G. K. Chesterton’s 1910 collection What’s Wrong With The World surprisingly does not open with “this is going to take more than one book.”
In fact, he is quite to-the-point about exactly what he thinks the problem is:
Now, to reiterate my title, this is what is wrong. This is the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul…it is the huge heresy of Precedent. It is the view that because we have got into a mess we must grow messier to suit it; that because we have taken a wrong turn some time ago we must go forward and not backwards; that because we have lost our way we must lose our map also.
Examples are clearly needed, but before we continue, a digression.
Chesterton is a brilliant writer and a genius in understanding the human soul. Sometimes these are good things – in Chesterton’s case, it’s a big part of what makes his fiction so amazing. Other times they aren’t. There’s a famous failure mode where some brilliant scientist who is a genius at understanding particle physics sees a social problem, pulls a few equations out of his tool kit, and declares the issue solved.
In the same way, I worry that Chesterton pulls a few emotions and brilliant turns of phrase out of his tool kit and thinks he’s solved everything. And the difference between brilliant physicists and brilliant students of human experience is that physicists are less likely to convince anyone else.
The trademark style of What Is Wrong With The World is to take some common-sense proclamation, like “feminism is about fighting for women” and come up with some incredibly clever reason why exactly the opposite is true:
By the beginning of the twentieth century, within the last few years, the woman has in public surrendered to the man. She has seriously and officially owned that the man has been right all along; that the public house (or Parliament) is really more important than the private house; that politics are not (as woman had always maintained) an excuse for pots of beer, but are a sacred solemnity to which new female worshipers may kneel; that the talkative patriots in the tavern are not only admirable but enviable; that talk is not a waste of time, and therefore (as a consequence, surely) that taverns are not a waste of money. All we men had grown used to our wives and mothers, and grandmothers, and great aunts all pouring a chorus of contempt upon our hobbies of sport, drink and party politics. And now comes Miss Pankhurst with tears in her eyes, owning that all the women were wrong and all the men were right; humbly imploring to be admitted into so much as an outer court, from which she may catch a glimpse of those masculine merits which her erring sisters had so thoughtlessly scorned.
Now this development naturally perturbs and even paralyzes us…We knew quite well that nothing is necessary to the country except that the men should be men and the women women. We knew this; we thought the women knew it even more clearly; and we thought the women would say it. Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it. The solemnity of politics; the necessity of votes; the necessity of Huggins; the necessity of Buggins; all these flow in a pellucid stream from the lips of all the suffragette speakers. I suppose in every fight, however old, one has a vague aspiration to conquer; but we never wanted to conquer women so completely as this.
Do you follow? Men have from time immemorial been pushing the importance of male pursuits like politics and public life; women have been equally pushing the importance of family, virtue, and the private household. Feminists are then a group of women who have given up, admitted men have always been right about everything and all female pursuits are a waste of time; now women are desperately pleading that men allow them to join in their superior ways.
Therefore, Chesterton opposes feminism not because he is against women being equal to men, but precisely because he wants to keep women equal to men. The entire book is like this – paragraph after paragraph of verbal judo in which you end up opposing conservativism because you want things to stay the same, or supporting rebellion to protect the integrity of the state, or whatever other crazy inverted idea Chesterton has turned his brilliant but twisted mind to.
“ATTENTION HUMANS – IT IS NOT BECAUSE YOU ARE INFERIOR THAT YOU WILL BE ERADICATED – BUT PRECISELY BECAUSE YOU ARE SUPERIOR” -GK Chestertron
— Steven Kaas (@stevenkaas) February 4, 2012
At its best, this is a form of narrative reversal that helps break through our preconceptions and see things in a different light. At its worst, I worry Chesterton has actually lost, through atrophy, the ability to think in a straight line. Like, there must be at least one thing which is approximately the way it appears, and I’m not convinced Chesterton will be able to notice it. Ask him whether we should drown puppies, and he will come up with an extremely convincing argument that we should drown puppies precisely because we abhor cruelty to animals.
“Arf arf arf! Not because arf arf! But exactly because arf NOT arf!” GK Chesterton’s dog
— Steven Kaas (@stevenkaas) December 8, 2011
To very briefly sum up the main argument of What’s Wrong:
1910s Britain has a lot of social problems, many of them caused by the Industrial Revolution steamrolling over human values. Conservatives demand that we keep things exactly as they are, social problems and all. Progressives correctly point out that the new industrial economy conflicts with human values, but “solve” the problem by demanding we destroy whatever human values are left in people to make them better cogs in the industrial machine. For example, women traditionally value having a home of their own and getting to spend time raising children, but this is inconsistent with women working full time in factories – therefore, socialists and feminists demand we put people in communal housing, have children raised communally, and promote women taking on the male gender role – so that all barriers to women doing factory work full-time are removed. Possibly the Conservatives and Progressives are secretly in cahoots – the Conservatives protect the interests of the upper class directly, and the Progressives remake the lower class into a form compatible with serving the system that the upper class run, all upon “humanitarian” grounds.
Chesterton, on the other hand, believes that we should promote human values against the Industrial Revolution and the upper classes who intend to benefit from it. The values he wants seem to be of the “everyone lives in their own nice cottage with a nice garden and a nice picket fence and the men have stable fulfilling jobs and the women stay home and raise children” type. This will require undoing a lot of “progress”, and admitting that the medievals were better than us in a lot of ways, but it’s better than continuing to slide toward doom. It will also involve redistributing property so that everybody has enough money to make this vision a reality. Chesterton has a perfectly marvelous solution for how to do this, which unfortunately this book is too small to contain. But he did warn us by calling the book What Is Wrong With The World and not What Is Wrong With The World And How I Propose To Fix It, so it’s okay.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of all this. The political landscape of the 1910s when the book was published is recognizable, but only barely. In particular, although I can’t tell if Chesterton’s claims fairly described the Left of his own time, they don’t seem to describe the Left of ours. Chesterton’s Left was obsessed with industrial order and optimization, hoping to replace a society ruled by traditions with one ruled by nearly fanatical efficiency and conformity. The modern Left seems to have switched tactics entirely, and insofar as it can be accused of falling too far to one side of the chaos-order dichotomy I think both its friends and enemies would admit it is squarely allied with Chaos, and with a fertility of difference and distinction that borders on the cancerous. As the book was at least in part a polemic against a position that no longer seems to exist, one that barely even seems to have any cladistic descendants, I’m not really sure what to make of it.
There were a lot of digressions into individual issues, some convincing, others less so. But there were two parts I consider central to the whole idea, and which I want to go into at more length:
My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen. But at the same time hostile elements had certainly begun to end it long before it could have done its work. In the nature of things it needed a common scheme of life and thought in Europe. Yet the mediaeval system began to be broken to pieces intellectually, long before it showed the slightest hint of falling to pieces morally. The huge early heresies, like the Albigenses, had not the faintest excuse in moral superiority. And it is actually true that the Reformation began to tear Europe apart before the Catholic Church had had time to pull it together. The Prussians, for instance, were not converted to Christianity at all until quite close to the Reformation. The poor creatures hardly had time to become Catholics before they were told to become Protestants. This explains a great deal of their subsequent conduct. But I have only taken this as the first and most evident case of the general truth: that the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
This is one of those times when writing in 1910 makes things too easy. If Chesterton had been writing in 1990, he might have thought to ask – has Communism been tried and found wanting? Or has it been found difficult and left untried?
And with our modern hindsight, he might decide there’s not so big a difference as he thinks. Like, Chesterton is defining “Everyone was super-obsessed with Christianity all the time for hundreds of years” as “Christianity was left untried”. The definition only works if by “try Christianity” he means “everyone lives exactly according to the Christian ideal.” But “make everyone live exactly according to the Christian ideal” is not a primitive action.
At the very least, the medievals tried to try Christianity. They reserved political power for Christians, gave immense wealth and clout to the clergy, gave religion a monopoly on education, required everyone to go to church, and persecuted atheism and heresy. If, as per Chesterton’s definition, this didn’t result in people trying Christianity, then that means that trying to try Christianity has failed. If an idea is impossible to implement, that is a strike against the idea. Unless Chesterton has a better idea for how to implement Christianity than the way the medievals tried, his argument is wrong and it is perfectly legitimate to say that the failure of the Christian project during the Middle Ages doesn’t bode well for it today.
And I understand that making a medieval-level effort to retry Christianity isn’t exactly in the Overton Window, but this ties into the other passage of Chesterton’s I want to talk about:
A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice.
Yet it could be done. As is common in most modern discussions the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion. It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not.
But what is the excuse they would urge, what is the plausible argument they would use, for thus cutting and clipping poor children and not rich? Their argument would be that the disease is more likely to be in the hair of poor people than of rich. And why? Because the poor children are forced (against all the instincts of the highly domestic working classes) to crowd together in close rooms under a wildly inefficient system of public instruction; and because in one out of the forty children there may be offense. And why? Because the poor man is so ground down by the great rents of the great ground landlords that his wife often has to work as well as he. Therefore she has no time to look after the children, therefore one in forty of them is dirty. Because the workingman has these two persons on top of him, the landlord sitting (literally) on his stomach, and the schoolmaster sitting (literally) on his head, the workingman must allow his little girl’s hair, first to be neglected from poverty, next to be poisoned by promiscuity, and, lastly, to be abolished by hygiene. He, perhaps, was proud of his little girl’s hair. But he does not count.
First of all, either the misuse of the word “literally” is more ancient than I had supposed, or else the customs of the 1910s class system are indeed weird and wonderful. But putting that aside…
I am clearly one of the people whom Chesterton is talking to. I have yet to prescribe any particular remedy for lice, but that is because lice aren’t so much of a problem today, or if they are they don’t make it to a psychiatrist. But I have given antidepressants.
And this seems a lot like Chesterton’s lice. Once again, people are crowded together into squalor, oppressed by landlords and schoolmasters, and so some of them – usually the poor – become depressed. Antidepressants are moderately effective against this problem, although they have physical side effects in some people and are considered embarrassing by many more. To take an antidepressant is a sacrifice in much the same way that cutting your hair is a sacrifice. Its only possible justification is that it does treat depression, just as haircuts do treat lice.
So I can imagine Chesterton coming at me, fire in his eyes, demanding “Why are you solving this problem by giving pills?! You should be solving this by improving society so that poor people don’t end up depressed!”
And all I could answer is “If I wrote a prescription for ‘improve society’, I’m not sure the pharmacist would know how to fill it.”
Like, I want society to be improved. And I try. I give money to charity. I vote. I try to argue persuasively for good political positions. But when I’m done doing all of that, it turns out there are still depressed people left over. At that point, if I take the “high road” and say “no, I’m not going to give you an antidepressant, society should be giving you a job and better housing and more opportunities for social interaction,” then it doesn’t shame society into doing that. It just means that my patient will get more and more depressed and maybe commit suicide.
And I can imagine a 1910s doctor in my same position, who’s done what he can to help the poor, but in the meantime, he’s treating this girl, and if he doesn’t tell her to get a haircut it’s not going to make her life better, it’s just going to mean she gets lice. Which are creepy and gross and probably not very fun to have at all.
So Chesterton says “Whatever, I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to society!”
But society isn’t listening! Chesterton may be the most brilliant essayist of all time, here’s this classic book he wrote which is still justly famous over a hundred years later, and people didn’t even listen to him. They’re sure not going to listen to me.
Even if the intellectual battle were to be completely won – even if nobody objects to helping the poor on the grounds of “there’s not enough money”, or the grounds of “it would disincentivize them to work”, or the grounds of opportunity costs, or whatever – actually getting society to do something would still be just as difficult as getting it to do all the other things we all agree it should, like end corporate welfare or have less police brutality.
This is why I am so worried that Chesterton calls Christianity “left untried”. He seems to hear “This idea would work if we could get people to do it, which we obviously can’t” and answer “So you’re saying it would work! Great! Everyone who wants anything other than this idea is wrong and should stop!”
The problems Chesterton writes about are clearly the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. He doesn’t say so in so many words, but I think he considers “rolling back the Industrial Revolution” to be a perfectly reasonable solution:
There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.
There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it, but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles.
If every single person in the world wanted to roll back the Industrial Revolution, and we all had perfect coordination power and followed absolutely every command of a task force appointed for that problem – then yes, we could do it. But if even one person objects, then that person is going to start manufacturing things cheaper than the rest of us. If one country objects, that country is going to manufacture tanks and cannons and stealth bombers and the rest of us are going to have knights on horseback with which to fight them off.
The arrow of time is not nearly as bidirectional as Chesterton seems to think. The reason that the medievals could maintain deindustrialization without any effort is that nobody knew how to be industrialized even if they wanted to, and nobody wanted to because nobody knew there was such a thing as “industrialization” to want. Any modern attempt to recreate medieval society is doomed to be different than medieval society, because it will involve either industrialization, or an extremely concerted and tyrannical worldwide effort to suppress industrialization – both of which the medievals lacked.
The socialists, feminists, and other groups whom Chesterton dislikes seem to understand this. They say things like “Well, we’re never getting rid of industrialization and the pressure it puts on people to live in dingy slums. So let’s at least institute communal housing which will be a little more liveable and affordable than the other kind.” It might work or it might not, but it’s the sort of thing you can imagine coexisting with modern society. Chesterton’s argument is “No, let’s roll everything back until everyone can have a nice cottage in the Cotswolds.” It’s a very desirable solution, but it’s addressed to a hypothetical universal monarch who has the power to implement solutions against incentive gradients with no defectors ever. This is a book whose target audience is nowhere to be found, and those physicians who were cutting children’s hair to protect them from lice could justly have replied “Dammit, Gilbert, I’m a doctor, not a God-Emperor!”
There’s obviously a line of intellectual descent from Chesterton to the neoreactionaries of today. And yet the latter group seem less naive in an important way. They know that their proposals are impossible within the sphere of normal politics, so they’ve mostly stopped the “arguing for their proposals” part of the plan and started crafting alternative ways to have human societies in which apparently impossible coordination problems can get solved. Meanwhile, poor Chesterton never seems to get beyond wanting his utopian vision to become a party platform.
And I’m not sure he can. I get a weird vibe out of everything he’s written, like his brain lacks the gear that goes back and questions whether what it’s saying actually makes sense. I mean, no one does a great job having this gear, but in him it just seems completely missing, as if he is so feverishly brilliant that to try to analyze the truth-value of what he’s written or look for another side would break the spell.
But I can’t complain. It gives me paragraphs like this:
Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.
This is exactly the project, but it’s probably going to have to wait for after the Singularity.
The use of “literally” as an intensifier goes back quite a bit before Chesterton. In fact, it was only around his time that people discovered that that usage of “literally” was bad English.
Yeah, I was just coming here to post this history of the word: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002611.html
Still, Chesterton’s usage is weird somehow.
Great essay, by the way. I’ve always loved Chesterton’s rhetoric, but his description of Syme’s “farcical ingenuity” might also be applied to him at his worst.
Chesterton’s usage is weird because it is parenthetical. Why would you put an intensifier in parentheses? Whereas, it makes sense to me to put in parentheses «You think I’m being figurative, but I’m not.»
I took the first ‘literally’ as meaning that the poor man’s literal stomach was literally empty because of poor wages; ie the sitting was figurative but the stomach was not. The second ‘literally’ did not fit so well; there was a literal schoolmaster, but ‘[the poor man’s] head’ would have to be figurative for ‘[the poor man’s] thought’, and it was the daughters who were in the schoolroom. Maybe it was the schoolmaster who convinced or pressured the poor men to send their children out to a school, while better the wife should have been home to homeschool them?
Because it’s not an intensifier. The landlord and the schoolmaster (the bourgeoisie) are literally sitting, i.e. making money on their asses, though not literally on the prole, ofc.
It’s a clever construction, but Chesterton could do with being less clever.
I just came across some evidence for your reading — a similar usage from 1886 in Henry James’s The Bostonians.
Olive had taken her up, in the literal sense of the phrase, like a bird of the air, had spread an extraordinary pair of wings, and carried her through the dizzying void of space.
In James, the bird and wings and space can scarcely be taken literally, so the word must refer, as James says, to the phrase ‘taken her up’. So in the GKC passage, the stomach is easier to take literally, but GKC may be telling us to also take the expression ‘sitting on’ more literally than usual.
Is the word “literally” being used to mean something like “in the literary sense”? Because that would make more sense than the modern usage. I can’t find anything saying that this used to be the case though.
No, it means literally. It’s just that it only applies to part of the sentence.
I am not sure that Chesterton is obligated to oppose distributing antidepressants if he opposes cutting a girl’s hair. Forcibly shaving hair is a pretty classic example of a “humanitarian” effort that ends up retrenching the interests of the upper class, since female beauty is a natural ticket to a better life. Meanwhile antidepressants, though embarrassing, are far more inconspicuous and certainly less repressive. Notice how he makes sure to mention that it would not be forced upon a Cabinet Minister’s daughter.
It is actually a good example of the robustness of a humanist focus: if you isolate some quality that promotes flourishing within humans and seek to promote and protect it, take beauty as in this case, genetic diversity will guarantee that it provides a good bit of mobility for all. I think the poor comparison is due mainly to viewing the point in light of different sorts of harm – to depressed or lice-stricken individuals on one hand and society on the other, while it is more properly coming from a non-utilitarian, likely traditionalist, perspective.
Also, a lot of your points amount to saying that you cannot roll back the Industrial Revolution, but most of the quotes you mention simply argue for a “right to propose” it. This is a move typically made when you want to redefine terms entirely, not necessarily when you want to do what you demand a right to do. Although I have not read much Chesterton, so maybe he really does want a revived Medieval period.
It also sounded like the cutting of hair was not a prescription, but a mandate? If it was merely the best solution offered to children at the time, take it or leave it, his ire seems over-wrought.
The quote made it seem like a pretty broad program. My understanding is that people have been shaving their heads in response to lice for a while, so some sort of education campaign would be superfluous.
There’s a difference between shaving your head because that’s the only remedy available, and doing it of your own will, and having your young child come home from school with their head shaved because The Authorities considered they might catch lice from another child in the class, without asking your consent or telling you anything about it.
Plus having the additional judgement slapped on you that your child has lice because you are not keeping her clean, you are a neglectful parent and live in dirty conditions, but that’s to be expected because you’re The Poor and we all know what The Poor are like. Which is not, as I have been given to understand, how lice are transmitted.
Also, the child is at risk of contracting lice because of being jammed into a class with a large number of children; I don’t know what average class sizes in the U.S.A. are, but it was common to have 40 or more in a classroom even in my day. The working man has no choice about sending his child to school where she will run the risk of contracting lice or other diseases; truancy acts and fines for non-attendance mean he has to send her to school, and then if she catches lice his wife is assumed to be a slattern who keeps a dirty home and neglects her children.
The forcible cutting of the child’s hair was, for Chesterton, of a piece with all the remedies pushed on the poor. Why did little girls of a certain class have lice, and other little girls not have lice? Because of the conditions the first set of girls lived in. Why did they live in those conditions? Because the way society was set up – this is as much anti-capitalism as anything; you could use this as an argument for the minimum wage.
What was the solution to little girls having lice? Not to make employers pay their workers a living wage so they could live outside of crowded slum dwellings, but to send health inspectors round to chop off the children’s hair, then the blame was put on the poor for being dirty, because the corollary ran, the poor are naturally idle and dirty, and nothing about the system of oppression was addressed.
If this story is to be believed, lice are still being used as an excuse to deny equal treatment:
Lindsay Swanson, 34, was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis but died eight months later of multi-organ failure after surgeons refused to operate on her because she had head lice.
I have no idea if that’s correct or the full story, later in the same article it claims that the woman’s condition was one where nothing could have been done for her. All the same, the point stands: were it Lady Jones, wife of a Cabinet minister, would she have been told “We won’t operate because of your dirty hair and apparently modern medicine has no means of treating lice so we can operate”, or would she have got the truth “We’re sorry, but you are dying and there’s nothing we can do, so we won’t make up an excuse to fool you”?
If we take the story on face value, it does indeed seem to be of a piece with what Chesterton says: It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice.
“since female beauty is a natural ticket to a better life.”
Because young girls fetch a higher price if they have long hair?
“take beauty as in this case, genetic diversity will guarantee that it provides a good bit of mobility for all.”
“Because young girls fetch a higher price if they have long hair?”
Seems self-evident to me. Are you doubting it?
If you look like Audrey Hepburn you can afford short hair.
Long hair is always better. Someone who is good enough looking can *afford* not to grow long hair (which is expensive to maintain), but they too would look even better with long hair.
As a man with a fetish for short hair and a longstanding crush on Audrey Hepburn, I humbly disagree, sir. I find my wife even more attractive since she cut her hair at the neckline (as I do with many Chinese women, who seem to become mysteriously far more attractive in their late 20s when they graduate from long hair and Hello Kitty to short hair, Lancombe and Prada.)
But admittedly, not all women can pull it off. Some do look much better with long hair.
I think there’s a small but non-negligible fraction of people who do look better with short hair.
If you intervene causally to promote beauty independently of other genes, you’re directly increasing the reproductive success of every single other genetic strain carried by any individual whose beauty you increased. You’re also reversing the effects of assortative mating by somewhat randomizing mate selection.
It also makes people feel better about themselves, and a noticeable bit happier overall.
It’s a decent idea.
And I can imagine a 1910s doctor in my same position, who’s done what he can to help the poor, but in the meantime, he’s treating this girl, and if he doesn’t tell her to get a haircut it’s not going to make her life better, it’s just going to mean she gets lice. Which are creepy and gross and probably not very fun to have at all.
The trouble is, it wasn’t one particular doctor treating a specific little girl who had nits. It was “Poor children get lice. How do we prevent this? Let’s institute a programme of shaving all children’s hair, whether or not they have lice yet, as a preventative measure. But only the poor kids – rich kids may get lice too, but we’ll never get away with demanding their hair be shaved. Let’s not look at whether crowding forty or fifty children into a single room is a good idea. Let’s not look at whether making families live in slums where there is no running water is acceptable. Let’s not pass laws to make employers pay living wages so the breadwinner can move his family out of the slums. No, let’s blame the poor for being poor!”
I wasn’t too sure what to make of all this. The political landscape of the 1910s when the book was published is recognizable, but only barely. In particular, although I can’t tell if Chesterton’s claims fairly described the Left of his own time, they don’t seem to describe the Left of ours. Chesterton’s Left was obsessed with industrial order and optimization, hoping to replace a society ruled by traditions with one ruled by nearly fanatical efficiency and conformity. The modern Left seems to have switched tactics entirely, and insofar as it can be accused of falling too far to one side of the chaos-order dichotomy I think both its friends and enemies would admit it is squarely allied with Chaos, and with a fertility of difference and distinction that borders on the cancerous. As the book was at least in part a polemic against a position that no longer seems to exist, one that barely even seems to have any cladistic descendents, I’m not really sure what to make of it.
My instinct is that leftism in the 1910s was more focused on order and efficiency than modern leftism, but I don’t know enough about 1910s leftism to say. There are certain policy plans that the progressive movement of that era advocated that seem to fit that profile (eugenics being the most notable, but the adoption of the Prussian model in US public schools was in part motivated to mold students to industrial life). My instinct is that this element of leftism slowly disappeared throughout the 20th century due to a list of factors including the rise of the counterculture in the 60s and the fall of communism.
Having said that, the mentality you describe still exists but is no longer confined to the left. Radical centrism is more or less the mentality described here. There is a certain brand of pundit that thinks the mentality Chesterton ascribes to the left has thoroughly permeated our culture and drives our society, and seem to rail against what they call “the myth of progress.”
For clarification, by “the mentality you describe” I mean the idea of a society ruled by conformity and industrial efficiency.
The idea that Science would provide the ability to implement some degree of central planning was in vogue from something like the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th. (Relevant: Scott’s post on Red Plenty.) This can be attributed largely to the fact that industrial planning occupied a memetic space similar to that which Big Data occupies today – people had ready examples of firms actually optimizing their industrial processes using Science (e.g. using stopwatches to measure different arrangements of an assembly line, c.f. scientific management), and so imagined that the project could generalize.
It took a long time for the idea to be completely refuted.
And thoroughly debunked?
Cute, but no, I’m guilty of no fallacy here. I’m not attempting to prove to my interlocutor that the idea has been refuted; rather, I am referring to what [I assume] is a common belief.
And if it’s not a common belief – if the person I’m talking to really does think central planning might be a good idea – then I’m not really interested in a discussion. Happily, I can get away with this, because everyone that matters in American politics agrees with me.
Has it really been refuted though? Maybe some of the principles of early-20th-century scientific management have been abandoned, but general technocratic aspirations seem alive and well.
The Blue Tribe comprising most of our Democratic-voting Facebook friends has certainly drifted away from order and toward chaos, as Scott says. But the nascent Grey Tribe, of which Scott and many of his commenters are members, seems to embrace technocratic ideals and aspire toward order.
Scott claims that the lawful-left of the early 20th century has no cladistic descendants against whom Chesterton’s critique is applicable. But maybe we ourselves are such cladistic descendants.
Just because it’s been refuted over and over doesn’t mean it’s been consigned to the dustbin of history.
In American politics both sides of the Aisle are guilty of attempting to centralize control of this or that part of the economy, of promulgating standards from the bubble that is D.C. and blowing them out to the hinterlands where they tend not to do as well as one would hope.
For recent examples look at No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and the School Lunch Program. Look at the PP/ACA which created 3 buckets which all personal insurance plans *WILL* fall in to (Bronze, Silver, Gold). The FCC attempting to regulate the internet under Title 2, etc. etc.
Broadly speaking the intellectual heritage I’m talking about really has died out. The extreme version, in which you dump literally the entire economy into a computer program that spits out all of the allocations, is light-years outside of the worldview of anyone in our politics. (And let’s be clear that that idea is not a strawman, people seriously believed it in exactly that extreme a form.) The lesser, sectoral versions are also pretty much gone. Generic “technocracy” is not the same thing. The modern regulatory state does not believe that it can or should command-and-control the regulated sector; regulations are perceived as defining limits of the market, or assisting the operation of the market, but rarely replacing the market. In fact we have an entire genre of “market-based” regulations that use auctions, etc. We’ve thoroughly internalized the information problem critiques of socialism.
you dump literally the entire economy into a computer program that spits out all of the allocations
But isn’t that Scott’s Divine Godlike AI? When we had that post and discussion about the various islands and how everyone could go found their ideal community, but the central intelligence ruled over everything and guaranteed people’s right of exit and everyone could go live in the Ideal Utopia central city/island?
Isn’t that the Godlike AI taking all the data and running the economy (and other things) much better than we feeble humans could?
Deiseach: and if you tried to bring up this idea on CNN, people would look at you like you were an alien. Whereas historically, equivalent ideas were actually respectable.
Deiseach: Yeah but we acknowledge that we can’t actually write such a program (yet).
I don’t think many singularitarians would favor turning over control to a computer today. I think there’s some sentiment of “Any strong self-improving AI that can’t take over the world on its own doesn’t really deserve to run it.”
Has died out to a fringe in the US and Europe, perhaps, but “high technocracy” (as I like to term it) is pretty much the ruling ideology of China and influential throughout Asia, particularly in South Korea and the greater Han sphere. I need only point to the Chinese constitution, which for the last several years has made the Scientific Development Concept it’s paramount ruling principle.
I’d hardly call it dead, or even refuted, over there.
I’m also thinking of the government insistence that more children have to take Higher Level Maths and more students have to be steered towards STEM subjects.
The reasoning for this is that industry needs these kinds of technical graduates and we will fall behind in research and attracting investment and multinationals to set up here if we don’t have the workforce to attract them.
But isn’t there also the assumption here that The Future Will Be Technical? That we need computer programmers because tomorrow will be run even more by computers?
And the technocrat leadership was, at least up to a couple of years ago, the preference du jour for European governments.
>Generic “technocracy” is not the same thing. The modern regulatory state does not believe that it can or should command-and-control the regulated sector
Sure it does. everyone on the left who cries for single payer wants exactly that. ditto the conversation around climate change, national control of education, and national regulation of the economy. sure they don’t say outright that they want a computer to program the national economy, they don’t even think they want that, but that’s effectively what they are demanding in all the areas they want more government involvement.
Hanzfei: the context of this is the West.
Single payer is a concession to the market!
A command-and-control delivery of healthcare would have pure public provision a la the NHS.
I am getting very frustrated with the parade of people who, in their zeal to slay leftism, are unable to recognize that sometimes things that are bad are still different from each other.
>Single payer is a concession to the market!
I very much disagree. single payer on the scale the left demands eliminates markets. prices are set not by hospitals and patients, but by central fiat. look up the way medicare sets prices, for example. there is nothing to do with markets. Medicare takes advice from industry, does some time and motion studies, and dumps the data into the “Resource-Based Relative Value Scale”, which spits out a price for every service. sure, those hospitals remain nominally private, but that doesn’t mean there is anything like a market, because there is no price setting, negotiation, or information transferred, none of the things Hayek regarded as the essential tasks of market exchange. it’s pure GOSPLAN style command and control. they just outsource some of the grunt work.
Yes, actually, I will withdraw that claim. However note that latest attempt to impose single-power in the United States failed miserably (Vermont).
sigh. above is me.
To follow up on the Vermont experiment, note that the Democratic technocrats seemed to be pretty “meh” about the whole thing. Ezra Klein covered it a few times, but most of the enthusiasm I saw was from the far left, which faction usually finds itself at odds with modern technocracy because the latter has too positive a view of markets.
I know a fair number of the type you talk about, and in my experience, they like the idea of single payer, but are more interested in things that are more immediately politically viable. had vermont gone single payer, and had it worked plausibly, you’d have seen them more enthusiastic about it.
I definitely don’t see them as enthusiastic about markets. perhaps this is just my prejudices speaking, but when they do deign to use them, their understanding of them is rather cargo cultish. the ACA is a great example of this, the progressives I know think of it as “market oriented” care because it involves private companies (and, of course, blame that for its ills). But as with single payer, the ACA doesn’t have anything hayek would call a market. prices are mostly set by fiat, then covered with a thick layer of subsidy. and even there, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone on the left say something like “using private institutions to accomplish public ends gives better results than a purely public institution would” in private. Rather, the line is always something like “a purely public institution would, of course, be better, but this is something we can pass.”
As far as I can tell, progressives think of business (or possibly business above a certain size) as disgusting. Businesses exist for people to make money, government exists for idealistic (or potentially idealistic) motivations.
There are people (I’m not sure how fringe they are) who think of destroying capitalism as an ideal. I’m not sure what they have in mind as their goal or their means, but I think they could do a good bit of damage if they had political power.
From the perspective of someone steeped in the ins and outs of the progressive kaleidoscope of factions, it’s probably very easy to tell the Trade Unionist Fascist from the Techno-Utopianist Communitarian, much like a Goth can tell the difference between Red-Black and Green-Black.
From where I sit the *progressive* tendency, expressed on both sides of the aisle here in the US is that of the puritans and the protestants, the union organizer and Mrs. Grundy. It matters not to me whether they’re attempting to tell Acme Screw and Nut how many of what pitch and etc. to make, or wether they’re stipulating the hours and pay scale and working conditions.
So yeah, there’s a difference between the fascists, communists, techno-utopianists and all the others, but to quote George Orwell:
Edited to add:
Chaos-Order isn’t a very useful dichotomy to describe 21st Century ideological struggles. Today, the dominant way of thinking about things is in terms of “Who? Whom?” It’s more childish than when Shaw and Chesterton were debating, but that’s the way we think.
I don’t know if “technocratic” is the right carving-up here. The big problem with Chesterton’s socialists seems to have been “here’s this cool tech we can use to control the lower classes”. Modern libertarians, when they get too techno-utopian, seem to be more “here’s this cool tech that the upper classes can enjoy”, or sometimes “here’s this cool tech we can sell to the lower classes”. Just because they both have the word “tech” doesn’t mean they’re the same.
But the idea of the rise of the technocrat in European governments is “here is this expert with a degree in somethingology who will give us a rational scientific analysis of the situation and propose a solution which is then imposed by government policy”.
They’re very often unelected; they’re advisers etc. brought in by individual ministers, and they set policies and make recommendations and propose solutions according to ‘laws’ of e.g. economics. It’s one thing for the Minister for Finance to take advice from the Central Bank, amongst other opinions and his or her own experience; it’s another thing for Joe Soap, lecturer at UCD, to be the unelected private adviser of the Minister telling them “We must pass a law stating that every citizen has to pay a Breathing Toll in order to pay off the interest on the loans we guaranteed to the investors who only bought shares as a get-rich-quick turnabout and have no intention of investing their money in the banks but rather of selling off the shares at the highest rate of profit as fast as possible”.
The problem is and was with treating ‘the people’ as this huge undifferentiated mass that is fodder for social and economic experiments according to the latest Shiny New Theory, and not as individuals with minds, needs, preferences and opinions of their own.
“The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.
He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
― Adam Smith
To offer a rephrasing of Deiseach’s statement.
I’m given to understand there are a number of people who suspect that Computation might still offer this possibility.
No. No honest singultarian/extropian would ever use this kind of idiotic planned economy. They would conceive of only two primary resources: sunlight and computronium/nanogoo, energy and mass. Once you’ve got ways to produce and distribute those, everything else is just a matter of rearranging bits.
Today we have complicated supply chains because our manufacturing machinery is simple and stupid compared to the complexity of the products we want to produce. As our means of production catch up in complexity to the products, less complexity has to be shunted into the social arrangements, which can then be simplified and readjusted to suit how human beings actually want to relate to each-other.
You are then left with the more fundamental problem of getting human beings to relate to each-other voluntarily and in large numbers without trying to destroy each-other because of petty gossip.
Hmm… I wonder how advanced you could make 3D printers without needing to invent nano-machines? Because you just made me notice that, unless I’m missing something, sufficiently advanced 3D printer manufacturing essentially solves large parts of the socialist calculation debate. (You can just order stuff from factories and they make it for you. Credit cost based on raw materials. Files are free to use (software does not need to be rationed) and if not enough creative volunteers are found the file makers can be compensated based on downloads or something). There may still be problems with allocating things with more complicated manufacturing though.
Actually I just realized that speed of manufacturing might be a flaw in that as well. And 3d printing is too specific a term, I am thinking of an automated factory that is capable of producing a wide variety of different stuff from the same raw materials, such that custom files could be uploaded to produce any product within a general category, ie. an electronics factory that can make anything from a cell phone to a supercomputer to an electric razor, and switch between without much cost or having to spend resources on alterations. But yeah, the speed could be a problem so your might need a lot of those things for that to work. Of course I don’t know how plausible that is with anything resembling current tech.
I know very little about manufacturing though, so this could all be missing something obvious.
The idea of central planning in the New Deal / Five Year Plan form is out of vogue, but the basic faith that society should operate as a machine programmed by experts is most certainly not dead. IIRC, Scott himself is at least somewhat an adherant to the “nudging”/”making the healthy choice the default” form of this. Not a criticism; he’s in medicine and I suspect that attitude comes with the territory.
As long as academic qualifications are the entry criterion to influence and opportunity, I believe the attitude of scientific paternalism will be popular in some form or another.
See but we aren’t actually disagreeing. There is a radical difference between central planning and Nudge. The latter contains an essential core of humility [and acknowledgment of markets] that the former is missing.
Then, they blithely ordered all poor women’s hair cut short. Today, they try (and fail) to ban 16oz sodas. This is like the Nazis retreating from Stalingrad to the outskirts of Berlin.
Nudge and central planning are identical, just adapted to different social circumstances. In both cases, the model is “Expert does the thinking, “society” does the doing.”
The central planners had a mostly compliant or manipulable proletariat who could be cajoled into accepting direct commands from their betters.
The central planners spent the intervening century pushing western populations into a series of apocalyptic wars at the same time overtly attacking religion and famillial structures which might offer the proles and alternate support structure. As a result, the nudgers are left with a superficially more resistant population and must invest creative energy in figuring out ways to do the same central planning through subtle and manipulative means.
That was me.
This is straightforwardly false. Even taken as deliberate hyperbole, it’s false.
Note, that I am not saying “central planning bad, nudge good!” I think both have serious flaws. But they are different flaws. There is some commonality but even more difference.
Painting Michael Bloomberg with the same brush as Karl Marx may be rhetorically satisfying but it is not accurate and obscures precisely the distinction that I’m drawing.
That distinction being that one thinks the market and individual autonomy are completely superfluous constructs that can be swept away, while the other sees them as forces that provide value, cannot be eliminated, and can only be influenced on their own terms, through incentives.
Nudging doesn’t reliably include the idea that a nudge might make matters worse, and therefore the nudges should be monitored.
In fact, I’ve never seen a proposal for a nudge which included checking on its effects.
Nudging is still far short of centralized control because (except perhaps in some rationalist fantasies) I’ve never seen a vision of people having completely nudged lives.
” That distinction being that one thinks the market and individual autonomy are completely superfluous constructs that can be swept away, while the other sees them as forces that provide value, cannot be eliminated, and can only be influenced on their own terms, through incentives. ”
Nudging proposes to feed individual’s reason with false information so as to produce desired responses. In this sense it is a more advanced version of central planning, one that recognises that the proles retain some will and reason of their own and so looks for ways to circumvent these.
This is not acceptible if individual autonomy rather than some constructed version of utillity is taken as a terminal value. In both central planning and nudging, (non-professional class) people are modelled as mere dopamine maximizers, and their well-being reduced to an engineering puzzle.
Central planning is really an orthogonal question from experts-vs-masses. Stalin’s interview with H.G. Wells is a really illuminating piece on the Soviet ethos on this question.
” I’ve never seen a vision of people having completely nudged lives.”
I would say argue that there is a presumption of this in a lot of the “internet of things” hype, the idea that very clever and well meaning designers will embed subtle influencers invisibly throughout people’s environment.
I also have not seen any trend amongst the nudgers to account for their impacts, probably because nudging is so often presented as merely competant designers / managers / policy makers doing supposedly obvious things in a very local and private way.
The big totalitarian nightmare of it is the way that all these “competant professionals” share a consistent narrow value system which is itself never challenged. This same “all reasonable people agree” is the modus operandi of the more vicious SJW mobs, but in this case it seems less totalising because no one dissenter’s will is being visibly broken at any given time. Instead, millions of people’s wills are being slightly subverted many times a day, but the disrespect for dissenting will remains.
The whole enterprise of nudging has no cetral node of control/responsibility, and so it seems silly to demand accounting, but at the same time it seems about as spontaneous as the Cultural Revolution.
Do “nudges” include market-based interventions? Because that’s what I think of, and those tend to include at least an attempt at an evenhanded analysis of costs and benefits.
(And I agree with Alex Godofsky here; market-based incentives (“nudging”) and central planning are opposite ways of solving coordination problems; one attempts to directly manipulate results, the other changes incentives. Unless you’re contrasting these with the concept of not solving coordination problems, I don’t see where you’re coming from.)
” Unless you’re contrasting these with the concept of not solving coordination problems, I don’t see where you’re coming from.) ”
Yes, this. If you concede that something is a “coordination problem” in the sense that it needs a society-wide “solution”, you are invisibly incorporating the assumption that society needs to be centrally engineered.
If some strategy requires coordination beyond the scale which individual agents can effectively manage through their own reasoning and person-to-person coordination as peers, it is a sign that that the desired outcome ought to fail in favor of a simpler, more robust, and in most cases and distributed solution.
Professionals and bureaucrats percieve their own empowerment as a good, and so a world that will not sustain tall enough heirarchies of abstraction and specialization to maintain them in the manner to which they have become accustomed is unthinkable.
This tendancy to glorify complexity for it’s own sake can be seen in the tendancy to evaluate societies by the most specialized, complex, and impractical things they produce: temples, pyramids, moon landings, abtract art, multi-million dollar medical therapies, etc. As such, the quality called “civilization” is a measure of how cowed and regimented the general population is, and thus how rich an environment the society is for managers and experts.
If you concede that something is a “coordination problem” in the sense that it needs a society-wide “solution”, you are invisibly incorporating the assumption that society needs to be centrally engineered.
Which of the fourteen examples of coordination problems in “Meditations on Moloch” do you consider to not actually be coordination problems? Do you consider them to just be imaginary hobgoblins engineered to enable power grabs by prospective elites?
This is my first response to Grandelkhan:
Which of the fourteen examples of coordination problems in “Meditations on Moloch” do you consider to not actually be coordination problems? Do you consider them to just be imaginary hobgoblins engineered to enable power grabs by prospective elites?
I don’t think that prospective elites are are out engineering hobgoblins. If you train someone to be a bureaucrat / expert, they will see bureaucratic compliance solutions to every problem; the old having-a-hammer thing.
If you further create a situation where only those trained as bureaucrats are taken seriously in public life, considered responsible in work, permitted to enter privileged licensed porfessions, treated like adults by other bureaucrats and professionals, etc then naturally there will be huge pressure to train ever more people as bureaucrats and the bureaucratic / professional (authority-based) way of thinking will blot out other forms of discourse in your society.
Once everyone who matters is a ‘man with only a hammer’, they go on a binge of malignant over-management: centralization, rulemakeing, artificial complexity, invention of superfluous “needs” to be satisfied, all in an attempt to create enough seats in middle management for everybody.
er… That was my first response to Grandelkhan…
Tarring “nudging” with the central planning brush is absurd, since there is no such thing as a market without rules – property rules, if nothing else.
You are already nudging. The question is, are you going to acknowledge the nudges inherent in the system, and be willing to change them.
There’s a bit of an overeagerness to pretend that in this forum, we’re all intelligent people so obviously we all agreed that net neutrality and the US health care reform are bad. I don’t mind people talking about it, I do mind the dismissals, and attaching dismissals like a rider to posts about other things.
Nudging isn’t an example of centralized planning because I haven’t seen any proposal of centralized nudging. Instead, it’s a bunch of small uncoordinated projects.
A good satirist could have some fun showing people being nudged in a large number of directions, some of which are contradictory.
I’ve never seen a nudger propose asking people what behavioral changes they want to be nudged into.
A grand project of asking people what nudging they want might give back really interesting results.
Isn’t that called Beeminder?
“There is a radical difference between central planning and Nudge.”
Yes, but …
It was also Cass Sunstein who wrote an article raising the possibility that online people with bad ideas could be dealt with by employing people to join their conversations and subvert their idea structure—with no implication that those people would necessarily announce that that was what they were being employed to do. So perhaps not so much a core of humility as a switch to what he viewed as cleverer forms of manipulation.
In the real world, it’s hard to imagine “libertarian paternalism” remaining libertarian. It’s just too easy to make the choice you don’t want people to make gradually harder and harder—real world example available for the curious.
The dominant mechanism of planning in the US has been moved out of the realm of electoral politics and to the Federal Reserve. Monetary policy and “practical macroeconomics” is the essential mechanism of contemporary American technocracy. (Need I only note that economics is the most popular major in America’s leading universities today? That investment banks have replaced industrial conglomerates as the symbols of American power? Planning is alive and well.)
Planning is not central planning. Central banking is not command-and-control.
I am going to quote from the post just two above yours:
GB Shaw was a major debate partner of Chesterton’s. I assume that if you dug up some of his nonfiction, that would give a much better idea of the Left of the time.
Right. Chesterton was a journalist debating the major intellectual figures of his day, such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell. When I first read Chesterton 40 years ago, those three were much more acclaimed at the time than Chesterton was. Today, though, Chesterton has his Catholic base, while Shaw, Wells, and Russell don’t have much of an ideological or ethnic base.
When I flipped through Dawkins “The God Delusion”, I couldn’t find any real argument that hadn’t been made by Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian”- and generally recommended the latter book instead. They may not revere the intellectual, but his ideas are still among us. It’s interesting why Dawkins would carry more cachet than Russell- chronological snobbery? The opposite is true with the religious- the older, the better.
Russell, as ever, spoke with conviction while also maintaining an air of dignity, respect and eloquence. Dawkins, as ever, was a dick. And that sells more books.
More seriously, Dawkins appeals, deliberately I think, to the young person who thinks religion is nonsense, but has never had the words to describe how. He gives them the answers, and he also gives them a lot of ways to be snarky about it, so they can look down on the religious with a feeling of superiority.
I was listening to a college sophomore rant about White Privilege over Christmas dinner (biting your tongue, then gritting your teeth helps keep your mouth shut), and it’s incredible how ignorant they are of their intellectual ancestors.
I asked him if he knew who Michel Foucault and Herbert Marcuse later in the evening, and he did not.
It’s unthinkable that he’d even know about some “Dead White Guy” from a hundred years ago, let alone studied his doctrine in relation to theirs.
I have an adopted younger brother who managed to acquire a sociology degree a couple years ago, and he does stuff like this all the time. Last week, he was going on about “exceptions to the protestant work ethic” but didn’t know who Max Weber was when I brought up his name.
I found this weirdly creepy. He is smart enough to be able to intelligently articulate the theory he was propounding (which was, in this case, not completely ridiculous) but not to question what he was taught or to dig beyond the reading he was assigned. seeing him say these things has given me a real appreciation for the power of higher education of germinating faith. my brother lacks the personality to be a genuine ideologue. what he believes amounts to little more than a collection of unrelated morality tales that fit together only in that they don’t overtly conflict, but I’m pretty sure that he’ll spend most of the rest of that life repeating them, while his similarly educated friends nod in agreement.
Surely it’s not the person who came up with the ideas that’s important, but the ideas themselves?
But he didn’t know the idea. he was spouting a critique of the the protestant work ethic without really knowing what it was.
I’ve come to appreciate that the value of being an academic in the good sense is learning that our intellectual environment isn’t simply the truth, it grew as a result of people who had a number of different angles on what the world is.
Reminds me of the way that cultural studies types are spoon fed a one sided take on philosophy…its all about relativism and anti realism…if you put
forward a contrary .argument they go into culture shock, because they haven’t been taught the debate, just which side to take.
Right, Chesterton famously opposed the eugenics proposals of HG Wells, GB Shaw, and Winston Churchill, arguing that if eugenically arranged marriages actually succeed in breeding stronger, healthier men, the first thing these new, better men would do would be to tell the busybodies to butt out and let them marry the women they love.
That seems like an argument against doing anything to people for their benefit but against their will, not just deciding who they marry.
It’s only an argument against those interventions which might strengthen the person’s intellect and willpower.
Intervening to make people more collective, dependant, and “pro-social” (manipulable) leavesthe subject more succeptible to future interventions with each pass.
Try The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism
“But Weary Willie may say that he hates work, and is quite willing to take less, and be poor and dirty and ragged or even naked for the sake of getting off with less work. But that, as we have seen, cannot be allowed: voluntary poverty is just as mischievous socially as involuntary poverty: decent nations must insist on their citizens leading decent lives, doing their full share of the nation’s work, and taking their full share of its income. . . . Poverty and social irresponsibility will be forbidden luxuries.”
“Compulsory social service is so unanswerably right that the very first duty of a government is to see that everybody works enough to pay her way and leave something over for the profit of the country and the improvement of the world”
“My instinct is that leftism in the 1910s was more focused on order and efficiency than modern leftism, but I don’t know enough about 1910s leftism to say.”
Oh yes. It was. This was why, a couple decades later, they were touting the great Leninist-Fascist experiments, since it was obvious that these planned societies, being orderly and efficient, would be marvelously better than the sloppiness of freedom.
H. G. Wells called for Liberal Fascism in England, to gain the same improvements
There’s an interesting 1904 banquet at which contemporary intellectuals such as GB Shaw and HG Wells gathered to honor the elderly Francis Galton and his newly fashionable concept of eugenics that he had been promoting for almost four decades. At the end, Galton, an old fashioned Liberal, denounced Wells’ speech demanding mandatory eugenics.
Is this the one you mean? Galton’s only reply to Wells is to say “Mr. Wells spoke of “stirpiculture” as a term preferable to “eugenics.” I myself invented it, and deliberately changed it for “eugenics.” ” http://galton.org/essays/1900-1911/galton-1904-am-journ-soc-eugenics-scope-aims.htm
(By the way, Wikipedia says that the term “stirpiculture” was actually coined by John Humphrey Noyes. Odd. You’d think if people were going to falsely claim credit for inventing a word, it wouldn’t be “stirpiculture”.)
Noyes? Same guy who coined the term “free love”.
>My instinct is that leftism in the 1910s was more focused on order and efficiency than modern leftism,
I couldn’t say about british or continental leftism, but american leftism, absolutely. technocrats like engineers were the high priests of the progressives in this era. Belamy’s Looking Backwards, the ur-book of progressive thought (it’s even set in Boston!) and third best selling book of the time, is all about the efficent ordering and management of society.
Chesterton grew up in a Unitarian family and he was always focused upon the cutting edge intellectual trends of his time, such as Fabianism. From Wikipedia:
“Immediately upon its inception, the Fabian Society began attracting many prominent contemporary figures drawn to its socialist cause, including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, Charles Marson, Hubert Bland, Edith Nesbit, Sydney Olivier, Oliver Lodge, Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf, Ramsay MacDonald and Emmeline Pankhurst. Even Bertrand Russell …
“At the core of the Fabian Society were Sidney and Beatrice Webb. …
“Many Fabians participated in the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 and the group’s constitution, written by Sidney Webb, borrowed heavily from the founding documents of the Fabian Society. …
“The years 1903 to 1908 saw a growth in popular interest in the socialist idea in Great Britain and the Fabian Society grew accordingly, tripling its membership to nearly 2500 by the end of the period, half of whom were located in London.”
So Fabianism was specifically what Chesterton was responding to.
The Webbs eventually became Stalinists, publishing “Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?” in 1935, then removing the question mark in their 1941 edition.
I’m rarely outright baffled by anything Scott says, but that paragraph threw me. The modern Left allied with Chaos? Arne Duncan and Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power? What!?
Only if by “the modern Left” one means a bunch of special-snowflake social justice bloggers rather than anyone with any actual power. No doubt such gadflies were around in Chesterton’s day, too, but he didn’t bother to debate them.
The distinction is between the professional left – the members of the left who have succeeded in obtaining the sinecures that progressivism produces and the amateur left – who are trying to break into one of the sinecures.
When Hillary was a law student she acted like the amateur left.
Progressivism is anarcho-tyranny. When you advance you move from the anarcho side of the business to the tyranny side as a reward.
A little extreme to call it tyrrany, don’t you think? What always troubles me about politics in the US is that the Democrats are so much more technocratically competent, on average, than the GOP. The GOP has a few competent technocrats (and strangely, most of them seem to be Mormons), but overall, given I vote on technocratic competence, I ultimately find myself more likely to pull the lever for Dems than the GOP (particularly in my state) simply for that reason alone.
>that the Democrats are so much more technocratically competent, on average
are they really? or are they just better at signalling they are to you? the trainwreck of the obama presidency seems to argue for the latter.
Can you actually point to something the Democrats have done that is technocratically well-designed?
That is to say, not just a think that you think is net positive and that you think involves “technocracy”, but in particular something where you think the technocrats did a good job qua technocrats?
Yeah, I’ve seen this mindset before. I call them Clinton Democrats: they registered Democrat, aren’t about to vote Republican, but only vote Democrat because they remember Bill Clinton being good for the economy.
The people I’m thinking of think Obama is a hopeless, clueless incompetent, generally can’t bring themselves to vote for anyone, and don’t leave the mainstream only because they think everything outside it is wacky and doomed to attract kooks.
My impression is that there are two factions within the Democrats. Call them the Clinton and Obama factions. Wasn’t there a split in the 2008 primary? This says: “Obama did particularly well among blacks and young voters, whereas Clinton won the support of Latinos, white women, and the elderly.”
The New Left vs. the Old, no?
Of course, the New Left is at best incompetent and at worst actively opposed to the existence of civilization. And that’s the faction Obama and de Blasio are in.
It sounds a little like (what seem to me to be) the ickier bits of Silicon Valley corporate culture.
Soylent for everyone! Optimize away your eating so you can work longer hours! Open-floorplan offices! Brightly colored corporate T-shirts!
The dystopic endpoint would be some of Robin Hanson’s dark fantasies about ems.
“The future masters of technology will have to be lighthearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb.” —Marshall McLuhan, 1969
I don’t think that is confined to Silicon Valley corporate culture, but the tech sector is understandably entwined with a fascination with progress in all things.
Mind if I borrow this soapbox for a second? No, really, I’m just going to stand here and rant, I won’t jump up and down and get it all scuffed. I’ll give it back in the same condition…
I HATE open plan offices. I get that I’m not cool or important enough to rate my own office with my own door, and I’m ok with that. As a Unix and VMware Admin I’ve worked in an wide range of work environments from having my own office to sitting on a stool in a tent bringing firewalls up so the mail could flow over a satelite link. I don’t mind austere environments, and in fact I kinda like them.
But if you’re going to put me in a modern building BUILD ME A DAMN CUBE THAT I CAN’T SEE OVER. Man is a predator, we evolved on the plains of the Serengeti hunting and being hunted. Motion is *distracting*, and as my employer you do NOT want me distracted. You want me heads down and focused. I, and my fellow engineers KNOW HOW TO COLLABORATE, and we do not do it the same way the folks in marketing do. GIVE US THE ISOLATION WE NEED TO DO WELL.
And yes, I know open plan offices are bright and cheery. That’s not the point of offices. The point of offices is GETTING OFFICE WORK DONE.
Every study for the last 2 decades has shown that engineering types do better when they can block out the outside world and focus on their problem for as long as they need to. So of course our corporate masters COMPLETELY IGNORE this because open plan is cheaper/prettier/hip.
Here, have your box back.
Don’t you mean that “every study done in the last two decades has shown that everyone does better… ?”
I am pretty sure you do, because I am pretty sure that’s the consensus.
Open plan offices are about control without seeming to be visibly controlling. The idea of treating your workers like idiots or young children who can be distracted by The Pretty Shiny seems to have a presence in HR that lingers on despite everything that should eradicate it: instead of paying the drones on the factory floor a bonus which costs us money, let’s instead promote Employee of the Month! A cheap fake-status ego boost which costs us nothing, commits us to nothing (there’s no guarantee that last month’s Employee of the Month won’t be let go in the next round of cost-cutting redundancies), and lets us pretend we really do value the interchangeable walking units, as well as getting in some of that sweet, sweet Stakhanovite action – make the drones work harder for useless recognition!
Open plan offices were about supervising without seeming to supervise; for some reason, people don’t like others looking over their shoulder. An old-fashioned supervisor or manager walking around checking on people was resented; an open plan office meant that the manager could sit at a vantage point in a corner office or upstairs and watch the work going on, without seeming to do so.
Can you tell I’m very cynical about business practices? My Business Management modules in my admin course were agony for me, in the combination of business buzzword speak offending my ear for English, and the blatant manipulation dressed up as ‘helping your employees’, plus the guru-of-the-week favourites having their wisdom disseminated as though it came down on the tablets of stone from Mount Sinai. Learning a bit about management theory was useful, in that it enabled me to recognise “Ah, they’re trying Theory Whatever” when the HR department instigated new programmes in my workplaces, so I knew in what way I was being manipulated to achieve what goals 🙂
My office just has the programmers’ desks turned towards the wall and/or windows. This way they’re not put in cubicles and they can interact freely, but when they’re looking at the screen they don’t get distracted except at the very edge of their peripheral vision.
Now, since I’m supposed to supervise them, my desk is the only one that’s set up to give me a view of the office. And I can definitely agree that the comings-and-goings, or just seeing my programmers generally twitch and move around at their desks, detract from my own productivity. So I end up scheduling myself the toughest programming work for Friday, when most of my colleagues don’t work or work half-time, or sometimes borrowing the meeting room if I really need to focus.
Wow, the first thing I would ever want to do if I walked into that office is rotate every desk 180 degrees. Activity and eyes-looking going on behind me is far worse than in my visual field.
I would need to do likewise, not because I prefer it, but because I am too nervous about people being behind me.
I am philosophically simpatico with the opposition to open plan offices. But Google has (apparently) done a lot of internal research which has lead them to believe that individual productivity is higher with individual offices, but team productivity is highest with shared offices with team sizes up to somewhere around 20 people. IIRC per person productivity drops from around 7 people until you reach absolutely must split level ~20.
Please note this is not a defence of everyone on one floor open plan offices.
I noticed on my visits to Microsoft’s campus that the offices were dark warrens- small individual rooms where one to three engineers shared a space where they could shut themselves off from everyone else. Google, on the other hand, was an open profusion of distractions- I wondered how anyone could get anything done there. Yet they seem to.
Distractions can be useful. You get stuck on a problem, you go distract yourself and let your lizard brain work it out.
Open-plan offices, on the other hand… I can’t work with so much as the sound of footsteps behind me.
Google, on the other hand, was an open profusion of distractions
One word: headphones. Really decent headphones plus dual monitors with cube walls behind them apparently can isolate people well enough, and then they can just turn their chairs around to chat with people. At least, that’s supposed to be the way it works.
My employer simply asked us if we’d rather have an open-plan cube or be paired in an office. I went for the open cube, cuz I like people. Which, we have big monitors so it is easy enough to shut stuff out. Plus we have lots and lots and lots of breakout space where folks can go if they need to chat. Work areas are quiet areas. Most of the time.
Plus our managers basically leave us alone and the idea of interrupting someone at their desk without emailing first is — well — you do not do that!
Tons of people like to work in coffee shops. I like to hang out and do math while sitting at a bar. Once I begin to dive in, my brain shuts stuff out. (Plus, Adderall.)
Anyway, a good employer will try to take into account individual preferences.
“Soylent for everyone! Optimize away your eating so you can work longer hours! Open-floorplan offices! Brightly colored corporate T-shirts!”
The Socialists said the poor should optimize away things. Modern Silicon Valley culture says the rich should aspirationally optimize away things. People buy Soylent themselves, even when their bosses think it’s stupid, in order to become better people. There’s a huge gulf between those two worldviews.
(If open plan offices don’t work, then the proper criticism is that they don’t work. If they do work, then that’s companies trying to do efficient things, which seems a lot different than people trying to make society itself efficient. Chesterton wasn’t complaining that people were trying to industrialize the factories)
With the [usual caveats about trying to precisely define political ideological membership] issues acknowledged, this seems precisely wrong to me. Or, at least, it misses something huge.
Yes, the Left has its fair share of anarchists and those with such sympathies. So does the Right, for that matter.
But consider that huge percentages of the membership in major, powerful civic institutions consider themselves aligned with the left-leaning party. (I’m speaking of the US, although I think my point is even stronger in the EU.) Academia, media, entertainment, and civil service all boast (I believe) double-digit D-party affiliation majorities. All of these institutions produce luminaries who expound on their respective edifice’s philosophical motives and visions. Nearly all of them I would categorize broadly as being “Left,” yet almost none I would brand as friends of Chaos. To the contrary, these spokespersons see their institutions as pillars of society (which they are), and vigorously defend their place and power in it.
Historically, it is trivial to track leftist policies as agents of order, from industrialization, to universal suffrage, entitlements, civil rights, to social justice…ect. Granted, this order is a new order from the previous one. The Right might frantically label it Chaos as it sees its favored social orders crumble. But make no mistake, the new regime is Order.
Even philosophically, much of Leftist thought is rooted in the soil of a highly ordered society. Utilitarianism, as a political philosophy, usually assumes a high degree of fine-grain control over society in order to bring about maximum utility. Nearly every “social justice” type ideology assumes powerful institutions capable of righting the massive and pervasive ills which plague society. I could go on.
It’s interesting that many on the Left (and probably a majority of the Right) see the Left as agents of chaos. The Left may wield Chaos and change and upheaval at times to suit its ends. But those ends are almost always some new Order.
“Historically, it is trivial to track leftist policies as agents of order, from industrialization, to universal suffrage, entitlements, civil rights, to social justice…ect”
Etc, remember, includes Prohibition, involuntary eugenic sterilizations, and segregation. (That is, the Left brought us the problems you are crediting it with fixing with “civil rights.”)
I’m glad you’ve identified me as a being on the left, or at least with being sympathetic to it. Hopefully it means I’m capable of fairly representing their ideas. I won’t claim to have fully passed the Ideological Turing Test, since I take it you’re not a leftist either. (if you are, then: touché.)
I said that you credited the Left with things. That’s obvious on the face of it.
I’m not so sure, at least in America, that it was the Progressives who were pushing for civil rights, at least not earnestly. IIRC it was a coalition of Republicans in Congress and a Democrat president that pushed it through–though at the time “Liberal” and “Progressive” hadn’t become entirely synonyms, so I might be entirely wrong.
Both Progressives and Conservatives in America pay at least lip service to the notion of inherent rights, even if they mean different things by that word.
The Civil Rights Act was passed by non-Southern Congressmen (~90% in favor) and opposed by Southern Congressmen (~90% opposed). There was a smaller difference between the rate of support by the major parties, but the direction of the correlation reverses depending on whether you look at geography first or party first, because the D party of the era was very large and contained two wings that hated each other.
I would argue that the fundamental left wing impulse is not destroying order but hierarchy. this formulation explains a great deal about the puritan strain of leftism dominant in america. they are absolutely the opposite of anarchists, they want order, but they are constantly going to war against hierarchies they think are opposing their moral order, be that hierarchy popery, george III, slave power, malefactors of great wealth, or these days, structural racism and patriarchy. through it all there has been a consistent story of some evil hierarchy blocking the way to moral society.
Of course, in the process of tearing down these hierarchies, they invariably erect new ones, but that’s why I’m not a leftist. you can’t have order without hierarchy, the question is not how to get rid of it, but how do we design our hierarchies to be the most useful/least harmful.
The fundamental belief today is to win at whatever cost to logic and principles. What matter is who wins, not why they win.
basic attitudes inform how the coalitions think they can win and what they do once they think they have. who, whom matters a lot, but it isn’t the only thing. and even with who whom, the whom the left wants to destroy are those they perceive as the hierarchical oppressors.
What matters is who wins, yes, but this is ideologically loaded. The Cold War was a Somali clan war, but it wasn’t just a Somali clan war. Somalis don’t have psychological or cultural operations the way the two* empires did. Clan wars don’t have official philosophies, official styles of art, and so on. Not that those official things aren’t modified when necessary.
* Four, but Washington destroyed London and Paris keeps quiet.
” But consider that huge percentages of the membership in major, powerful civic institutions consider themselves aligned with the left-leaning party.”
While it is noticeable that the members of pen wielding organisations tend to the left, it is also noticeable that the membership of gun wielding organisations such as the army and police tend towards the right.
That was , me, BTW,
People vote in their self-interest, although I’m not sure what the self-interest of academia is that causes them to lean left.
” I’m not sure what the self-interest of academia is that causes them to lean left.”
Universities as institutions are the gatekeepers of official truth and they have the power to confer the degrees which in a bureaucratic technocracy are basically tickets to economic enfranchisement of any form.
Academics themselves survive by being the arbiters of truth in there respective specialties: extracting rents from a memetic territory through salaries, grants, patents, publications, etc. Leftists maintain and grow the institutional infrastructure of their “officialness” which stops any smart guy with an internet connection from setting himself up as a competing “professor of whatever”.
TLDR; the “left” is essentially the ideology of rule by experts, academics are experts.
” While it is noticeable that the members of pen wielding organisations tend to the left, it is also noticeable that the membership of gun wielding organisations such as the army and police tend towards the right. ”
“Spheres of authority”. There are two spheres: ideas and material objects.
The “Left” are overrepresented in those institutions (bureaucracies, academia, media, software, arts and culture generally, and the learned professions) which trade on information and seek to monopolize or extract rents from the production, dissemination, or control of information.
The “Right” are overrepresnted in those institutions which control and manipulate physical objects and people (police, millitary, heavy industry, transport, infrastructure, those scientific and engineering endeavors where precision matters more than communications).
The division used to be a lot clearer when we called them “church and state” or the “first and second estates”. Now, the field is muddied by Leftists pretensions of being different from theocracies of the past and by the adherance to the right of the remnant of actual believers in the overtly supernatural.
These super-instututions are of course natural symbiotes, and can only form a total social power structure together. But the patterns of thought and behavior which are advantagious to people operating in different spheres are distinct enough that they appear divided into tribes much as Scott has described.
Is the left overrepresented in bureaucracies, or only in government bureaucracies?
Good point, Anon. Chesterton and his pal Belloc loathed government and corporate bureaucracy equally as part of the same inhuman, servility-imposing Bigness.
” Is the left overrepresented in bureaucracies, or only in government bureaucracies? ”
Personal experiance says both. While operations and engineering types who deal with “controlling and directing physical stuff” lean right or Libertarian, most corporate bureaucrats by headcount occupy administrative/support/paper pushing roles and lean left.
Remember also that the management of most companies are tightly shackled to a parallel “shadow” heirarchy of Human Resources and Public Relations types who operate like Soviet pollitical officers, ensuring that the company operates in compliance with current progressive ideals. While operations, IT, and engineering management may lean right or libertarian privately, they are generally terrified of being “denounced” to HR or doing something that will lead the PR people tell their boss that they are a liability.
Nydwracu, thank you for the link!
Thank you from me.
Entitlement programs aren’t agents of order, though. On the contrary, they redistribute from people with a high marginal propensity to save to those with essentially zero marginal propensity to save. It’s eating the seed corn, and about as close an economic analogue as you’ll find to converting potential energy to entropy. They’re agents of chaos.
“Social justice” is a nebulous, question-begging term that means different things to different people, but it usually involves redistribution, and is thus anti-order for the same reason.
Entitlement programs require a great deal of order throughout their life cycle, from conception to planning to implementation to enforcement. Depending of their nature, they often entail new information collection, new enforcement powers, and more control over the disbursement of funds.
These new structures also tend to be seed crystals for new forms of order. Example: the single most important ID number for a US citizen is the Social Security number. Nearly every major transaction with any government or private institution requires that number. Yet it was only originally intended as an internal number for the Social Security Administration to track payments and disbursements. Order begets order.
Similarly, with social justice: If you ask the adherents of this ideology for their positive policy recommendations (instead of their goals), it usually involves some massive, overarching political edifice capable of defining, detecting, and eliminating injustice everywhere it may be found.
Now, the you may contend that the ultimate result of these policies is Chaos. But this is a second (or nth) level result. On the surface, the Left is engaging in a massive project of social construction.
I’m pretty sure redistribution inherently increases entropy. The point is to homogenize the distribution of wealth. Entitlement programs are the engine, and the order that comes from this (as you describe) is the resources required to be consumed in order to build and run the engine. So you’re really counting the wrong side of the ledger! Even if we assume that entitlement programs run at Carnot efficiency, energy was consumed in order to build “an engine which intentionally increases entropy of money”. Harvesting “seeds” is recycling waste heat.
But for the record, I would rather entitlement programs stay intact and I think it’s weird how chaos vs order are being applied in this thread as metaphors for good vs evil. I think they’re totally unrelated dimensions.
Wait, what? I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.
Naturally distributed inequal income is the maximal entropy condion.
i.e., In a naturally inequal income distribution, a person can have any of many states of wealth with equal or normal probability, and so on average more information is communicated when we learn someone’s wealth.
On the other hand, in a homogeneous distribution, everyone is in a small number of states of wealth with high probability, so we learn little when we’re told someone’s wealth.
This is also why it takes work to arrive at the redistributed state, but we naturally fall into the inqueal state.
I read an article that explained this better than I am a few months back, but I can’t find it on my phone.
“On the contrary, they redistribute from people with a high marginal propensity to save to those with essentially zero marginal propensity to save.”
Your argument that this is a problem would be a lot more plausible if you voluntarily redistributed all your money to, say, Michael Bloomberg. At 36 billion dollars, I’m quite sure his marginal propensity to save is far higher than yours, and that would be a good thing, right? You’d be like an economic Maxwell’s demon, bringing about a more orderly world.
This idea that the rich are virtuous because they’re saving, and saving is inherently virtuous… I don’t know where I should begin with such belief. Nor am I quite sure I should begin, because such ideas don’t float well outside the right-wing blogosphere anyway. I probably shouldn’t.
Entitlement programs aren’t agents of order, though. On the contrary, they redistribute from people with a high marginal propensity to save to those with essentially zero marginal propensity to save.
Social Security is the largest entitlement program in the country (followed by Medicaid), both of which go to old people rather than poor people. I don’t know if it’s the Cathedral’s programming here or what, but I get a sense that you’re complaining about redistribution from productive middle-class or wealthy people to the undeserving poors. But most of the redistribution we perform simply goes from working-age people to old people! Is it old people you think are undeserving recipients for our “seed corn”, or are you thinking of something else?
The point of entitlement programs is to turn potential energy into utils. They are sometimes good at this, sometimes not.
I’m not really sure what you expect the value of saving here to be.
That doesn’t actually make the Democrats left-wing. Which they aren’t.
The simpler explanation is: the Republican Party has shifted rightward to become less and less technocratic and more and more chest-beatingly nationalistic and religious, while the Democrats have shifted rightward to eat up the space of Corporate-Capitalist Technocracy formerly occupied by the Republicans. Everyone in favor of Corporate-Capitalist Technocracy, and generally in favor of competent professionals holding the actual offices (which is going to include almost all aspiringly-competent professionals with white-collar jobs and/or university degrees), has thus shifted their votes to the Democrats, even if they would actually be perfectly happy with an Eisenhower- or Chesterton-grade conservative who would take his advice from white-collar professionals such as themselves.
This is aided by the Republican Party rewriting its propaganda to appeal to the class resentments of the Protestant white working class — usually along Culture War lines of “look at those damned San Francisco ‘progressives’ having buttsex for six-figure salaries while you maintain a chaste, disciplined morality in your impoverished Ohio former factory town! They’re liberal elitists and you should hate them!”. As a side-effect, this alienates white-collar professionals who might ordinarily make enough money or hold a sufficiently moralistic worldview to vote Republican, but who simply don’t identify themselves with Evangelicalism, the South, nationalism, or the white working class in specific.
I get the sense that it used to be that Democrats would push top-down “mandate the results” methods of management, while Republicans would push bottom-up “align the incentives” methods. Now that Democrats have embraced the Wisdom of the Market (see: a subsidized insurance market rather than a nationalized system like Britain’s NHS, or even a nationalized insurer like Canada’s Medicare, or even a public insurance option), Republicans are left with the option of “don’t manage anything”, which seems to be the ideological space they’re occupying. (If you don’t believe anything should be “managed”, this is a good space to occupy!)
Grendelkhan, you mis-understand me. I don’t believe that nothing should be managed, quite the contrary. I believe that management, in the sense of analysing situations or problems and then creatively applying some combination of practical, social, and theoretical reasoning to fomulate an optimal response or solution with constrained resources and in coordination with the interests of others is the essential human activity.
People are extremely good at management on the scale in which they are evolved to operate. Further, a person who is alienated from the management of his own affairs is leading a profoundly stunted life. To be the designer of the world, the director of events is as natural a drive in humans as food or sex, and naturally, people invest a great deal of effort in competing for the status which will cause others to fall in behind their’ lead.
What I see is a state of the world where a large class of people believe that they are suited to manage essentially unlimited people and resources, and have constructed worldviews which support them in this thinking.
If you have too frequent exposure to conversations like this current one: “the shape of the world and what WE ought to do with it” sort of discussions, it warps your thinking in the same way that pornography warps a person’s perceptions of sex. The real world will never deliver the frequency or intensity of hot management problems begging to be solved that one grows accustomed to during college bull sessions. By the time a slightly brainy young person emerges from the education system to the responsibilities of adulthood, the idea that the world is not inclined nor capable of leaping to the command of people like himself is unthinkable. The young theocrat may have some notion of the limits of knowability and control in his own professional specialty, but is likely to continue to get a charge off of discussions of “society should…”.
All in all, there is abroad in the world a huge bias towards hubris in an ever-growing class of people who all believe that they ought to be in charge of something.
Let’s say that all the ideas, all the nudges are for the good. What then? What exactly would be the point of my life if it were easy and obvious for me to make all the most optimal decisions? Remember that I am a human too, and that the analysis, strategizing, and deciding are what I am built to do. Somehow, we can look at factory farming and see that even if an animal has better nutrition and fewer infections in an artificial setting than their non-confined cousins, they are fundamentally worse off for being cut off from their characteristic mode of survival, but we laugh at extending this observation to humans.
Further, professionals and managers often vastly overestimate their competance, and a large portion of the problems of the world stem from flawed past attempts to bring aspects of nature or human socuiety under concious control.
The best arrangement in nearly every case is for each person to have the greatest possible lattitude in managing one person; themselves.
Interesting idea. What’s your plan to implement it?
Outside of hunter-gatherer tribes, this arrangement doesn’t seem to occur naturally. On the other hand, my knowledge of history is not that stellar. Perhaps you had some examples in mind?
politics is not moving to the right. in the last 30 years there are perhaps 3 issues on which there has been rightward drift, crime policy, monetary policy, and some small amount of deregulation in a few industries. and all three of those were only partial reversals of previous leftward movements, not objectively right ideas. on everything else, the movement has been to the left. sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always to the left.
There has been recent movement to the left on cultural wedge-issues since the early 2000s. There has been nonstop movement to the Right on labor issues and trade since the 1970s until roughly 2011.
As a general rule, the Left thinks that the State makes things go and the Right thinks that the State makes things stop. In other words, the Left includes people passing regulations to bring about the Millennium (today this is most likely to found among advocates of single-payer health plans) and also people who think anarchy is the ideal way to fight global warming. The Right includes Singularitarian anarcho-capitalists and also monarchists who want to stabilize society.
IIRC, in Chesterton’s biography of Shaw, he regarded Socialists as, if anything, less repulsive than left-wing anarchists. At least the Socialists were attempting to improve society.
As for trying to try Christianity, Chesterton’s discussion of eugenics included an aside on why giving power to witch-hunters was not such a great idea and similar reasoning could be applied to giving state power to religious authorities in general.
BTW, what’s wrong with children’s haircuts? Doesn’t hair regrow?
And gets cut again. If it’s a preventative measure against lice, it’s gonna be permanent.
And anyway, injuries are not non-existent because they are not permanent.
Chesterton’s talking less about “the left” as we know it today than modernism, or James Scott’s “high modernism”. It’s an ideology of top-down-scientific-rational-utilitarian-progress that wasn’t confined to left or right. Industrial barons, liberals, and Leninists alike admired Ford’s mass-production techniques and wanted to apply its logic broadly.
I think Alexander’s technological determinism is too strong. Technology limits cultural variation somewhat, but we always have options. Look at Athens and Sparta, or the US and China today. I don’t want to wait for Heaven to defend the right to long hair.
I think antidepressants and haircuts aren t comparable because presumably Scott doesn t force meds on *every* poor person, just offers them to ones who show up depressed.
I am wondering how promiscuity leads to “poisoned” hair.
Chesterton is weakened by his lack of acknowledgment that his values aren t universally shared by decent people. E.g. the old belief that short hair on a woman is somehow shaming.
Great post! Love the way you express things most Chesterton readers only intuit.
Not literal promiscuity.
Actually yes literal promiscuity:
characterized by or involving indiscriminate mingling or association, especially having sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis
Sexual promiscuity is just the most frequent association of the term, but is not the most general meaning.
Gah! The cookie monster got to me too! Above is me.
This has been happening to me as well for the past few days. For some reason, the site isn’t remembering us.
Chesterton is weakened by his lack of acknowledgment that his values aren t universally shared by decent people.
Lack of acknowledgement is a bit of an understatement. He outright slanders most of the world in a passage quoted above:
It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul)
(As one who is both theologically atheist and culturally Jewish, I find these sorts of statements doubly rankling.)
That was me. I don’t know why SSC seems to have lost my cookies or whatever.
He’s greatly strengthened, on the other hand, by not endorsing mass murder and genocide, which was too tall an order for most intellectuals of his day, especially those he opposed.
Rolling back industrialization would likely require the death (or emigration, but I don’t think that was within view) of billions of people. Granted, he expresses no opinion on which billions to slaughter, and doesn’t seem enthusiastic about it, but this doesn’t seem worth a lot of credit.
There is no reason to assume he defaulted to mass genocide and just didn’t mention it, when it seems to me more likely that he just hadn’t thought that far into how to accomplish his goal.
I doubt those leftist intellectuals endorsed genocide as an end in itself; they just supported certain regimes and failed to think it all the way through.
Agreed, there are exceptions, but it’s not the norm. I actually wasn’t thinking of Chesterton in comparison to other intellectuals, just in comparison to figures who did endorse genocide.
Edit: I misread your post, which makes my reply slightly incoherent as a response, but I support the principles behind it – I don’t think many deliberately endorsed genocide, and more to the point I think it is unfair to assume Chesterton did. Do not attribute to malice and all that.
I don’t think he necessarily needs that. Even in 1910, there was much to be done. No me for literal Luddism.
>I am wondering how promiscuity leads to “poisoned” hair.
I believe he’s saying that she’s unable to isolate herself from the unwashed masses.
In Chesterson’s partial defense, this was over a century ago. Long hair for women – and women’s compliance with gender norms in general – was a bigger deal in 1910 than 2014. Short hair would have been much more shameful then than today.
People in 2118 are going to look back on 2014 writings and think some of our cultural norms were dumb and obviously outdated, too.
In 2014, long hair for women is a pretty dominant cultural standard in the West. For example, see Chris Rock’s recent documentary “Good Hair” for a description of how much time and money African-American women expend to have long hair.
Thank you for educating all the SSC readers who have never seen a Western woman and never realized women spend time on their hair.
Seriously though, the idea that having short hair forced upon you can be a shameful punishment for a woman seems to have dissipated in the past ~50 years. I wonder if this idea is related to lice? The movie Caged is a great example of the old attitude, although I was surprised to see a very similar shameful head-shaving scene in V for Vendetta.
What you are missing out on is the forced element. A woman with shaved head in the past was someone who could very strongly be presumed to have her hair cut as a punishment; it was a visible mark of disgrace.
Now, there were also things like cutting long hair during illness to prevent infection being transmitted and to reduce fever and whatever other rationale of the medicine of the time, but in general, the point that Chesterton is making is that this is something imposed on the children of the poor from above, without the consent of their parents, and tackling the symptoms not the cause. If children get lice because they are crammed together forty at a time into classrooms like battery hens in a cage by the power of the State, and then get lice, cutting their hair as a diktat again by the State (whether or not they have lice) is not solving the problem of getting rid of the conditions where lice thrive, it is punishing the poor for being poor.
It still is a mark of shame and submission. I suppose very few people on this site have been sent to prison (or the army…)
Yo. (Army). “Submission” is a stretch, it’s part of an initiation ritual is all.
A number of 20-something campus feminist types seem to be opting for the neon-dyed pixie cut look. I can’t tell if it’s a style within that circle or a deliberate de-feminization to make a statement.
Whatever it is, I approve.
I think you make a mistake in regarding those two explanations as mutually exclusive.
When Chesterton references short hair he is not talking about it the way we would but more in the sense of shaved or hacked-off hair. The association of femininity with nice hair is still strong – we just have broadened the definition of pretty hair to include cute little pixie cuts and bobs. There are women who go shorter – but even then it is a self-chosen style thing. Even in 2014 mass forced shaving of little girls hair for the convenience of school administrators would be seen as traumatizing to the girls in a way it wouldn’t be for boys.
If I were to pick a modern day analogy for doctor’s prescribing hair shaving it would be mass prescription of ADD medicine to boys (sometimes as a matter of school policy). Rather than make the learning environment something more amenable to kinetic learners we change the learners so that they fit the environment for the convenience of those overseeing it. That the “cure” comes along with a judgement that there is something wrong with the patient and a potential life-time dependency on medication is just a casualty of progress.
+ houseboat agrees
It might add some context to Chesterton’s writings to remember that he really, truly, literally, LITERALLY IN THE DICTIONARY SENSE OF LITERALLY, believes that magic is a real force in the world with which mankind must contend, and which can direct human hearts and desires.
Hmm. Yeah, I can see why that might make it seem trivial to solve coordination problems. Good point.
This really ought to be the only thing necessary to know about Chesterton, and to dismiss him. “Rationalists” shouldn’t waste time on outright, openly-admitted magical thinking.
Damn right! Let’s get back to talking about Elua.
Elua is either a metaphor or a hypothetical AI. Not magical thinking.
Elua as AI occupies the same role as the nice version of the Christian God: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent.
Elua as metaphor is talking about getting the good stuff without any of the bad stuff, in unspecified fashion. But calling this Elua means we can all agree it will happen someday. Applied repeatedly, you have Heaven, or at least Pangloss’s best of all possible worlds.
If Elua isn’t magical thinking, neither is Christianity.
(Grandparent was me, btw.)
I’m…not sure you understand what “magical thinking” means.
Elua embodies an unsolved inference problem, so I don’t bother talking about It.
I would like to see the original quote for that.
Without him saying outright that he expects his policy prescriptions to be enacted via miracle, I think it’s uncharitable to assume that was what he was expecting.
You think its uncharitable to presume that his beliefs about the nature of humanity, society, and the cosmos affect his understanding of what is or is not practical?
The worst part is that you flat out quoted all his stuff about Christianity not yet having truly been tried, and you still make this comment? Why do you think he believes that argument made sense? Its because he believes in the transformational nature of Christ, yo. Its because he believes that there’s a difference between going through the motions of piety, versus letting God into your heart. He thinks critics of the medieval system are criticizing the first, when the second is what we need. He isn’t even hiding this. And he’s part of a long intellectual tradition of claiming that a serious distinction between the two exists, and claiming that the latter is both 1) good, 2) transformative, and 3) possible. Its an intellectual tradition that begins as early as the New Testament, or earlier. And we’re supposed to pretend that it doesn’t affect his views on what is or is not practical because he didn’t call down hurricanes to scourge his foes? No.
Hail to you in the victors’ crown
Kaiser of Weltraumische renown
Hail to you lord.
Who broke bitter Moloch’s bars
And commanded us to the stars
Arrayed us with lordly artistry
Hail to you lord!
I find it hard to get through this without any acknowledgment that 1) while some people in, say, 1410 England may have had a higher standard of living (i.e., a yeoman family with a nice cottage in the Cotswalds) than some people in 1910 England (i.e., a laborer in a squalid tenement), on the whole standards of living were almost certainly significantly higher. The Medieval peasant-girl may not have had Theodoric of York telling her to shave her head, but that did not mean she was free of lice, and 2) The population had probably increased by about sevenfold. Even maintaining a 1410 standard of living with a 1410 way of life was improbable. Unless Chesterton wants the population commensurately reduced.
Thanks for mentioning this. There’s a tendency to get a bit into the weeds because there’s a sort of base assumption that modernity is okay, and we go from there… but at the same time, it can make the comments section look like a very, very strange place if no one bothers to point out the obvious.
I’m on the fence about this – see for example the trajectory of recent happiness levels in China
” Even maintaining a 1410 standard of living with a 1410 way of life was improbable.”
I don’t see any suggestion in Chesterton’s writing that he proposed going back to medieval technology, only to something more like medieval social institutions. That would certainly be consistent with growing potatoes and maize, neither of which was available in England in 1410, and probably with doing most of the other things that allowed England to feed considerably more people in 1910 than in 1410.
Further, if Chesterton didn’t appreciate the increase in standard of living from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, he was not alone in that error. Take a look at Engels’ description of the idyllic life of the English peasantry at some intermediate point.
“They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which, in itself, was recreation for them . . . they were ‘respectable’ people, good husbands and fathers, led moral lives because they had no temptation to be immoral, there being no groggeries or low houses in their vicinity, and because the host, at whose inn they now and then quenched their thirst, was also a respectable man, usually a large tenant farmer who took pride in his good order, good beer, and early hours. They had their children the whole day at home and brought them up in obedience and the fear of God. . . . The young people grew up in idyllic simplicity and intimacy with their playmates until they married.”
There was quite a widespread belief that standards of living had gone down during the 19th century, when pretty clearly they had gone up.
This was my favorite Chesterton besides his two great biographies of St Francis and St Thomas. In my early twenties I really got wraped up in his distributive ideas “Flee to the Fields”, “The Rural Sulution” type ideas. Now I see many of these ideas as a kind of poetry a way of cultivating a kind of wholesome imagination that helps me recognize the correct goals. Your last line makes me think of “A Cantical for Lebowitz”
>As the book was at least in part a polemic against a position that no longer seems to exist, one that barely even seems to have any cladistic descendents, I’m not really sure what to make of it.
Its progeny does exist, and is generally labeled “techno-utopianism” by its detractors and “the implementation of obvious good ideas” by its adherents.
“Its progeny does exist, and is generally labeled “techno-utopianism” by its detractors and “the implementation of obvious good ideas” by its adherents.”
So the glorious author himself?
The Billinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, and similar large money-movers would be more relevant examples.
Eh, there’s a superficial resemblance, in that “tell lots of people to use bed nets and eliminate malaria” sounds like “make lots of people get haircuts and eliminate lice”, but there’s an element of compulsion which is missing, and also the element of “we should run all of society this way”.
Pretty sure even Chesterton wouldn’t have found a way to be against bed net distribution.
There’s also the issue that simply “redistributing” property does not actually eliminate poverty; if there is a scarcity of a resource, changing who owns it doesn’t magically conjure more of it into existence.
There aren’t currently very many resources which are nearly exhausted. Water, and oil are arguably so. But desalinization theoretically solves the first problem, and ethanol the second. Even without such efforts, your statement is false in many cases. For example, there’s already enough food on the planet for everyone to avoid starvation. There is a lot of unused land in the United States.
Scarcity can’t be gotten rid of, true. But poverty can – though attempting to do so through simple redistribution is probably a bad idea, it’s at least hypothetically possible.
Ethanol can hardly solve the problem (I live in one of the ethanol capitols of the US, and the industry is nowhere near solving our oil problem- or will it be, ever.)
But the good news is that known reserves of oil are massive and will last long past our natural lives even at current usage rates. We could not make a single new oil discovery (which won’t happen- new ones are made all the time) and existing reserves would last until the early 22nd century.
Ethanol certainly doesn’t solve oil. Fossil fuels built industrial civilisation and in the US at least ethanol is a straight up abomination. The oil (energy) used to fuel the nitrogen fixation to make the fertiliser to grow the grain to make the ethanol results in less energy than just straight up burning the oil.
Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is better but it certainly isn’t replacing oil either. I used to think that solar or wind might eventually work but knowing about Denmark and Germany made me more sceptical. (Because solar and wind are unreliable you build coal or nuclear as the base or backup. Given the political untouchability of nuclear advocating renewables just gives you more coal.) Recently I’ve been reading some commentary on “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuel” and it’s making me even more sceptical.
Nuclear power ueber alles!
I agree ethanol cannot pragmatically/realistically solve the problem. However, if we’re postulating large transfers of wealth, then I think ethanol can solve the problem in the abstract.
No one would be able to use it casually. But we’d have enough that no one needs to live in impoverished conditions, although doing so might mean we no longer have enough of it to use it for luxuries.
Curse you cookie monster!
Assuming a yield of 183 bushels of corn per acre (which is to say, a record yield for Iowa), times the total arable land in the world (in 2008 per Wikipedia, 3.4 billion acres) gets you less than 630 billion bushels of corn. 3 gallons of ethanol/bushel is a higher-than-average yield for corn, so call it 1.9 trillion gallons of ethanol from dedicating all the farmland in the entire world to the task.
World petroleum fuels consumption is about 1.4 trillion gallons/year gasoline equivalent.
So, maybe ethanol can theoretically solve the problem, if you assume you can make it (rather than food for consumption by humans) the primary product of a worldwide industrialized agricultural effort, and are willing to have the whole world limited to the average level of current consumption.
Aiui, ethonal is useful for making a fuel that can be used by existing gasoline engines. But “world petroleum fuels consumption” is not all in the form of gasoline. Some less portable applications can be filled by other sources: solar, wind, etc. Is someone using ‘ethanol’ as a generic term covering these also?
It’s true that “world petroleum fuels consumption” is not all in the form of gasoline. That’s why you have to use the petroleum fuels number — because there’s massive amounts of diesel and kerosne used as transportation fuel that you also have to replace if you’re not using petroleum for fuel.
It is true that some of that is used in less portable applications, but only a relatively small fraction; your back-of-envelope numbers wind up far further from “replace petroleum use in transportation” by using gasoline consumption than petroleum fuels consumption.
If you like, you can work the numbers with substituting biodiesel for diesel, ethanol for gasoline, and assuming other fuel petroleum is replaced by efficiencies in things like eliminating home heating oil use of diesel; last time I did that, I wound up using more land than under the ethanol-for-all estimate.
Corn ethanol sucks, but sugarcane ethanol and second generation technologies make things more viable than that.
Nth generation technology can be a big factor. X BTU from a heat pump takes less power than X BTU from an oil burning furnace. Better tech for power storage can make a difference GKC would like: every man with his own vine, figtree, windmill, and spinning wheel for a cash craft.
Yes, cane ethanol in places where you can grow cane is better than corn ethanol from Iowa. And, on the other hand, corn ethanol from Iowa is better than what you’re going to extract from sugar cane in Iowa, or any crop of any kind in Manitoba. As input for an estimate of how much ethanol you can extract from the entire arable land of the Earth, I’d expect the corn-in-Iowa number to be rather closer than the sugarcane-in-Brazil.
What? If a few people have way more than the poverty line, then redistributing property actually could end poverty. I’m not sure what your saying.
Of course that is much easier said than done.
Except that there’s such a thing as diminishing returns.
You have to spend money to make money, so it ends up relatively concentrated in the hands of elites; but giving elites vast amounts of resources doesn’t produce similarly-vast amounts of utility.
To give an insultingly clear example: if you don’t have enough food to feed everyone on your lifeboat, the solution is not to force-feed a single individual all of it. If one person has all the food, taking it and redistributing it will reduce poverty, even if that person does not have enough food to feed everyone.
Sorry, that was me.
There is, and even was in 1910, plenty of property that it would be sensible to redistribute enough that it could eliminate many forms of poverty. We don’t need to conjure more stuff into existence, we need a fairer distribution of what there is.
If poverty is defined as “people with less than $10000”, then redistributing resources can *definitely* eliminate poverty. You can’t change the mean, but you can sure as heck change the median.
“If poverty is defined as “people with less than $10000″, then redistributing resources can *definitely* eliminate poverty. ”
Redistributing income to make all incomes equal, assuming it could be done costlessly, would by that standard make poverty universal, since the average world income is less than $10,000.
And that’s ignoring the fact that, in order to get the money into the hands of the really poor, much of it would have to flow through the hands of the kleptocrats currently ruling them, and would mostly stick.
One possibly relevant factoid for those who want to eliminate world poverty. Since Mao’s death, the real per capita income of China has gone up about twenty fold. That’s a reduction in world poverty that dwarfs anything likely to be done via income redistribution. A reduction achieved by (among other things) abandoning an ideology that preached the virtue of income equality.
The one thing that the developed countries of the world could do that would significantly reduce world poverty would be to open their borders to immigrants from the third world. Dropping trade restrictions—for instance the European barriers to the import of agricultural crops (and the U.S. to the import of sugar) would help too.
Hint hint: you either apply the same standards of correlation vs. causation to China’s trends in LIFE EXPECTANCY (and immediately print out a small poster of Mao to hang on your wall, presumably)… or you downgrade your confidence!
According to the World Bank, China’s life expectancy has gone up a bit over 9 years since Mao’s death. https://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=sp_dyn_le00_in&idim=country:CHN:USA:IND&hl=en&dl=en
I recently discovered this blog, and I first wanted to say how much I appreciate and enjoy your writing and depth of thought. Secondly, I want to confess that I am a very religious Christian and acknowledge that my bias tends in that direction.
You have many valid and insightful critiques of Chesterton. However, I’d like to push back on two points.
1) I find merit to Chesterton’s critique of feminism, while I still strongly disagree with his solution to send women back into the home. I think feminism has indeed failed to adequately value the strengths that are culturally/historically associated with women, and this lack has hindered the movement. The first wave of women who entered the workforce HAD to play by the men’s rules, and I am very thankful that they had the courage and strength to do so. Yet, in my own life, I’m frustrated to be entering a still-male-dominated field, and still being expected to play by the men’s rules. I don’t think that our culture will be effective in removing the glass ceiling until the workplace has changed to better accommodate the confidence styles, etc., more prevalent among women. In other words, I think women would be well served if there was more emphasis on promoting collaboration and communication skills among men, and not just promoting confidence and executive leadership skills among women. I see Chesterton’s comments, while obviously misdirected, as exhibiting great foresight.
2) Describing a utopia is valid in its own right as a means to inspire others to work towards that goal in their own lives. Further, if you believe in an almighty God who acts in the world, and if you believe that that God chooses to use human beings to accomplish his plans, it is not totally unreasonable to expect miraculous results through inspirational literature.
I see Chesterton as claiming that certain spheres, such as politics or the business world, intrinsically require male values and perspectives, and that for women to join those spheres is for them to abandon their very femininity. This is practically the opposite of your view. I think he would disagree very much with the idea that businessmen or politicians need to behave more like women traditionally do. Men should behave like men and women like women. You’re claiming both should behave like both. You’re trying very hard to find value in a pile of dirt.
I disagree that there is not an emphasis on teaching collaboration and communication skills, also. I see all kinds of books on how business people should do that. The emphasis on teaching women leadership skills is more gender specific, but I think that this is mainly because efforts have not been very successful at increasing female representation as top executives, not because communication is a devalued skill.
Regarding 2, I think that Chesterton’s analysis is unfair even when taking this into account. Chesterton considers the ways in which a miraculously cooperative conservative society would fix the problems in the world. But he fails to extend the courtesy by considering how a miraculously cooperative progressive society might function. That’s some very transparently biased reasoning.
I don’t think that Chesterton would agree with me either. Yet, I think Chesterton WAS picking up on a real issue. Honestly, I think that feminism may have achieved more success if they had been able to effectively respond to his critique, namely, if feminists had attempted to re-value traits traditionally assigned to women. I believe that Chesterton and I are agreed that both “spheres” of work are valuable, but this is message is often lost in feminist rhetoric–to the damage of the movement.
To your second paragraph: I specifically mean teaching men communication and collaboration skills with gender issues in mind. The status associated with “collaborates well” is still much, much less than “leads well” (at least in my own circles), and I think this is a problem.
And finally, as this review also noted, Chesterton didn’t include “and this is how we should fix it” in the title. Inspiration divorced of function/logistics can still provide sufficient purpose for writing.
I think feminists to a large degree have attempted to promote values that have traditionally belonged to women, in addition to attempting to get women in spheres that have traditionally belonged to men. I suppose you might think they didn’t try hard enough, though, which is reasonable.
I agree leaders are valued more than good communicators. However, I’m uncertain why you think we ought to value leadership and good communication skills equally. It seems reasonable to me that leadership is held in greater esteem than cooperativeness, because being a leader is intrinsically to have high status, only one person can be a leader while being cooperative or highly communicative is something multiple people in a group can do.
I agree that a discussion of utopian ideal end states can be valuable. However, it seems to me like we should compare one utopian vision to another, rather than compare one utopia to one pragmatic plan. The parts of Chesterton’s utopia that seem inspirational to me are the parts that involve miracles, not the parts that involve conservativism. So he’s not really accomplishing anything with his arguments, even by your standard.
Yes, you’re right, I don’t think feminists have tried hard enough.
I would push back to your second point, though–I do think one person can facilitate collaboration, and one person can also destroy it. Collaboration can make a team be more effective than it would otherwise be–even in the absence of a charismatic leader. I would argue that status should go to highly functioning, collaborative teams–and not just to successfully leading individuals.
I can see where you’re coming from on the miracles thing. Your comment makes me realize that I am most inspired by Chesterton exactly where you are–on the parts that involve miracles. As a person of faith, I feel inspired to reassess how my faith impacts my view of the world. Thanks for pointing this out.
I think your chosen example is a false dichotomy. In my experience “leadership” is considered a strict superset of “collaboration.” In that regard, the higher status afforded to “leads well” is a natural consequence of possessing a mastery of a larger problem domain.
Then perhaps this is context dependent. As a grad student, those who lead are often poor at collaborating.
Speaking of transparently biased reasoning… You’re taking a treatise over 100 years old, and interpreting it in the most “modern and progressive” of ways — ways that would have been utterly alien to any and all of Chesterton’s contemporaries. What Chesterton was suggesting, at the time, was a “cooperative progressive society”; “progressive” in one possible manifestation of the term, as the term was then understood.
I love Chesterton, but I recognise when he’s wrong. Oddly, I think he’s wrong about feminism, but right in some things – when equality was demanded, it was and is on the terms of women fitting into the world of work as it is constituted for men (on the model of men having wives who would be taking up the slack on the domestic front).
So things like “work-life balance” sound great, but the fact of the matter is that still, to advance in a career, you need to be present, you need to put in the hours, you can’t be taking time off for your non-work needs. And as I’ve banged on here before, that means in practice that married men rely on their wives to do the whole ‘running the house/making the doctor’s appointments/looking after the kids’ bit while the man works at his fulltime job.
But for working women? They get to work during the day, then add in more work around that. You see the argument in the whole “is there or isn’t there a gendered wage gap?”, where it’s put forward that one reason women earn less for like work is that they prefer to work part-time or flexi hours, take time off to go off and have babies, don’t ‘lean in’ to their careers. And why do women prefer part-time hours? Because they’re still juggling being the primary child minders, caretakers of elderly/sick relatives, doing the extra-curricular things for the kids’ activities; John can’t bring Susie to the train station for her train back to college because his job requires him to go back and check in at eight p.m. so Alice takes a half-day to leave work, collect Susie, drop her off to the train station, pick up Tommy from Cubs, get home and get the evening meal on… I see my married colleagues doing this every day.
We’re still fighting for a ‘work to live, not live to work’ world. Women coming into the workforce were expected to take on the attributes and practices already there; “work” was defined, even by the early feminists, as “paid employment outside the home” so that “housewife” meant “I don’t work, I’m a housewife” and although there was a genuinely toxic notion of “the perfect wife and mother” that needed to be refuted (the ‘keep young and beautiful/it’s your duty to be beautiful’ notion of the woman subordinating everything to make the perfect household for the Man of the House), the backlash to that was the opposite swing of the pendulum: ‘women’s work’ was work of no value, anyone could be a child minder and house keeper, if you were a ‘stay at home mom’ you were wasting your education and a traitor to the cause.
Women coming into the workforce should have changed society vastly more than it did. In that, Chesterton had a point: women did accept the masculine model as the model of emulation.
I think its worth noting that that particular model of feminity and masculinity is in part a product of the industrial age, as much as the other way around. Middle-class early and pre-industrial work was often a cooperative family affair, as was a lot of agriculture life (think of your no-nonense physically active farmer woman (or maybe this is an aussie thing?)). Of course, there was still a significant division of labour within the family, so it was hardly a egalatarian utopia some feminists would wish for. But I don’t think there was a constant “woman in the home, men away earning the cash” roles throughout history as traditionalists like to believe. Before industrialism, almost EVERYBODY’s place was in the home (or nearby), because that’s where work happened.
I’m no reactionary, but it does makes we wonder just a little if a part of the art of being a father was lost as part of this change.
You’re characterizing the situation as though women are forced into being the primary care givers. But I think it’s largely the consequence of their own choices. Their choices are presumably influenced by culture to some degree. However, I don’t think it’s bad that people act on the values their culture has instilled in them. I think cultural values are a rich source of meaning within people’s lives.
I agree it would be good if our culture’s values changed over time to make it more acceptable for men to be the primary caregiver. However, this is already happening to a large degree, and accelerating this process significantly seems very difficult. I don’t know how it would be done, but I suspect that characterizing women’s choices in the way you have here is likely to be counterproductive.
In the long run, it seems unlikely to me that women and men will ever be equally likely to stay at home to raise children, given cultural inertia, small biological predispositions, and the path-dependency of historical change. But that seems perfectly fine to me. What’s needed is not an equality of outcomes, but greater tolerance for those making atypical choices.
I agree with you whole-heartedly. I would argue that, to balance out women’s increased efforts in the work force, men should invest increased efforts at home. Male and female perspectives at work add value, and mothers and fathers at home add value. Women won’t be able to be invested in their careers until their partners are invested in supporting them at home. (I agree with 27chaos that this will not, in an ideal case, result in equality of outcomes.)
That just seems like a recipe for bed death, and bed death takes away value — both for the obvious reason and because it will likely lead to divorce.
If complete sexual satisfaction is your sole requirement for a working marriage, then you and I have disagreements that run deep.
Lots of things are more important to me than sexual satisfaction. Equality between the genders is one of them. I would not marry a man who would not be willing to support my career as much as I would be willing to support his, regardless of how fantastic our sex-life was. Similarly, if a man was great and other regards, I would be willing to marry him even if the sex was a little meh.
To more directly respond to your comment: Recent scientific studies support the idea that diversity increases the likelihood of successful outcomes. Children who have two involved parents are more likely to feel secure and succeed in life.
It seems to me like it would lead to the opposite of bed death. If people had better work-life balances they’d be less exhausted and more likely to have sex.
And I wouldn’t marry a woman who wanted to let our children be raised by the government (and whatever after-school programs there may be) in order to spend ten hours a day in an office surrounded by high-status men with the testosterone boost of authority for little practical benefit.
(Only the last objection applies to working for the federal government, of course. But I grew up in the DC area, and no way in hell would I ever subject any children I’ll have to that. It is very educational — you learn a lot of things that they’ll never acknowledge in Massachusetts — but it’s also a violent and atomized cesspool. Then again, so is Massachusetts.)
(How do I intend to make that financially possible? Well, there’s little practical benefit, but also, note that 23% increase in home entertainment. If you know you’re not going to have a TV, a DVD player, or Netflix — and I do in fact know that — then that’s some money saved. And if you don’t have to buy restaurant food or TV dinners because someone in the house can cook, that’s even better. Then again, I was raised on fast food and TV dinners because my parents not only didn’t have time to cook, but also don’t know how.)
“Diversity” is a buzzword here. (More precisely, an ideograph or applause light; the words are the same except in their exosemantics.) Is there any conceivable situation (other than an ethnography of Western blue-tribe culture) where using it would clarify anything, instead of attributing positive valence to whatever it’s applied to?
Both of my parents worked full-time jobs. I didn’t have two involved parents — I had zero.
This argument might apply if the parents both work fewer than 40 hours a week, but how likely or financially possible is that?
How is it a better work-life balance for both parents to put in work both at the office and at home?
Whether or not female perspectives at work add value to the economy (and even if they do in the abstract, given the view of humans and human society as a set of computers, where you can modify one value while holding everything else constant, they’re not likely to in the real world, where actions have consequences), mothers at home subtract value from the family. That’s the whole point of the two-income trap: the benefits are small enough (“of the $30,000 Mom takes home, $20,000 gets spent on costs relating to Mom having a job – meaning that Mom’s $30,000 job only brings in $10,000 in extra money”) that it’s easy for the costs to outweigh them.
Think of it this way. If both parents work, it’s harder to homeschool. If you can’t homeschool, your children will be raised by the state (which is bad) and you’ll have to either put them in private school (which is expensive), pay extra to get into an area with good schools since just about every non-monetary way of filtering out the sorts of people who make schools bad is illegal (which is expensive), or let them rot in a public school in a cheap area (which is bad).
If you don’t take the bad choice, you have to take one of the expensive ones, but the two-income trap means it’s hard for the mother to add value by working, so the father has to sacrifice his ability to take a less stressful/time-consuming job with lower pay, which means he’s likely to be under more stress. And the mother is spending eight (or more) hours at work, along with however many hours her commute takes. And both parents still have to manage the household.
However you envision the division of household labor, there’s still an additional >8 hours of work being put in per day, which is necessarily a worse work-life balance unless you think participating in a homeschooling group is more exhausting than a full-time office job with a commute.
If you assume that both parents are going to be working full-time, distributing household work will move around some effort, which could have the effect you’re talking about. But there’s no reason to assume that both parents are going to be working full-time.
nydwracu, it seems like you had a very unhappy childhood, and much of the sorrow of that came from having two parents who were more invested in their careers than in their child. I am very sorry that that was your experience, and I hope you are able to make a better life for your own children/family.
Ach that last anon was me. I keep forgetting to re-type my info!
I had two full time-working parents who entrusted much of my parenting to the state and didn’t come off that much worse. Of course, it seems like our individual circumstances differed a bit, for one thing my parents hired an elderly neighbor to watch us after school so we didn’t have to rely on after-school programs until they got home. And they were sure to make time for us occasionally. (Were you an only child? I suppose having your parents out might be lonelier without siblings?)
But overall, I did not find the state to be that bad a parent. All my teachers were nice and liked me. A lot of my fellow students were mean, but I mostly ignored them, or got the teachers to punish them for bothering me.
I would seriously recommend considering the possibility that your negative experiences were unique to you, and not a symptom of a larger sickness in the system.
That doesn’t seem like an efficient way to save money. I suppose you can just watch everything streaming from your computer, but it costs nearly nothing to get a TV and a DVD player from a thrift shop. You don’t need to buy DVDs, most public libraries have a decent selection. I’d estimate the cost at less than $60 total, and you probably wouldn’t have to replace them for five years. You could get a lot of entertainment out of a tiny investment.
Trust me, you don’t want to be the parent who doesn’t let their kids watch TV. I’ve met kids who suffered through that, it’s sad and depressing. Television is incredibly good at expanding your imagination and horizons, and it gives you a common topic to socialize with other people. My own parents made some attempts to control my media intake, but luckily I was smart enough to evade them most of the time. Parents should never be allowed to control what their children read an watch, I’d actually advocate legislation forcing them to give their children enough money to buy their own media if such legislation was politically feasible.
This, incidentally, is another good reason to have children partially raised by the state. It limits the parents’ ability to control their children’s access to the wider culture. Children get exposed to viewpoints their parents don’t want them to. I’d say that alone is worth the problems state education causes.
” …worth the problems state education causes. ”
I’ll say this; you are extremely thorough in pushing all the buttons.
Personally, I agree with nydwracu’s take on govornment schooling and television / mass media, though not gender roles and such. People will almost always influence children to become the kind of adults who benefit the infuencers: I want my children to be smart, strong, ethical, skeptical, and effective in pursuing their goals, because having very well developed and successful offspring is in my interests. Meanwhile, the state wants docile subjects, and the media wants enthusiastic consumers.
Even if the ideals esposed my me versus those of the state/media were different, my interests coincide more closely with those of my children than the interests of some entertainer or civil servant who has never met them and will never care one whit what happens to them except in some very abstracted happy-talk way.
I believe that my children would, if able to make a fully informed choice, choose to become the sort of people that I hope for them to be, not the vision for their future that the state and the media have. My evidence for this is that the traits I will try to help them develop are those that I would like more of myself. If you want to say that this is pathetic “living through my children” then so be it; why would some TV writer be more right in doing so?
I’ve met a lot of people who went to public school and wish they hadn’t, and a lot more people who went to public school and hated it. I’ve never met anyone who was homeschooled and regretted it. One of my cousins (or maybe a son of a family friend; this was a long time ago) was homeschooled and wanted to go to public school, but was went back to homeschooling after a year.
A lot of my teachers were incompetent, in one case to the point of being actively malicious to people who knew the material better than she did. I only had four teachers in eleven years who I liked, and one of them could barely teach because his (honors) class was full of human trash.
Yeah, like the viewpoint that their race is evil and uncool, or the viewpoint that rebelling against their family is just what children do.
I obviously can’t pin the sex-and-drugs stuff on children’s TV or whatever — that problem lies elsewhere in the culture — but one thing I can fault the media for is providing a view of social scripts that doesn’t match up at all with reality. If you grew up in the ’90s, you remember all that shit about jocks and nerds and cool kids and uncool kids and uncool kids pining hopelessly after some random girl because that’s just What Is Done and crazy goths with fucked-up home lives and whatever, and none of that shit had anything to do with reality.
(Once I become king of the galaxy, I’m at least banning romance movies. Speaking of unrealistic scripts.)
“Trust me, you don’t want to be the parent who doesn’t let their kids watch TV.”
Our children were raised without television—but with lots of books and unlimited computer access. It wasn’t a problem, neither of them resented it, and they turned out just fine.
I’d go even further than you. It’s not just that women trying to enter the workforce are forced to play by men’s rules, and that traditionally female rules might be beneficial there (though that’s certainly true), but also that the focus on letting women into traditionally male spheres of enterprise and politics does, in some ways, mean a devaluing of the traditionally female spheres of homemaking and childcare (which are still necessary and still mostly fall on women). But Chesterton comes to the conclusion that everything should just go back to the way it was, before women starting valuing men’s sphere. Which is to say, women should get back out of his sphere. Which is precisely the problem: you don’t see Chesterton volunteering to go into the kitchen or the nursery to pick up the slack, as if he thinks that the women’s sphere is ACTUALLY valuable.
And, of course, his solution does nothing to actually address the concerns of the suffragettes (or indeed admit that they might have valid concerns at all) regarding already existing disparities between the men’s roles and women’s roles.
Yes, I agree with you. While I think Chesterton was able to see outside of his own culture well in some ways, he was blinded by other things–such as his total lack of consideration that men might do ‘women’s’ work.
His point would be that, if a woman was not as well fitted to do ‘men’s’ work yet that did not devalue ‘men’s work’, men were not as well fitted to do ‘women’s work’ but that did not devalue ‘women’s work’.
The problem is that we have been indoctrinated to value paid work; if someone asks you “What’s your job?” and you say “I volunteer at the Animal Shelter”, “Oh, so you work there as – what?” “No, I don’t get paid, I do it for nothing!”, then that’s not acceptable. If you’re unemployed, you need to be actively seeking for work. If you have independent means, that’s fine, but when are you going to get a proper job?
And because women’s domestic work was traditionally unpaid, you see still the lack of status accorded it; the complaining about the cost of childminding – because if it’s a reputable nursery it will pay its staff appropriate wages because it’s a job, but the unconscious assumption is that ‘this is taking care of babies, women naturally take care of babies, they should be doing it much cheaper because it’s not a real job’ permeates the debate, besides the fact that yes, child care is expensive.
But because Granny or Aunt Jane or the neighbours’ teenage daughter babysit for us for nothing or a much lower rate, we have the expectation that trained childcare workers (and yes, by law, you have to be trained) should also be doing it for sub-industrial wages because it’s ‘women’s work’, unlike if those same women were working on a packing line in a pharmaceutical plant.
I think there’s another side to the complaints about the cost of childcare– it’s noticing that people with ordinary incomes can’t afford it if they pay for it themselves, which is unsurprising if people who do childcare are to have ordinary incomes.
I’ve wondered whether making income from childcare untaxed would be enough to solve the problem. Or enough to help?
I’m reminded of the bit from Ethan of Athos (anyone have the quote handy!) about child care costing half the planetary product if you do the accounting honestly.
“Who takes care of the nanny’s children?” is another way of phrasing the problem.
“Who takes care of the nanny’s children?” has an intertemporal answer: people work as nannies at an age before they have children, in a university town it’s perfectly sustainable for the children of faculty to be looked after in the long vacation by a succession of undergraduates who (at least for the ones who looked after me) tended then to go off to terrifyingly high-powered legal jobs in Singapore
I really appreciate this point. I have often thought about the wages of teachers and the resultant status associated with education, but of course this same argument is even more applicable for stay-at-home moms.
> Which is to say, women should get back out of his sphere. Which is precisely the problem: you don’t see Chesterton volunteering to go into the kitchen or the nursery to pick up the slack, as if he thinks that the women’s sphere is ACTUALLY valuable.
That doesn’t actually follow. He seems to believe that “men” and “women” are sharp-edged categories with consistent distinction in which tasks they are effective at. It’s perfectly coherent based on this to believe that women’s work is valuable but men shouldn’t attempt it. These beliefs are empirically false, but they are internally consistent.
What fixed a lot of Chesterton’s pressure on women was the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner: a house not requiring a full-time housewife to keep it in a state where the children living there don’t have lice breaks his chain.
The particular passages here also show Chesterton’s to-modern-eyes weird focus on taverns; temperance was a very live issue when he was writing, and his unexamined assertion that politics requires pubs now reads very oddly.
Never heard of the smoke-filled back rooms? And if you think modern politics is out of the boozer, you’ve never heard of the Doheny and Nesbitt School of Economics.
“Never heard of the smoke-filled back rooms?”
Ah, you and Chesterton aren’t being old-fashioned at all – just British!
in the US, at least, that phenomenon is consigned to history; the sinister back rooms are full of non-smoking teetotalers.
In the U.S., some of the sinister back rooms are prayer breakfasts.
You’d be surprised, Anon. Almost every financier I know likes hard liquor and cigars…
… though not in the boardroom.
^ basically this.
“If you believe in an almighty God who acts in the world, and if you believe that that God chooses to use human beings to accomplish his plans, it is not totally unreasonable to expect miraculous results through inspirational literature.”
Even if you buy the Bible, though, God has never performed such a big miracle as revolutionizing a society’s whole way of life. Or at least he hasn’t told us about it.
Given the Bible, I can give you four examples of this interaction from the top of my head. 1) Isreal itself is an example of this, through the revelation to Moses on Mt Sinai. Their way of life was definitely defined by the purity and social laws that came from that interaction. 2) Joseph (of the many-colored coat) saved his family, and Egypt, from famine through the political structures of taxation and resale. 3) The exodus from Egypt as lead by Moses had no less than 10 miraculous signs, and then instigated a transition to a nomadic culture bound with distinct religious expectations. 4) Finally, Jesus (through the movement of Christianity) has totally impacted society, if not the course of human history.
The only one of those that comes close to what you’re after is the Exodus, and even that one is deeply debatable.
You don’t just need people to live their lives the way they did before, but with an added gloss of some new social rules. You need an entirely new social structure. Going from laborers in Egypt to Nomads might, MIGHT count. Maybe. The rest, no.
And the reason the nomads thing might not count is that it didn’t actually overturn THAT much about the way the Israelites lived, except to put them on the top of the heap. They still lived in a worthless, brutal society built on slavery and rape. They just got to be the slavers and rapists, instead of the enslaved and raped.
If the Old Testament law had told a bunch of slavers and rapists to stop doing that, and they had, THAT would be a change that might add up to what Chesterton is after. But even the New Testament shies away from issuing those sorts of orders (admittedly probably not because it endorsed the existing social structure, but rather because millennial fervor made these concerns less relevant given the assumed-to-be impending end of existence). People would have to stop taking pride in the things they used to take pride in, and start valuing entirely new ways of being. But that doesn’t happen easily. About the only thing that’s ever been strong enough to make that happen is capitalism, and it hasn’t always been a pretty sight either.
I think you and I disagree on the impact that religion has had on society. I DO think the OT law resulted in upturning the existing social structures, at least to a given margin. The law was remarkable at the time for the protection for women, orphans, the poor, and sojourners–all ‘civilizing’ steps.
“The law was remarkable at the time for the protection for women, orphans, the poor, and sojourners–all ‘civilizing’ steps.”
Can you provide even the tiniest, slightest, barest evidence for this assertion?
Sojourners, and I think self-explicit: Deut 10:19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Women-specific: Deut 25:5-10 had men marry their brother’s widows and then bear children that would inherit the brother’s name and property. This protected women and provided financial security when they had no other options. Further, the purity laws for menstruating women were actually better than the customs of the era: women were allowed to stay inside the camp, although in a separate tent; this location nearby would also serve as a protection for young virgins (essentially the only population of regularly menstruating women).
And about money: Exodus 22:25 If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. And, similarly, Deut 23:19 Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.
About the poor: Exodus 23:6 Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. And cherry-picking from Leviticus, If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. . . . If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. . . . If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave.
A comparison to other laws of the time (such as the Code of Hammurabi) is harsher on such points than is the Bible. I think these verses do illustrate how the Jewish culture did break from some of the norms of their society–albeit in smallish ways.
I am aware that there are rules in the bible covering these subjects. This is not the same thing as evidence that they were revolutionary improvements in laws compared to contemporaries. North Dakota bans child molestation- the laws are on the books for all to read. This is not evidence that North Dakota invented banning child molestation, or innovated on the subject, or even contributed in any way.
The Code of Hammurabi probably dates to 1700 BC. Deuteronomy probably dates to somewhere around 1400 BC. This is a very loose definition of “contemporary” and not at all supportive of the claim that the Bible innovated.
And I suppose I should toss this out there- the OT also endorses and glorifies rape raiding, and a heck of lot of other similar horrific acts. Which Hammurabi does not. If your evidence supports the conclusion you are offering, this fact would support the opposite conclusion. So before you write, consider what arguments you’d make against what I’ve just said, and apply them to your own position.
Or to take another tact, Egypt was doing better than Israel about a thousand years earlier. Imagine a pro-Egyptian arguing that this shows that the Bible was regressive. How would you respond? Take that response and apply it to whatever argument you intend to offer in favor of the Bible’s alleged innovations.
First of all, thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. I’ve only discussed these ideas with other believers before, and you’re bringing up lots of thoughts I hadn’t previously considered. I’ll need to research a lot of these aspects more in order to come to a solid conclusion for myself.
Secondly, I want to acknowledge that I haven’t studied any of this first-hand, and am definitely relying on facts provided to me by sources I trust. If I say something in error, please attribute that to my own failures in memory. I feel like this conversation is getting beyond my approaching the ends of my understanding (especially in regards to other laws of that time period). Yet, I’d like to respond to two of your points.
1. The idea that the Bible glorifies horrific acts. I can see where you get this; there are lots of nasty things in the Bible. Yet, I believe that the Bible fails to glorify these acts, but instead is describing what happened, as well as the consequences associated with that. I have the hardest time using this line of reasoning for the times when Israel received a direct command from God to go to war; in those instances, my understanding is that the evil transpiring in some of the other nations was so horrific, that God used these wars as a way to bring justice to the oppressed. Yet, I still have a hard time with those passages, and I acknowledge that I wouldn’t read them so graciously if I wasn’t a Christian, so I get where you’re coming from.
2. I wonder on what categories Egypt was doing better. This is definitely an area in which my information isn’t stellar, but I did believe that the poor in Egypt were horribly oppressed, including the people of Israel themselves, while the pharaohs lived in luxury. For example, Pharaoh ordered the murder of all Israelite newborn sons. Personally, I think that’s “worse”.
The Bible doesn’t just include commands from God telling the Israelites to go to war. It gives detailed instructions on the ritual purification that female teenage captives are to be put through before being distributed to the soldiers for sexual use. These are referenced in multiple places, and the use of these rules is part of the assumed cultural background of the stories in the Bible. Why was it that the tribe of Benjamin had no women after it was raided by the rest of Israel? Because women were to be murdered or raped, leaving them unfit for the surviving Benjamite men. Why was the solution for the tribe of Benjamin’s lack of women an instruction that they should go raid a neighboring village? Because that was how you got women- you killed people and stole the girls. Moses orders it at times, the laws of Moses give direction on how to go about doing it, passages in the Bible celebrating and thanking God for military victory crow about the thousands of virgin girls captured in battle- endorsement of this practice, and pride in succeeding at this practice, is woven inextricably into the fabric of the OT.
Additionally- I am glad that those passages give you trouble as a Christian.
I understand that the Bible clearly states that Israel’s neighbors were so incredibly horrible that the only possible solution was to cleanse the place with fire, killing every last man, woman, and child residing within- even the babies being so morally tainted that slaughter is the only solution. And I’ve probably read the same Christian apologists as you, the ones who point out that IF you begin with the assumption that this was true, THEN you can rationally justify the genocides described. But that’s a pretty mighty “if.” The entire history of human experience tells us one simple fact- when a group of people brutally slaughter an entire city, nation, race, or culture, women, children, babies and all, and then turn around and tell the rest of us that the people they just killed were really evil and had it coming, THEY’RE LYING. This has happened hundreds of times in human history, and never once has the casus belli been real.
I have the urge to go on here because I think the dynamic that keeps you from seeing this clearly is one of the primary ways that Christianity ruins Christians. But I don’t know how else to effectively express this without spending paragraphs on it, other than to just say the above.
As for Egypt- the point of mentioning Egypt wasn’t to hold it up as a model of perfection, but rather to simply note that for about a thousand years before the Israelites came up with their putatively innovative moral rules, Egypt was letting women have jobs, hold public office, and so on. They weren’t equal with men by modern standards, but in comparison with Leviticus they were doing darned well. Egypt had a thriving middle class in a lot of eras, and their women had quite a few rights that even the Bible doesn’t offer them. And while being poor in Egypt sucked, its worth remembering that being poor in Israel sucked too. Israel had slavery by capture, slavery as a means of settling debts, sexual access to female slaves as a default rule, etc. All the usual trappings of a slave society. So I’m not sure whether this can support your comparison.
As for the part with Egypt killing the Israelite children, that’s probably just a story, of course. It reads like a fairy tale, and from a literary analysis perspective I think it’s fair to conclude that it is one. But if you take it as a given that it actually happened, it still won’t help your argument. You’re making comparison between Israel and Egypt, remember? And if you take these stories at face value, Israel put a LOT of babies to the sword. That was standard Israelite war policy. If anything, Egypt is ahead in this comparison for just doing it once.
I just found a very nice I-Hate-The-Bible website and read through their listing of passages where God endorsed rape. I have to say that none of them seemed to be a slam-dunk for your argument. Perhaps, this is because I have been indoctrinated in far-reaching methods of exegesis. However, all of them seem to be painting either a) how Moses/Israel raped women on their own apart from God’s will or b) how men were told they could marry women as spoils of war (which perhaps you’re saying is still rape? That might be true, but I see a different intent here because the impression is that the women would become part of the household instead of used as some sort of one-time-thing, and the culture of the day didn’t give women much choice in who they married regardless). I can see that my interpretations are not necessarily obvious or straight-forward, and I am certainly in no position to back any of this up. I’m not home right now, but when I get back, I will definitely discuss these issues with people more knowledgeable than myself.
Exegesis seems to be playing an important role in this conversation, so I’d like to try to briefly explain how I read the Bible and why. I think that the Scriptures were written by people, using their understanding, their language, and their culture. The Bible is highly contextualized. For reasons that are beyond me, God has chosen to continually reveal himself more fully throughout history, as can be seen through the gradual increase of revelation seen in the story arch of the Biblical narrative. Much of the OT was written well after the historical events transpired, and so while I think that the stories are true, I think they’re true in the same sense the stories I would tell you about my great-great-great grandmother are true. The general gist is gonna be OK, but all of the facts and details will be totally screwed up. Yet, God was active in what was recorded (also in a way that I don’t understand) so that the Scriptures can effectively reveal to future generations who he is and who we are. So, in that sense, I see it as possible (and not faith-threatening) that the Israelites mis-remembered/altered the factual history of the wars. To me, the important truth is something along the lines that: there were battles, Israel was attempting to be faithful to God, God brought justice to nations, Israel screwed up over and over again, and yet God remained faithful to his people.
I’d like to ask you more about this comment in your response:
>> I have the urge to go on here because I think the dynamic that keeps you from seeing this clearly is one of the primary ways that Christianity ruins Christians. But I don’t know how else to effectively express this without spending paragraphs on it, other than to just say the above.
I’m actually really curious to know what you’re talking about here, and I don’t understand it. To be honest, I’m partly curious because I see Christianity as making Christians, not ruining them; I would say in my own life, most of the best things I am/do are directly tied to my being a person of faith. Also, what makes you sure that your own non-Christian perspective isn’t clouding your view as much as my Christian perspective is clouding mine?
My take on this is in the interest of defending Jews and Judaism at the cost of making G-d look bad.
Those atrocities are the result of commands for single occasions, rather than general rules like not working on the Sabbath. Since G-d doesn’t seem to be saying much of anything lately and I doubt there would be agreement if anyone said they were speaking for G-d, I don’t see a significant risk of the same thing happening again.
My not entirely seriously held belief (which is heretical in several directions) is that the G-d of the bible is a small local god who was lying about having created the universe.
You are certainly free to adopt an exegesis that concludes that God’s Law in the Old Testament isn’t exactly from God per se, but rather is from Moses. This is a common apologetic, and I am familiar with it- the usual tactic is to claim that only one of the Biblical massacres explicitly states that it was ordered by God, and to try to hand the rest to Moses and push him under the nearest bus.
But there are two issues you will need to keep in mind.
1. If you adopt this exegetical technique, you don’t get to only apply it to passages you don’t like. That is cheating at exegesis. For example, the laws you were using as support for the thesis that Old Testament law was an improvement for the conditions of the socially vulnerable are similarly situated and similarly vulnerable to your line of reasoning. So whatever conclusion you’re driving at, be aware that it cuts other directions.
2. Your argument was that the Old Testament law was an improvement in treatment of women, the poor, etc. I pointed out that the Old Testament also includes passages instructing people to engage in rape raids, genocides, and touts the casus belli’s used to convince people to commit these atrocities. Arguing that this is really Moses’ fault and not God’s doesn’t deflect this line of attack.
The point about Christianity ruining Christians is simple. If we, as a society, should be able to agree on one moral question and one moral question only, it is that it is bad to gang together, attack a city, murder everyone in it except the girls, and then rape them. And if we should be able to agree on a second thing, it is that if someone finishes doing exactly that and then turns to us blood soaked to tell us that their victims had it coming, we shouldn’t believe them.
Surely history has taught us at least this.
And yet, you wrote:
“1. The idea that the Bible glorifies horrific acts. I can see where you get this; there are lots of nasty things in the Bible. Yet, I believe that the Bible fails to glorify these acts, but instead is describing what happened, as well as the consequences associated with that. I have the hardest time using this line of reasoning for the times when Israel received a direct command from God to go to war; in those instances, my understanding is that the evil transpiring in some of the other nations was so horrific, that God used these wars as a way to bring justice to the oppressed. Yet, I still have a hard time with those passages, and I acknowledge that I wouldn’t read them so graciously if I wasn’t a Christian, so I get where you’re coming from.”
Your position, quoted above, is about the least evil position on this topic popularly found among committed Christians. That’s the only good thing I can say about it, whether morally, or in terms of exegetical value.
For what its worth, the idea that the OT God was a local deity who was kind of a bastard and lied about creating the universe is actually a heresy with a long history behind it. It was popular among some early Christian groups.
Their argument went as follows: Obviously the God of the Old Testament was evil, anyone literate could see that. Yet Jesus was a really nice guy! Jesus’s rules for how we should live were really wonderful, and not at all in character with the monster of the Old Testament. But Jesus said he was sent by God. So what gives? Obviously the “God” in the Old Testament was a fake. There must be a bigger, better God who wasn’t evil- one who was a really nice guy like Jesus. They concluded that there were three supernatural beings at play- Original God, who created everything and is awesome, Fake God who gave us the Old Testament and who lies about being Original God, and Jesus, who came to convince us to stop following Fake God and to start living like Original God wants us to.
It was a handy way to explain one of the fundamental cracks in Christian ideology- the idea that God is constant and unchanging, but the laws of the Old Testament and New Testament are so fundamentally different in moral character.
Anyway they all got murdered for believing that.
Uh, that’s not “protection of women”. That’s “using your brother’s property to continue his lineage”.
Note that the law could say “men have to support their brother’s widows, and may marry them with mutual consent, but any children would be the dead brother’s heirs”. It doesn’t say that. It says, (paraphrased) “take your brother’s widow, and use her to produce heirs for him”.
You’re a woman too, right? Would you be grateful for a law that forced you to have sex with your dead husband’s brother?
>I think women would be well served if there was more emphasis on promoting collaboration and communication skills among men, and not just promoting confidence and executive leadership skills among women.
Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? We don’t make jobs work that way because we have those skills. We learn those skills because they’re what the jobs require.
I don’t necessarily want to defend the commenter’s whole position, but your argument doesn’t hold. There is a difference between “the skills your job requires” and “the skills that will allow you to be successful while holding your particular job.”
For example, few jobs “require” you to be really good at screwing over your coworkers by shifting blame to them for your own failures. But it’s a really good skill to have if you want to be successful.
“Confidence” and “executive leadership skills” may make you, personally, successful. But whether they facilitate the job as a whole is a lot less clear, and most of us have experienced at least one workplace where someone exhibited them in a detrimental manner.
I’m happy to entrust this one to the free market. If e.g. a particular type of training is a practical way to make a company more effective, then eventually it will be stumbled upon and adopted, not because of ideology but because of effectiveness (though by all means conduct ideologically-motivated experiments). But if it doesn’t work, then the effect of making feminist companies do this will be to reduce the number of feminist companies.
Actually, studies have shown that increased communication skills is the best predictor of a team’s success. I agree with Patrick’s comment.
I’ve had a tough time understanding this thread. I may have missed something obvious.
1. What does “confidence styles more prevalent in women” signify? Can you link to an explanation of different styles? I accept there may be more than one style. I just don’t know what that reifies to.
2. I accept that communication skills improve chances of workplace success. But in what way does “promotion of communication skills among men” help women? Can you name examples? Do you specifically mean “promotion of men’s communication skills in dealing with women“? Or just communication skills in general.
3. I’m likely misreading Imm. But what I got out of Imm’s comment was “In the least convenient world, the pursuit of gender equality is orthogonal to the pursuit of workplace success.” So whether promotion of “communication skills among men” increases workplace success (which was your response) shouldn’t necessarily justify whether we ought to promote it.
I.e. if promotion of “communication skills among men” was found to decrease workplace success, would you still advocate such promotion for the sake of gender equality, to the detriment of workplace success? Or would you sacrifice gender equality to the alter of productivity. If the latter makes you frown, you can’t justify gender equality with workplace success in good faith.
4. I’m fine with telling men “don’t be assholes”. But I got negative vibes when the burden of “learning communication skills to the benefit of women” shifted to men. If this is going to be the case, then maybe we should simultaneously encourage women to reciprocally “learn communication skills to the benefit of men”. But maybe your point is that this situation is already the case with the typical Women’s Leadership seminar?
1. Many of my ideas in this area have come from the book, The Confidence Code. http://theconfidencecode.com/ I found this to be a fun an engaging read, and I would recommend it highly.
2. I’m referring to promoting communication skills among men in general, but with an especial emphasis in areas that make it hard for women to engage in the conversation. The two big points are listening and minimizing interruption. Men tend to listen less and interrupt more.
4. Yes, exactly. I think women are ALREADY learning skills to better work with men, but men are behind in learning skills to better work with women. I think these two things should happen in unison.
Link was unhelpful. Next best thing I found was this summary. I was expecting “there exist confidence styles A, B, and C”. What I got was an explanation of imposter syndrome and how women can overcome it. Are you sure the problem lies I’m accommodating differences in confidence style rather than plain underconfidence?
If men behave this way toward men and women equally, shouldn’t this fall under “problems with working with the team”? I don’t why is this framed as a gender problem if the men don’t discriminate who they’re assholes to.
If men behave this way towards women more than men, then why do you not advocate for teaching men how to communicate specifically towards women?
If you think this is a gender issue because (though men may not individually discriminate) men’s incumbent & abrasive attitudes/values are unfairly baked into the system, then what set of attitudes/values along the masculine/feminine scale would you find to be an optimal compromise? (Please don’t take the easy way out and appeal to whatever’s most productive.)
The cookie monster got me.
I meant to refer to the book as a whole, and not the link in specific. I don’t want to cite a shorter article, as my position is actually fairly nuanced. But let me try to summarize here.
I would agree that the values in the system are, as you say, ‘baked’ in a way that favors men. Men are less discouraged by being interrupted, where women will stop trying to talk. This seems to be at least partly attributable to the fact that girls are able to sit still and be ‘good’ at an earlier age than boys, and in our school system, are very highly rewarded for this behavior–and so don’t branch out as much. There also seem to be genetic and parental components as well.
This is further complicated by the fact that women who exhibit traditionally male styles of confidence are less liked by their coworkers, and are less likely to be offered jobs. Yet, women fail to get promoted because they don’t exhibit the same sort of pushy, arrogant confidence of their male counterparts. For women, this is a game of screwed if you do, screwed if you don’t.
The authors of the book interviewed many successful women, and came to the conclusion that women who are perceived as confident and have been successful don’t have the same traits as confidence men. They tend to listen more and talk less. They tend to be secure in owning up to their failures. They tend to be honest and open, vulnerable and present.
I think men should be taught to better recognize this style of confidence and value it when they see it, encourage it in their female peers/subordinates, and work to gain some of these skills when interacting with women. I think that these skills would benefit men in general, but would be especially helpful in dealing with women.
My “optimal compromise” then would not be a one-size-fits all pattern, but would rather have both men and women develop cross-gender strengths to be able to communicate with people of different personalities. Men would be expected to communicate as men, and women would be expected to make allowances for that. Women would be expected to communicate as women, and men would be expected to make allowances for that, too. Everyone would be willing to work together to make sure that everyone was able to contribute to the conversation.
That sounds discriminatory. Society should probably solve this. : (
I still can’t entirely sign onto this. I find it odd how you assert a communication style intrinsically belongs to a certain gender. It seems in this case that being interruptive is a defecting strategy in the prisoners dilemma, that this is the dominant strategy, and women have more of a biased towards the intransitive strategy.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t change this, I’m arguing that a personality issue shouldn’t crusade under the banner of gender. It’s a question of labels. E.g. I might have instead said
Yes, dimorphism is a thing. Yes, it is sad how the workplace’s patriarchal history favors the interruptive. No, I don’t think “femeninity” (rather than shyness) ought to be what men are asked to accomodate (given a world where other forms of discrimination are already solved) because that doesn’t cut reality at the joints.
E.g. as a male who loathes cultural norms where interruption is acceptable, sitting through a hypothetical seminar where my male coworkers and I are told to accommodate “women’s confidence styles” rather than lack of general assertiveness might help the average male coworker, but would only confuse me because “what does that even mean, am I not already maximally accommodating?” and wouldn’t realize that the advice doesn’t actually apply to me because I’m already on the receptive side of the spectrum.
I agree with your comments, and think your wording is better. I didn’t intend to imply an excessive dimorphism, but can see that I didn’t articulate that well.
From an absurdity, one can prove anything.
I really don’t get why you feel the need to call a tenant of one of the world’s major religious “absurd”. Frankly, this offends me. If you have a specific issue with my comment or question you’d like to ask, then I’d be happy to debate you about it–but please don’t assume that everyone who affirms a non-material reality is lesser than atheists/agnostics/etc.
A common trope around here is making beliefs pay rent.
So you believe God exists. Fine. Now what effect do you expect God will have on society through divine inspiration? Improve, devalue, or no effect. By the look of “not totally unreasonable”, it appears you think improve. But consider the contrapositive. Would a 2nd holocaust cause you to even slightly doubt the existence of God? And if you expect God to have little effect, then why bring it up?
What Eli objects to is that the phrase “not totally unreasonable” (evasive double-negative) and an appeal to a deity (inherently nebulous concept) sounds wishy-washy in the same way that phlogiston allowed chemists to rationalize away any flaws in their so called “theory”. From phlogiston, one can explain anything. Through the principle of explosion, one can prove anything. By dividing by zero, one can equal anything (pun intended). This is why falsifiability is so important.
I think that this comparison is inappropriate. Phlogiston was a legitimate scientific hypothesis.
No. That’s how it was eventually falsified.
Damn – I’ve been had! Jimbo says phlogiston theory got funny looks when burning magnesium gained mass. Guess I have to find a better go-to example.
Thanks for the trope link.
I believe that God acts in society to bring all things together for his glory. I do think that is observable, however the timescale is likely to be outside of my lifetime.
But more fundamentally, I do think there are some questions that simply cannot be answered with direct experimentation and observation (including most religious ones). I don’t understand how this fact makes the null hypothesis the default truth.
If your point is simply that these questions are not among the ones that this rationalist community is interested in engaging with, then I understand that, and appreciate the clarification.
On closer inspection, the crux is the word “miracle”.
If you expect a healthier society in a universe with miracles, this exposes you to a hypothetically falsifiable prediction (which most(?) Christians find uncomfortable, since faith typically implies unfalsifiability).
Otherwise, Occam’s razor reduces “Chesterton’s books miraculously inspire” to simply “Chesterton’s books inspire”. It’s not even an objection to God’s existence, it’s an objection to causally involving God in this particular scenario. A “miracle” is akin to Russell’s teapot.
The argument applies literally. “It might cause a miracle” – yes, it might. But so might literally anything – the very nature of a miracle is that it’s impossible to predict. So “it might cause a miracle” can never be an argument for one course of action over another.
Oops. I will never get “tenet” and “tenant” confused ever again. (I hope.)
I was attempting to address the author’s critique that Chesterton’s writing was futile. My point was simply that Chesterton had motivation to write, given his belief system. I also made the assumption that Chesterton felt connected to God and his desires through prayer, which would in fact give him some sense if a miracle was a reasonable result or not. If you believe in miracles, and if you think you can predict when a miracle might be more likely through personal experience with God, then I do think it could reasonably support a particular course of action.
Chesterton’s objection to feminism seems to have gotten picked up by the feminist community under the name “femmephobia”.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I agree. I was reminded of Whipping Girl as I was reading. This might be an issue of me projecting modern politics unto the past though.
I see little difference between Chesterton and those he’s criticizing. The latter tout modern scientific progressivism as the cure-all for the ills of modern society, while Chesterton touts Medieval Christianity. Both believe that if only people listened to them and recognized the deep, inescapable wisdom of their respective visions of the ideal society, then society would indeed become ideal. Both are incapable of recognizing that people are diverse, that social changes invariably have both good and bad effects, and that no ideal world will ever be realizable.
In short, I reject Chesterton not out of love for the unfeeling, abstract absolutism of his enemies, but precisely because I hate it–and Chesterton in his own way, embodies it.
The last paragraph of this comment made me chuckle. Well done.
I had thoroughly misjudged Chesterton – I used to think he was a conservative. When someone has a tendency to reject modest incremental measures on the basis that one can think of massively more drastic interventions that in principle seemingly may work better – then calling such a person a ‘conservative’ would be pretty much the most inexcusably slanderous thing you could ever say about him.
Not sure what this implies for his modern-day fans.
Chesterton was a socialist radical around about 1909-1911.
It’s a little bit like how Heinlein cultist expect him to be ideologically consistent over the decades, but he actually changed his mind a lot.
And even after that, he was a distributivist radical, and while he contends that distributivism is not socialism, it ultimately comes back to a government or government-backed entities being the arbiter of the means of production, which, when done in a way as invasive as distributivism, is essentially no different from socialism, even if the aims are slightly modified.
He was by no means ever a capitalist or classical liberal.
You should read his autobiography.
Chestertons’ Estate Agents still exists (another branch of the family, though).
And to continue indulging my dreadful habit of quoting vast chunks of his works (don’t get me started on “The Man Who Was Thursday”, I love that book to distraction), here’s the anecdote about The Lady and the Rashers:
I’ve always wondered what caused that sort of breakdown in the will and pride of the British upper classes in the late 19th/early 20th century. After colonizing the world and steadfastly trying to block franchise expansion, they just seemed to collectively tap out from exhaustion and embarrassment after WWI. Trying to do away with the vestiges of feudal relationships within a household seems to be a micro-level version of it.
(this is followed by an anti-intelligentsia screed that would be right at home with the neoreactionaries)
Ha, thanks, that actually makes perfect sense. It makes sense coming from Orwell, I vaguely remember his rant about “golfers, pedants, and clergymen”.
Chesterton believed in a Catholicism that was conservative on culture yet in favor of redistribution and welfare for labor. He’s sympathetic to reaction and revolution depending on where it fits into that. The continental European Christian Democratic tradition, and the more recent Canadian and British “Red Tory” traditions, are probably closer fits than any U.S. “conservatism” per se.
Ugh. Once again, above Anon is me. Also, above should have been edited to read reaction OR revolution, not AND. The whole point is he’s reactionary or radical depending on whether reaction or revolution is on the idiosyncratic crunchy con Catholic side in any given conflict. His first ideological loyalty is to his ideal of Christianity, not to “conservatism” save instrumentally, as sometimes the correct Christian stance because the old ways incarnate Christian values. Where radicalism embodies Catholic social teaching, Chesterton will embrace that, again instrumentally, instead. This differentiates Chesterton from, e.g., Russell Kirk, for whom conservatism per se is ideologically primary.
Cambodia under Pol Pot tried to roll back industrialization, sending all the city folks to the countryside to farm without electricity or modern medicine. A third of the country died of starvation, disease, or were executed in purges. “To Destroy You is No Loss” tells the story in heartbreaking detail.
Chesterton could probably defend against that…
The Khmer Rouge were already bloodstainedly ruthless. They also didn’t have post-industrialism, decentralized industry, restrained industry, or much of anything, really.
I am sure he could, if he chose. But ringing rhetoric calling for setting fire to all modern civilization is just the opposite.
I’m sure it is fun to write stirring passages like this. But if you call for bloody revolution, you ought to think about what you’re actually asking for. The bloody revolutions of the 20th century gave us murder and starvation and desperation and terror. Little girls were not spared.
I am sure most of the revolutionaries didn’t mean “that”. But “that” is still what they created.
Funny that this is the same guy who is known for Chesterton’s fence.
The social changes of the industrial revolution were quite recent in Chesterton’s day, so I think he saw the capitalists as the ones who had just recklessly torn down the fence of the agrarian economy.
Pol Pot didn’t want to roll back industrialization (that would have been ridiculous since Cambodia was almost entirely unindustrialised anyway. Rather the evacuation of the cities was meant to eliminate ideologically unreliable people. The Khmer Rouge wanted to increase agricultural surplus massively to export and thus produce extremely rapid industrialization. This is a good summary. http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2009/01/agrarian-communism.html
I wouldn’t be so sure that the sort of technocratic left of Chesterot’s time has no cladistic decedents. These issues are not discussed today in politics, but that could mean that the technocratic ideal of the 1910s has become so normalized nobody on either side of the partisan divide talks about it any more.
I think other commenters have brought up programs like “No child left behind”, and I don’t think you’d have to stretch Chesterton’s arguments to much to see their applicability to modern public education. His point seems to be something to the effect of: all progressive (and conservative) attempts to make the educational system more egalitarian and meritocratic have done nothing but subject poor students to pointless, confusing batteries of standardized testing while inflicting upon them the indignities of underfuned schools, while leaving the privileges of the elite essentially untouched.
The difference is that today the battles about education are limited to the power of teachers’ unions, whether or not to use the common core, and the amount of funding that should go to charter schools. Nobody is seriously suggesting that society be overhauled so as to spare children the “indignity” of public schooling.
Is this book from the brief period when Chesterton was on the far left?
Yes, I believe Chesterton started out a centrist, then briefly around the time of the writing of this book espoused revolutionary socialism for a few years, then stopped.
> And all I could answer is “If I wrote a prescription for ‘improve society’, I’m not sure the pharmacist would know how to fill it.”
I loved that line, and it was so your writing style 🙂
“The trademark style of What Is Wrong With The World is to take some common-sense proclamation, like “feminism is about fighting for women” and come up with some incredibly clever reason why exactly the opposite is true:”
Why does it take incredible cleverness to notice that “feminism” tends to appeal most to and promote most the interests of the least feminine women? As Betty Friedan repeatedly warned from 1966-1977, organized feminism (and she was head of NOW, so she saw it first hand) tends to get taken over by lesbians. She finally submitted in 1977 to the overweening lesbian power within the feminist movement, but her insight live on:
Henry James pointed out the feminism ~ lesbianism correlation way back in 1886 in his novel “The Bostonians,” in which he coined the term “Boston marriage.”
Unsurprisingly, the English suffragette movement in Chesterton’s day tended toward lesbianism. Here’s an article from the Guardian:
“Diary reveals lesbian love trysts of suffragette leaders
Vanessa Thorpe and Alec Marsh
Sunday 11 June 2000 17.54 EDT
“Entries in the diary of a suffragette have revealed that key members of the Votes For Women movement led a promiscuous lesbian lifestyle.
“The diaries of supporter Mary Blathwayt, kept from 1908 to 1913, show how complicated sexual liaisons – involving the Pankhurst family and others at the core of the militant organisation – created rivalries that threatened discord.”
women =/= “femininity”. I don’t see how prominent feminists being “unfeminine” would indicate that they are not benefiting women.
When the people fighting for your group are unrepresentative of your group, their priorities and values are less likely to be the priorities and values of your group. What they think would be good for your group is less likely to be actually good for your group and more likely to be good for them and the small group of people like them.
There’s always going to be some element of this. Leaders are going to tend to be more articulate and charismatic than average members. But for some groups, it’s more extreme than others.
Let’s say, as Chesterton thinks, that politics and activism are basically male pursuits. In that case, “feminists” will always be, by nature, the least feminine women. Because of this, they will tend to push policies that align with their own desires, for sexual freedom and employment in traditionally male fields, rather than the desires of the vast feminine majority. The feminine majority, lacking the drive or knack for activism, will follow along half-heartedly out of a sense of obligation, and end up trapped by false consciousness, supporting policies that actually make their lives unhappier. The decline in women’s self-reported happiness since the fifties definitely makes it plausible.
You hear echoes of the criticism in conservative/right wing mockery of feminists, as ugly, shrill, and generally unbearable and unappealing. Obviously it’s an oversimplification, but I think it would be pretty uncontroversial that ardent feminism isn’t the pursuit of the cheerleader, the housewife, or the girl next door, and committed feminists tend to be a little more… Dworkinesque. And as such, they lead drastically different lives than normal women, and advocate policies that wouldn’t necessarily benefit normal women.
“The decline in women’s self-reported happiness since the fifties definitely makes it plausible.”
This paper suggests that this may not be specific to women. I don’t have time to look too closely, so I’m not sure why it comes to a different conclusion than this one, which I assume is the source of your statement.
The second study starts later and has a broader timeframe. There was a big drop in women’s happiness in the 70’s, apparently now men have caught up. There’s a few different narratives that could go with that, but the second paper focuses on Putnam’s Coming Apart and the decline in social capital (as well as loss of economic security).
Do we have any reason to put even a small amount of trust in the self reported female happiness data? It seems highly plausible to me that women in a conservative patriarchal society are going to say they are happy whether they are or not, and maybe even believe it themselves.
That’s totally possible. It’s also possible that the converse is true, that current happiness reports are actually inflated, by women with careers rather than families saying that they’re happy because they feel they ought to be. And it’s possible that self-reported happiness has declined all over because people have higher expectations now, and a life that would have seemed great fifty years ago is now disappointing. I have no idea how much weight to actually put in those numbers, I wouldn’t stake much on them.
It’s not just “possible” — it’s exactly what we see in some of the most patriarchal subcultures within Western culture, such as the FLDS Church. The motto is “keep sweet”; being dissatisfied is a sin.
If you want to argue that happiness numbers are suspect in general, fine. But if you want to argue that my grandmothers’ self-reported happiness in their youth were suspect in a way that mine or my mother’s wasn’t – in other words, that their perceptions of their own feelings were inherently unreliable – I find that patronizing and pretty awful.
Well, I would tend to distrust self reported happiness in general, but it does not seem unreasonable to put extra scrutiny on conservative societies. In liberal societies it is not as frowned upon to say that you are unhappy, while it is more so in conservative societies, especially for women in a marriage. And questioning traditional social arrangements is generally very frowned upon. So there is good reason to think that reported happiness would be considerably higher in conservative societies than it actually is. (This would not be due to lying though, more like something similar to “belief in belief” plus typical mind fallacy thrown in(though the latter applies to all societies))
It seems unreasonable to me. You’re rationalizing discounting what these women said about their own lives. If saying to people “marriage makes people happy” actually made them happier, that strikes me as possibly a reason to tell people “marriage makes people happy”, but not a reason to say that the happiness experienced doesn’t count in some way. It’s so twisted up, men disregarding what women said about their own experiences and thinking they’re being pro-woman or feminist.
To be clear, I’m not saying we should ignore people’s self reports entirely or that no one in 1950 was genuinely happy. I was just defending the position that self reports from more conservative societies should be taken with extra salt.
(Also my primary skepticism here is not so much about the claim “women in conservative society were more often happy than unhappy” (something which may well be true of any society not undergoing collapse or disaster, for both genders), but about the claim “women are less happy in liberal than conservative society”, which I have not really seen any evidence for)
See, this is why we need downvotes. There’s little point for me to reply to someone who’s willing cherry pick to this degree (not only for me, but because it derails the comment section for other people), but a good downvote goes a long way.
I feel like you’re being evil on purpose, not even because you think what you say is true. That’s sad. You should stop playing dumb status games and actually try to help people, it would make you happier.
The underlying assumption of your comment is that lesbians aren’t truly like other women, that they’re more likely to work against typical women than for them. That’s false and hateful. Calling feminists lesbians is a very shallow objection to feminist ideas, I wish it weren’t so popular.
I’m more or less in the category Steve’s talking about. And the recognition that society not being arranged in ways that are optimal for me may actually be ok because my interests and priorities are atypical has made me happier and better able to analyze things. I recommend considering this possibility for all people who are far-from-the-median-of-society in various ways and who find themselves thinking “we should change how we do x.”
So there’s that.
In general, at the level of ordinary politics, your interests are similar enough to those of other women that your actions don’t harm their interests. But Sailer is implying otherwise.
No. They aren’t.
For instance, one option for how to structure your labor markets is to have a system which grants mothers generous leave and then lets them work part-time. The trade-off is that it’s harder for women to pursue significant careers. Even if you want to, there will be the presumption that most women are going to become mothers and so they’re a bad investment. That system is good for most women because they don’t want significant careers, they want to work part-time and take care of their kids. Alternatively, you can have a relatively more stingy system as far as leave/mommy tracking. This is better for women who want significant careers. Sweden is an example of the first system. The United States is an example of the second.
Wouldn’t providing those benefits for parents of either sex solve that problem? (society would lag behind a bit but the “women but not men will take parental leave” bias would eventually lessen, because if anything men would at least use it as an excuse to get out of work.)
(Though really I think we should just provide generous off-time to everyone regardless of parenting.)
Only if you find a way to mandate that people take the leave. Otherwise, it is beneficial for individuals to take as little of their leave as possible, which means that career focused individuals of both genders will take as little leave as possible.
Some men would take the leave for the time off, sure. The ones who know doing so would blight their prospects for upper-middle and upper management and don’t care. Who accordingly are probably not the men who are currently outcompeting women for the higher-end managerial postions anyway.
The key problem is the productivity loss associated with switching project leadership. When a manager takes leave, somebody else has to get up to speed on the project in order to manage it, and until they do, the project suffers massively. Then when the manager who took leave comes back, either the project suffers while he gets back up to speed on the advanced project (and where does your interim manager go?), or you stick him on an in-progress project that someone else has bailed out on (and now he’s got to learn a completely new project from the ground up, possibly in a business area where he has no experience).
To get this point through to academics, I find it’s helpful to imagine what would happen if you stopped a doctoral project halfway through and handed it to someone else, then six months later were handed somebody else’s doctoral project to finish as yours. Now, have it cost your university tens of millions of dollars if your thesis isn’t submitted in exactly the same amout of time it would have taken if you had run your original doctoral project from beginning to end. Do you think any university would let you do that unless it was absolutely forced by the law? And do you think the university would actively try to only let people into their doctoral programs that they could count on not to take leave from their projects?
Whatever class of people doesn’t take leave will wind up dominating management. They’re the ones who will both have a better record of successes and be estimated to have better prospects of compelting new projects successfully.
You can handicap the men in long-term relationships to the level of women by requiring that they take paternity leave, as Sweeden does (sort of; 20% of Swedish dads opt out of the ‘mandatory’ 2-month period at birth the expense of forfeiting their other 180 days of before-age-8 leave). What that will likely mean is single men taking over the corporate ladder, since they don’t come with wombs (directly or by relationship), and thus won’t take the leave.
Which is obviously true.
In the same sense that I’m not truly like you, or readers of this blog aren’t truly like non-readers of this blog. Come on.
This has already been addressed downthread.
But even if there were no differences between lesbians and heterosexual women other than the obvious one, there would still be a large and important difference. Lesbians aren’t going to reproduce, and straight women have no alignment of interests with the LGBT coalition and no vested interest in pushing political lesbianism or the reactions of fear and disgust that it would benefit from.
straight women have no alignment of interests with the LGBT coalition and no vested interest in pushing political lesbianism
Er…really? This sounds like it’s coming from someone who hasn’t met a great variety of straight women.
Right back at you; it sounds like you’re playing status games rather than trying to find the truth.
“Women”, like any word, is a label for an empirical cluster. And lesbians are not at the centre of this cluster; aside from the obvious, there are plenty of correlations with seemingly unrelated things (e.g. obesity). The idea that lesbians are a statistically random sample from women, who happen to like other women but are in all other respects distributed exactly like straight women, is, frankly, a lie. A well intentioned lie, but a lie nonetheless, and as such a terrible idea to base policy on. Lesbians genuinely are quite different from straight women, and what’s good for one may not always be what’s good for the other.
Prety sure Chesterton meant they were fighting for the male “side”, not that they were secretly “male” in some sort of biological sense.
In fact, I’m not certain the “butch lesbian” stereotype even existed at that point. The idea that one of a homosexual couple must be taking on the “wrong” role is ancient, but I doubt it had enough common currency for people to leap to “lesbian!” whenever a woman was described as “masculine”.
If anything, this connection goes *against* Chesterton’s thesis; lesbians are not distinguished by their exceptional love of men, are they?
Also, um, it’s fairly obvious why a movement pushing to abolish society’s restrictions on gender – especially for women – would be attractive to lesbians. No need to leap to some sort of crazy neurological theory for it. I mean, white people who marry black people tend to be opposed to racism, but we don’t assume it’s because they secretly want to black.
It seems to me that feminism attracts lots of masculine women and feminine men. This makes sense to me, as feminism is all about de/reconstructing gender roles, and so people who do not fit very well in their assigned gender role are more likely to find it appealing.
I thought that depression was a disease of affluence. At least Wikipedia says so. (I know)
It’s a disease of affluence in that, if you’re (relatively) well-off, you have depression. If you’re poor, you’re idle and workshy and just need to pull yourself together.
Rather like “poor people are mad, rich people are merely eccentric”.
“Diseases of affluence” tend to mean “diseases of first world societies”, but they tend to be concentrated among the poorest people in first world societies. Obesity is a good example – it’s more common in the US than sub-Saharan Africa, but the poor are more obese than the rich.
Without being 100% sure, I think depression follows the same pattern.
We can assume that it is difficult to become obese in a society where food is scarce and you have to work physically hard to obtain it.
In a first-world countries, perhaps poor people usually have access to cheap, energy-rich but not very satiating food, and they tend to have sedentiary lifestyles due to their jobs or lack of thereof.
Or maybe it’s an intelligence-related effect: in a society where food is cheap, obesity tends to disproportionately affect stupid people who can’t manage their diet, and these people also tend to be poor because they are stupid.
How does depression correlate with IQ?
From anecdotal evidence (LessWrong and nerdsphere blogs), one would say that it correlates positively with nerdiness/high-IQ (has it ever been asked in an LW survey? (*))
Maybe depression tends to affects the tails of the IQ distribution?
Maybe high-IQ people tend to become depressed when they aren’t wealthy, as they feel that society doesn’t recognize their self-perceived value, but become happy as they gain status and wealth, while medium-IQ people are content being of average wealth and status, as they correctly estimate their potential, and low-IQ people become depressed because they overestimate their potential?
(* Speaking of which, when are the 2014 survey results going to be published?)
“The socialists, feminists, and other groups whom Chesterton dislikes seem to understand this. They say things like “Well, we’re never getting rid of industrialization and the pressure it puts on people to live in dingy slums. So let’s at least institute communal housing which will be a little more liveable and affordable than the other kind.” It might work or it might not, but it’s the sort of thing you can imagine coexisting with modern society. Chesterton’s argument is “No, let’s roll everything back until everyone can have a nice cottage in the Cotswolds.” It’s a very desirable solution, but it’s addressed to a hypothetical universal monarch who has the power to implement solutions against incentive gradients with no defectors ever.”
The intellectual descendants of the Progressives of 1910 got to build a lot of giant housing projects in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, and most people hated them. In contrast, the public in the same period build themselves huge numbers of single family homes in the suburbs on the model of that “nice cottage in the Cotswolds.” See Tom Wolfe’s “From Bauhaus to Our House” for details.
People who can afford them today often live in nice (i.e., big) cottages in the actual Cotswolds, such as the 2014 Prime Minister, David Cameron:
So, perhaps Chesterton had insights into the human soul denied his Progressive rivals such as the Webbs?
The rich always built their cottages in the Cotswolds; that’s not exactly an insight into the human soul. But it’s pretty clear by measuring the size of the cottage and the size of the Cotswolds that not everyone could have a cottage in the Cotswolds, at which point the only meaningful question is which second-best approach you take.
Couldn’t the same thing be said for lice? “We’re never getting rid of industrialization and the pressure it puts on people to live in dingy slums. But we could at least cut their hair to get rid of lice, making their lives a little better than being in dingy slums and also having lice.”
Mr. Sailer, have you heard of Owen Hatherley? You might be interested in seeing a British Marxist arguing the exact opposite perspective. Down to insisting that the British upper classes have been forcing a faux-nostalgic reactionary sensibility upon the working-class people, who have been quite fine with the post-war heyday of British socialist high modernism.
I’ll certainly look him up. My family could use a good laugh.
He was born in ’81, so I think it’s faux-nostalgic Trotskyism on his part. I challenge anyone with a heart to spend a day in and around those tower-blocks of council flats and not feel depressed.
Here is Hatherley defending his thesis against the most common charges in an interview.
I spent all my college years in pretty much the same four-building quad of High Modernist, Brutalist concrete-block dormitories… and really liked it, actually. Even liked visiting it after I’d gotten my own apartment post-university.
The fitting of lots of furniture into the compact space makes it feel lived-in, the excellent insulation keeps it warm year-round, and meals with friends in dining halls were a nice communal occasion held on a regular basis.
Could you give links to Brutalist architecture you like?
I’m not Eli, but http://www.cambridge2000.com/cambridge2000/html/0008/P8222139.html was my equivalent. It looks ugly in a photo, but the 3D shape of it is really rather fun.
Eli might be referring to Morse and Stiles, two of Yale’s residential colleges. They’re alright.
I really like the Christian Science complex in Boston. There are often little rainbows in the fountain on summer mornings.
Boston’s City Hall, on the other hand, is hideous.
“It’s a very desirable solution, but it’s addressed to a hypothetical universal monarch who has the power to implement solutions against incentive gradients with no defectors ever. This is a book whose target audience is nowhere to be found.”
Well done Scott, you seem to have independently re-invented political realism (the Geuss or Galston kind, not the international relations kind).
At its worst, I worry Chesterton has actually lost, through atrophy, the ability to think in a straight line. Like, there must be at least one thing which is approximately the way it appears, and I’m not convinced Chesterton will be able to notice it.
Chesterton was accused of being a mere paradox-monger, and his answer was that no, he was defending truisms. But because they’re truisms, society is deaf to them, so to make people really look at something for the hundredth time, where they’re convinced they’ve already seen it ninety-nine times before, he used paradox as a startling way of grabbing attention. Think of the exchange in the Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes explains what’s unique about his methods by asking Watson how many stairs are there up to their rooms, and Watson says he doesn’t know, and Holmes says exactly, you see them every day but “you see, you don’t observe“.
From “The Philosopher” an essay on George Bernard Shaw:
This is exactly the project, but it’s probably going to have to wait for after the Singularity.
But Scott, by your own logic of pessimism there is never going to be the Singularity. You (or A.N. Other) are only one person, you can’t get society to listen to you. And a bunch of people can’t make any difference either, because the forces of industrialisation! While you’re all off designing how to upload human consciousness into electronic space, they’re manufacturing stuff cheaper, including weapons, so they roll over you and take your land and resources and enslave you to work in their sweatshops making cheap Christmas ornaments.
So unless you get every single person in the world perfectly co-ordinated to work on uploading human consciousness, it will never happen. and since it is impossible to get every single person in the world perfectly co-ordinated, it will never happen. So it’s not worth one guy saying “Hey, I have this crazy idea that cholera is transmitted by germs, not miasma” because medical consensus does not agree and it’s a waste of his time going off to dismantle the Broad Street water pump, because people will just go off to some other disease-ridden source for water, right? What can one guy on his own do? John Snow, you know nothing.
So things will also go on the way they have been and nobody can make a difference and all we can do is keep running faster on the hamster wheel.
I came here to say something like this. Although, on the other hand, while this article does suffer a little from but-I’m-just-one-person-ism (fine-but-that’s-what-everyone-else-is), I think its fairly safe to say that Scott’s is pretty much all over that issue more broadly. At least that’s the impression I have from the Moloch article – malthusian traps, incentive gradients and yet Elua wins etc.
> While you’re all off designing how to upload human consciousness
What is Scott’s opinion on the singularity and ideal scenarios? Is he into brain emulation? I’ve read quite a bit of his stuff and I still don’t know.
“Elua wins” is pretty much the whole point. Chesterton’s Elua, Jesus Christ, is believed by Chesterton to have already defeated Chesterton’s Moloch (Satan, aka … Moloch and Mammon and Mars) on the first Easter. Chesterton thinks Christianity is the “garden of niceness and civility” from which his Elua’s followers will fan out to conduct mop up operations against the various Admiral Thrawns of Moloch’s already defeated Empire.
I don’t think Moloch is analogous to Satan. Satan is supposed to be a generic embodiment of evil, with an emphasis on doing deliberate evil. Moloch represents a certain kind of incentive problem, with an emphasis on His workings being unconscious, no human deliberately invokes Moloch (well, almost never).
Sorry, Illuminati Initiate, I imported my own idiosyncrasies without mentioning them. To try to close the inferential distance:
I think of Satan as not only as you’ve described, but as also somehow behind natural evil (like the suffering of animals, earthquakes, cancer, etc.) in a way that draws its emotional resonances from reading the “marring of Arda” (in which Melkor/Morgoth rebels against the One and so brings natural evil into the world) in Tolkien’s legendarium as being not too far from Lucifer’s role in our actual world. Thus, Scott’s description of Moloch is a fair description of how I take Satan to have worked and to work still.
I recall, perhaps inaccurately from having read it years ago, a scene in Hesse’s “Siddhartha” in which the seeker tells the guru that his description of why the world is a wheel of suffering is persuasive, but his account of how to break out of the wheel is not.
Chesterton likewise, being as much a Buddha-phobe as he was more famously and heinously an anti-Semite, used the Wheel as the symbol of imprisonment in the world’s miseries, and the Cross as the symbol of bursting forth free from the Wheel, like popping a bubble.
The perverse incentives and ecological catastrophes Scott concretizes as Moloch, I concretize as Satan. Indeed, the social tragedies of the “murderous chimp” aspects of humanity’s evolutionary heritage are deeply bound up for me in the concept of Original Sin. Accordingly, where Scott sees the positive sum hopes concretized as Elua as the way out of the endless boom/bust miseries of Moloch, I concretize those hopes as Christ, and the miseries as Satan. So for me, personally, the analogy is very tight.
“after the Singularity”
Well, some kind of Archipelago in which Chestertonian, MacIntyrean city states coexist with all sorts of other city states within a confederal world order of peace and plenty is probably going to have to wait until AI, fab tech, etc. are far enough along that, at a minimum, global Basic Income and guaranteed healthcare were available to all. In a world of continuing scarcity, you need bigger states to support bigger armies.
The whole point of the Singularity is that it happens whether you want it or not.
A *positive* singularity is much harder. In a Robin Hanson style multipolar scenario, it might indeed be true that there’s no way to fix anything. In a Yudkowsky style singleton scenario, the very single-ness of the Singularity means that multipolar considerations briefly don’t apply and there’s a single point that can be levered to control the entire future. That’s the whole point of MIRI.
I’ve said again and again that the only way to defeat multipolar traps is to have everything ruled by a single entity, and in the case of an intelligence explosion that single entity will be a unique superintelligence.
the only way to defeat multipolar traps is to have everything ruled by a single entity
So… y’all need Jesus? 🙂
Maybe. Christianity was effective at solving some hard problems in the past; Scott has already acknowledged the startling effectiveness of the Catholic Church.
(FWIW I don’t think an approach that relies on publicly advocating the belief of what are now for many people obvious falsehoods can work. Good coordination remains an open problem. Indeed that’s a lot of the point of this post – that actually, Medieval Christianity *didn’t* make everything perfect, and doing more of it probably won’t help).
We would, if you guys hadn’t gone and made him part of a triumvirate. IF WE LEARNED ANYTHING FROM ROME IT’S THAT TRIUMVIRATES NEVER WORK.
“The whole point of the Singularity is that it happens whether you want it or not.”
Similar to the Rapture, in this and every other aspect. Except for the computer God.
You sure you are not a neoreactionary, are you?
Cookie monster-ed again!
Escrow also defeats multipolar traps. Have third parties negotiate and enforce agreements, and you’re fine.
^27chaos. Cookie monster attacked.
Also, I acknowledge there are difficulties with setting up escrow situations and keeping them stable, of course. But it’s not obvious whether or not those difficulties are more or less manageable than keeping a single entity in charge.
“They’re sure not going to listen to me.”
You’re underestimating yourself. Many people already read your writings carefully and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were offered a column somewhere in the not-so-distant future. I suggest reading on how various rulers became universally listened to, “Liberal fascism” is one source pretty well-written, and coincidentally your review of it would be fun to read too :).
+1 on getting Scott’s review of Liberal Fascism (or any number of books from the tea-party tinged side of conservatism that Scott might be able to extract something useful from – I’m not sufficiently intelligent to do so myself)
Is that a real book? I just thought it was a Rush Limbaugh-type mouthing off about how all liberals were fascists.
It’s a real book by Jonah Goldberg and really well-written, though it loses steam a bit after the first half or so. Way higher aiming than Limbaugh, if anything I’d compare the style to Zizek or Moldbug, especially with the original planned subtitle of “The Totalitarian Temptation from Hegel to Whole Foods”. I’d summarize it by “there’s a lot of not-so-well-known fascism in the history of progressive movement and let me show you interesting historical facts and perspective on the subject”. Of course, the perspective is hardly objective, but then which one is. If you don’t find it interesting after the chapter on Mussolini, you can probably skip.
there are much better versions of the same book, like the dark side of the left, written by a leftist despite the title.
I have not read either book, but they sound to me to be about very different topics, perhaps unrelated.
It’s more history-oriented than that. A lot of it is dedicated to reminding people of the “omitted” bits of progressive history that you would already be familiar with (support of eugenics, segregation, prohibition, etc). He especially has it out for Woodrow Wilson.
I found it a little over-the-top at the time, or at least unhelpful in applying the term “fascist” to liberals. But that was before I saw the Social Justice Warriors flower; I might appreciate it a lot more now.
The “it’s not that it’s been tried and found lacking; it’s that it’s been tried and found hard” defense of socialism, among other things, is one I, thankfully, don’t hear too often today.
What reminds me of it, and what I have heard frequently from the last few presidents and their supporters is, “it’s not that our opposition has understood our ideas and fundamentally disagreed with them; it’s that we have not yet adequately explained our ideas.”
In fairness, if you’re going to attempt Communism, Stalin is perhaps the worst guy imaginable to have at its forefront. Most forms of Communism would have failed, I concede, but not so spectacularly. It was probably inevitable that someone like Stalin headed Communism, but it’s hard to believe many of those similar people would have been bad to quite the same extent. It seems reasonable to consider him an aberration, even though it’s unfair to brush away Communism’s past failures entirely.
The problem with Chesterton’s non-fiction is he gets a few things right which are supremely important to get right, and which people tend to ignore. Like he says somewhere else, Chesterton writes in a paradoxical style because a paradox is truth standing on her head in order to get attention. But then GKC doesn’t seem to care if there are ten possible objections to something else he says. He breezes past the objections. In the same way, Chesterton dismisses certain to-him modern trends of thought (for instance, evolution, socialism, economics) and certain writers who he caricatures (Darwin, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Tolstoy), without ever really engaging with those bodies of thought, or giving the impression he’s actually read those writers. I get the sense that, because he was legitimately familiar with his rival George Bernard Shaw, he naively assumed Shaw was a fair representative of all the Shavian heroes.
So when it comes to his reactionary politics, I want to say something similar. I am a Christian like Chesterton. I agree with him on many points when he criticizes modernity and prefers the medieval ideal. I sympathize with his Distributivist politics. But the idea of rolling back the Industrial Revolution is not only impossible for the reasons given in this blog post, it’s not even desirable. Advanced technology and market systems have done a lot of good! For one thing, they’ve generated levels of wealth that would have seemed fantastical in 1750. For another thing, the earlier society did not itself instantiate the rich and fulfilling integration of religion, philosophy, ethics & culture than Chesterton admires. The medieval world was more chaotic, corrupt and cruel than he wants to acknowledge, although I think he’s correct that its ideal was superior in some ways to our own, or at least that we stand to learn something from it. Chesterton was the victim of primitive historiography. If he could have read historians in the intervening century, he might have a more accurate picture of Europe before the Industrial Revolution.
The only sensible politics going forward, it seems to me, is to try to combine what’s best in pre- and post-Industrial society, and try to mitigate the characteristic abuses in both. There’s an interesting historical parallel. In “The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580,” Eamon Duffy describes how when Mary Tudor came to the throne in 1553, she did not just revert religious practices in England to the status quo ante her father. She, her advisors & leading prelates implemented a kind of native-English counter-reformation, different from the Catholic reforms after the council of Trent because the council had not finished yet: similar to the continental counter-reformation, but adapted to English circumstances. This is not to praise Mary I without qualification — there’s a reason she’s remembered as a villain. But even an arch-reactionary like Mary Tudor knew that pretending nothing had changed was ill advised.
I know nothing of Chesterton, but the thing that most jumped out at me reading that review was how much of a Luddite he seemed, with his obsession with Turning Back the Clock and returning to some mythical idyllic past where everybody is In Tune With Nature and leading A Simple Life and girls have long clean hair and pick flowers in the sunshine.
In that sense he has many descendants in today’s more extreme environmentalists, those who might be called Deep Green and are opposed to everything from nuclear power to GM foods and vaccines. The Natural Fallacy is tied up with this, and you can see it in hippies and the eaters of organic food.
Crunchy Cons like Chesterton aren’t, at all, identical to Deep Greens, anti-vaxxers, and hippies, but they have many of the same tastes, and Crunchy Con writers (Tokien, Wendell Berry) often get adopted by hippies.
Also, far from a Luddite, Chesterton admired the high tech of his day–automobiles. He thought mass suburbanization via automobile might help move society toward his Distributist ideal. Nowadays, Crunchy Cons tend to loathe the burbs as plastic. But Chesterton’s mistake seems to me understandable for his era.
Interesting idea. Suburb houses don’t seem that different than cottage villages, to me, which fits with your argument.
As something of an amateur medievalist myself, I feel compelled to mention that a little girl’s hair in 1410 Britain might well have been long, but it certainly would not have been clean.
(It would have had a shot at being clean in 1010, though, and a better one in 210.)
I get a weird vibe out of everything he’s written, like his brain lacks the gear that goes back and questions whether what it’s saying actually makes sense.
It was Eliot who wrote, “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks.” This was a harsh judgement that he came to soften but one must agree with Michael Brendan Dougherty that GKC was less a philosopher than “a publicist and a polemicist on behalf of [his] ideals”.
Still, while he was too much of an idealist to be a conservative I wish more on the right had been influenced by his concern for slum children as well as rich men. Russell Kirk (who I recommend) was a fan of his but his reflective conservatism was overwhelmed by libertarians and neocons.
I think this is a nice illustration of “actually, things aren’t proceeding to the left all the time; it’s just that anything that didn’t stay popular is defined to not be left”. An advocate of redistribution–a left-wing idea–shows no qualms about saying that he wants to redistribute the property for reasons that would be considered right-wing today. Nobody wants to do this today, so it can be considered a failed idea. Is it a failed left-wing idea (because it involves redistribution of property) or a failed right-wing idea (because it has traditional gender roles)? It counts as a failed right-wing idea, of course, and so we define the left as always winning.
Speaking as a left-winger, I think the valid question, from our point of view, is, “Redistribute the property to whom?” The USSR said, “To the state”, and that was a Failed Leftist Idea. Modern socialists say, “To democratically-run cooperatives of the workers” or “to common trusts”, and those seem to work in small-scale experiments. Chesterton might say, “to the male heads of household”, and we would object that there is no causal process driving their actions to be beneficent towards the whole family, so they inevitably won’t be.
The reason I picked up this book was that I wanted to know more about Distributism, which some people (okay, all of them Catholic) have touted as a third alternative to Communism and Capitalism.
The book didn’t really explain what it was, though, and now I’m torn on whether I should bother finding another book that does.
In my experience, a great number (althouhg not necessarily all) of Catholics who support distributism vs. the free market fall into more or less the same category as communists who support communism vs. the free market; i.e., they haven’t really carefully throught through the incentives of the matter. This seems, in my experience, to be true of both past and current distributists: both Belloc and Chesterton, and people like Medaille.
Belloc, for instance, once called for a limit on the sizes of businesses so that small businesses wouldn’t be bought up by large. Of course, this would have scaled according to the necessary minimum size of the business. A number of pretty obviously problematic details with this proposal were not, as I recall, dealt with. (Who decides? What of new businesses like Uber? Etc, etc.)
I like distributist ends (everyone owns productive property! everyone has a farm, or a little shop! let everyone hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner!) but just don’t really see any concrete and workable proposals to get to these ends in distributists.
More interesting distributist writing ala Chesterton and Belloc, I think, deals with how it wasn’t simply free market forces that brought around the current state of affairs, but active government manipulation. (What they say about the enclosure of the commons in England is interesting, although I haven’t verified how accurate what they say is.) But even this doesn’t offer a way back, unless one takes a very grim view of the influence of government.
I think Belloc is better savoured for literary and psychological value than for economic: The Path to Rome (not an apologetic work) is excellent, and The Four Men is pretty good; a number of his essays are also excellent.
…and, I don’t know how much Chesterton you’ve read, but The Ballad of the White Horse is still my favorite poem ever, and I’m not even a Catholic any more. And The Last Hero is also really stupendous.
Everyone using the phrase “corporate welfare” may be against it. Probably if you use that phrase to people who aren’t particularly aware of what that means, and give them a description that’s similarly question-begging, they will be overwhelmingly against it. But there are certainly people who oppose there being a corporate income tax, people who basically support the way the corporate income tax is currently structured, people who support cities and states granting tax breaks to certain corporations, people who support subsidies/things that are basically subsidies to certain types of manufacturers, and people who don’t think that subsidies to the working poor mean that the companies employing those people are doing anything wrong. For anything you could refer to as “corporate welfare”, there are people who support it.
There’s some interesting comments in this post, but lots of people also seem to be taking the opportunity to make fairly sweeping statements the “Left’s” characteristics. Left and Right is a suspiciously blunt instrument. Those that think they see strong unifying beliefs/themes (eg. authoritarianism) in the entire left or the entire right haven’t looked properly, or are just using a straw man to signal with. There is no “fundamental left/right wing impulse”, there’s an array of groups with much more specific ideas we can talk about. I really hope we don’t get too many partisan warriors setting up camp here 🙁
In regards Chesterton seeing parts of the Left being all Efficiency and Order, I think the Technocracy Movement was starting to take shape at this time (peaked 1930s), and I think you could *sort of* put this to be on the progressive side of politics at the time. Actually it suddenly dawns on me how much this has in common with the grey/STEM/IT/futurist tribe. Post-political aspirations (except for a few left-wing exceptions), focus on rationality, more Order than Chaos. Most of all they were the original “post-scarcity” economics people. Except, you know, all 1930s.
I’d echo what others had mentioned about the whole Fordism/Scientific Management thing being popular in this era too. It was definitely admired by many different groups in politics.
Drowning puppies because you abhor cruelty to animals seems like a pretty straightforward anti-natalist position to me. Not saying I agree with it, but it’s not like it’s absurd.
I’m confused. What is this in response to?
The paragraph between the two tweets by Steven Kaas.
I think there is a pretty big difference between anti-natalism and pro-killeverythingism. Not bringing people/puppies into existence is not the same thing as ending the existence of people/puppies who exist.
Yes, but it’s relatively easy to formulate an ethical position that entails both antinatalism and universal involuntary euthanasia (at least for puppies). I agree with suntzuanime that it’s far from conceptually absurd.
Well, yeah. I mostly just brought it up because I am kinda-sortof-almost sympathetic to antinatalism (though that is an unstable position and may change), but strongly against involuntary death (transhumanism FTW).
“Chesterton is defining “Everyone was super-obsessed with Christianity all the time for hundreds of years” as “Christianity was left untried”. The definition only works if by “try Christianity” he means “everyone lives exactly according to the Christian ideal.” But “make everyone live exactly according to the Christian ideal” is not a primitive action.
“At the very least, the medievals tried to try Christianity. They reserved political power for Christians, gave immense wealth and clout to the clergy, gave religion a monopoly on education, required everyone to go to church, and persecuted atheism and heresy. If, as per Chesterton’s definition, this didn’t result in people trying Christianity, then that means that trying to try Christianity has failed. If an idea is impossible to implement, that is a strike against the idea. Unless Chesterton has a better idea for how to implement Christianity than the way the medievals tried, his argument is wrong and it is perfectly legitimate to say that the failure of the Christian project during the Middle Ages doesn’t bode well for it today.”
This counter-argument only works if the Middle Ages are our only example of people “trying to try Christianity”.
Whereas “Christianity is outdated” is a property of the world – the same way “this computer is outdated”‘s truth-value depends on the existence of other, more advanced computers – “Medieval society failed at trying Christianity” is merely a property of Medieval society. It’s a single datapoint showing one possible failure mode when trying Christianity, which we can take into consideration next time.
So I think Chesterton’s point there still stands. Discussion of Christianity is definitely being confused by people’s different ideas of what “Christianity” means; many people now see the Late Middle Ages as a typical example, rather than the one example so atypical it’s still ringing through the ages as The Worst Thing.
It’s the same problem as discussions of eugenics, where many people default to the Nazis or Brave New World as their archetypal image of the idea, even when they’re talking to someone with a completely different idea of “eugenics” to the Nazis.
There seem to be hundreds of societies throughout two thousand years that have tried Christianity. Chesterton deliberately focused on the medievals as what he considered a strong example.
I’m pretty sure the right still sees the left as agents of enforced order rather than as “squarely aligned with Chaos.” Consider, for instance, that the right tends to try to claim George Orwell and 1984 as their own (ideologically). Also note that things like Big Government (perhaps the most frequently-cited “leftist” bogeyman) and the UN (which is primarily supported, to the extent that it’s supported at all, by the left, at least in the US) are definitely in the “enforced order” category.
Are they incorrect to do so? My impression has always been that the left is aligned with order.
I don’t believe they’re incorrect, no; but then again I’m more or less a member of “the right” myself. I figured that since some comments above have already given the argument that those on the left see themselves as aligned with order, arguing that the right sees them that way too is sufficient.
There is an interpretation of the traditional right-left dichotomy, the source of which I now forget, but which seems incredibly accurate to me:
The primary fear of the left is injustice. The primary fear of the right is barbarism.
Greyish, libertarianish rightists like me think that freedom leads to more cooperation, civilization, and hence less barbarism, and a certain brand of “scientific” socialist believed in orderly, planned economies and societies, but I don’t think either of those views reflect where the majority of conservatives and liberals in the US are now, or most of their history (consider: while Lenin and Stalin wanted a scientifically planned, orderly economy, they were certainly willing to accept a high degree of chaos to get there).
Almost no one is pro-barbarism or pro-injustice, but the red tribe tends to be willing to accept some injustice to prevent barbarism, and the blue tribe tends to be wiling to accept some chaos to achieve justice.
Your average red tribe member today is anti-immigration, pro-police, pro-military, pro-family, anti-“social engineering,” etc. In other words, they’re firmly in favor of all the traditional guardians of civilized society as they see it, and afraid of threats to that. They tend to be willing to accept some level of authoritarian strong-arming to secure this.
Your average blue tribe member is primarily concerned about economic inequality, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, unfair treatment of immigrants, etc.–i.e. it’s all about justice, fairness, etc., even when achievement of justice requires overturning traditional class structures, family structures, institutions, etc.
The left says things could be so much better while the right worries that that they could be so much worse. this is best demonstrated by the red tory tradition, which has never been very common in the US.
Though I agree with that in a very general way, I think it’s not just about better and worse, but about better and worse along certain parameters: the left is more worried about achieving fairness and the right about building strong, safe communities.
Much of the left today, for example, is actually kind of reactionary in that they want badly to get back to a post-WWII era of strong unions, low foreign competition, high taxes, low inequality, etc. They are worried things are getting “worse” relative to that ideal.
Many rightists also imagine a better world: they think that if we had lower taxes, eliminated welfare, secured the borders, etc. then families would be stronger, crime lower, employment opportunities more plentiful, bootstraps more pull-up-able, etc.
This reminds me of Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics, in which conservatives think of issues using a civilization-barbarism axis, progressives use a group-focused oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians use a freedom-oppression axis. Kling gives an example:
Yeah, I think it was from Kling that I heard that idea. Thanks for reminding me.
Above was me.
The left is traditionally about changing things while the right makes more effort to preserve. It’s fair to say that the left tends to be more big-government than the right, but I think on the whole the left is more chaotic (or at least, more willing to accept chaos as a side effect) than the right; even the more anarchistic, “don’t tread on me” end of the right doesn’t tend to advocate large-scale social upheaval; rather, they want everyone to be left alone to live as small-town conservatives.
I think that the right would see the Left as more the agent of anarcho-tyranny: imposing suffocating restrictions on the law-abiding while violent/property criminals are allowed to run free.
Sure, that’s probably a reasonable (albeit paradoxical) description of how some members of the right view members of the left.
That particular formulation is paleoconservative, but there’s echoes of in National Review and more mainstream things.
Which is utter bullshit, since Orwell himself was an open and polemical about being a democratic socialist.
Scott, with respect to “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried,” you seem to be reading the “try” as “to make an attempt,” but it’s clear in context that Chesterton means it in the sense of “to put to test.” (cf. Daniel 5:27) Anyway, his broader point seems to be that if you look back and see people in the Middle Ages falling short of their ideals, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with those ideals; it just means that people are fallible. Christianity doesn’t expect people to live up to its ideals. As the saying goes, the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.
Part of the Christian ideal is turning the other cheek. By succumbing to the Constantinian temptation, the medievals left that non-coercive ideal very much untried.
Also, the Christianization of medieval Europe (and early modern Latin America, in similar circumstances) was broad, but for many, not deep. Catechesis was minimal for most.
Above Anon was me.
The linguistic point is a good one, but it doesn’t change my argument. If attempting the Christian ideal reliably fails to produce the Christian ideal, then we should probably stop attempting it, even if we do want the Christian ideal.
I really love this side of Chesterton’s writing and I agree with every word of this review. High-five, Scott!
I wonder whether this concern of Chesterton’s with “paradoxes” helps explain a lot of ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’ (the single best fantasy series ever). I knew that the author was influenced by Chesterton, but I always assumed his interest in “paradoxes” was just a product of a very wise, but not particularly trained in proper philosophy. Now it seems to make a bit more sense why he was so obsessed with them.
Chesterton’s interest in paradox ran much deeper than just the rhetorical level. He dedicates chapter 6 of Orthodoxy to an investigation of them. It’s a pretty significant cornerstone of his thought.
This part is especially key:
Yeh the stuff you quote sounds even more like Stephen R. Donaldson’s concerns in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
In both cases I’m sure that they have a sincere and deep interest in “paradoxes,” not merely a “rhetorical” one. OTOH I think the interest they both evince in paradoxes is largely a result of philosophical confusion. The world isn’t really “paradoxical” almost by definition and the things that each of them are talking about as “paradoxes”: as Chesterton himself puts it “they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously,” hence the example of “courage” (and how you are better able to stay alive if you can act without fear of death) which is scarcely even apparently paradoxical… it’s just a banality of ordinary life, which you have to work hard to make look paradoxical.
OTOH I do think a concern for so-called “paradox” is useful and it seems to me like Chesterton was onto something when he suggests, in the first paragraph you quote, that trying to fit things too neatly into too exact, mathematical/logical regularity can present a “trap” (e.g. begetting over-simplification and distortion, as we try to smooth off the rough edges and sweep things under the carpet to get them to fit into simple schemas) and that it would behove us to look at seeming contradictions or tensions in thought to try to discern if there is any hidden truth there. Rupert Read’s book ‘A Wittgensteinian Way with Paradoxes’ http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6272 looks like a good, serious attempt to actually investigate the utility of thinking with and about ‘paradoxes’, but of course he is a much better philosopher than Chesterton.
Thanks for the recommendation! I’m enjoying the first few pages a lot so far, it looks like it could end up as one of my favorites as well.
^This is 27chaos, by the way.
The Covenant books are amazing, but major trigger warning rape there.
Oh, goodness: I loved the Covenant books (the first six, at least; I still haven’t finished the very last one of the last three). But I also did pick out the (I’m sure genuinely unintentional) Tolkien parallels, not to say ‘serial numbers filed off’, probably because I had just read “The Lord of the Rings” a couple of years before I found the Thomas Covenant books 🙂
The rape is the tricky part that Donaldson doesn’t quite pull off. I can’t think of a way he could have made it work; it’s pretty much the crux of the entire series right there, as establishing how badly Covenant goes out of balance in his relationship with The Land and how that starts the whole chain of errors, miscalculations and poor choices that fetter Covenant and his allies from then on, but it’s introduced much too early and loses a lot of its potential by being presented ‘off-screen’. I can see why; nobody wants to write a searingly effective rape scene because it’s much too like sadistic porn, but you never quite understand what happened and in a way you’re tempted to go “So what’s the big deal?”
I thought that TC was more a response to or conscious attempt to subvert Tolkien (in some ways). I know that Stephen R. Donaldson was a bit embarassed by the centrality of the “magic ring” in both cases, which distracted people. Hence why in interviews he would complain that he *had* to have it be a ring (since what else would a modern man carry around with him: and because the ring, in an obvious sense, symbolises his commitments- literally his Covenant), whereas Tolkien could have used any old random “magical object.”
Wow, we had really divergent responses to *that* scene. I thought it was plenty affecting- and even what little was “on screen” was pretty brutal. I mean, it succeeds in shocking because of the nature of the act, not because of the physical details. I always took the rape to be a result of Covenant’s extreme fuckedupedness *before* he entered the Land. Sure it’s a response to him suddenly- and he thinks impossibly- physically healthy again, but all his actions are just him logically following through on the survival strategy he adopted to cope with his leprosy/obvious metaphor for spiritual sickness, frailty or some such.
Chesterton isn’t Red, Blue, or Gray. He is instead exactly the sort of personality for which I wanted a Violet Tribe as a descriptor. His modern descendants aren’t Neo-Reaction (which scorns “the little guy” as part of a herd to be mastered, rather than celebrating the peasant common sense of simple folk) and isn’t the U.S. Republican Party or the British Conservative Party.
The key to understanding Chesterton is that he is a consistent, thoroughgoing champion of Gemeinschaft against Gesellschaft.
Thus, he loathes socialism, but he loathes industrial capitalism, too. His attitude is captured in fellow Violet Tolkien’s remark that he was fine with either anarchy (as in a primitive tribe) or monarchy (as in a doddering figurehead king more interested in “stamp collecting or railways” than in rule), so long as neither was mass democracy. What Tolkien wanted was personal connection rather than functionalist bureaucracy.
Orthodox convert Rod Dreher calls this Tolkienesque agrarian conservatism “Crunchy Conservatism.” It is the conservatism of farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, not that of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It is deeply motivated by aesthetic Romanticism, like Chesterton’s passage about the girl’s red locks. Consider Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft’s 1996 “First Things” essay, “The Politics of Architecture”: four friends discuss a utilitarian apartment complex. The Democrat and the Republican both admire the modern conveniences of the place. But the Violet author and the Marxist radical discover a kinship in that they both find the boxy place dehumanizingly ugly and corporate, however much utility its gym and pool offer.
Chesterton writes that he admires BOTH the Jacobites and the Jacobins. (No Neoreactionary, he.) He writes of little English places’ little common folk rising up to tell their betters to sod off. (As in “The Napoleon of Notting Hill.”) He does NOT desire an absolute monarchy. What he desires is the liberty of regular folk to lead wholesome lives without being manipulated or ordered about by bureacracies. Like his friend Belloc, he loathes the “Hudge” of government and the “Gudge” of capital as two indistinguishably awful servile bureaucracies.
Chesterton’s Crunchy Con and Distributist descendants seem to be growing toward something like Scott’s “Archipelago” ideal. Dreher has reluctantly become a pragmatic libertarian, hoping for what Scott might call an acausal Platonic contract and I’ll just call Lockean liberal contractarianism: Dreher accedes to people on the left having same-sex marriages, etc., in the hope that those people will leave him space to have an elaborately incensed Russian Orthodox lifestyle of his own.
Futurist Alvin Toffler used to talk about the idea that as society became more High Tech, people would yearn for the authentic, crunchy, “High Touch” as a balance. Toffler was spectacularly correct: we live in a world of computer programmers who grow Edwardian beards, brew their own bear, and demand free range chicken and artisanal pickles.
The Crunchy Con aesthetic is akin to this efflorescene of the “lumbersexual”: it need not involve rolling back modern technology, but instead involve leveraging modern technology to make room for neo-traditionalist pleasures.
C.S. Lewis writes that a modern would find the early Christians to be culturally reactionary and economically radical: the Acts of the Apostles depicts prudish communists, given to courtly manners, decorously chaste and pious like Victorian gentry, yet working on tentmaking and fishing and carpentry with their own calloused hands like kibbutznik socialists. That Apostolic lifestyle is neither “Red” nor “Blue.” It’s something else. It’s obvious to me that it’s Chesterton’s ideal.
Chesterton sought to achieve that ideal through Distributist politics, not through dictatorial coercion (he loathed fascism and militarism passionately). Distributism need not involve abandoning modern technology. Indeed, a couple that teleworks can live in a cozy cottage or cabin in the country more easily than a couple with a Fordist factory breadwinner and a homemaker.
What Chesterton’s ideal does require, though, is MacIntyrean communities committed to a “thick” understanding of virtue. I think Scott’ “Archipelago” idea is PERFECT for this. Let crunchy con Catholics have intentional communities, and let transhumanist polyamorists have intentional communities. Catholics, at least, are called by Vatican II to embrace pluralistic religious freedom as a fundamental human good, and to be chastened in contemplating the religious coercion of earlier centuries. Chesterton didn’t live to see that, but his vision seems to have had nothing of coerced Christianity about it. Instead, it was a yearning for the option to live out the old ways, not a demand that they be imposed on all. (If I’m wrong, then I’ll say that it SHOULD have been this and leave it at that).
Consider the feminism/suffrage passage. Before modernity, women were forced into “feminine” roles. That’s awful in innumerable ways. But an Archipelago where some women and men can CHOOSE those roles, with rights of exit, would be something else entirely.
Chesterton, as a Catholic, believed that God choose to incarnate as a peasant rather than an emperor. In “The Everlasting Man” this choice is presented as a rebellion on behalf of the meek and weak against the high and mighty, with Satan as the ultimate power behind Empire and capital, and Christ as the subversive radical in effect parachuting behind enemy lines by being born in secret in a manger in a cave in an obscure backwater. This is not Neoreactionary rhetoric. It is not “conservative” rhetoric. It is something else.
To have imposed Christianity by force was a centuries long betrayal of that subversive radical ideal, assuming, argendo, that Christianity is true and as Chesterton describes it. Thus, offering it as an OPTION, with rights of exit, in the style of Scott’s Archipelago, as an attractive community rather than a compelled cult, seems far more in keeping with Chesterton’s vision.
Chesterton got a lot wrong. But he’s far more of a Violet than a Red or a Neo-reactionary, FWIW. His social vision is rooted in Catholic Social teaching, with its redistributionist emphasis on Solidarity, and it’s anti-bureacratic, decentralist, common-folk trusting Subsidiarity. He’d prefer an Archipelago with room for Mondragon cooperatives over the rule of Fnargl, any day.
Perhaps I have read Chesterton in my own image. But I think the Violet Chesterton, the Chesterton of Lewis’ description of the Apostles as chivalrous communists (i.e., both Jacobite AND Jacobin!) is a far better fit to the data of Chesterton’s writings.
I really would like to see Scott engage more with the Dreher/Berry crunchy con tendency: I think it would illuminate an area of the traditionalist map that hanging around the relatively Gray Tribe-y (technophilic, non-neurotypical) Reactosphere leaves in the shadows. Writers like friend-of-Scott Leah Libresco, like Dreher, and like their American Conservative colleagues Gracey Olmstead and Jonathan Coppage, are articulating a rather more Chestertonian vision. It’s one that, given its humane warmth, would repay sustained attention far more than, say, the cynical abstractions of neocameralism.
(N.B., the Apostolic “communism” is the localist, subsidiarist communalism of the monastery, not the communist Gesellschaft of the late Marx. Although, the yearning of the early Marx that man might overcome alienation and come to a world in which he could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner,” is deeply Chestertonian. There ought to be room in a non-coercive Archipelago for everybody.)
I’m reminded of Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade— twelfth century knights take over an alien interstellar empire, to a large extent because personal loyalty and connections are more attractive than technocracy.
R.A. Lafferty was another sf author who definitely favored small communities, and made it clear (or clear enough once you pay attention to the content as well as the fancifulness and tall tale flourishes) that he hated both technocracy and individual tyranny.
Rowling’s Potter novels have little in the way of effective institutions– almost everything good happens through small group loyalty. Her A Casual Vacancy is about how personal virtue and the lack of same operate in a small community, both through individuals and the local government.
Great points. For similar reasons, I think Chesterton would’ve found much to like in, say, “Star Wars.”
As I mentioned above, Chesterton hoped that the automobile would restore some of the ancient autonomy he took to have been lost in the transition to the centralized world of railroads. I think “chivarly in space” would’ve appealed likewise. He wasn’t a Luddite, just a loather of bureaucracy.
Chesterton and Kerouac, unlikely soulmates?
Actually, besides Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing, they had a fair amount in common.
Both were romantics yearning for authenticity, and seeing the sublime in the ordinary. Both were perhaps rather intemperate (Chesterton ate and drank too much, and Kerouac, well….)
Sigh. Most recent anon, was again, me.
Oh, Chesterton ate, drank, and SMOKED too much. I’d edit the anon comment if I could.
Is Hogwarts itself an effective institution? I’m not entirely sure either way…
>Is Hogwarts itself an effective institution? I’m not entirely sure either way
hogwarts is barely an institution. other than the house system and a headmaster, it seems to have no formal organization at all. I don’t think they even have a secretary.
I agree that Hogwarts is barely an institution, and by ordinary standards, it’s a badly run institution– look at some of the teachers.
That’s possibly true for the techcom branch of neoreaction, but the ethnat branch has a lot more celebration of peasant common sense against treacherous elites, and some of the neoreactionaries the other day were discussing that maybe they should go by “peasantists” rather than “monarchists” to emphasize that they don’t want to be monarch – they want someone else (i.e. the monarch) to be explicitly, personally, identifiably responsible for politicking and in charge of politicking so that the neoreactionaries can go do their own peasant thing without being dragged into Will Of The People, Consent Of The Governed and other stuff that, to paraphrase the moldy one, is to power as pornography is to sex: a nanoslice of influence which gives the feeling of importance and heats the passions, without having enough content that one can ever associate a voter with a policy in any sense more distant than “I fapped to that”.
Besides, this accusation seems like it would be just as fairly leveled at your standard modern liberal democracy which says that some things in the constitution are not up for vote, and the separation of powers which says that subject matter experts can override the “herd” if the “herd” voted wrong.
That makes sense. FWIW, although he was himself very much an ardent English patriot, generous Hibernophile, venomous Prussophobe, casual anti-Semite, and smug disdainer of eastern religions, Chesterton was IMHO far too centered on Christianity to have any time for “blood and soil” nationalism (which term may or may not overlap with “ethnat” reaction, about which I know only what’s in your comment), which AFAIK struck him as idolatrous neo-pagan barbarism of the sort one expects from those beastly Prussians.
IOW, in fittingly paradoxical style, Chesterton was too much of an English chauvinist to embrace something as repulsively German as blood and soil nationalism!
Relatedly, as what is nowadays called a bio-conservative, Chesterton despised eugenics, and to the extent that racialism overlapped with eugenicism (which was great) he would have loathed it for that reason, too.
Irenist, that was very good.
ugh so good
This is a very good comment.
Orwell held a secular version of this kind of English chauvinism.
It’s kind of odd how many of these kind of reactionary Brits are still read today: Swift, Kipling, Waugh, Orwell, Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, etc., while their progressive opponents are increasingly forgotten unless they have some identity politics angle to keep their memory alive.
Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was strong and explicit against White Man’s Burden iirc, and against the idea of colonizing other solar systems as fresh territory when each sun dies. Hm, regardless of the biological adaptations Man might need to live there — paging GKC.
The part where the English space travellers are trying to impress the natives, in the best traditions of the adventure stories where the gallant heroes cow the superstitious natives by forecasting an eclipse due to their knowledge of SCIENCE, always cracks me up: Lewis (and if you don’t know he’s Northern Irish not English by this, you’ll never know) is mocking the living daylights out of the notion of “speak loudly and simply to the natives in English and they’ll understand you” and ‘dangle cheap trade goods in front of them’ and ‘we have SCIENCE, they only have witchdoctors so we should treat them like children’ attitudes of the time.
Can we please stop with this coloured tribe nonsense? It doesn’t encourage clearer thinking or anything of the sort, because all the regulars know which political groups the labels apply to and make the mental substitutions; it just makes the whole place more cliquey and less approachable for newcomers, which is the kind of thing that kills good communities.
What terms would you prefer, then? Brahmin, Vaisya, and Frontine? Solid Liberal, Steadfast Conservative, and Young Outsider?
The latter sound pretty good yeah. They’re self-explanatory, even to a foreigner like me.
The problem with the second group of labels is that they’re too political – Blue/Red/Grey are cultural tribes, which are associated with but are not limited to politics.
The colour labels are from politics though. Do other people not just mentally substitute Democrat/Republican/Libertarian?
Well, I don’t. I’m thinking of them primarily as affective types. Blue is sort of SJW or Bourgeois Bohemian (often Democrats but sometimes Greens or Libertarians or something more exotic) or otherwise standard upper middle class left-liberal mores; Gray is primarily tech-y, which is often libertarian but could just as well be Trotskyist or Neo-Monarchist or even Fascist so long as the essential affective core of technocratic nerdiness is preserved; Red is U.S. small business owner / U.S. white working class populism for anti-intellectuals; Violet is cultural conservatives who, whatever else they are, aren’t Reds. Some are fans of the market, but others, like Chesterton, are far more skeptical of markets than Reds tend to be.
Importantly, IMHO, there is a missing term for people with populist leftish economic views without upper middle class social mores. In Europe, that’s probably most of the working class of any color, and in the U.S. it would include lots of people of color and lower class whites. Some of these people are cultural conservatives (like African American evangelicals or many French National Front voters) but many are not, instead being laissez faire/libertine about culture, and mostly just worried that someone will cut their government benefits. I grew up in this so-far-un-color-coded group myself: usually permanently (or sometimes just chronically) unemployed (i.e., lower, not working, class) white (in my case) Americans for whom cultural opinions were inchoate and largely formed by daytime talk shows, and for whom party politics reduced to a contest between one party that wanted to cut our welfare benefits, and one party that wanted to hike, or at least preserve them. (One of my earliest childhood political memories is my mother pointing to Reagan on tv and saying that that man wanted us to starve to death in the streets.) One of the reasons I picked “Violet” for my current tribe is that I was hoping to leave one of the other shades of purple (because these folks are neither SJW Blue nor capitalist Red) free for my former, unnamed tribe, that of my kinfolk. (It says something about the demographics of the blogosphere commentariat that no need for such a term has yet been felt.)
That said, as a Violet nowadays, I’m most concerned to have a term for my own non-Red people. If the colors bug you (and they aren’t that great), one could certainly adopt Dreher’s “Crunchy Conservatives.” Although that’s imperfect, too, since while it works well for a Wendell Berry, it makes, say, Ross Douthat sound more ecologically focused than he is (which, AFAIK, is not at all).
Essentially, Violet is just my term for “I/the person under discussion am/is a cultural conservative but please put away your U.S. Republican Party bingo card.” I guess I could just say that, although it’s a bit long-winded.
Irenist, you don’t like being called Red because (you think) it includes lower classes. You almost noticed that when you complained about another lower class missing. Whether the term Red includes lower classes is tricky, because the term exists to equivocate on the matter.
I don’t disdain association with lower class people. My problem with lumping Violet with Red is that to me Red, in its rather U.S.-centric way, signifies a Fox News/talk radio suite of policy preferences, and while a ton of people have pretty much those preferences, the people I’m thinking of as Violets tend not to, despite sharing cultural conservatism with Reds.
Tangential thought: Take somebody like Rand Paul. He’s a libertarian, but he’s not really especially Gray Tribe-y at all. But he’s too libertarian, with his stances on foreign policy, drug law reform, and prison reform, to be really Red, either. But his sensibility isn’t Violet, either–he’s a free markets guy primarily, not a religious/cultural conservative primarily. The example of someone like Paul makes me think that it’s often necessary to just spell out specific positions, because actual people are too heterogeneous in their views to catalog completely. OTOH, politics is all about broad shallow coalitions (especially the structurally duopolistic U.S. party system), so sometimes such necessarily flawed terms are helpful to get modeling work done.
I don’t. There are Blue Republicans, such as the kind you’d find at a Young Conservative organization at some particularly progressive colleges (though this group tends to overlap with Violet somewhat). There are Red Democrats, who are white, middle-class, rural, go to church every Sunday, are sometimes even creationists – and support redistribution and affirmative action. There are also Red libertarians, who are motivated not by economics or moral philosophy (unlike Grey libertarians), but by a combination of the standard conservative “Get the government off my guns and out of my pocket” with tolerance for homosexuality and an opposition to war. And there are Greys of all kinds, from Democrats and Republicans to neo-reactionaries and communists.
The huge early heresies, like the Albigenses, had not the faintest excuse in moral superiority.
Wikipedia (and every Valerio Evangelisti reader) disagrees.
THANK YOU. I’ve always deplored Chesterton, even though as a convert Catholic I’m “supposed” to find him especially wise and insightful. He’s too clever by half, downright preternatural with his ability to turn a phrase, but it’s too frequent he seems to let an aesthetically attuned paragraph stand in for argument.
As to any claim of intellectual descent, I would positively ruffle at the suggestion. Distributism? Are you kidding me? The man is a wanker, a milquetoast conservative who is an example of exactly why leftists have been free to dominate the rhetorical landscape in modern times. He is more interested in appearing to be other than conservative, justifying his opinion in terms of being “truly more leftist than thou.” He sold out his Catholicism to gain respectability, and nothing more.
The first paragraph is insightful criticism but the second is chest-beating. Milquetoast? If anything his desire to get out and have a fight overwhelmed his capacity for reflection.
Nah, there’s a validity to it. The line of descent between Chesterton and the “crunchy cons” like Dreher and Wendell Berry is pretty direct, in both belief and style. They’re too pure and dainty for politics, and they’re stuck in a permanent state of nostalgia and critique, pedaling half-developed ideologies (distributism or the “Benedict Option”) rather than doing any intellectual or institutional heavy lifting. Chesterton was too enchanted with cooking up contrarian bon mots to make distributism a full-formed ideology or to engage in serious activism or advocacy. There’s a place for people like that, but they shouldn’t be anyone’s heroes.
That doesn’t mean he was afeart, a cynic, or a sellout, which is the complaint I was responding to. Was GKS too “pure and dainty” or too impatient and idealistic? I would plump for the latter. (Neoreactionaries would dislike him not for his personality but for his beliefs. His populism was antithetical to their more aristocratic leanings.)
Your critique has something to it, though. Conservatives pride themselves on being anti-ideological. That makes it hard for them to devise programs to challenge the more comprehensive and impassioned value systems of others. Perhaps this will be damned or ennobled depending on their success and failure.
i’ll “plump” for the latter too 😀
At that moment, however, the drowsy stillness of the summer afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin. – P.G. Wodehouse, Mr Mullner Speaking
“There’s obviously a line of intellectual descent from Chesterton to the neoreactionaries of today.”
Lol, no. If only.
Chesterton knows full well that his proposals are practical impossibilities*, he is asking you, as a modern person thinking in a modern way, to consider how incredibly unlikely it is that your very wonderful and scientific modern opinions are “right” and the past 2000 years is laughably wrong. He’s a Catholic, and he’s serious about it, and so he is perfectly comfortable with unanswerable questions and practical impossibilities and the virtue of humility, and believes that one is improved more by pondering these mysteries than in expounding on Marxism (1910) or gender whatever (2014) (or “neoreaction”). Certainly the clever modern people of today are saying things quite different than the clever modern people of 100 years ago, which only gives us an extra data point to confirm the hypothesis. The problem of human suffering is a simple one, it is solved best with limitless [lim (human->divine)] compassion, and that can’t be legislated or systematized, and Bob’s yer uncle.
* Distributism possibly sort of excepted.
Have you read the book? He seems pretty literally interested in political change to me.
[Thug life 2014]
I read that one, and Orthodoxy, and something else I can’t remember the name of. So it’s very possible I’m misremembering, and even more likely that I’m not the distinguished professor of Chesterton studies at Allwaysright university, so you can feel free to ignore me if you like. That said:
Catholics and people who aren’t modern “rationalists” or whatever are literally interested in political change, among other things. But they don’t always express themselves like a Brookings white paper, and their conception of politics differs from the secular view – it originates in and is intertwined with spirituality and theology. So if you don’t read with that in mind you miss his point entirely. I propose that when he says stuff like “we should burn the world down instead of cut a girl’s hair” he is speaking not strictly literally, and when he says stuff like “that was a parable”, he is.
Thank you for a brilliant explanation of why I, personally, both admire Chesterton and am pretty much unable to read his non-fiction. The unsatisfiable itch to respond, scathingly, to every bit of his inside-out reasoning is just too painful, so usually I quit after a few pages.
And yet I can’t help loving him. Bubblingly, laughably wrong, he may still somehow turn out profoundly right. Why not admit, for example, that if in 2014, we no longer have to consider cutting little girls’ hair (at least in England) – it might be in part due to Chesterton’s wit and influence?
True, Chesterton’s brain is not functioning too “rationally”. The way he’s swayed by every opportunity for a shiny paradox is childish. He’s clearly not a “thinker”. It’s real pain to read him if you have some minimal standards of consistency and sense-making. But he’s still a brilliant soul – a very attractive human being. For me, he’s a direct contrast to C.S.Lewis with whom he’s so often bundled – that C.S.Lewis who was so concerned with proper logic that he invented his laughably indefensible “trilemma” and who, as a good Christian, once suggested that the only reason we no longer burn witches at stake is that we don’t believe in magic anymore.
It’s real pain to read him if you have some minimal standards of consistency and sense-making. But he’s still a brilliant soul – a very attractive human being.
Exactly. Chesterton is worth reading not because he makes sense from a rationalist perspective (very hit-and-miss), but because he’s generally right in the sense of coming from a compassionate and humble and sincere place. And yes, he has some annoying tics and is too clever-clever much of the time and his sectarian stuff can be off-putting. Having one’s heart in the right place forgives worse things.
Scott, fascinating as this post was, the comment section needs to be burned and the earth over it salted.
That was me again. What is going on with the cookies?
I think the comments here are pretty good, except the one vaguely and unnecessarily hostile one.
Your take on the comments is going to depend on what you find horrible/triggering. (I agree with Matthew, but I don’t think either of us is suggesting that the comments be altered to suit our preferences.)
Large swathes of people not-on-the-left talking to each other, epicly failing the ideological Turing test vis a vis either contemporary or 1910 progressives was the particular issue I had here. It makes the race and gender threads look productive by comparison.
You know, for someone who supposedly doesn’t trust feminism or feminists, you sure seem to believe every single thing they claim. Opposing feminism because you favor equality is not crazy or paradoxical or even counterintuitive. It’s what most anti-feminists like myself believe.
Seriously, this keeps coming up over and over again. Feminism is not equality. Feminism is not women. Feminism is not good and good is not feminism. Feminism is feminism, a specific ideology that believes specific things (that are wrong one hundred percent of the time).
Every time you write something about feminism, just go back and replace every instance of the word with “the ideology”. If you come off as a creepy zealot, you learned something useful.
That seems like not such a great test. I think it would make anything come off as creepy.
You know, for someone who supposedly doesn’t trust the ideology or its ideologists, you sure seem to believe every single thing they claim. Opposing the ideology because you favor equality is not crazy or paradoxical or even counterintuitive. It’s what most anti-ideologues like myself believe.
…. Hey, you were right!
How is that creepy? That is a person saying the ideology is not good. That’s a normal thing for a person to say. There are no assumptions of the basic virtue and wonderfulness of the ideology encoded into that statement.
dat last paragraph
The rise of the New Left in the 1960s is the core discontinuity here. There’s no coincidence that the New Left’s rise, a sudden wave of popularity for J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-industrial/pro-medieval Lord of the Rings, and things like the folk revival, were largely simultaneous.
i really like writing styles like his. the wikipidia says he followed in the traditions of victorian era writers like carlyle and others. i just mention that guy specifically since i read quite a lot of things he wrote, and its pretty great in the same way this guys writing is. also did i mention rousseau before, he liked to turn things on its head too, and he got major success for doing this. which is not why he did it, but part of why he got the success he did. instead of trying to make sense of things he exposed how many things did not make sense. this was really refreshing to people and they took to it.
i think you’re not meant to take away anything practical from what this guy is saying. or look at it critically since then the holes in his arguments just unfolds if you have a good critically thinking mind, and it could tarnish how you perceive it. like another commenter said, she or he can’t stand to read his nonfiction for how her mind rebels against the insanity of his arguments at each step, and her impulse is to fight against the steam of his thoughts and want to critique them instead of going with his flow. i think minds trained in a certain way or just people of certain dispositions will be turned off from writing like this, but hopefully they could overcome this aversion or put it aside to appreciate it like you did because it really is awesome, and if some ppl could never get entertainment out of writing like this thats kinda sad. you know john stuart mill (super ultra rationalist guy in his early life) was at first really cautious of carlyle but then he comes to like him a lot. not his father. his dad john mill says its just pure ravings of a crazy guy, but his son sees its value in its ability to animate his feelings, and makes peace with the fact that the points aren’t being argued convincingly by any sound methods. he came to think that carlyle could maybe see many things before even he could see them, but for him he has to come upon those convictions in his own way at his own time. he has to deduce them in a way that satisfies his own mind and demands for consistency and is honest to himself, while carlyle just intuited them and left the business of justifications to others.
i wasn’t gonna post the quote but i just had to look it up again so im just gonna post it now
“I have already mentioned Carlyle’s earlier writings as one of the channels through which I received the influences which enlarged my early narrow creed; but I do not think that those writings, by themselves, would ever have had any effect on my opinions. What truths they contained, though of the very kind which I was already receiving from other quarters, were presented in a form and vesture less suited than any other to give them access to a mind trained as mine had been. They seemed a haze of poetry and German metaphysics, in which almost the only clear thing was a strong animosity to most of the opinions which were the basis of my mode of thought; religious scepticism, utilitarianism, the doctrine of circumstances, and the attaching any importance to democracy, logic, or political economy. Instead of my having been taught anything, in the first instance, by Carlyle, it was only in proportion as I came to see the same truths through media more suited to my mental constitution, that I recognized them in his writings. Then, indeed, the wonderful power with which he put them forth made a deep impression upon me, and I was during a long period one of his most fervent admirers; but the good his writings did me, was not as philosophy to instruct, but as poetry to animate.”
and what mill said about rousseau was this
“Thus, in the eighteenth century, when nearly all the instructed, and all those of the uninstructed who were led by them, were lost in admiration of what is called civilisation, and of the marvels of modern science, literature, and philosophy, and while greatly overrating the amount of unlikeness between the men of modern and those of ancient times, indulged the belief that the whole of the difference was in their own favour; with what a salutary shock did the paradoxes of Rousseau explode like bombshells in the midst, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided opinion, and forcing its elements to recombine in a better form and with additional ingredients. Not that the current opinions were on the whole farther from the truth than Rousseau’s were; on the contrary, they were nearer to it; they contained more of positive truth, and very much less of error. Nevertheless there lay in Rousseau’s doctrine, and has floated down the stream of opinion along with it, a considerable amount of exactly those truths which the popular opinion wanted; and these are the deposit which was left behind when the flood subsided. The superior worth of simplicity of life, the enervating and demoralising effect of the trammels and hypocrisies of artificial society, are ideas which have never been entirely absent from cultivated minds since Rousseau wrote; and they will in time produce their due effect, though at present needing to be asserted as much as ever, and to be asserted by deeds, for words, on this subject, have nearly exhausted their power.”
+ + Do you have a web page, or anything?
I actually really dislike Chesterton’s fiction, for the same sort of reason that Scott criticizes him here: he seems fundamentally unsympathetic to the idea that people who disagree with him could ever be correct, or have a point, or even have generally correct motives– the problem is always Sin. People who argue with Father Brown are always wrong, and more often than not they’re evil to boot. Chesterton seems to be an obligate polemicist.
I don’t see how you can claim to really care about people and understand them, as we’re told Father Brown does, without honestly and humbly trying to empathize, and it seems to me that would naturally lead to a hell of a lot more charity than is ever in evidence.
I haven’t read much Father Brown and didn’t much enjoy what I read. I liked Man Who Was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill. Have you read those?
I never really “got” Thursday; it just seemed to run off the rails to me. The Man Who Knew Too Much was quite good, though.
But that’s a much more cynical novel, much more disappointed and downbeat. It’s more realistic, certainly, about how politics is more about cabals and connections and who you know and where you went to school (look at “Call me Dave” Cameron and his cabinet), and that Tweedledee is not all that very much different from Tweedledum, but it’s also much more disappointed about the possibility of actually making a change.
The figure of Horne Fisher, who went into politics as a Liberal (by which I mean the Liberal Party in England, back when there (a) still was a Liberal party and (b) it had power and influence) genuinely believing in the stated principles of the party, and who then gets told the facts of life by his experiences and his family, and who is prematurely jaundiced and world-weary – sometimes strikes me a little as Chesterton himself as he got older and got entangled in things like really trying to get his political ideas off the ground and of course, that whole mess of a lawsuit involving his brother and the Marconi shares scandal.
I love “Thursday” because it does sail off into this wonderful crazy magical poetic ending 🙂
I also like “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” and “The Ball and the Cross”, where I do think he does some justice to an atheist in the figure of James Turnbull:
That last line, about giving one’s word – ah, you must excuse me, I was dragged up in a very rough and ready, old-fashioned manner, and had my head filled with all sorts of nonsense by reading 19th century historical romances, so I have this idealised view of honour – but that line stirs my blood and makes me love Turnbull.
Also, I love the bit about Jonah and the Whale – excuse me, once again, for revisiting this but yes, I do not feel that this particular bit of criticism is as world-shaking and star-destroying as it is made out to be:
yup. if hes just trying to fight against the ppl whose ideas he felt was very misguided at their core, he will do best to just undermine them in any way possible than put a reasoned argument forth for an alternative or make boring but valid critiques of where those ideas could be found weak. it sounds like his contemporaries who he disagreed with had ideas that was the pinnacle of reasonable and sane, or being pragmatic and easily explained, so he can’t very effectively fight them in that arena now can he. rather he just needs to make people doubtful of what those doctrines say and if they are really the best way forward. basically if they come to feel the repugnance for them he feels, he will have done his job and more, since anybody who recognizes the incompatibility of those ideas with the human spirit or whatever, is now someone who is oriented properly and will do good in whatever they do.
hes open about being purely oppositional to them like here. and not everybody has to be the rational ones right. he’ll be the polemicist for the skeptics of his contemporaries who he disagreed with, and leave it to somebody else to look at what he said, look at what the guys who he criticized said, and take what is valuable from both of them. at the end of the day if chestersons writings is not far from the minds of whoever is policy making then im sure he would be pretty pleased by that. if you are somebody of influence you dont need to become total chesterson fanboy for him to be happy, you just need to have him as one of those angels on your shoulder when big decisions has to be made. his writing is a lot for impact so it sticks with the reader whether they wanted it to or not.
“I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic — that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic — that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”
I don’t see how you can claim to really care about people and understand them, as we’re told Father Brown does, without honestly and humbly trying to empathize, and it seems to me that would naturally lead to a hell of a lot more charity than is ever in evidence.
*spits on fist* Them’s fightin’ words! To which I respond with a huge chunk of excerpt from “The Wisdom of Father Brown”:
We can’t really complain if the detective hero of a series of detective stories is generally portrayed as being in the right, and the murderers are generally portrayed as being in the wrong. That is usually how detective stories work unless it’s a deliberate reversal like the Hannibal Lecter novels or the “Dexter” TV series – and I still don’t think Dexter is any kind of hero or sympathetic, even if he only kills ‘bad’ serial killers who are much worse than he is.
I didn’t realize Chesterton had developed something similar to Hansen’s near and far views.
It gives me paragraphs like this:
Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.
This is exactly the project, but it’s probably going to have to wait for after the Singularity.
I believe that this “Singularity” is what unenlightened pre-moderns called “the second coming”.
That is a wonderful passage, and it’s worth focusing in on that word “parable” at the beginning, and go back to the words of Jesus in the gospels and note the obvious, completely intentional parallels. Not to labor the point, but Chesterton is a sincere Catholic, and he always has to be read this way. Burning down the world to save a little girl’s hair is really an awful response in the same way that “consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” is seriously the worst career advice ever given. Turning the clock back to a Never-Was medieval village (an Englishman’s Eden) is similarly an obviously stupid program on every single level as you have noted. So kindly stop reading them as policy proposals and just consider the f*cking lilies already.
Chesterton believes that God’s creation is good, and men’s creations are flawed, and get more flawed the further they get from God. God is good, Man is sinful, God can redeem Man. Simple > sophisticated, sentiment > reason, tradition > modesty, nature > civilization, the meek > their betters. You can agree or not, but (and I say this as a non-Christian) it is very hard to look at the century which followed and not think that the world would be a better place if clever modern people with rational scientific ideas about society and no time for childish sentiment and outdated superstition had just shut the hell up.
“You can agree or not, but (and I say this as a non-Christian) it is very hard to look at the century which followed and not think that the world would be a better place if clever modern people with rational scientific ideas about society and no time for childish sentiment and outdated superstition had just shut the hell up.”
I think that Chesterton’s objection was less to things like public health and medicine, and more to (for example) the fresh new hotness in the smart set that would soon be actualized as Leninism and its descendants. “Ideas about society” in the sense of new exciting theories worth killing millions for, rather than just doing the usual things better.
Yes, Hitler, a paragon of rational scientific modernism /s.
I’m no expert. But was postmodernism not a revolt against things like mustard gas, or top-down urban-planning? Was Frankenstien not an allegory about the dangers of industrialization? Will (someone similar to) Hitler also cause the singularity? Hitler may not have been modernism’s posterchild. But it can certainly be argued that modernism isn’t all vaccines and moon missions.
I’m not a historian but IIRC the whole history of the Nazis in Germany was deeply rooted in Romanticism and general rejection of modernity. Hitler may have embraced a few (mostly ideologically neutral) modern ideas about organization of society himself, but he was the culmination of an ideology that was completely against and decidedly not “clever modern people with rational scientific ideas about society and no time for childish sentiment”. So blaming WW2 on modernism seems kind of absurd to me. (the situation with Stalin is more complicated).
Edit: Also I’m not so sure Frankenstein was an allegory of industrialization. Did Shelley ever say anything like that? If I was to read it without any preconceptions I would probably interpret it as being about parental abandonment more than anything.
The claim: “clever modern people with rational scientific ideas about society and no time for childish sentiment and outdated superstition had just shut the hell up.”
The motte: “Obviously I’m just talking about really terrible ideas like Stalinism. You don’t support Stalinism, do you?”
The bailey: “I’m going to ignore all evidence, science, and reasoning, do whatever superstitious, childish, or selfish thing I want, and then loudly accuse you of being Stalin if you want to improve society in a way I disprove of.”
… Also, the lack of 1st world war casualties since the advent of The Bomb may be subject to sudden revision. But that is certainly good, I agree, and I doubt Chesterton would argue. I don’t know how much of that is owed to clever modern breaks with tradition, however.
“it is very hard to look at the century which followed and not think that the world would be a better place if clever modern people with rational scientific ideas about society and no time for childish sentiment and outdated superstition had just shut the hell up.”
ugh this is me
I’m currently reading a biography of Lenin, so I’ve got certain things on my mind. Perhaps other things happened in the 20th century; I’ll look into it and report back. “certain clever modern … the hell up” let’s say instead.
I propose we name this Chesterton’s Disease–a degenerative condition a la Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. And then we diagnose Slavoj Zizek with the second most advanced case of it ever observed.
“I think I just got Chesterton’d.” Also,
Proposal: SSC host a Chesterton’s Challenge.
Great writing, again.
If you think Chesterton (or anyone) is brilliant and you think he is engaged in a project that is crazy/stupid you have two options:
1) Believe that he has a screw loose somewhere (what I take to be your opinion).
2) Reevaluate what his actual project is.
This is basically the restated humility-premise of Chesterton’s Fence.
So what might Chesterton’s actual project be? Likely recasting the major project of his life (recovery of orthodox Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism) into a new form to interact with a new audience. If that is so his major goal in advocating for revolution is to first achieve a revolution in the soul of his reader.
The interesting point is why modern-readers (or at least certain kinds of modern readers) don’t get this (assuming for a moment that the above analysis of Chesterton doesn’t hold equally for Anderson). I think the reason is that Chesterton’s method depends on sharing certain ethical and metaphysical beliefs with him that you are called back to. If you don’t share them, for example if you don’t believe that happy little girls are Innocent (in some sort of platonic sense) or you don’t leap to the understanding that worthwhile manhood means unlimited sacrifice for such girls (or if these ideas are tempered by thoughts of utility or consequence) then you will be lead somewhere other then where he intends.
This latter condition is sort of like tourists playing with Ankhs; disconnected strangers playing with the debris of the past.
It is a odd thing to think about though, while Chesterton might be useful to save souls his works aren’t going to do much to solve Christianity’s big problem – that Aristotelian physics (especially his idea of nature) is not adequate and that no successor natural ontology has appeared.
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