Andrey Miroshnichenko’s review of The Revolt of the Public

March 18, 2015

Andrey Miroshnichenko is the author of Human as Media, a book I have cited often in this blog.  He and I became connected as fellow scholars who turn out to have an astoundingly similar perspective on the impact of media on politics.  I say astounding because we wrote our books in complete isolation from each other yet arrived at almost exactly the same place, used many of the same words, and even reached for the same obscure citations (Ortega y Gasset being a favorite).

Andrey and I take the similarities to be meaningful.  We think we are on to something.  We may even be advancing on that phantom, truth.

Andrey has just produced a brilliant and thoughtful review of The Revolt of the Public.  As old-fashioned bloggers used to say:  read the whole thing.  It’s worth it.

For those who want a foretaste, here is Andrey’s version of how he and I came to recognize each other as kindred spirits:

Reading Gurri’s book was for me a particularly fascinating experience, because of the many overlaps between his ideas and those presented in my book “Human as media. The emancipation of authorship.”(Miroshnichenko, 2013). Gurri and I were not familiar with each other’s work until I came across his book and wrote to him. Our understanding of the present moment is so strikingly similar that we both turned to the same, regretfully obscure, “mass man as a spoiled child” quotation taken from Ortega y Gasset (Ortega y Gasset, 1930).

We have since discussed this similarity in our analysis, and we agree that if two independent researchers can see and describe their subject so similarly, that subject in all likelihood has been correctly portrayed. I find this to be an exciting development, particularly since neither physics nor math are involved; there are no “objective” laws of nature applied… Or are there? In the age of accelerated information, the social-informational sphere is so mediated by technologies and so alienated from an observer that it can probably be caught by an inquisitive mind like something “physically given”.

As might be expected, he and I don’t agree on every point regarding the great media-driven transformation of social and political life – what I have called the crisis of authority.  But I find his disagreements to be the most interesting aspect of the review:  they are fascinating, instructive – and probably correct.

Gurri has researched the manner in which the Fifth Wave influences politics. But at some point, with growing Internet penetration, media ceases to be just a factor of the political process; quite the reverse, political processes become internal parts of the media environment.

The review concludes on a thought-provoking note:

Societies accustomed to the conditions supported by broadcast-style, top-down media – i.e., the Fourth Wave, according to Gurri – including those societies that just recently began to experience those conditions, have suddenly found themselves sinking in the Fifth Wave, which is the environment of engaged media, where everyone has the technical capability to express publicly their personal reactions.

This new environment has thus far emancipated technical authorship for about 2.5 billion persons. Considering the spread of information technologies, the “normal” rate of Internet penetration, and population growth, we can predict that number of emancipated authors who can communicate reactions beyond their physical circle will reach 8-10 billion within the next 30 years.

We are at the moment in the middle of the explosion of mass authorship. Books like Gurri’s Revolt of the Public are extraordinarily helpful and necessary if we are to understand the present and prepare for what is to come. The next wave of turbulence caused by emancipated authorship is coming, and it will not be Tahrir-like. The likelihood is that it will develop the characteristics of the recent conflicts in Ukraine and Ferguson, Missouri, the first hints of which could be observed in the London riots of 2011. These future collisions should be analyzed in the context of media ecology as well as of political science.

Go read.  Now.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Andrey Miroshnichenko

The shame of the intellectuals

June 17, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

We live in a time of categorical confusion.  Regulation is presented as liberation.  Debt is re-imagined as wealth.  In the world, people who despise us and wish us ill are embraced, while others who promote liberal principles are rejected, sneered at, called traitors to their roots.

I have just read Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals, a profoundly depressing book.  It describes the perverse escape from reality by the intellectual left in Europe and the US, which has made a culture hero of Tariq Ramadan, proud grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a pariah of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, advocate of Enlightenment ideas, particularly with regard to women in Islamic societies.

Berman is himself a member in good standing of the intellectual left, with a rare gift for unearthing the source materials of Islamist ideology.  Prominent among these sources, Berman shows, is Nazi propaganda to the Arab world, which exported the most virulent strains of European anti-Semitism to a new and receptive audience.  In this way, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fantasy concocted in tsarist Russia, entered the cultural mainstream in the Middle East – there to serve as plot for an Egyptian TV soap opera.

The voice of Nazi propaganda to the Arabs was that of the loathsome mufti of Jerusalem – a would-be Jew exterminator, and a man much admired by Ramadan’s grandfather.  Hitler and the mufti bonded over a shared belief that Jews ran the world, and deserved to be slaughtered.  The idea was absorbed into Islamist ideology and Arab society in general.

Discovery of the death camps never caused a moment’s moral doubt in this corner of the world – if anything, it increased the admiration of many Arabs for Hitler’s racial program.  Yusuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s televangelist on Al Jazeera, still considers Hitler to have been an instrument of Allah, whose exterminating work, God willing, will be completed some day soon.

This is the ideological bog that begat Tariq Ramadan.  This is his family and intellectual inheritance – which, Berman observes, he has never sought to escape.

Tariq Ramadan

He worships his grandfather, who in turn lionized the mufti.  He heaps praise on Qaradawi, who thinks the Holocaust was God’s handiwork.  Ramadan is no Jew exterminator.  He was born in Switzerland, where his Egyptian father sought asylum.  He teaches at European universities – though his academic credentials are, at best, mediocre.  He writes books for a European audience.

Ramadan wishes to straddle the worlds of the suicide bomber and Western academia.  He aims to look pure in doctrine to bearded bigots like Qaradawi, while remaining a force for reason to liberal professors and intellectuals. That this turns out to be not much of a stretch is one of Berman’s more fascinating insights.

On every question of Islamist doctrine, Ramadan has spoken out of both sides of his mouth.  He doesn’t think amputating the limbs of thieves is the most enlightened practice, but he also won’t call for its outright abolition.  He claims to be an “Islamic feminist,”  but can’t bring himself to condemn, unequivocally, the stoning to death of adulterous women.  He has proclaimed the need to reform Islam, but Berman demonstrates that by “reform” Ramadan means his own muted version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and political program.  His views on holy war and political violence are, let us say, situational.

Yet Ramadan is looked to as a model modern Muslim by heavyweights of the intellectual left like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash.  Buruma, for example, has called him “one of the few Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism” – a complete invention by a usually meticulous writer.  Meanwhile Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books, in glowing articles, have introduced Ramadan and his ideas to an American audience.

The admiration of the intellectuals stems in part from superficial causes:  Ramadan speaks fluent multiculti, and he dresses (and shaves) like a fashion-conscious European.  He was also denied a visa to the US by the Bush administration, which engaged the sympathies of the ACLU, the Association of American University Professors, and other right-thinking groups.

Something deeper and more sinister is also involved, however, and it emerges in the treatment of Hirsi Ali by the intellectual left.

Hirsi Ali’s history is well known.  She endured the miseries of Somalian girlhood, escaped an arranged marriage, put herself through school, rose to become an elected official in the Netherlands.  She embodies the triumph of liberal ideas, and – not surprisingly – she has campaigned to spread these ideas among immigrant Muslim women in Europe.  She speaks out, insistently, against female mutilation, family violence, and honor killings.

None of this ingratiates her to hard-line Muslims.  She doesn’t care:  she has abandoned Islam for secularism.  For this decision, she has paid a heavy price.  In 2004, a Dutch Islamist murdered Theo van Gogh and, using a knife, stuck on his victim’s body a threat against Hirsi Ali’s life.  The shadow of Muslim terror has darkened her steps ever since, chasing her from safe house to safe house, and from the Netherlands to the US.

Given the nature of her causes and her courage under persecution, Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be a heroine of the intellectual left.  Her liberal, secular beliefs are theirs – only they seem to deny her right to hold them.

Intellectuals have criticized her on extraordinary grounds.  Buruma describes her as haughtily dismissive of the immigrant women she’s working to rescue from medieval oppression.  Garton Ash maintains that she’s taken seriously only because of her pretty face.  Both clearly think Hirsi Ali has overstepped her place.  By forsaking her Muslim roots, she has offended those – like Tariq Ramadan – whom Buruma, Garton Ash, and other well-meaning types desperately seek to please.

Most extraordinary of all, intellectuals often sound like they sympathize with, and possibly justify, the terror-mongers who have threatened to snuff Hirsi Ali out.  Here’s Nicholas Kristof in the NYT:

“She has managed to outrage more people—in some cases to the point that they want to assassinate her—in more languages in more countries on more continents than almost any writer in the world today. Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir.”

Remember:  the “people” Hirsi Ali has outraged and antagonized are those who rammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bombed the London tube, and ritually slit Theo van Gogh’s throat.

What is going on?  Why have supposedly liberal thinkers embraced Tariq Ramadan, heir to a violently anti-Semitic and illiberal tradition, while condemning Hirsi Ali, who risks her life to promote Enlightenment – that is, liberal – ideals?

Berman offers a first-level answer:  “It is because the Islamist movement, in prospering, has succeeded in imposing its own categories of analysis over how everyone else tends to think.”  From the Muslim Brotherhood’s perspective, Qaradawi is a “moderate,” Ramadan a reformer “half-way lost to the vapors of Western liberalism,” and Hirsi Ali an infidel beyond the pale.  And many intellectuals, in their confusion and to their shame, have accepted these skewed categorizations.

But the reasons go deeper and are more shameful still.  Reading The Flight of the Intellectuals, one is overwhelmed by the evasions, amounting to moral blindness, of the dominant and most articulate groups in Arab society.  Truth evokes their loathing and anger.  Failure is someone else’s fault – the Jews’, the West’s, the infidel’s.  All things are viewed through a squint, so that the ruling culture appears, in a certain light, glorious and triumphant.  The bloodiest crimes meet with approval, if they feed this self-delusion.

One is overwhelmed, too, by the evasions, amounting to nihilism, of European and American intellectuals, whose self-abasement before the purveyors of terror and intolerance appears rooted in a disgusting mixture of vanity and fear.  Citing Pascal Bruckner, Berman characterizes this group as a new “penitential caste,” interceding for us Eurocentric sinners to the god of multiculturalism.  On this altar they would sacrifice the moral and political traditions of our way of life – the very ideals they claim to represent.

Multiculturalism trumps liberalism.  That is the depressing lesson of Berman’s book.  Hirsi Ali sounds too much like us:  she must be attacked.  Tariq Ramadan embodies a polite version of Islamist bigotry and looniness:  he must be applauded, not only for his politeness but even more for his bigotry and looniness.

Self-loathing has taken possession of the soul of the intellectual, and we seem, in the realm of ideas at least, to be entering an illiberal age unmatched since the 1930’s, when fascists and Marxists battled over which of them owned the future.

Somehow liberal democracy emerged stronger than ever from those dark times.  By 1991, it was the only game in town.  We can take heart in that.  But the tale told by Berman convinces me that the liberal ideals – the political principles and moral values on which democracy must rest – are up for grabs again.

Wealth and rage

May 28, 2010

We are the beneficiaries of 250 years of fast economic growth.  Before that time, whole populations lived or died depending on crop cycles.  Today, one feels left behind if one can’t afford an iPhone.  We have pushed deprivation so far out we don’t really know what it feels like.

At the source of this stream of wealth stands the industrial revolution.  All the more surprising, then, that so many deep thinkers, people who have never spent a minute behind a plow or hunting game, consider this event “a catastrophic dislocation” – a sort of original sin on which many current failings, real and imagined, are to be blamed.

The quote above is from Karl Polanyi.  In an earlier post, I examined his contention that free markets, and the industrial revolution they engendered, were a moral abomination promoted by ideologically blinded zealots.

Here I’d like to deepen this examination in two directions.  One concerns an empirical question:  did the industrial revolution really improve the material well-being of the population?  If Polanyi is correct, the answer is no.  We can then begin to understand the  revulsion of the intellectuals.

I also want to reflect briefly on the anti-industrial syndrome, which has afflicted so many clever minds since Polanyi’s day, and what it means to our way of life.

Was the advent of industry a material catastrophe for the people of Britain?  My guide in seeking an answer is Joel Mokyr’s Enlightened Economy, which contains a vast amount of information on the British economy between 1700 and 1850.

The growth of wealth during this period is incontestible, according to Mokyr.  The speed of growth was less than might be expected:  in hindsight, the industrial revolution appears as the towering event of the age, but at the outset industry was a small sector in an otherwise traditional economy.  Other factors weighed more heavily on economic growth – not least, the expensive and destructive armed conflicts Britain waged against France until the fall of Napoleon in 1815.

The distribution of growth is fiercely controversial, and given the scarcity of hard data, not likely ever to be settled to anyone’s satisfaction.  Mokyr’s take is that distribution was uneven:  the wealthy and the middle classes bounded ahead, but the standard of living of the working class flat-lined through 1850.

The reason was demographic.  In my opinion, the most important aspect of the industrial revolution had nothing to do with economics.  The population of England and Wales tripled in 150 years.  Nobody starved, and none were pushed to the edge of the abyss.  Malthusian predictions stood refuted.  But the country’s increase in wealth was absorbed initially by an explosion of teeming humanity.

The changed conditions of life are even more difficult to assess.  As might be imagined, the rich and the middle classes enjoyed a disproportionate improvement in comfort, convenience, and access to ever more consumer goods.  For the laborer, the picture was decidedly mixed.  The gains were offset by the pathologies of urbanization, familiar to those who have traveled in the third world today.

The urban poor led dismal lives.  This is the image of the industrial revolution in the minds of its more apocalyptic critics.  It originates in the prose of Dickens and Henry Mayhew, and has been repeated in countless Hollywood productions:  London as the home of battalions of prostitutes and starving urchins.

Yet the urban poor weren’t spawned by the economic transformation.  If one is to believe Mokyr, they had been there all along, large in misery but relatively small in numbers – the bottom 2.5 percent of the population, according to Mayhew himself.

People migrated to industrial cities, despite the pathologies, because the alternatives were worse.  The true human catastrophe of the age was the famine which killed over a million Irishmen.  While industrial Britain bears the moral blame, the cause was a crop failure in a traditional farming economy.

The industrial revolution described by Mokyr is a story of increasing wealth and uneven benefits.  Even without the advantage of hindsight – the knowledge that industry created the fast-growth world we take for granted today – it’s hard for me to discern a reason for moral outrage.

In human terms, of course, there is no contradiction between an objectively beneficial development and a subjective loathing of it.  That seems to be the case here.  The industrial revolution delivered the modern world with all its benefits, but triggers a gag reflex in many thinkers – the nausea of the witness to a bloody and monstrous crime.

What I find perplexing is the categorical nature of the condemnation.  Polanyi is by no means unusual among critics in asserting that nineteenth century civilization – the world of liberal democracy and free markets – had to be “destroyed” to preserve “society.”  No reforms, no ameliorating half measures – destruction root and branch had to be the final solution to the problem of capitalism.  Saving the victims seems less urgent than blowing up the system.

These prophets of doom espoused a baffling variety of ideologies.  They have been romantics, transcendentalists, Christians, Hegelians, Marxists, fascists, postmodernists, ecologists, Islamists.  They include Shelley, Thoreau, Engels, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Alan Ginsberg, Al Gore, Osama bin Laden.  None toiled with their hands.  All lived off the excess of wealth generated by the fast-growth economy they wished to anihilate.

Something ripped apart people’s identities from their culture, and divorced, in the most acute and fundamental way, their hearts from the world they live  in.  The term usually applied to this condition is “alienation.”  I prefer “self-loathing,” because it better describes most of the actual cases.  The experience isn’t falling out of love with one’s community, but feeling tainted by it and needing to destroy it.

The question is why.

I don’t pretend to have an answer – in fact, I don’t believe there can be a single cause to such a complex mix of human motivations.  But the urge to speculate is irresistible.

The growth in population which accompanied the industrial revolution – but, Mokyr claims, was not caused by it – may well play a part.  Because there are so many more of us, we must now live among strangers and be more wary with one another.  Against community there rose the crowd.

Urbanization played a part.  The city has always haunted the imagination of thinkers and artists as the birthplace of sin and degradation.  Industrial cities, forced to absorb ever larger numbers and to suffer the pollution of the satanic mills, could be persuasively cast in the part of Babylon before the fall.  The ideologies and individuals I listed could not be more disparate, yet all looked back to a pastoral age which never existed.

Displacement mattered.  I don’t necessarily mean physical displacement, though leaving one’s community for another might have induced moral vertigo.  I mean the displacement of hierarchy in the new order of things:  the ability of nobodies to become somebodies if they succeeded in the marketplace.  Rough new people vaulted ahead of professors, philosophers, and poets, to the outrage of the latter, who were, as I said, quite reactionary in their ideals.

Modernity itself mattered most of all.  Or rather a misunderstanding of modernity as a vast engineering project, in which the intellectual, appropriating the title of scientist, devises rationalistic formulas to reshape the human race, much like captains of industry carved up mountains and poured them into iron machines.  The spread of education and the rise of egalitarianism probably strengthened this impulse:  every man his own messiah.

Useful customs and traditions which had navigated the centuries were attacked without restraint because they failed to meet some private standard of authenticity or heroism.

Whatever the causes, a surprising number of professional thinkers and artists find the modern world repulsive, and feel obliged to shout from the rooftops their wish to see it destroyed.  This should give pause to those of us who believe free markets are an essential ingredient of liberal democracy.

The fast-growth economy is bountiful but unlovable.  It seems everywhere triumphant but is in fact precarious at all times, and will be fought over, I believe, with every generation.

Industrial revulsion

May 20, 2010

I just finished reading Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, a dark meditation on free markets and industrial society.  The theme of the book is that nineteenth century liberalism’s mindless worship of the “self-regulating market” nearly destroyed social life, and made the backlash of fascism and socialism in the 1920’s and 1930’s inevitable.

Polanyi is a preacher of repentance.  He doesn’t deign to shades of gray.  The object of his criticism is the modern world, which at the time the book was published, in 1944, appeared pulverized between right and left collectivist ideals.  The foundations of this world in industry and the free exchange of goods Polanyi found self-destructive but also morally monstrous.

His thesis rests on a series of assumptions.  Pre-industrial society, Polanyi believed, was organic, in the sense that its necessary elements – social, religious, artistic, political, economic – stood in a balanced relation to one another.  Against this old regime based on human needs, liberalism unleashed the profit motive in the unregulated marketplace.  The consequences were dire:

. . . the exploitation of the physical strength of the worker, the destruction of family life, the devastation of neighborhoods, the denudation of forests, the pollution of rivers, the deterioration of craft standards, the disruption of folkways, and the general degradation of existence including housing and arts. . .

Polanyi predicted the victory of socialism or fascism, because both stood for society against mere profit.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can say he was wrong.  Fascism died under the rubble of World War II, while socialism didn’t  survive the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Of course, there’s no trace left of  the “self-regulating market” either – but I’m not sure such a thing ever existed.  Today, free market capitalism, with various levels of regulation and intervention, is the only game in town.

Polanyi’s failure as a prophet refutes the lesser of his charges against the markets – that they are impracticable – but not necessarily the greater:  that they are morally abominable.  A question with vast implications remains.

Are the material benefits of industrial society worth the moral costs?

A lot hinges on how we understand the social arrangements of pre-industrial life.  These in fact rested on privileges acquired by favored groups and sanctioned by custom:  crown patents, guild monopolies, price controls, captive markets, restrictions on free movement, and in places like Russia, the binding of serfs to the land.  Such practices were traditional, and in this sense organic, but they profited the few against the many.

Polanyi argues that the destruction of this carefully balanced system must be blamed on an unbalanced liberal obsession with economics.  But another explanation is possible.

It would be nonsensical to ascribe economic motives to the liberation of the serfs.  The same applies to the Civil War which freed America’s slaves.  Both undertakings were costly to the state, ruinous to important economic classes, and benefited people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Involuntary servitude was abolished because it offended a humane Enlightenment ideal:  that the individual is a moral and political adult, and must be allowed to pursue happiness after his own lights.

Another Enlightenment ideal was equality, and it tore at the web of privileges holding together the old regime.  These privileges weren’t sustained by some mystical organic force, but by state power; and the political decline of favored groups led quite naturally to the loss of their economic privileges.

By the end of the eighteenth century, a few perceptive thinkers had discerned a link between freedom and prosperity.  Whether, as Polanyi claims, this discovery unhinged classical economists like Ricardo, converting them into ideological zealots, is something I’m not qualified to judge.  But the fact of the matter is that, even in Britain, the liberalization of the market was a patchwork affair, conducted by trial and error, with as many retreats as advances.

The great transformation wasn’t a rationalist experiment but a historical process, no less organic, in that sense, than the preceding age.

Yet the liberalized markets were an engine of change.  That was different.  Old customs and folkways did indeed collapse under the pressure of market-driven alternatives.  Creative destruction was sometimes experienced as mere destructiveness.

The factory system altered forever the conditions of labor.  Along with new capabilities, new hazards and abuses became possible.  The exploitation of women and children is notorious.

Yet these abuses outraged public opinion precisely because they contradicted the Enlightenment ideal of human freedom and dignity.  The same moral force which engendered the factory system corrected its most egregious features.  The liberal order was and remains a reforming movement.  It lacks the fatalism of the organic regime, which shrugged at famine, pauperism, epidemics, mass illiteracy, and enclosures, but imposed ferocious punishments on crimes against property.

The answer to our question comes into focus when we realize what Polanyi usually means by “society.”  He means the government.  He expects state power, acting on behalf of all social classes, to regulate the marketplace and rationalize production.  This is consistent with his prophecy regarding the triumph of fascism and socialism.

Polanyi passionately, if unsurprisingly, advocates socialism, which he identifies with the Christian spirit and thus with the most generous impulses of the old organic culture.

Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.  It is the solution natural to industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society.

I find Polanyi’s formulas problematic.  To begin with, society and government are far from identical.  Even under the most democratic dispensation, those in government can represent only a fraction of a community’s store of opinions and beliefs.  For this reason, liberal democracy aims to keep government out of people’s hair to an extent consistent with shared moral ideals and social peace.

Socialism aims to regulate behavior.  But to what end?  The goals of socialism are enshrined in vague words and phrases:  equality, for example.  The term, under liberal democracy, means the elimination of privilege.  To a socialist, equality means something far more active:  the imposition of new “rights,” like the right to work and to health care.

Since these rights must favor some groups at the expense of others, they are, in practice, a restoration of government-created privileges.  The strategic question then becomes which new rights are considered necessary, and who makes the call.  Assuming a government of incorruptible persons, the decision will still be bound by the values and experiences of those exemplary beings.

The government will favor those groups which please the people in government – any benefit to society will be incidental to this principle.

Alas, most earthly governments are not incorruptible.  They will tend to barter privileges for support.  This was the case with Britain’s Labor governments before Thatcher, which heaped favors on the trade unions, and of the French and Greek governments today, which keep raising the salaries and benefits of their vast idle bureaucracies.  Examples of socialist feather-bedding abound.

What, then, is our answer?  The industrial revolution ranks among the handful of events which have transformed human life.  It was unforeseen and unplanned, and wrenching to those who first experienced it.  Much of value was lost.

But the world shattered by industrial life wasn’t a harmonious minuet danced by disparate social groups.  It was a place of privilege and power, Hobbesean in its disregard for life and liberty, indifferent to the happiness of the majority, unwilling to grant moral adulthood to any but a favored few.

The liberal democratic order which replaced the old regime is less stately, but it is open to a far greater variety of legitimate choices and experiences. In the economic sphere, this explosion of choices has raised up billions from millennial poverty – a very real form of liberation.

With more legitimate choices come more legitimate conflicts – and it is this constant struggle over the boundaries of right and wrong which, I suspect, make some people uncomfortable and nostalgic for the old ways.  Like Polanyi, they turn to a paternal state to still the babble of voices and compel life into a communal whole.

In the end, any assessment of the industrial revolution won’t be about the cost of industry but about the value of freedom.  Given a choice, many people will behave differently from the way Polanyi and other deep thinkers would wish.  Nostalgia for a simpler past – which typifies today’s extreme greens and global warmists as well as Islamists like Osama bin Laden – grows out of a loathing and intolerance of one’s nonconforming neighbors.

Socialism, once a visionary movement, has declined into political Luddism.  It is always easier to wreck than to build.  The problem with those who would follow Polanyi isn’t so much that they would destroy the sources of our wealth – it’s that, to get there, they must first trample on the principles which sustain our freedoms.

Books to read: Franklin, or the public-minded man

February 20, 2010

Even though his image graces the $100 bill, Benjamin Franklin may be the least appreciated of the Founding Fathers.  He ranks with Jefferson – who practically invented us – in his influence on the American character.

Jefferson articulated the American ideology:  the belief in limited government, and the irrepresible faith in human nature necessary to sustain this belief.  This ideology has been implanted in the hearts and souls of the American people – it is who we are, as even a popular politician like President Obama, in seeking to expand federal power, has learned.

But on every question of detail, Jefferson was wrong.  He imagined the US as an agricultural nation, with small farmers providing the unbending backbone of the citizenry.  Cities, businessmen, banks, the middle class – about the groups and institutions which would forge the American future, Jefferson’s attitude ranged from contempt to indifference.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin places him, in a sense, at the opposite pole from Jefferson.  Franklin was nothing if not practical.  He was a man of principle, not of ideology – he carefully avoided religious disputes, for example.

Yet he exemplified virtues which were prophetic of the future character of his country:  self-reliance, hard work, generosity, mutual assistance, openness in friendship, all spiced with a sly sense of humor.

Franklin was proud to be a man of the city and of the mobile “middling” part of the population.  He lacked Jefferson’s romantic notions about farming, yet in a backhanded way he became the living model of the Jeffersonian ideal.  The urban middle class, sturdy and capable, made the system of limited government a going concern.

It did this by a relentless self-accounting, of the kind Franklin made famous.  To the poetic soul, the call to pinch pennies may sound like spiritual poverty, and the desire for self-improvemement may appear fatuous.  But let’s recall Franklin’s circumstances.  He was a self-made, self-taught man.  He had known real poverty, and labored with little assistance other than will power to eradicate his own ignorance.

The struggle for moral self-improvement waged by Franklin had a private and a public aspect.  He avoided debt and drink, and lived frugally, to avoid falling into a debased  dependence on others; for the same reason, he scorned get-rich schemes.  On the public side, he understood the importance of honesty and integrity to the success of business and government.  Both aspects of morality can be found in the moral to-do lists he often  penned:

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak the truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action . . .
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich . . .
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

Above all, in an almost superhuman way, Franklin was public-minded – I believe he might have been  the most useful man who ever lived.  He worked hard at the printing profession, and saved his pennies to achieve personal independence.  But he worked still harder to organize an astonishing number of activities which aimed – again, in a practical and sensible way – to improve the community.

The list of Franklin’s public achievements boggles the mind, particularly when one considers how many have lasted to this day.  He conceived and implemented the first subscription lending library in the colonies.  He was the moving spirit behind the first volunteer fire brigade, to which he brought his own leather bucket.  He helped establish the American Philosophical Society, which still continues its scholarly work.  He organized the first Pennsylvania militia – to the scandal of the Penns and the Crown, a volunteer, self-managed body.

He proposed, designed, and helped raise money for an academy of higher learning in Philadelphia – what is today the University of Pennsylvania.  Unlike Jefferson’s University of Virginia, it intended to educate the offspring of the middle class, rather than produce a natural aristocracy.

Franklin was inexhaustible in the service of his neighbors, his city, and his state.  In the end, however, he served his country longer and, arguably, better.

He was appointed postmaster to the colonies, and significantly improved the speed of the mail.  He was probably the most famous member of the Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He was without a doubt the most successful American diplomat ever – the leading negotiator of the treaty of alliance with France which ensured victory for the Revolution, and of the treaty of peace with Britain which assured the new country of an unencumbered path ahead.  Then he went hope and played a leading part in the Constitutional Convention.

None of this accounts for the activities which made Franklin famous in his own lifetime:  his science and inventions, of which the lightning-rod and bifocal glasses are only two of the better known.

Given this roster of accomplishments, I confess to some mystification regarding Franklin’s place in our history.  There can be no doubt he was a towering figure, one of a handful in terms of lasting influence.  It’s instructive to compare him with his peers.

George Washington was an incorruptible statesman and military hero.  Abraham Lincoln combined common sense and practical politics with a moral grandeur expressed in almost biblical language.  Jefferson was an ideologist and moral legislator, president and diplomat, and wielded the most articulate pen in American politics.

But Franklin was a successful and lasting author, an organizing dynamo, a scientist of note, a famous inventor, a brilliant diplomat, and – like Lincoln but unlike Washington and Jefferson – a model of how to rise from a humble start to such accomplishment.

In the closing chapter, Isaacson observes that Franklin’s reputation has suffered at the hands of romantics and Marxists.  Both, in essence, found him too bourgeois.  One has to wonder, however, why the rest of us, who owe him so much, should allow a judgment on a Founding Father to stand based almost entirely on snobbishness.

Moral order and personal freedom

February 15, 2010

The relationship between culture and the individual used to be thought of as one of command and obedience.  Individuals, it was supposed, internalized the rules of behavior then acted accordingly:  they became “cultural dopes.”  In Moral, Believing Animals, Christian Smith rejects this crude causal model – though he appears to do so mostly because it is old-fashioned, which in sociology seems to be worse than falsehood.

For whatever reason, Smith is correct.  We are not cultural dopes.  In some ways, at some level, we are free.  The question is how to reconcile this freedom with the invasive power of culture.

I can think of no better way to start the search for answers than by leaning on the insights in Smith’s book.  Human beings, he maintains, are primordially moral animals, and culture is moral order.  Every culture elaborates a number of high-level narratives – the operating system of moral order – which constrain and orient social institutions and private life alike.

Moral order, Smith makes clear, is external to the individual.  We encounter its narratives in infancy and are enmeshed in them until we die.  These narratives are the offspring of history in a particular environment which includes, notably, other cultures with different narratives.  They not only guide the individual’s actions but provide the framework of his  identity – of his being this person rather than that, us instead of them.

“There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order,” Smith writes, “no way to be human except through moral order.”

In consequence, moral order also exists inside the individual – and it is here, in the strange and fertile landscape of subjectivity, that the most interesting transformations occur.  A mismatch necessarily develops between the external and the subjective moral order.  There are many reasons for this, but the most important is that the individual is not a cultural dope.

Internalizing a narrative isn’t like taking a pill.  Rather, as Smith observes, the individual reflects on what is given, judges it, negotiates with it, modifies it to accommodate the secret visions of his subjective life.  In the end, he articulates his own personal narrative, a story he tells himself about himself, which is nested in the larger narrative of the moral order but never wholly coincides with it.

The possible distance between the individual’s narrative and that of his culture depends very much on time and place.  A Spartan male who wanted to become a lounge lizard probably didn’t live to adulthood.  An avowed homosexual in Saudi Arabia will likely end up in prison or worse.  But even the most inflexible moral order must allow some space for accommodation to basic human needs, if it is to endure:  the alternative is growing disaffection and ultimate defection from the master narrative.

A vast number of implications follow from all this; I will touch on two that strike me as interesting.

While the old idea that morality is a kind of fraud perpetrated by the ruling classes seems implausible, standing on the high ground of a moral dispute confers significant emotional and material advantages.  There can be no doubt that, in Smith’s words, “moral order empowers.”  At the same time, we have seen that moral order must, to some degree, remain open, flexible, and accommodating.

The combination of power and accommodation means that every moral order is a fiercely contested space:  every individual will wield every available lever of influence to arrange this  space to his advantage, subjectively and objectively.  The same is of course true of institutions and groups.

In the aggregate, this struggle represents the dynamic state of communal wisdom.  The moral order is received externally, and appears “finished,” but in fact is evolving at the same pace as the understanding of the moral community.

The obvious example is the moral order sanctioned by the God of Israel:  out of Egypt, a God of hosts; with the prophets, a God of mercy and righteousness; and at the Sermon on the Mount, a God of pacifism and forgiveness.

The second implication follows from the first.  Morality is a shared narrative about right behavior, but it is also a battleground of contending visions and interests.  In neither case is it “owned” by any particular group, or written down for the ages.  The most prestigious keepers of a culture – the medieval papacy, say – are themselves constrained by it, often in ways that hobble and hurt.

The fact that it exists primarily inside subjective human heads endows moral order with a peculiar sort of instability.  The imposing command-and-obey model of culture, noted above, yields to a more open and vulnerable structure.  Moral order requires our assent to endure.  This, I suspect, is among the most powerful factors bonding us to a way of life.

History generates some stability, however.  Custom, tradition, and ritual perpetuate, over centuries of change, the core narratives that orient a people to a particular moral direction.  The lifetime of an individual can – I’m tempted to say:  must – affect the course of this journey, but barring the rare moral genius or monster, it will do so by inches rather than miles.

Culture as moral order: when worlds collide

February 13, 2010

Cortez and Montezuma

Christian Smith’s thesis in Moral, Believing Animals leads to a perplexing consequence.  If cultures depend on “particularistic knowledge systems” which float on non-empirical and mostly untestable assumptions, it becomes impossible to adjudicate between the moral orders these cultures represent.  No objective standard, no universally accessible set of facts can ever be found for judgment, on Smith’s account.

This may sound like multiculturalism on steroids, but the implications run far deeper than that.  I believe, for example, that the Iranian people demonstrating in the streets of Teheran today stand for a nobler moral order than do the thugs who beat and imprison them.  I also believe that the way of life in South Korea is vastly superior, in moral worth as well as material prosperity, to that of the North.

Those beliefs would reduced to rooting for my home team against the visitor, in the uncertain world sketched by Smith.  I think my moral order is superior; the ayatollahs, theirs.  We abominated the Nazis and the Soviets, as they did us.  That is all we know on earth, and all we can ever know.

Smith himself makes clear that, as a practical matter, such relativism is impossible, because it is inhuman.  None of us can stand outside moral order.  To do so would not lead us to a higher reality, a kind of God’s eye-view, but to the opposite:  to unreality and incoherence, a lunatic’s perspective.  That is the human condition, and except in pathological cases, there’s no opting out.

But this changes nothing.  Being inside a moral order, I will always believe universal truth justifies my beliefs; being inside another, Kim Jong Il will believe the same.

The bridge thrown out by Smith is rickety and fails to get us over our predicament.  “Sometimes,” he writes, “though not always, people come better to understand their own and others’ views through arguments with rivals.”  Unless by “understand” Smith means “fortify one’s arguments,” that is simply not true.  Moral disputes are invariably bitter and grow more so in disputation.

Beyond “discussing” and “arguing,” Smith has only one additional suggestion.  On occasion, people do reject their own worldview and whole-heartedly embrace another:  they convert.  The most famous convert in history, St. Paul, changed from a persecutor to a persecuted Christian.  He switched narratives, choosing weakness over power.

Here Smith is on to something, though he doesn’t pursue the subject.  We will return to conversions – and the collision of cultures – in a moment.  First, let’s clear the ground.

I agree with Smith that culture is moral order.  I accept his thesis that knowledge rests on unproveable assumptions, and that, in some epistemological fashion, cultures are incommensurable.  But I reject the conclusion that we can’t judge among moral orders without engaging in home-team boosterism.

Smith shows disdain for “antique notions of ‘human nature.’”  Whether he disdains every other notion as well is less clear, but it would be an odd maneuver for someone who describes our species as “moral, believing animals.”

In any case, human nature must be the grist out of which culture, over long periods of time and in contact with a specific environment, evolves a moral order.  Certain human predilections are strengthened, others suppressed.  This generates difference.  But many human needs are so basic that, compared to the similarities, the cultural differences in handling these needs are trivial.

The vast majority of humanity, everywhere and in every age, would prefer happiness over its opposite.  Most individuals prefer high status to low, a spouse to solitude, children to barrenness, wealth to poverty.  Every moral order praises courage, generosity, sacrifice for the community.  Besides difference, there is a large space for commonality.

The existence of human universals, presumably based on our shared ancestry, is well known to psychology and anthropology.  The most persuasive experiment demonstrating the biological limits of cultural differentiation took place on November 8, 1519.  That day, the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortez met the Aztec king, Montezuma.

The two men gazed on each other across 10,000 years of cultural isolation.  One would have expected absolute mutual incomprehension if moral orders evolve without constraint.  If fact, they understood each other perfectly.  Both assumed a world in which deities ruled the cosmos, kings ruled nations, men married women, languages had meaning, status and wealth were sought after, property was owned and traded, art and music were made – and so on, down the list of universals.

The encounter ended badly for the Aztecs.  They were overwhelmed by a Spanish culture whose moral superiority might be open to debate, but whose material and informational superiority was beyond doubt.  When the two moral orders collided, a judgment was rendered.  Within a few generations, most of Mexico’s Indian population had converted.

Such collisions – of the sort brilliantly analyzed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel – appear decided by little more than brute force.  Yet this is only one aspect of the resolution – in my opinion, the less significant.

The struggle among cultures serves as functional counterweight to the human obsession with moral orderliness which is Smith’s subject.  It marginalizes the narrower and less inventive worldviews, and rewards the more capacious in terms of promoting both material gain and human satisfaction.  Thus the Shakers, who denied sex, died out – as did most of the Stalinists who denied property.

The projection of human need gives a moral dimension to the relative functional success of a culture.  Sometimes, as with the Spaniards, functional superiority mostly meant literacy, guns, and immunity to disease.  But it is never solely a question of brute force.  If that were the case, Cortez would have spoken Arabic, and converted the Aztecs to Islam.

I note, by way of warning, that many systems I consider immoral claim functional successes to achieve moral justification.  Totalitarians, for example, regularly boast of superior health services and making trains run on time.  The question for me is whether we can judge between moral orders by appealing to another standard.

I think the answer has already been given.  The highest moral standard pertains to our shared humanity:  the fact that, genetically, we are all family, we have in common so many tics and whims and loves and hates.  That moral order is morally superior which best promotes and orchestrates our universal demands – for peace, predictability, religion, a worthy place in the community, marriage and family life, matching our livelihood to our talents, and so forth.

This moral superiority remains true even if a culture is functionally inferior to another – if it is poorer, say, or has less effective health services.  However, I believe that functional success – material wealth and command of the environment – depends to a great extent on the protection of our shared human ambitions.  This may not be an iron law of history, but at a minimum it’s a suggestive trend.

I have said nothing about the individual or personal freedom.  That is a subject for another post.  Suffice it to say here that the individual is determinative in the fate of cultures.  He chooses with his heart and with his feet.  I suspect few persons ever hate or despise the moral order into which they were born – but many have felt a powerful attraction for another.

Conversion, as the story of St. Paul shows, has a moral dimension.  If in the future people were shot trying to escape from South to North Korea, or from the US into Mexico, it would be time to ask whether the moral polarities between those nations had reversed.

Confrontation in Iran