What Is It Like To Suffer a Preference Cascade?

What is happening right now, globally, in re the Chinese Flu, is an inflection point in human history. This is so, no matter what the facts might actually turn out to be – the facts medical, epidemiological,, financial, economical, political, cultural, you name it – which now all appear to all of us so obscure, and (we cannot but think) intentionally obfuscated and obscured, by those in the higher reaches of the global culture interested in this or that outcome, for their own purposes, rather than for the sake of the good, the true, the beautiful. It does not really matter what those facts might turn out to be. Ex post, they shall, certainly, tell. But, for the moment, being mostly unknown, they simply cannot; almost every datum is now somewhat masked by countervalent noise of some sort. So, we proceed all of us on the basis of what we know. And what we know extends not much further than our own households, and beyond that our familiar networks, intimately connected via the web despite their geographic dispersion.

So, the impetus of the present moment is to a massive, an enormous, indeed a categorical and so a basic change of focus, that values now of a sudden the local and the familiar over against the global and strange, which had for decades predominated, and indeed crushed, all adversaries. The clerk at my local Safeway is now suddenly my countryman, and my ally, no matter his other allegiances. We shall work this out together, because we must. The clerk at the Safeway in some distant city? He is a nice enough fellow perhaps, to be sure, and I with my local Safeway clerk wish him well; but because he lies incomprehensibly far beyond the ambit of our action, so therefore is he completely beyond the orbit of our potential concern, which is, and must be, entirely parochial.

Excursus: You can’t be truly concerned about what you cannot possibly act to correct. True virtue truly corrects – and, because we can any of us correct so very little and so few of the defects of life under the orbit of the Moon, true virtue is generally humble, and would rather not call attention to itself. For, almost all the defects that any of us might realistically hope to correct lie within ourselves. False virtue signals correction of defects that it cannot in fact hope to effect. To post a meme on Facebook about climate change, or about any other “crisis” whatever, is to advertise impotence, and foolishness. Fix yourself; then you can talk.

This goes especially for Kristor.

Why then do I presume to preach? God help me, I do not know. I see what I see, and I then say what I see. God help me. Perhaps my preaching is therapeusis; preacher, heal thyself: so, first, preach what ails you, as then to know what in you needs fixing.   

God send me a right humility, in any case. And you, my readers, forgive me please my presumptions.

Note here, especially, the organic formation of novel notions (which of course turn out to be ancient, indeed immemorial) of what is especially ours. I know my local Safeway clerks – not their names, their conditions, or their histories, but a fortiori and most simply and most directly their faces, what those faces tell of their lives, and the histories of our entirely friendly interactions over the years. If any of them appeared at my door seeking aid and comfort, I would take them in. Some Safeway clerk from a foreign town, even five miles away? Not so much. And vice versa.

The change to notice then is to common attitudes about borders, strangers, and foreigners. Whatever the common attitudes about those things might have been before the Chinese Flu panicdemic hit, they are utterly defunct – for the moment, at least. What shall come next, to replace them, is radically indeterminate. We might of course go back to the attitudes we once took. That option is terrifically alluring; for, it was comfortable, and we rather liked it. But, that is now only one of many options suddenly on the table. Humans everywhere are now open to the notion that we simply cannot go back to our former default assumptions about how things should work.

Those assumptions tended to globalism. They are no longer at all reliable; they are indeed manifestly unreliable. They are, that is to say, obviously wrong. So it is on the table now, in the minds of all men, that globalism may no longer be an option. It may be simply ruled out.

If it is, then what? That is the question.

Now – this is key – notice that with globalism possibly ruled out as simply stupid, so is liberalism. Globalism is implicit in liberalism, and vice versa. Globalism is the apotheosis and fulfillment of liberalism. If the acme of liberalism, and its truest fullest implementation, simply cannot work due to the realities of biology, well then, liberalism is ruled out, root and branch.

How curious it is, then, that liberal regimes all over the planet are enacting exactly the same sort of authoritarian illiberal limits on liberty that we have been trained by our liberal teachers to expect only from horrible tyrants – and to abhor.

Here’s the thing: the global lockdowns now in effect are exactly the sort of thing we should expect from an authoritarian regime founded upon orthospherean principles. They are a gigantic, total repudiation of liberalism, and of modernism. They are liberalism in its fullest expression devouring itself. The clampdown is totally illiberal. It is also just what people do when confronting what they deem to be an emergency. It is the natural way for men to behave in dire times. So is it become obvious that liberalism is an unnatural way for men to behave.

The clampdown is also, let us all admit, just fairly competent and intelligent men and women thrown into a wild new predicament, all making it up as they go along, and doing their best; doing what seems right under the circumstances.

Which, again, is a radical repudiation of liberalism, and of its cult of the managerial expert. There are no experts. There are at most canny clinicians, talking to each other about what seems to work, as they jointly struggle to hold at bay the chaos that now particularly obtains.

I speak here as one familiar with just such clinicians engaged in just that twilight struggle.

What is it like to suffer a preference cascade, when the former order of things, that seemed for ages so changeless and permanent, is suddenly revealed to be somehow radically defective, thus wrong, in some critical presumption false, and so in its effects evil? What is it like, when the former order of things then, in response to exigencies (whether real or imagined), repudiates itself?

This, right now, is what that is like.

In a preference cascade, anything can happen.

Gird your loins, boys. This is likely to be a bit of a wild ride. Sure, it may end where it began, like a roller coaster. That would be comfortable, and a huge relief, no? But perhaps things will not turn out so very neatly.

I leave it to you to decide whether life is more like a tidily controlled amusement park ride on rails, or a chancy journey down a wild and dangerous river, through canyons deep and dark, where death looms always over each tiny decision.

I’ve done both; far more of the latter, than of the of the former. I’ll take the river in his granite canyon. That’s way more fun, for it’s a true adventure – and, for the boatman himself, far more under the span of his control: *not much*! But, far more than that of the “captain” of a boat tied to submarine rails.

I’ll take the river. It’s the only real ride.

OK, lads, here we go; down the great smooth tongue into the maelstrom of the cascade. We shall see where we end up at the bottom.

18 thoughts on “What Is It Like To Suffer a Preference Cascade?

  1. Pingback: What Is It Like To Suffer a Preference Cascade? | Reaction Times

  2. Getting back into old routines is easier than you think it will be when you are temporarily away from them. A few days after a long, exotic vacation, and it feels as if you never left home. So I expect that a great deal of the panic of spring 2020 will be forgotten, and people will go back to smearing mucus on grocery cart handles and inhaling the still-warm exhales of people they do not like. I am right now highly conscious of the many vectors of infection, and of the microscopic particles of phlegm and feces that freckle my environment, but this consciousness is a media creation that will probably fade when the media turns down the volume.

    Like many people, I had my first experience with teleconferencing by Zoom during the crisis. The Zoom technology worked fine, but it threw the technology we call meetings into a very unflattering light. It’s sort of like seeing a bad oral argument set down in print. The new context makes the pointlessness and stupidity stand out. I’ve been transferring lectures to a video format, and blather really stands out in the new context. And not just the blather, but the underlying fact that a certain amount of any lecture is just “running down the clock.”

    I hope I can remember what I have learned over the past few weeks. I really hope I can remember my heightened sensitivity to poor hygiene and pointless time-wasters. But if I succeed, it will be a triumph of hope over experience.

  3. Kristor, good thing you put that excursus, I thought as I was reading that you seemed of course the epitome of pride and hubris, but now I think otherwise. Jokes aside, no disclaimer necessary, we–or, at least, I–come to Orthosphere specifically for the voices hosted at the Orthosphere. Especially at such a human inflection point, we need the “marketplace of ideas” now more than ever. Barriers to entry are zero, demand has never been higher. Bring on the supply!

    That said, I turn to the substance of your post:

    Now – this is key – notice that with globalism possibly ruled out as simply stupid, so is liberalism

    This is one level of analysis greater than the writing-off of Globalism. Globalism is obviously manifest in the structure of our world. Americans, before complacent, now filled with patriotic duty, are discovering all the parts of our supply chain sourced in China. I learned just the other day that Dairy farmers are reliant on china for machines which process milk for market. If they need more of those machines, where must they turn? China.

    Few will make the next leap to Liberalism. The impulse of many is to reach back for what we used to have. It will be some time before people realize that there’s no going back. By which I mean: People will want to say, “What we had before worked just fine, except if we changed this one thing (globalism) it would be better.” Realizing where globalism came from will come with time, I think, but it will require some hand-holding for everyone to agree quickly, or patience for everyone to agree eventually.

    There are at most canny clinicians

    This clinician analogy is apt. The old axiom: “War is the only proper school of the surgeon”. Indeed, from my reading of the civil war, the first years of the war were spent eliminating lazy and ineffective peacetime generals so the strong and wild-eyed wartime generals could finish the war. The Clinicians are learning, with deadly tweets flying overhead, unruly mobs behind them, and an entrenched establishment in front, what it takes to save a society on the brink. Now begins the epoch where our lazy, ineffective, peacetime leaders are removed, and our strong and wild-eyed wartime leaders take power. I joke with my friend that Trump is 50 years before his time. Imagine if Winston Churchill had been in power instead of Neville Chamberlain? That’s what it feels like we have. We got Winston Churchill before his time, at the point where his influence would have the greatest effect.

    What is it like, when the former order of things then, in response to exigencies (whether real or imagined), repudiates itself?

    I’m reminded of what Ernest Hemingway said about how one goes bankrupt: At first, gradually, and then suddenly. I think we made it over the sudden part already.

    OK, lads, here we go; down the great smooth tongue into the maelstrom of the cascade. We shall see where we end up at the bottom.

    Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit!

  4. For good reasons and bad, many college students will not want to resume college-in-the-old-way; and many parents of college students will be reluctant to keep on indebting themselves to support their children in what, as is now clear to them, is a supreme irrelevancy. The impact of the plague on higher education will likely be tremendous, but because higher education is so thoroughly corrupt, this will ultimately be a good development. (“Higher education” — I employ the term loosely, very loosely.) And when college enrollments drop, what will become of the professoriate or the administrative class, especially the latter? I suspect that K-12 will have to adapt itself to a similar reconsideration by its clientele. And what of “public transportation”? The great urban subway systems have been revealed as disease-spreading machines. The megalopolis itself has been revealed as the same. I expect to see a good deal emigration from big-city environments.

    • After several weeks of unanticipated cohabitation with their unlovable louts, parents may be thinking that a residential college would be a bargain at half the price. You will recall the words of Charles Ryder’s father in Brideshead Revisited: “‘Abroad?’ asked my father hopefully. ‘There are some excellent schools abroad, I believe.’”

      I am taking sardonic pleasure in the exposure of rabbit-warren cities for the biohazards they really are. Geography is full of rabbit-warren zealots who aim to save the world by packing us into high-rises and onto public transport. I’m sure living in megalopolis is grand if you are super-rich, but it is filthy and disgusting for the hoy polloi.

  5. All good points re: megalopolis and apropos. Still, while I live in the mega of all megalopoleis I am not super rich and have more hoi polloi cred than most anyone I know IRL or online. There is a beauty in the city that is singular and not to be found among the little houses on the prairie. I don’t say this as advocacy for any locale; it’s just an observation. Christendom certainly had her grand places, places likely disproportionately ravaged by plague. My little home among the rats has taken quite a beating on many fronts recently, so as one of her partisans I thought I might chime in. 🙂

    • I, too, love the good cities. And they seem to be indispensable. What will be interesting is to see how a new sensitivity to their role as epidemiological vector changes them. Cities have always been vulnerable to, and propagated, plagues. Yet it was not that long ago that we buried the sewers, and began using flush toilets. Our cities now are wonderfully clean, compared to what was normal in them only 150 years ago. And so are people! What will change in cities over the next few decades, to make them even cleaner and nicer? Copper doorknobs seem like a no-brainer, but there are bound to be lots of other little things that will change, and that will add up. As with daily bathing and regular washing of hands – also innovations of the 19th century – many of the changes will be to our habits, customs, and policies. E.g., I would not be surprised at a renascence of the old laws against vagrancy, and a cessation of the present subsidies to vagrant life styles, so as to reduce the risk of infection spreading among the vagrant by reducing the quantity of vagrancy. Likewise, I would not be surprised to see a renascence of stricter enforcement of immigration laws and customs – not just internationally, but interprovincially. It was once much harder to move than it has been of late. When I first moved to California in the early seventies, I discovered I could not open a bank account at Wells Fargo until I had lived in state for 6 months (as I recall); and local stores would not accept checks written on my account at Indiana National Bank. A pickle! Once I succeeded in obtaining a California Drivers License, and then an account at Wells Fargo, all doors were open to me, and merchants stopped their suspicious glances. That sort of friction on movements might again arise.

      • Nothing incites my inner fascist like dirty public restrooms. I fall under Whittaker Chambers’ famous criticism of Atlas Shrugged when my soul cries out, “To a gas chamber—go!” Reducing the number of vagrants? That’s just the first jackboot shift. I want littering to be a capital offense! For all my liberal poses, my inner core wants Singapore imposed good and hard whenever I witness filth. So, it’s somewhat perversely pleasant witnessing the world turn germophobe. My own inclinations are not nearly so rational; I feel miasmic pollution in such environments. Abstractions aside, my gut judges living dirty in such a way to be a grave moral failing. And those people must . . . go! (I care not wither, but I’m open to options.)

      • Sigh . . . whither, not wither, but whether they wither or whither they wither if they do, in fact, so wither should concern me as a Christian, but I find that I often care more about the weather than whether, where, or whither they will wither.

      • I’m sure you have turned the other cheek to vandals and slobs often enough, and I think you have earned the right to be angry with people who wantonly sink your quality of life on a daily basis. Some bums are crazy and deserve some sympathy. Some of them are just colossal jerks.

    • I appreciate the beauty and glamor of cities, and am very well acquainted with the squalor and dullness of a small city in flyover country. I’m just confessing to a little schadenfreude after a lifetime of metropolitan snobbery.

  6. “So, the impetus of the present moment is to a massive, an enormous, indeed a categorical and so a basic change of focus, that values now of a sudden the local and the familiar over against the global and strange, which had for decades predominated, and indeed crushed, all adversaries.”
    I think this is partially true, but it goes far deeper and more isolated. You may see your Safeway clerk as a fellow countrymen, but the eyes that gaze on me see me as a stranger, a threat, a potential carrier and cause of disease and death. So the return to the familiar and local may end up exaggerating the isolation ironically induced by globalism.

    To some extent this feels like an extended 9/11. There was fellowship and comradery afterward, but 9/11 exists almost as a far off story, something like the Great War. Two decades hence it is hardly remembered and while lasting changes were affected the general trends persist in spite of it.

    • I had a similar thought. I’m sure more people will be drawing parallels to 9/11. From an upcoming article in my space:

      This is unique among disasters as well. The only comparison in terms of national scale I can think of is 9/11. In 9/11, the entire country was affronted by a single shock, and were stirred to action and a showy display of unity. Everyone experienced it the same way, and even today everyone has a story to tell about it. The shock could be processed all at once, and the doom only came for a few. So all of America processed events at roughly the same time and in roughly the same way.

      Coronavirus, in contrast, is a slow burn, like the noxious clouds in Neville Shute’s [book, On the Beach].

      This is a cataclysm–which, I only just learned while making sure to pre-empt JMSmiths etymological mastery, has roots in Noah’s flood. Our language is beautiful. Whatever else I was going to say has been disarmed by that fact.

      • The time component between the two is an important point. I’m still pessimistic about enduring change apart from increased bureaucracy. There is a hope that this will be more like a monastic moment as we contemplate continually our own death in isolation rather than a consumeristic moment of vice and malaise to binge watch Game of Thrones again.

    • It is certainly true that a renewed focus on the local and the familiar cannot but have the effect of isolating and alienating the foreigner and the stranger, more than has of late been usual. But it will also have the reciprocal effect of increasing the strength of communities everywhere, so that their members feel less isolated and alienated than had lately been the usual case (modern globalist society is infamous for its prevalent sense of alienation and loneliness).

      If you want a community to begin with, you must among other things decide who is in it, and who is not. NB: this rule is observed even in Heaven. Not everyone gets into Heaven. How isolated are those who do not? Perfectly.

      Where there is no community, to which some belong and some do not, *no one belongs to any community,* for there is no such thing; and *everyone is totally alone.* Such is the apotheosis of globalism, and of modernism.

  7. Kristor, how to identify the equivalence of liberalism and globalism. Globalism appears to certain presuppose a certain equality and fraternity, but the liberty central to liberalism is not clear to me. Put differently, liberalism breads globalism but globalism need not give rise to liberalism.

    • Any single solution that proposes global adequacy necessarily shortchanges local factors, as on a Procrustean bed. It can achieve success under its own terms only by imposing punishing net negative costs at almost all localities. It wins for man by hurting all men. So, it loses. It is the resort of such criminal scoundrels as Procrustes.

      God send us a Theseus.

      Certainly there could be a global solution that was illiberal. Indeed, global solutions must be per se illiberal. The only way to obtain a global solution of any sort, to any problem, would be by untoward and thus inapt constraint of local liberties – including those of the individual. Notice that globalism is always couched in terms of global *government* – i.e., of global constraint of local liberties.
      It helps I think to parse the problem in the terms of subsidiarity. On those terms – those taught of the Church – the only proper or therefore ultimately workable global solution is subsidiaritan; which is to say, parochial; which is to say, precisely, *not global.*

      In sum, then, yes: liberalism gives implicit rise to globalism, as a matter of logic; for, no mere nation can be relied upon to guarantee the civil liberties of its own citizens, so that some transnational authority with teeth – really, since 1990, just the USA – must act as final guarantor of those liberties. But not vice versa; for, globalism per se is inherently illiberal: it imposes a single basic solution upon all nations. Globalism then, as inherently totalitarian and tyrannical, is the way that liberalism devours itself, and gives rise to a tradition (albeit, not necessarily a good one).

      Liberalism gives rise to globalism; globalism devours liberalism. Orthospherean tradition, on the other hand, gives rise to subsidiarity at all levels of the social hierarchy, including the global. So it buttresses liberty at all levels of the hierarchy. The globe prospers, and so likewise does the hamlet and her several homesteads. Almost everyone is left almost completely to his own devices.

      I take it as more or less inevitable that there should be some overarching order of international relations, and thus of some global culture, and so cult. In any such culture, sovereigns must as a matter of course respect each other, and so the persons and property of their ambassadors, e.g.; and violations of that protocol (as with the punishable Iranian abuse of US Embassy personnel and property) must be met with universal opprobrium on all sides, at least ostensibly; and, indeed, with violent attack. But any such global culture of diplomatic protocol and decorum is a very far thing indeed from a global government. God send us the former, and prevent the latter.

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