic. Nonetheless, as we’ll see, the political conflict in the Middle East is an entirely magical one. That is: the narrative of this conflict, not only as believed by the audience but also by the players, is a magical narrative like that of Mandela. The actual history of the 20th-century Middle East has nothing whatsoever to do with this narrative, and is entirely unknown by almost everyone.
You can see this easily. Why? Because the center of the American political spectrum is simply defined as the center of the Arab–Israeli conflict spectrum. There is no reason whatsoever to assume this correlation. For instance, it could be that all but the most extreme conventionally pro-Arab positions are in fact objectively pro-Israeli. Or vice versa.
Because there is a second way to ask whether you are pro-Israel or anti-Israel. Like our African dilemma before, this is an objective process which does not depend in any way on public opinion. The results conflict completely with your consensus political perception.
The objective polarity of your position is a function of the Middle Eastern policies you think your government, USG, should follow. This position is defined relative to an objective center, which is the classical position of neutrality, well-known to classical international law.
If you are neutral in a conflict, ideally, that conflict exists without you. You are careful to take no action which benefits one side more than the other. The parties to the conflict may be your neighbors, and if so you must conduct yourself quite carefully to produce the practical effect of equivalent nonexistence. Again: to be neutral in a conflict, is to allow that conflict to proceed without your own intervention active or passive.
Therefore, USG is pro-Arab if a shift to neutral policies, as defined above, would favor Israel. It is pro-Israeli if a shift to neutral policies, as defined above, would favor the Arabs. The effect of neutral policies is that USG has no impact whatsoever on the conflict.
Doesn’t this sound like a reasonable objective position, which should be the same as the conventional position? Alas, it is anything but.
The problem is that the Arabs, who are militarily much weaker than the Israelis, are imposing territorial concessions on the Israelis. For “peace,” the question is not whether the Israelis must cede land they now control the Arabs, but how much they must cede. This is a very unusual sort of peace, considering the military balance of power. Surely, there is no Arab or Islamic power or combination of powers that could win a war with Israel. With no other party in the equation, the IDF could be ruling the Middle East, from Fez to Islamabad, in a month and a half.
Surely this unseen dark planet, this behemoth Nemesis of the postwar solar system, can be none other than USG itself. Given American neutrality, Israel need no longer fear the Arabs, because if they cause any trouble she can conquer them from Fez to Islamabad. Given that the Arabs know this and are anything but stupid, they will make no further trouble. Peace in the Middle East—through the direct opposite of New Exeter Hall policies. Which, of course, have had the last 60 years to to try and solve the Arab–Israeli conflict.
Therefore, we come to the following conclusions about the Arab–Israeli conflict. One: the mainstream US position is objectively pro-Arab and anti-Israeli. Two: US involvement is at least plausibly the cause of the conflict. Three: the conflict is best described as a conflict between the US and Israel, with the former’s policies directed by its pro-Palestinian ruling classes, and the latter’s contended between the pro-American left and the anti-American right.
Again, you can sort out later what to make of this alternative narrative. The point is that my “objective” interpretation of the Middle East problem is (a) at least somewhat compelling, and (b) completely incompatible with almost everyone’s perception of reality.
Now, frankly, where you find one cockroach, you typically don’t find just one. We’ve found two. We could wander around the beer cans and pizza crusts of the 20th century, slapping the Blattidae here and there, for as long as we wanted. But do we want that? No? We’re busy people. Therefore, we’d like to find the nest—the fundamental misconception that leads naturally to all the rest.
One thing I like to try to do is remember my original reaction, as a child in the ’70s and ’80s, to the present history of the world as revealed to me then by educational sources of unquestionable, or at least unquestioned, reliability.
Of course, I could be just making this up. It is hard to tell. But I distinctly recall wondering: why did it take so long for human progress to achieve democracy? After all, you have many centuries of extremely sophisticated European Renaissance and post-Renaissance thought. Yet the victory of democracy on the European continent was not complete and assured until the lives of those now living. In England, it was not complete and assured until the 20th century. Only in America was it old, and even then not that old. And then there was the Roman Empire… and so on.
Moreover, I learned, in the real world today, there were only two real alternatives. Democracy, or Hitler. Or Stalin. Democracy or tyranny. Yet when I read the history of Europe before the 20th century, i.e., the century of democracy, I did not see anyone or anything like Hitler or Stalin.
What, exactly, is the difference—as a matter of political organization—between the regime of Queen Elizabeth, and that of Hitler? Democracy puts both in the same category: nondemocracy. Absolute personal despotism, to be exact. But… there is a difference, isn’t there?
All these objections are neatly summed up in Churchill’s famous aphorism, if it is really Churchill’s. Democracy, whose flaws are not in any way secret, appears to you as the worst of all systems of government, except for all the others. And what do you know of all the others? Nothing at all, of course. (Or at least, nothing nonmagical.) Hence the statement sounds true, because it is true. So far as you know. That migraine spot again!
There’s a hypothesis forming here. We notice that all our blind spots seem to be in the general area of political democracy. Where they lead to misimpressions, those impressions tend to cast democracy in a falsely positive light. What if democracy was like communism? What if, for everything and anything in the world today that is broken, we could say accurately: it is broken because it is democratic. To fix it, get rid of democracy.
This appears unthinkable, of course, to you. You were raised as a true democrat. Note that if you’d been raised a true Communist, you would have perceived Communism in just the same way. And, of course, Catholicism, and Islam, and so on. But Communism (which is in fact best seen as a splinter branch of the global democratic movement) is the best analogy, because it is so recent.
No, comrades, Communism is not the problem! Communism? The problem? On the contrary, comrades—Communism is the cure! We suffer, not because we have been true to Communism, but because we have been untrue to Communism! To get back on the right track, comrades, we must redouble our efforts to achieve Communism… and so on.
I think of this when I hear anyone acting under the delusion that they can restore the American political system, presumably to some imagined youthful vitality. The American political system! The true nature of that system, gentlemen, is now quite apparent. Long has it battened on the rest of the planet; its final dessert is now apparent. As any epidemiologist would expect, America was that country most resistant to American democracy. Resistance is not immunity. In the end, every elm must meet its beetle.
So this is a quick and easy general-purpose explanation which can shed light on a remarkable variety of apparent historical anomalies. As a people, we believe insane things, because democracy has driven us all insane. After all, it’s had two hundred years to do so. Its edifice of magical thinking is a wonderful thing, ornate as a Disney castle, more worthy of admiration than destruction. Sadly, it is the castle of evil, and God’s sweet fire will melt it in a flash.
Here are three words that will permanently cure you of democracy—if any three words can. Imperium is conserved.
That is: no form of government can be defined as un-government or self-government. There is always a government; there is always a process by which this government makes decisions; this process always consists of the decisions of one or more human beings, and no other party or force. Therefore, either you rule, or you are ruled by others. Typically the latter. As Maine writes in Popular Government: “democracy is a form of government.” In other words, it lacks any spiritual connotation; like any form of government, it can only be judged by its results.
As who writes? In what? Here is one old book that can cure you, if any old book can: Popular Government (1885), by Sir Henry Maine. Read it once. Read it twice. Read it three times. It’s free. It explains everything, just about. Well, not quite—but almost. Once you’ve read Maine, perhaps you are ready for Filmer. And with just those two, you can be right back on track! Of course, the 21st century may start to strike you as pretty bizarre. But it is, you know.
But if old books are not your scene, once again: imperium is conserved. Taking this as our lodestar, we have no trouble in diagnosing the fundamental disease of democracy. The condition (which is incurable) is imperial decay—that is, the broadening of the decision process, from a single executive decision to a universal-suffrage election.
The democrat, who is typically also an aristocrat, thinks or allows himself to think that, by dethroning the king and transferring the king’s powers to an assembly, he is destroying the sovereign imperium. But he is not; he is only dispersing it.
If some alliance of democrats so much as renders the king subject to the rule of law, they are transferring the king’s judicial powers not to no one, but to a concrete human body—a judiciary. They have fragmented the imperium and produced the constitutional solecism of imperium in imperio. Their monarchy is certainly doomed, at least in any substantive sense. And thus men laid, centuries ago, the foundation for all our feral subway yoofs. Imperium fragments irreversibly and entropically—monarchy descending to oligarchy, oligarchy to aristocracy, aristocracy to democracy, democracy to mere anarchy.
Which fruit has taken many a year to ripen. But what a fruit it is! Now, at last, we see it in its glory. No other recent day knew such a thing. Yoofs! As St. Exupery wrote in the ’40s:
For centuries, humanity has been descending an immense staircase whose top is hidden in the clouds and whose lowest steps are lost in a dark abyss. We could have ascended the staircase; instead we chose to descend it.
At the bottom of the stairs: anarchy, hell, Haiti, Mogadishu, Lagos. For you they are waiting! For you, for you, for you, these hells! For you! Stop on the stairs; listen quietly; hear Mogadishu, in the blackness below, reeking of piss, waiting for you; purring; licking her chops. She wants you. You! And your family! Anarchy is hungry, hungry, always hungry. Insatiable. Yet patient.
And at the top? Versailles. Louis XIV. Elizabeth I. The greatness of Britain. The greatness of Europe. The fire of yesterday, untarnished by time! The glory of princes! Cardinals, in their red hats! Black-robed Jesuits, terrible, intense! Against them, the burning martyrs of the Reformation! What a world! A gleaming, cloud-borne Olympia in the blue, far above our wet gray reality. Gentlemen, we have only our butts to turn around. Why not climb, and fast? Two steps in a jump? Three?
No, there is a problem. It cannot be done. Imperium is conserved; imperium decays. And cannot, in any way, be made to undecay. Cold does not flow to hot; power does not shrink; we cannot climb the stairs. At most sit on them, and shiver in the deep fog. Waiting. Sooner or later, Mogadishu will ascend. Must we come to it? It will come to us. Sooner or later. Sooner…
No! There is one desperate way—and one only. Having descended for centuries, shambling, sitting, resting, going on—we cannot climb. Fast or slowly, at a walk or at a run. Climbing is impossible; ascent is essential; there is only one way. We must leap, in one bound, to the top. The asymmetry is fundamental. Obey it.
Divine-right monarchy is very easy to understand, even for an atheist like me. We have already derived it. To an atheist, the King’s authority must be absolute, not because he is appointed by God, but because he is appointed by no one. If someone appoints him, that man is King. If their roles are divided—the famous “balance of powers” or “checks and balances”—they will struggle, and one or the other prevail. Probably the many over the few.
Thus we see high tempers and fisticuffs in the chambers of state. The mice must be governed by the elephants, but all this trumpeting and trunk-lashing alarms them. What if they begin to stomp. As imperium decays, the State becomes conflicted and incompetent, incapable of making good decisions or any at all. And at worst, of course, it actually fights itself.
Thus the modern divine-right monarchist says, not that God has chosen any person or family to rule, but that sovereignty exists and someone must hold it. The more narrowly and stably held the imperium is, the safer it is.
The emphasis on stability is essential, because this answers the question we asked earlier: the difference between Hitler and Louis XIV. The difference is that the famous dictatorships of the 20th century were not stable royal dynasties, or anything close; they rested entirely on the personal position of the dictator, whose absolute authority concealed contending factions at all times, and could at any time have shattered into those factions. If the mere death of a single human being, for instance, can result in regime change, a regime cannot be regarded as stable. It thus exists in a state of permanent if suspended civil war. This is very far from Filmer, and it can quite reasonably be expected to result in a gruesome variety of tyrannous manifestations, as of course was seen in the 20th century.
A Bourbon Gulag or a Tudor Holocaust are entirely inconceivable. Even St. Bartholomew’s was a peccadillo by the standards of a Marat, a Lenin or a Mao. Why? Because imperium is conserved. A stable monarch has no reason to massacre the Jews or shoot the Old Bolsheviks. Being stable, holding a monopoly of power, he has nothing to fear. Stalin and Hitler did. Hence, tyranny results not from the concentration of imperium, but from its dispersal.
It matters, of course, who holds the scepter. But it does not matter as much as you think—so long as that individual is competent and sane. When we look at what Hitler did with Germany between 1933 and 1939, for instance, we tend to say: “but on the other hand, he killed the Jews.” Of course, Augustus held exactly the same position in Rome. If he killed the Jews, history does not record it. Hitler was a maniac; Augustus was not a maniac. We know what Augustus did.
Cannot we marvel at what the Third Reich achieved, with the knowledge that it was run by a maniac? In the hands of a non-maniac, what might it have done? In the hands of an Augustus, for instance? Well, somewhere in Germany in 1933, there might have been an Augustus or two. Or even three. But Germany in 1933 was a democracy. And that democracy elected not Augustus, not Frederick the Great, not even Kaiser Bill. It elected -
Wait. Who did it elect? Gee. I’ve forgotten already. I hate these migraines. An Austrian, I think. A sergeant? A private first-class? Someone like that. A man of the people, that’s for sure. History is so confusing.