Western distinctiveness II: dogmatic, fundamentalist zealots

I begin with that exemplary Westerner, Bishop James Ussher, who through a painstaking analysis of Biblical and other ancient records famously concluded that the world was created on October 23, 4004BC.  What a dummy, right?  Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to take the Bible literally like that.  Surely other civilizations, which weren’t so literalist in their religion, would have provided more hospitable settings for the rise of science.

Oh, quite the contrary!  A people who aren’t interested in dating the world with their holy books won’t be interested in dating it with rocks either.  A people that is happy to accept its religion mythologically will also take its science mythologically.  In neither case will there be a concern for precision or logical consistency.  Fundamentalism and science go together; they spring from the same state of mind.  Perhaps this is our much-lamented alienation from nature manifesting itself again as a chasm that can only be crossed with claims of a knowledge of objective truth.

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Western distinctiveness I: rapists of nature

My position, stated many times, is that a person doesn’t need to have a reason to love his people.  In fact, he cannot have a reason, since love is always directed at particular instances rather than general qualities.  You may think your children pretty and clever, but you would still love them if they lost these qualities or another set of children was found to exemplify those qualities to a greater degree.  Similarly, we men and women of European descent do not need to prove that our culture is especially refined or creative, that our ancestors were especially virtuous, or that our customs are especially agreeable by some objective standard.

Still, although we are not obliged to think about it, the fact is that other peoples are constantly noting the distinctiveness of the West.  We may wish to ignore their observations, because they are not at all meant to be complimentary, but then we would miss the chance to learn about ourselves.  I plan to comment each day this week on one of this features.

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Yesterday’s homework

We got some good answers in the comments.  I will try to be brief in my own notes.

Conservative readers were expecting the author to condemn attachments based on biology and to propose his scheme as a way to overcome them.  In fact, his scheme requires that people continue to especially value their biological progeny; the goal, stated plainly, is to get parents to love their children less, to shift focus from the children they are raising to a more diffuse concern for people in general.  Parents are to be deliberately alienated from the children under their care so that attention shifts from those whom they are in a position to help greatly and who require from them an enormous personal investment toward strangers for whom they can do little for good or ill.  The suggestion that his scheme would improve prenatal care is similar:  take away a huge incentive from the person who most determines prenatal care; replace it with an insignificant, diffuse incentive on people with essentially no control over the care of the fetus; expect good results.  The insanity of socialism in a nutshell.

Other unargued assumptions that should be contested:

  • Even if this were a good thing to do, who is this “we” who has the authority to do it?
  • Although the argument does not require that intense partiality (love) is bad, it does assume that it is not so valuable that it can’t be sacrificed to the presumed good of racial equality.
  • The idea that cultural continuity can persist without biological continuity presumes that culture may not concern itself with biological continuity.  In fact, we know many do, and no argument is given why this is illegitimate.


Homework assignment: reassigning babies

Conservatives are those who have taken on the task of defending common sense against insane ideologues.  This can be harder than it sounds, since the ideologue merely needs to invoke some generally accepted but ultimately insane principle and draw out one if its insane conclusions, while the conservative must take things back to first principles; he must articulate and defend the tacit background assumptions of mankind.

It is a commonplace of education research that we learn by doing, by constructing (with guidance) our own knowledge.  Therefore, I provide a homework assignment for readers.

  1. Read the excerpt at Steve Sailer’s blog from Howard Rachlin’s thought experiment / argument that babies should be randomly reassigned to mothers at birth, with the exception that each mother will know that it definitely won’t be her baby she’ll be coming home with.  The argument is that this should be done in the interests of equality and eliminating racism.  See link for details.  (Or you can read the source, which is not much longer.)
  2. Explain in 150 words or less why this idea is evil, crazy, and stupid.  (Okay, I won’t count words, but please strive to maintain normal comment length.)
  3. Solutions to be posted tomorrow.

Making peace with death: the ideal human lifespan

I’ve just finished reading The Consolations of Mortality:  Making Sense of Death by Andrew Stark.  I enjoyed the book, but instead of reviewing it, I prefer to give some thoughts it prompted in me.  The author’s goal is to find a way to reconcile people like himself to their own mortality, people like himself being those who do not believe in an afterlife and see life as a good thing rather than a vale of tears best escaped.  Life has been good to me, and I do have trouble believing in a life after this one, so the book appealed to me.  Still, one might sense a contradiction in the whole project.  The search for consolation–arguments to justify a desired emotional state rather than a search for truth irrespective of how it might make one feel–is an invitation to dishonesty, and yet Professor Stark seems to be a very honest man, so that much of the book involves him probing suggested reasons not to fear death and finding that they fail to hold up upon examination.

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Faith is honesty in doubt

Liberalism claims to rest on reason alone and not on any disputable metaphysical or historical claim.  It poses as a neutral arbiter between rival comprehensive ethical systems.  Because it is not one of them, it can claim rightful authority over all of them–and without even being required to argue the truth of its beliefs against that of its rivals.  It has no disputable beliefs.  It has no rivals.  To maintain this pretense, it is insufficient to claim that the reasoning of nonliberals is flawed or based on dubious premises; liberals must claim that nonliberals have no reasons at all, that what appear to be reasons are in fact expressions of subrational animus.  Hence the hierophants of the Supreme Court could find same-sex marriage in the Constitution because they could assert it as certain that rivals to liberalism (e.g. proponents of normative gender roles) act only out of ignorance, hatred, or insanity.  The Court does not inject itself into a debate.  Debates require two reasoning sides, and the liberal knows a priori that he has a monopoly on reason.

Maintaining this illusion requires an ever-more-thorough ignorance of the past and of other civilizations.  Thus, the list of “offensive” books from which students must be shielded rapidly grows.  It would be wrong to see in this a character flaw inherent in liberals.  Liberals are no more innately lacking in curiosity and open-mindedness than anyone else.  It is liberalism itself that demands such an attitude of militant stupidity.

With this contrast in mind, one can appreciate the importance of the Christian taking his beliefs on faith.  To claim that something is a matter of faith is to acknowledge that doubt is reasonable.  Of course, Christians are told to be ready to give reasons for their faith.  There are arguments in favor of Christianity, and naturally the Christian thinks them superior to their contraries, but these reasons do not add up to a proof.  Christians have reasons, but they don’t claim a monopoly on reasons.  Rival faiths have reasons too.  Christianity is reasonable, but it is not certain.  Faith is a personal matter in a sense that the acknowledgement of a proof is not.  One must decide which reasons, which insights, seem more cogent, and in this decision one’s personality cannot entirely recede into the background.

In fact, everyone is forced to proceed on faith.  Mathematical certainty is not to be had in this life outside of mathematics.  The difference is that the Christian is forced to be conscious of his act of faith.  His faith is a gift.  If certainty could be had, there would be no need for a supernatural gift of faith.  It is not religion but liberalism that manifests a discomfort with doubt, discomfort to the extent that the liberal must shield himself from acknowledging the questionability of his beliefs.

How could there have been an “Age of Faith”?  What could have kept men so honest with themselves for so long?  We moderns find our doubts so difficult to bear.  Why didn’t medieval Europeans do what we have done and declare their religion not a faith but a certainty?  In fact, I suspect that this discomfort with doubt (for which scientism claims to be the cure although it is actually a symptom) is actually not a universal human trait.  Generally speaking, humans aren’t troubled by the thought that their beliefs, even foundational ones, might be wrong.  So long as beliefs are socially promoted, the possibility of error feels academic.  What we face today in an age of hegemonic liberalism is the difficulty of people struggling to privately maintain belief in a religion or other comprehensive ethical system which receives no public sanction, to maintain belief when the price of participation in the public sphere is acting as if that belief were not true.  This is liberalism’s ideal, but it doesn’t work.  A person can believe in the face of uncertainty.  He cannot long believe a truth which he cannot treat as public, as actionable.  Thus we struggle to hold faith in a way our ancestors didn’t, until one by one we come to find our private beliefs so unreal that we give them up.

Ultimately, liberalism has room only for itself.

Why don’t people want Muslim immigration?

It’s not terrorism, crime, or wage depression.  We don’t have nearly enough of them for those to be major issues (yet).  The real reason many don’t like Muslim immigration is this:


This is an excellent propaganda piece for our side.  It’s easy for people to say that our country isn’t defined by religion, race, or culture, but to see that picture is to behold the abyss behind those thoughts.  “We the people”, it says, meaning this is a picture of us, a picture of Americans.  And yet, the first thing you think when seeing that woman is that she is foreign.  Not only does she belong to a religion alien to our civilization, she maintains the style of dress and standard of modesty of an alien culture.  To notice this is not to criticize.  There is nothing wrong with the hijab, but it is not how we traditionally cover our women.  Islam is a false religion, but so is Unitarianism, and we easily recognize the former but not the latter as foreign.  This woman is probably not a terrorist.  She might be able to recite the Constitution from memory, and her political philosophy might be identical to that of James Madison.  According to liberalism, according to the First Amendment, she is as American as any one of us, because to be American means nothing more than to be committed to a certain set of procedures of government.  If in a hundred years, all Americans were to look like this, liberalism demands you accept that nothing fundamental would have changed.

And yet we immediately sense that the woman in the picture is foreign–her image was chosen precisely for this reason, to show us the implications of our tolerance.  If she is “we the people”, than what are we, the people belonging to America’s traditional culture?  We are nothing; no such “we” is allowed to exist.  No region of the country, no profession, and no association can admit that this woman is foreign to it.  People say that Islam is the dog that pisses on every tree; where it comes, it owns.  But even if our Muslim American harbors no such designs for supremacy, she delegitimizes our culture just by the fact that we cannot admit her foreignness.  A Muslim America wouldn’t necessarily be a bad place.  It might have any number of virtues.  But would it really still be our country, the same country that exists right now?

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Book review: How to be a Conservative

Conservatism is, ironically, the one political philosophy that has failed to convert itself into a tradition.  Each generation, it must be discovered anew, as a new voice arises to remind us that the job of the Right is not just to be a bit more practical than the Left in how we demand freedom and equality.  Roger Scruton was that voice in the late 1970s, and his great work The Meaning of Conservatism reminded us that conservatism is not about freedom but about authority, the authority not only of the state but of a host of autonomous institutions.  As he describes in his new book How to be a Conservative, Scruton’s work behind the Iron Curtain softened his attitudes toward Western liberalism shortly after he wrote The Meaning of Conservatism.  The experience of socialist totalitarianism inclined him more positively to classical liberalism, if not to its Lockean justifications.  In How to be a Conservative, Scruton again attempts to explain his understanding of conservatism.  Again it has very much to do with his horror at seeing the institutions of civil society treated as means to an extrinsic end (now no longer called socialism, but social justice).  It is a conservatism in the moderate British style, with all the good and bad that come with this approach.  He generously tries to see the valid insight driving each ideology of the day; the chapters are named “The Truth in Nationalism”, “The Truth in Internationalism”, “The Truth in Socialism”, etc.  (The last-named chapter, though, is mostly about the falsity of socialism.)  Finally he comes to conservatism, which supposedly incorporates the truth in these other beliefs while rejecting their excesses.  Scruton’s conservatism does, I think, succeed in this goal.  It also fails to conserve anything.

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