Feyerabend: Westernization and culture

There is a short thought, quoted by Paul K. Feyerabend in “Notes on Relativism”, that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Paul, ever critical of Western rationalism, is commenting at length on the expansion of (Western, capitalist) industrial scientific society to the margins of the developing world and minority cultures. He quotes François Jacob from The Possible and the Actual:

In humans … natural diversity is … strengthened by cultural diversity, which allows mankind to better adapt to a variety of life conditions and to better use the resources of the world. In this area, however, we are now threatened with monotony and dullness. The extraordinary variety which humans have put into their beliefs, their customs and their institutions is dwindling every day. Whether people die out out physically or become transformed under the influence of the model provided by industrial civilization, many cultures are disappearing. If we do not want to live in a world covered with a single technological, pidgin-speaking, uniform way of life — that is, in a very boring world — we have to be careful. We have to use our imagination better.

Prima facie, I want to say, the general message is correct: the world is slowly homogenizing, and homogeneity is boring. People no longer just consult their local markets and preserve culture organically; we buy and sell all over. Although Dallas and San Francisco have very different cultures, to some extent Los Angeles looks like Seattle looks like St. Louis looks like New York City… looks like Athens looks like downtown Rome, etc. This doesn’t explain what we should do — neither Jacob as quoted, nor Feyerabend in his entire book explain how we should “use our imagination better” (which is what makes this paragraph so unsettling). Feyerabend offers some views in other writings, e.g., using the state to intervene with the success of the sciences.

Feyerabend can be interpreted in a plethora of contradictory ways. Though co-opted by the political left (perhaps to their own detriment), far-right nationalists, primitivists and humanists can all find theoretical support in his ideas. He seems to have written surprisingly little specifically about capitalism, although there are plenty of implications in his anthropology; maybe understanding his views on political economy could provide the path to extracting a substantive political philosophy. In any case, the concern of Jacob and Feyerabend is a consequence of, to a large extent, the West’s powerful free markets, globalizing trade, science and universalistic liberalism. And, I want to say, their concern is not only prima facie correct but a growing left/right critique of Western capitalism/liberalism, and therefore one worth addressing.

There may not be a market approach to preserving cultural diversity; maybe all we can say is that so long as homogeneity is a result of the free interactions of individuals it is not undesirable. Here are a few responses anyway, which may or may not be satisfying.

  1. The process of homogenization predates capitalism, and is really just a function of multicultural nations living side by side and competing and trading. Cultures grow, die and are subsumed ad nauseam, some survive well past the initial spawning phase and become hegemonic but eventually these too face extinction or subsumption.
  2. Homogenization in a free world means that the “best of the best” is accessible for societies which, though previously they may have maintained unique non-Western cultures, were far worse-off before the commercial tsunami. Firstly, the people in these societies didn’t consider the expatriate cultural elements “boring” when they arrived, and secondly, they would prefer “boring” Western/industrial culture than their previous dilapidated state. (We may want interesting tourism destinations, but does that take precedent over human well-being and free choice?)
  3. With the success of industrial, liberal society, science has grown and actually developed better preservation technology (and projection tech, like 3D modeling underground structures). Ancient artifacts from long dead cultures are able to survive longer to be appreciated, and living cultures are better able to create and preserve in the present.
  4. Globalization/Westernization means that we discover living cultures we would never have known otherwise. Under the eye of Western society they are opened up to the melting pot process, but discovery is mutual. We take and they take, and therefore,
  5. Another response could be to actually reject Jacob’s story. We are not trending toward a single McWorld, because although Starbucks can be found nearly globally, it functions alongside original cultural products and cuisine, and at the same time foreign cuisine thrives in the West and impacts our identity.

Evaluating the consolidation of cultural diversity sits at an uneasy crossroads between rights concerns, utilitarianism and aesthetics. I’m not sure these responses would be satisfying to those that buy Jacob’s argument, but it’s likely I’ll be returning to this subject at length in the future.

Nightcap

  1. The Sexless Life When Sex Is God David French, National Review
  2. An excellent, conservative history of America’s sexual revolution Kay S. Hymowitz, City Journal
  3. An excellent, libertarian history of America’s sexual revolution BK Marcus, FEE
  4. Why economics is, and should be, creepy Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

A Confession: I Voted for Trump

A younger friend of mine, an immigrant like me, keeps having trouble understanding why I voted for President Trump, toward whom she drips with hatred. She produces so much hatred of the president you might think she knows him personally. He might even be an ex-husband of hers. This is a little hard for me to understand. Here is my honest reconstruction of how I came to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. May it be useful to her and, if not, to others.

During the 2016 campaign, I was mostly sad and resigned. It looked like the Dems had the wind in their sails. The Republican contest between 16 viable candidates had ended in the victory of the least viable of them, Donald Trump. For the record, my candidate was Marco Rubio, who dropped off early.

Donald Trump was loud and ignorant, and loudly ignorant. His statements about international trade were those of a lazy undergraduate who has barely skimmed the relevant chapter, and got it all wrong. His project for a southern wall struck me as the wrong solution to the wrong problem at the wrong time. Illegal immigration through the Mexican border has been dropping for years. A good wall might even end up trapping more illegal Mexicans wanting to go home than keep illegals out. Besides, no wall would stop visitors from entering legally and then overstaying their visa. Finally, I don’t even think illegal immigration is a pressing problem although it must be stopped for reasons of sovereignty. Mr Trump wanted less immigration of all kinds; I think this country needs more immigration but better regulated.

There is no doubt, (there was none then) that Mr Trump has impossibly bad manners (although that makes part of me smile). I think he has a personality disorder (as I have) which causes him to speak out of turn, to think only after he opens his mouth, and to open his mouth even when his brain tells him he shouldn’t. He gives the cultural elite heartburn. I am not sure how I feel about this though because I know the cultural elite well since I spent thirty years in academia. They are mostly a bunch of half-literate pretenders who richly deserve the occasional heartburn.

At any rate, it wasn’t obvious I would vote for Mr Trump; I kept looking over the fence. I did this in spite of the fact that the Dems keep enlarging government against civil society, the reverse of what I want to see. I did it in spite of the Democratic Party’s promotion of identity politics which are bad for America, I believe, and bad even for the Democratic Party. (As I write, even African Americans are deserting the party.)

There, on the Dem side, for a while, it looked like Sen. Sanders had a fighting chance. I don’t like socialism – whatever that means – but here was an honest man with a clear record. Sanders is my age. I feel as if we had gone to college together. He has not changed since 1968. Everything about him feels familiar, even his college president wife with the short hair. I thought that if elected, he would only attempt modest reforms that would easily be frozen out by a Republican Congress. The result would be a kind of federal immobility, not the worst scenario, in my book. If Mr Sanders had become the Dem candidate, I would at least have had a serious talk with myself about voting for him. That’s at least.

Mr Sanders was eliminated from the Dem race in a way that revived all my aversion for the Democratic Party as an organization. The thoroughly dishonest manner of his removal would have been enough to ensure that I would not vote for the actual Dem candidate, pretty much whoever that candidate was. The fact that Sanders protested but feebly the gross cheating against him makes cold sweat run down my back because of what it implies about the Dem culture.

The actual candidate was not just anyone (“whoever”). Mrs Clinton was a caricature of the bad candidate. She was a feminist previously elected on her husband’s coattails, and a career politician with no political achievements of her own. Her main contribution as Secretary of State was to get the US militarily involved in the events in Libya. (I was in favor of such involvement myself at the beginning, I must confess.) She ran for president with no economic program – which normally implies the continuation of the predecessor’s program. But Mr Obama’s economics were very bad; what was not bad could be credited to the independent Fed. I did not want more of this. Then, there was the personal issue. It’s a little difficult to explain but I developed the idea in my mind that even her supporters did not like her. So, how could I?

Mrs Clinton’s campaign was naturally an embodiment of the Dem Party’s silly identity politics which I think are bad for American democracy in ways I won’t develop here: “Vote for me,” she said, “because I am a woman.” So, what? So are 52% of the adult American population; many of those are brilliant. Mrs Clinton is not brilliant, not even close. By contrast, take Prof. Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State, for example. (Plus, she is black; you get a two for one; plus, she is probably a closeted lesbian too, that’s a three for one!)

Donald Trump throughout his campaign was attacked for being a racist. I saw and heard many imprudent statements, some rude statements, and many goofy declarations but I did not notice racist statements. That’s if “racist” means attributing to a whole class of people negative moral qualities or objectionable behaviors based solely on their race (whatever race is, another story). My common sense also says you can’t live as a prominent New Yorker in various guises for a whole adult lifetime and not be called out for racism if you act like a racist. It’s jut a little late to do it when the man is seventy. It’s ridiculous, in fact. Or, perhaps, I have just stopped paying attention to charges of racism coming from the left. Leftists intemperate verbal habits may have trivialized racism the way they trivialized so many serious social problems, including sexual violence.

There was no doubt in my mind though that Donald Trump would be dangerous as president because he is unpredictable, does not readily listen to advice, and does not understand well how our institutions work. So, I was never enthusiastic about voting for him. I even took a detour through the Libertarian campaign. It was based on the assumption that any Dem, including Clinton, would carry California, where I vote, and that I could therefore afford the luxury of a symbolic ballot. However, after a short time, I became convinced that the Libertarian candidate was not even libertarian. So, end of story here.

During the period preceding the campaign, when Clinton was Secretary of State, and during the campaign itself, I paid increasing attention to the goings-on around the Clinton Foundation, including the pattern of donations. I came out convinced that Mrs Clinton’s eagerness to sell the Republic and her disregard for the law (30,000-plus lost emails) made her a political gangster of the same ilk and magnitude as Vladimir Putin.

So, you might say that I voted for Donald Trump because I thought he was unpredictable. Clinton, by contrast, was horribly predictable. It’s fair to add that I did not think my vote would carry the day. Like just about everyone else, I thought my side had lost until about 7 pm, Pacific Time on election day.

One year and a half later, I feel no buyer’s remorse; instead, I am pleasantly surprised. Pres. Trump has not really done any of the things I feared – such as dismantle the modern world system of fairly free world trade; he has not built a wall. When he does, I think it will be a small elegant one with viewing balconies over Mexico. Mexican tourists will gladly pay for the privilege of going up its exterior elevator. There will be a lounge and bar with overpriced drinks on the last floor.

Pres. Trump has done a couple of the things I wanted him to do, beginning with the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court Justice. He also instigated and carried out a major tax reform which will fuel good economic growth for years to come. (I am dissatisfied with the current rate. I think anything under 3.5% is not good enough. But, it’s a start.) The tax cut may even make up for the disastrous spending bill which he signed reluctantly but did sign.

Pres. Trump has also done the deliciously unexpected. I am not holding my breath (writing on 5/9/18 ) but I am amazed and delighted he has gone so far on the road to the denuclearization of North Korea. The fact that the thaw is largely a product of his bullying the North Korean bully makes this even sweeter.

After more than a year of unlimited investigation with limitless resources, the only Russian collusion in sight is that of the Clinton campaign buying from a shady international operative grotesque stories about Trump in Russia. The only shadow on this bright picture is that I am not completely sure that Mr Trump did not have sex with a porn queen several years before running for office. The horror!

The Sad Retreat

Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

~ Dylan Thomas

Thomas’ villanelle to his dying father is one of the most iconic English poems of the 20thcentury. It is also curiously relevant today, though not in a literal sense. The traditional American zeitgeist is the willingness to step forward fearlessly into the unknown, and in doing so to illuminate it and to dispel infantile terror of the dark. Sadly, the contemporary spirit is one of moribund confidence and the acceptance of stagnation.

There was nothing more indicative of the American spirit than the opening lines of Star Trek: The Original Series: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The root of the phrase’s power lies in action, an acceptance that man is capable of seizing control and carrying himself into space. Yet, despite the television series’ timing, the American people were not going boldly into the night, or darkness of space, but rather were starting a retreat that continues into the present.

The retreat is not an apparent one. To all appearances there has been no pell-mell flight from a battlefield with weaponry and protective gear to signal a loss of confidence. To quote Kevin D Williamson, “Nothing happened.” It is the lack of action, the stagnation, that signals a retreat occurred.

In his book Slouching to Gomorrah (1996), the late Robert Bork (1927 – 2012) catalogued the ways he believed America had declined since his youth. Buried among the musings are some anecdotes about Bork’s time at Yale as a young law professor in the late 1960s. In that decade, according to Bork, the university had quietly relaxed its admissions criteria and admitted applicants who would not have qualified under the previous standard. From a position of authority, Bork observed as these young people – mostly men as the problem was concentrated at the undergraduate level and the only women at Yale at the time were graduate students – struggled academically due to lack of adequate preparation. Many of these new students began to flunk as individual faculty refused to dilute their syllabi or grading standards.

As he explained, the stakes at the time were particularly high: in 1968, the time of Bork’s first semester, the draft and deployment to Vietnam would immediately and ruthlessly punish academic failure. Additionally, the students described largely came from middle-America and bore the full weight of their families and local communities’ expectations, causing failure to be particularly humiliating. Although Bork rejected the Marxist and anti-intellectual aspects of the 1968 student protests, he presented a hidden facet to the protestors whom he identified as young people angry at a system they felt had betrayed them and doomed them to failure. The message extracted from a well-intentioned policy change was that these people were ones who couldn’t – they couldn’t keep up with their peers, they couldn’t succeed, and all the indicators of their time pointed toward a truncated future. In short, they didn’t matter; they were not strictly necessary for broader society. Aside from property destruction, the turn toward Marxism and anti-intellectualism was a retreat, a flight from reality. With the rout – entirely self-imposed since the simple solution to the problem was to go to the library and catch up, rather than go burn the books, which is the choice the students made – the United States unknowingly set off on a path of becoming a nation of “cannots.”

To present an analogy, in the training of thoroughbred racehorses, a promising colt is raced against another, less able one in order to build the former’s confidence. The second horse is not only expected to lose, he is rewarded for doing so, but very often at the cost of his spirit and willingness to compete. This analogy is somewhat limited since the Yale student protestors of the 1960s chose the role of second horse themselves, but the result, anger, wanton destruction, and futile rage in the face of their inadequacies, are human indicators of broken spirit and loss of competitive edge. These two traits have, since the 60s, trickled down through all echelons of American society, accompanied by all the symptoms of anger and unnecessary misery. The American people have become the second horse.

All statistical evidence indicates that the quality of life in America is higher than ever before; we have record low rates of crime, better healthcare, and unparalleled access to consumer goods and luxury technologies. Under circumstances such as these, we should possess an equally high level of national confidence and happiness. But this is not the case. Currently, a Gallup poll from late 2017 shows that, despite the country’s increased prosperity under the new administration, subjective, or perceived, happiness has declined since the 2016 election. In other words, middle America is no happier now than it was pre-November 2016: it is less happy. Combined with the rise of “deaths of despair (official term for deaths from addiction or suicide in middle-aged or younger people)” and the mediatized claims of loss of opportunity due to – O tempora, o mores – technology and the new economy, the story is one of surrender, nothing else.

In the narrative, especially the one surrounding the 2016 election, the story is one of middle-America neglected and in need of special favors and treatment. As part of this picture, its authors and advocates on both sides of the political aisle sneer at the idea of self-determination, in the way of Michael Brendan Dougherty in the piece that Williamson rebutted with his “Nothing happened.” Technology is a particular target of Dougherty’s ire as somehow destructive to a utopic version of American community and family – his most recent article from May 1, 2018, was an apology for using the internet as a work medium – but ignoring the path to financial independence and economic integration that it provides. Hatred of technology and change, a desire to return to the “good old days” is a symptom of the retreat.

Today the logical and economic fallacy, identified by AEI’s Arthur Brooks, of “helping poor people” instead of “needing them” is dominant. Yet, it is a betrayal at all levels of the American ethos. Protectionism, insularity, and above all else, a desire to justify the degraded state of the American worker, pinning the fault on a wide range of people and things, are all signs of the willful betrayal of the American spirit. Although there are individual Americans who are leaders in technology and new industry, the American people are collectively falling behind, and our policy-makers are rewarding us for becoming the second horse through protectionism and populist speeches that reinforce the notion that there is a wronged group of “left behind.” We are no longer going “boldly where no man has gone before;” instead we are docilely being led into the “good night,” all while thinking that we are raging against it. Without a change, the pasture of irrelevance awaits us.

Pot smoking and freedom: ‘Murica!

My latest Tuesday column over at RealClearHistory takes aim at the history of marijuana in the United States. I’ve got a 600 word limit, but hopefully I packed in plenty of info. Here’s an excerpt:

During the much-loathed Prohibition era (1920-33), marijuana was targeted along with alcohol and other substances deemed immoral by bootleggers and Baptists. Unlike alcohol, which was re-legalized in 1933, marijuana ended up in a legal limbo that continues to this day. The legal, political, economic, and cultural battles surrounding marijuana use in the United States have helped shape three generations of lawyers, businesspeople, activists, academics, and medical professionals. Thanks to the questions posed by marijuana prohibition, rigorous and creative arguments in favor of the drug’s legalization have contributed to a better understanding of our federal system of government, of Judeo-Christian morality, and non-Western ethical systems (pot-smoking “Buddhists” are practically cliche today), of the human body and especially the brain, of global trading networks throughout history, and of intercultural exchange and communication. Freedom still defines us as a society. Freedom binds Americans together. Freedom drives our conversations and our institutional actors. This may be difficult to remember as the news cycle grows ever more sensational, but this quiet, humble truth still remains.

Please, read the rest.