Someone recently linked me to Bryan Caplan’s post A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ. He argues that “western civilization”‘s supposed defenders don’t give it enough credit. They’re always worrying about it being threatened by Islam or China or Degeneracy or whatever, but in fact western civilization can not only hold its own against these threats but actively outcompetes them:
The fragility thesis is flat wrong. There is absolutely no reason to think that Western civilization is more fragile than Asian civilization, Islamic civilization, or any other prominent rivals. At minimum, Western civilization can and does perpetuate itself the standard way: sheer conformity and status quo bias.
But saying that Western civilization is no more fragile than other cultures is a gross understatement. The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.
A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture. Even its nominal detractors will be Westernized in all but name. Picture how contemporary Christian fundamentalists’ consumerism and gender roles would have horrified Luther or Calvin. Western civ is a good winner. It doesn’t demand total surrender. It doesn’t make fans of competing cultures formally recant their errors. It just tempts them in a hundred different ways until they tacitly convert.
Traditionalists’ laments for Western civilization deeply puzzle me. Yes, it’s easy to dwell on setbacks. In a world of seven billion people, you can’t expect Western culture to win everywhere everyday. But do traditionalists seriously believe that freshman Western civ classes are the wall standing between us and barbarism? Have they really failed to notice the fact that Western civilization flourishes all over the globe, even when hostile governments fight it tooth and nail? It is time for the friends of Western civilization to learn a lesson from its enemies: Western civ is a hardy weed. Given half a chance, it survives, spreads, and conquers. Peacefully.
I worry that Caplan is eliding the important summoner/demon distinction. This is an easy distinction to miss, since demons often kill their summoners and wear their skin. But in this case, he’s become hopelessly confused without it.
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it included things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
An analogy: naturopaths like to use the term “western medicine” to refer to the evidence-based medicine of drugs and surgeries you would get at your local hospital. They contrast this with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has somewhat replaced, apparently a symptom of the “westernization” of Chinese and Indian societies.
But “western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, “western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe – Hippocrates’ four humors – before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.
The same is true of more intellectual “products”. Caplan notes that foreigners consume western gender norms, but these certainly aren’t gender norms that would have been recognizable to Cicero, St. Augustine, Henry VIII, or even Voltaire. They’re gender norms that sprung up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and its turbulent intermixing of the domestic and public economies. They arose because they worked. The West was the first region to industrialize and realize those were the gender norms that worked for industrial societies, and as China and Arabia industrialize they’re going to find the same thing.
A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture.
Certainly he’s pointing at a real phenomenon – sushi has spread almost as rapidly as Coke. But in what sense has sushi been “westernized”? Yes, Europe has adopted sushi. But so have China, India, and Africa. Sushi is another refreshment that works, a crack in the narrative that what’s going on is “westernization” in any meaningful sense.
Here’s what I think is going on. Maybe every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift. But this is usually a slow process with plenty of room for everybody to adjust and local peculiarities to seep in. The Industrial Revolution caused such rapid change that the process become qualitatively different, a frantic search for better adaptations to an environment that was itself changing almost as fast as people could understand it.
The Industrial Revolution also changed the way culture was spatially distributed. When the fastest mode of transportation is the horse, and the postal system is frequently ambushed by Huns, almost all culture is local culture. England develops a culture, France develops a culture, Spain develops a culture. Geographic, language, and political barriers keep these from intermixing too much. Add rapid communication – even at the level of a good postal service – and the equation begins to change. In the 17th century, philosophers were remarking (in Latin, the universal language!) about how Descartes from France had more in common with Leibniz from Germany than either of them did with the average Frenchman or German. Nowadays I certainly have more in common with SSC readers in Finland than I do with my next-door neighbor whom I’ve never met.
Improved trade and communication networks created a rapid flow of ideas from one big commercial center to another. Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, egalitarian gender norms, sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t. It happened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were inducted into the universal culture in proportion to their participation in global trade; Shanghai was infected before West Kerry; Dubai is further gone than Alabama. The great financial capitals became a single cultural region in the same way that “England” or “France” had been a cultural region in the olden times, gradually converging on more and more ideas that worked in their new economic situation.
Let me say again that this universal culture, though it started in the West, was western only in the most cosmetic ways. If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it, and it would have been much the same. The new sodas and medicines and gender norms invented in Beijing or Baghdad would have spread throughout the world, and they would have looked very familiar. The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.
Something Caplan was pointing towards but never really said outright: universal culture is by definition the only culture that can survive without censorship.
He writes in his post:
The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.
Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products. Coca-Cola spreads because it tastes better than whatever people were drinking before. Egalitarian gender norms spread because they’re more popular and likeable than their predecessors. If there was something that outcompeted Coca-Cola, then that would be the official soda of universal culture and Coca-Cola would be consigned to the scrapheap of history.
The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural – Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time – universal culture can’t assimilate every little hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.
Imagine that Tibet wants to protect its traditional drink of yak’s milk. The Dalai Lama requests that everyone continue to drink yak’s milk. But Coca-Cola tastes much better than yak’s milk, and everyone knows this. So it becomes a coordination problem: even if individual Tibetans would prefer that their neighbors all drink yak’s milk to preserve the culture, they want to drink Coca-Cola. The only way yak’s milk stays popular is if the Dalai Lama bans Coca-Cola from the country.
But westerners aren’t banning yak’s milk to “protect” their cultures. They don’t have to. Universal culture is high-entropy; it’s already in its ground state and will survive and spread without help. All other cultures are low-entropy; they survive only if someone keeps pushing energy into the system to protect them. It could be the Dalai Lama banning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language. It could be the secret police killing anyone who speaks out against Comrade Stalin. But if you want anything other than universal culture, you better either be surrounded by some very high mountains, or be willing to get your hands dirty.
There’s one more sense in which universal culture is high-entropy; I think it might be the only culture that can really survive high levels of immigration.
I’ve been wondering for a long time – how come groups that want to protect their traditional cultures worry about immigration? After all, San Francisco is frequently said to have a thriving gay culture. There’s a strong Hasidic Jewish culture in New York City. Everyone agrees that the US has something called “black culture”, although there’s debate over exactly what it entails. But only 6% of San Francisco is gay. Only 1% of New Yorkers are Hasidim. Only about 11% of Americans are black. So these groups have all managed to maintain strong cultures while being vastly outnumbered by people who are different from them.
So why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture? Suppose that Tibet was utterly overwhelmed by immigrants, tens of millions of them. No matter how many people you import, Tibetan people couldn’t possibly get more outnumbered in their own country than gays, Hasidim, and blacks already are. But those groups hold on to their cultures just fine. Wouldn’t we expect Tibetans (or Americans, or English people) to do the same?
I’m still not totally sure about the answer to this one, but once again I think it makes more sense when we realize that Tibet is competing not against Western culture, but against universal culture.
And here, universal culture is going to win, simply because it’s designed to deal with diverse multicultural environments. Remember, different strategies can succeed in different equilibria. In a world full of auto-cooperators, defect-bot hits the jackpot. In a world full of tit-for-tat-players, defect-bot crashes and burns. Likewise, in a world where everybody else follows Tibetan culture, Tibetan culture may do very well. In a world where there are lots of different cultures all mixed together, Tibetan culture might not have any idea what to do.
(one more hypothetical, to clarify what I’m talking about – imagine a culture where the color of someone’s clothes tells you a lot of things about them – for example, anyone wearing red is a prostitute. This may work well as long as everyone follows the culture. If you mix it 50-50 with another culture that doesn’t have this norm, then things go downhill quickly; you proposition a lady wearing red, only to get pepper sprayed in the eye. Eventually the first culture gives up and stops trying to communicate messages through clothing color.)
I think universal culture has done a really good job adapting to this through a strategy of social atomization; everybody does their own thing in their own home, and the community exists to protect them and perform some lowest common denominator functions that everyone can agree on. This is a really good way to run a multicultural society without causing any conflict, but it requires a very specific set of cultural norms and social technologies to work properly, and only universal culture has developed these enough to pull it off.
Because universal culture is better at dealing with multicultural societies, the more immigrants there are, the more likely everyone will just default to universal culture in public spaces. And eventually the public space will creep further and further until universal culture becomes the norm.
If you don’t understand the difference between western culture and universal culture, this looks like the immigrants assimilating – “Oh, before these people were Chinese people behaving in their foreign Chinese way, but now they’re Westerners just like us.” Once you make the distinction, it looks like both Chinese people and traditional Americans assimilating into universal culture in order to share a common ground – with this being invisible to people who are already assimilated into universal culture, to whom it just looks “normal”.
I stress these points because the incorrect model of “foreign cultures being Westernized” casts Western culture as the aggressor, whereas the model of “every culture is being universalized” finds Western culture to be as much a victim as anywhere else. Coca-Cola might have replaced traditional yak’s milk in Mongolia, but it also replaced traditional apple cider in America. A Hopi Indian saddened that her children no longer know the old ritual dances differs little from a Southern Baptist incensed that her kids no longer go to church. Universal values have triumphed over both.
Our society is generally in favor of small, far-away, or exotic groups trying to maintain their culture. We think it’s great that the Hopi are trying to get the next generation to participate in the traditional dances. We support the Tibetans’ attempt to maintain their culture in the face of pressure from China. We promote black culture, gay culture, et cetera. We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures. For example, when white American educators taught Native American children to identify with white American culture and ignore the old ways, that was inappropriate and in some senses “genocidal” if the aim was to destroy Native Americans as a separate people. We get excited by the story of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom trying to preserve its natural and human environment and prevent its own McDonaldization. We tend to be especially upset when the destruction of cultures happens in the context of colonialism, ie a large and powerful country trying to take over and eliminate the culture of a smaller country. Some examples include the English in Ireland, the English in India, the English in Africa, and basically the English anywhere.
One of the most common justifications for colonialism is that a more advanced and enlightened society is taking over an evil and oppressive society. For example, when China invaded Tibet, they said that this was because Tibet was a feudal hellhole where most of the people were living in abject slavery and where people who protested the rule of the lamas were punished by having their eyes gouged out (true!). They declared the anniversary of their conquest “Serfs Emancipation Day” and force the Tibetans to celebrate it every year. They say that anyone who opposes the Chinese, supports the Dalai Lama, or flies the old Tibetan flag is allied with the old feudal lords and wants to celebrate a culture based around serfdom and oppression.
But opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in and of themselves. This is true even if the culture is very poor, if the culture consists of people who aren’t very well-educated by Western standards, even if they believe in religions that we think are stupid, even if those cultures have unsavory histories, et cetera. We tend to allow such cultures to resist outside influences, and we even celebrate such resistance. If anybody were to say that, for example, Native Americans are poor and ignorant, have a dumb religion with all sorts of unprovable “spirits”, used to be involved in a lot of killing and raiding and slave-taking – and so we need to burn down their culture and raise their children in our own superior culture – that person would be incredibly racist and they would not be worth listening to. We celebrate when cultures choose preservation of their traditional lifestyles over mere economic growth, like Bhutan’s gross national happiness program.
This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist. Although we laugh at the Chinese claim that the only reason a Tibetan could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support serfdom and eye-gouging, we solemnly nod along with our own culture’s claim that the only reason a Southerner could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support racism and slavery.
(one question I got on the post linked above was why its description of American tribes seemed to fit other countries so well. I think the answer is because most countries’ politics are centered around the conflict between more-universalized and less-universalized segments of the population.)
We could even look at this as a form of colonialism – if Brexit supporters and opponents lived on two different islands and had different colored skin, then people in London saying things like “These people are so butthurt that we’re destroying their so-called ‘culture’, but they’re really just a bunch of ignorant rubes, and they don’t realize they need us elites to keep their country running, so screw them,” would sound a lot more sinister. The insistence that they tolerate unwanted immigration into their lands would look a lot like how China is trying to destroy Tibet by exporting millions of people to it in the hopes they will eventually outnumber the recalcitrant native Tibetans (if you don’t believe me, believe the Dalai Lama, who apparently has the same perspective). The claim that they’re confused bout their own economic self-interest would give way to discussions of Bhutan style “gross national happiness”.
(I get accused of being crypto-conservative around here every so often, but I think I’m just taking my anti-colonialism position to its logical conclusion. A liberal getting upset about how other liberals are treating conservatives, doesn’t become conservative himself, any more than an American getting upset about how other Americans treat Iraqis becomes an Iraqi.)
And I worry that confusing “universal culture” with “Western culture” legitimizes this weird double standard. If universal culture and Western culture are the same thing, then Western culture doesn’t need protection – as Caplan points out, it’s the giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else. Or maybe it doesn’t deserve protection – after all, it’s the colonialist ideology that tried to destroy local cultures and set itself up as supreme. If Western culture is already super-strong and has a history of trying to take over everywhere else, then surely advocating “protecting Western culture” must be a code phrase for something more sinister. We can sympathize with foreign cultures like the Tibetans who are actually under threat, but sympathizing with any Western culture in any way would just be legitimizing aggression.
But I would argue that it’s universal culture which is the giant unstoppable wave of progress, and that it was universal culture that was responsible for colonizing other cultures and replacing them with itself. And universal culture’s continuing attempts to subjugate the last unassimilated remnants of traditional western culture are just part of this trend.
I am mostly just on the side of consistency. After that I have no idea what to do.
One argument is that we should consistently support traditional cultures’ attempts to defend themselves against universal culture. Support the Native Americans’ ability to practice their old ways, support traditional Siberians trying to return to their shamanistic roots, support Australian Aborigines’ rights to continue the old rituals, support Tibetans’ rights to practice Vajrayana Buddhism, and support rural British people trying to protect Ye Olde England from the changes associated with increased immigration. For most people, this would mean extending the compassion that they feel to the Aborigines, peasants, and Tibetans to apply to the British as well.
But another argument is that we should consistently support universal culture’s attempt to impose progress on traditional cultures. Maybe we should tell the Native Americans that if they embraced global capitalism, they could have a tacqueria, sushi restaurant, and kebab place all on the same street in their reservation. Maybe we should tell the Aborigines that modern science says the Dreamtime is a myth they need to stop clinging to dumb disproven ideas. Maybe we should tell the Tibetans that Vajrayana Buddhism is too intolerant of homosexuality. Take our conviction that rural Englanders are just racist and xenophobic and ill-informed, and extend that to everyone else who’s trying to resist a way of life that’s objectively better.
I am sort of torn on this.
On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better. Its science is more correct, its economy will grow faster, its soft drinks are more refreshing, its political systems are (necessarily) freer, and it is (in a certain specific sense) what everybody would select if given a free choice. It also seems morally better. The Tibetans did gouge out the eyes of would-be-runaway serfs. I realize the circularity of saying that universal culture is objectively morally better based on it seeming so to me, a universal culture member – but I am prepared to suspend that paradox in favor of not wanting people’s eyes gouged out for resisting slavery.
On the other hand, I think that “universal culture is what every society would select if given the opportunity” is less of a knock-down point than it would seem. Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity. That is, if nobody placed “censorship” on the spread of heroin, it would rapidly spread from country to country, becoming a major part of that country’s society. Instead, we implement an almost authoritarian level of control on it, because we know that even though it would be very widely adopted, it’s not something that is good for anybody in the long term. An opponent of universal culture could say it has the same property.
Things get even worse when you remember that cultures are multi-agent games and each agent pursuing its own self-interest might be a disaster for the whole. Pollution is a good example of this; if the best car is very polluting, and one car worth of pollution is minimal but many cars’ worth of pollution is toxic, then absent good coordination mechanisms everyone will choose the best car even though everyone would prefer a world where nobody (including them) had the best car. I may have written about this before.
I’m constantly intrigued (though always a little skeptical) by claims that “primitive” cultures live happier and more satisfying lives than our own. I know of several of this type. First, happiness surveys that tend to find Latin American countries doing as well or better than much richer and more advanced European countries. Second, the evidence from the Amish, whose children are allowed to experience the modern culture around them but who usually prefer to stay in Amish society. Third, Axtell’s paper on prisoner exchanges between early US colonists and Native Americans; colonists captured by the natives almost always wanted to stay and live with the natives; natives captured by the colonists never wanted to stay and live with the colonists. Many people have remarked on how more culturally homogenous countries seem happier. Bhutan itself might be evidence here, although I’ve seen wildly different claims on where it falls on happiness surveys. I’ve also talked before about how China’s happiness level stayed stable or even dropped during its period of rapid development.
(on the other hand, there’s also a lot of counterevidence. More democratic countries seem to be happier, and democracies will generally be the low-censorship countries that get more assimilated into universal culture. Free market economies are happier. Some studies say that more liberal countries are happier. And there’s a complicated but positive relationship between national happiness and wealth.)
I also think that it might be reasonable to have continuation of your own culture as a terminal goal, even if you know your culture is “worse” in some way than what would replace it. There’s a transhumanist joke – “Instead of protecting human values, why not reprogram humans to like hydrogen? After all, there’s a lot of hydrogen.” There’s way more hydrogen than beautiful art, or star-crossed romances, or exciting adventures. A human who likes beautiful art, star-crossed romances, and exciting adventures is in some sense “worse” than a human who likes hydrogen, since it would be much harder for her to achieve her goals and she would probably be much less happy. But knowing this does not make me any happier about the idea of being reprogrammed in favor of hydrogen-related goals. My own value system might not be objectively the best, or even very good, but it’s my value system and I want to keep it and you can’t take it away from me. I am an individualist and I think of this on an individual level, but I could also see having this self-preservation-against-optimality urge for my community and its values.
(I’ve sometimes heard this called Lovecraftian parochialism, based on H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy that the universe is vast and incomprehensible and anti-human, and you’ve got to draw the line between Self and Other somewhere, so you might as well draw the line at 1920s Providence, Rhode Island, and call everywhere else from Boston all the way to the unspeakable abyss-city of Y’ha-nthlei just different degrees of horribleness.)
Overall I am not 100% convinced either way. Maybe some traditional cultures are worse than universal culture and others are better? Mostly the confusion makes me want to err on the side of allowing people to go either direction as they see fit, barring atrocities. Which are of course hard to define.
I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not going to impose our values on anyone else…except these seven values which we think are incredibly important and breaking them is totally beyond the pale.” Sometimes I wish universal culture would just establish a couple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slavery” and “no eye-gouging” – and then agree to bomb/sanction/drone any culture that breaks them while leaving other cultures alone. On the other hand, I also understand universal culture well enough to know that two minutes after the first set of Noahide Laws were established, somebody would propose amending them to include something about how every culture must protect transgender bathroom rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to prevent this, or if preventing it is even desirable. This seems like the same question as the original question, only one meta-level up and without any clear intuition to help me solve it. I guess this is another reason I continue to be attracted to the idea of Archipelago.
But I think that none of this makes sense unless we abandon the idea that “universal culture” and “western culture” are one and the same. I think when Caplan’s debate opponent talked about “protecting Western culture”, he was referring to something genuinely fragile and threatened.
I also think he probably cheated by saying we needed to protect it because it was responsible for so many great advances, like Coca-Cola and egalitarian gender norms. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s a culture much like Tibetan or Indian culture, pretty neat in its own way, possibly extra interesting as the first culture to learn the art of summoning entities from beyond the void. Mostly I’m just happy that it exists in the same way I’m happy that pandas and gorillas exist, a basic delight in the diversity of the world. I think it can be defended in those terms without having to resolve the debate on how many of its achievements are truly its own.
You lost me at “Coca-Cola isn’t culturally Western”. How is “an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar” NOT Western? That’s exactly what the quote guy is talking about. We take the best stuff of other cultures and mix it together into something that’s optimally delicious (and bad for you). Pop music, fast food, crack cocaine, partisan politics, etc. etc.
Coca-Cola isn’t western because any culture could conceive of mixing a bean with a leaf and lots and lots of sugar. No single step of the process of inventing Coca-Cola requires “The West” to exist, so the sum of the whole isn’t “Western”.
Yeah, but they didn’t.
Right. Similarly, gunpowder was a Chinese inventions even though anybody else could have done it.
Gunpowder is the Western name for a Chinese invention, and nobody cares what the Chinese called it because in spite of several centuries’ head start the Chinese never came up with the killer app. How long did it take the West to come up with the gun, once they had the powder?
China did invent cannon and handheld firearms starting around the late Song dynasty. But once Europe got gunpowder, the development of Western firearms and artillery certainly lapped them and stayed in front for quite a long while.
The problem with China there was that it was way too peaceful. Europeans are like ninjas – they fight all the time. There were these Europeans eating at a diner once, and someone dropped a spoon, so they killed the whole town and launched a war that lasted a century.
Just the list of European conflicts alone is almost as long as the list of Chinese wars and battles.
Because China is a single entity, any list is going to include more items for Europe–if two pairs of European countries are going to war, that’s two entries on the list, but if a single entity as big as all of those countries goes to war, that’s one item on the list.
The Taiping Rebellion killed more people than World War I.
Why is that a relevant metric?
If we’re talking about war as a driver for innovation, I’m going to ask how many people were driven to do any innovating by the Taiping rebellion. I don’t think the dead ones got much innovation done.
More generally, civil wars and insurrections generally aren’t very good at driving innovation, because the Rebels are going to be armed with whatever light arms they can loot from the Imperial armories and so the Empire can’t gain a net advantage by inventing the Dreyse needle gun or whatever. The Rebels probably can’t field heavy weapons like tanks or artillery, so there’s relatively little gain to the Empire in having better heavy weapons – they get most of their edge just from having heavy weapons at all. Likewise the Rebels probably can’t support a serious intrawar R&D effort, and if the rebellion is serious enough that the Empire is worried about the inadequacy of its weapons, they probably can’t either. The smart move for the Empire is to invest in training, which the Rebels can’t loot from an armory.
For war to drive innovation, you really want a war between nations, and preferably one that both sides know is coming well in advance. Occasionally a Civil War will break along neat geographic and institutional lines and last long enough to approximate a war between nations in this respect, and that has happened in China. But Europe has a clear “advantage” when it comes to frequency of wars between nations with independent military-industrial complexes.
@John schilling – How about the american civil war? …Ironclads are the only serious innovation I can think of offhand, though.
Ironclads, arguably submarines and naval mines, some improvements in repeating rifles.
But the American Civil War was as close as you can get to a war between nation-states and still have “Civil” in the title. That one not only broke along neat geographic and institutional lines, the institutions in question were literally states, vestigial nation-states in fact and name. Splitting along the Mason-Dixon line did not deprive either side of a capable military-industrial complex, and the resulting war lasted long enough to do interesting things with it.
I know what you mean, but here’s the obligatory reminder that Maryland, Delaware, and Washington DC remained in the Union. The split was along the Potomac (on the east coast), though of course that’s not quite as catchy.
Not so simple. Delaware is north and east of the Mason-Dixon line. Annapolis (the capitol of Maryland) was occupied by Federal troops. The legislature was then convened in Frederick. When they met for their second session there, the Feds went in and arrested the legislature. So you could fairly consider Maryland to be occupied territory rather than Northern.
I think your characterization is a bit misleading, but that’s beside the point. The question of which side owned which factories is the same no matter whether you consider Maryland “occupied confederate territory” or not.
(Delaware is included as a hedge for those who only recall the PA-MD boundary as part of the line.)
To clarify, I’m not trying to suggest you or Schilling don’t know these things, just to make the facts on the ground in 1861 more obvious for those not familiar with the ACW.
I’d argue ironclads and naval mines. The first naval mines used in action were during the Crimean War, and the American Ironclad turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. The actual ancestry of the armored warship goes through HMS Warrior and her French contemporaries, not Monitor, and everything I’ve read on contemporary British warships suggests that there was very minimal influence from the US (and rightly so). If anything, the Civil War set the US Navy back for the next 20 years or so.
@LHN I don’t know which innovations originated exactly where and I believe nobody does in some cases (in the 1600s or so Europeans didn’t know where gunpowder was from), but the middle east and even India had comparable firearms technology to Europe until maybe the 1700s; check out the Gunpowder Empires , or Mysore Rockets
Coca-Cola is Western because the only way to make the concoction palatable and refreshing is to refrigerate it.
Plenty of non-Western cultures developed methods of refrigeration based either on evaporation of water or melting ice. The Persians have been eating faloodeh, which requires refrigeration to make it, for centuries if not millennia.
While I might agree with you on grounds of personal taste, Coca-Cola is consumed unrefrigerated in vast quantities in the developing world. One thing you’ll hear from world travelers is that the only thing you can get everywhere (everywhere) in the world is Coke, from the African bush to the Andean altiplano. Most of the time it’s warm. People drink it anyway.
Fun fact: there’s actually an NGO that packages medicine in specially-shaped containers that fit in empty spaces in Coke’s bottle distribution crates in order to piggyback on their bottle distribution network.
Everywhere… except the USA, where they have some foul-tasting substitute defective product.
Coca-Cola is more than just a recipe that happens to include ingredients from more than one continent.
It’s the global supply chain that brings those ingredients together on a mass scale. It’s the refrigeration that, as others have noted, is vital to the process. And the carbonation. And the bottling, and so industrial glass production. And the mass-market distribution. And the advertising, which is probably more important than any other step on this list, or any of the countless others I have no doubt forgotten.
Add up all those steps, and I think there is one step that is indispensable and is, at least historically, uniquely western:
Step 1. Form a limited-liability joint stock corporation.
Coca-Cola was invented 130 years ago. Many of these elements didn’t exist or were drastically less important back then. It was invented and produced in a Western country and sold to Westerners; selling it globally came later.
Actually, 130 years ago is about the time refrigeration became common enough (in the US) for the average town to have a soda fountain, even if the average private kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator. Likewise assembly-line bottling, and brand advertising on a national scale.
Coca-Cola was invented and popularized very soon after Western Civilization put into place all of the elements necessary for Coca-Cola to exist as we know it.
I’m pretty sure Scott’s hypothesis is that joint-stock companies are part of “universal” culture or just outright a technology, i.e. that they would have been invented in India or China had something like the Renaissance happened there instead, and that nothing about them is inherently connected to Charlemagne or Plato or Christianity or anything else which Chinese hippies in the post-colonial period would have called “western” (in fact, the earliest record of one WAS in China).
Obviously the first part isn’t falsifiable given current technology, but the second seems pretty clear from our own timeline.
(Incidentally, Christianity seems like a good example of a part of Western culture that did in fact spread- disregarding that it originated in the near east, it was still part of European culture and wouldn’t be common in Africa today if India had colonized it. OTOH it mostly spread during imperialism and isn’t spreading nearly as much as things Scott listed as universal culture. There are probably plenty of smaller examples that worked similarly.)
According to Wiki, the number of Christians in Africa increased from 9 million in 1900 to 380 million in 2000 and that it’s predicted to increase to 633 million by 2025. (Source)
The objection is that we call it “Western culture” but we should be using the term “universal culture” instead–i.e., the Southern Baptist is part of “the West” but rejects some significant portions of what we’re calling “Western culture.”
I think this means that cultural appropriation is really just upgrading something from being part of “[non-universal] culture” to “universal culture”.
And much like Windows 10, that upgrade might be an improvement but it should require permission to perform that upgrade for others.
That’s interesting. Are you saying that I can just choose to not provide permission for the various aspects of “Western culture” having been upgraded to “universal culture”? Is Caplan then right that those things are still Western culture just because he didn’t give permission for it to be universal culture?
@anonymous no, the thing you have to give permission for is having a newly adopted Universal Culture thing imposed on you.
I think the sort of cultural appropriation that people complain seriously about tends to be taking something from one non-universal culture, putting it in another non-universal culture, and claiming that you’ve now universalized it. A [i]lot[/i] of confusion stems from people getting western culture and universal culture confused.
I think Coca-Cola is a specifically bad example for a different reason, which is that much of its appeal is as a sort of symbol, and whether it’s a symbol of western or universal culture is a tricky question. If it were so much better as a fizzy sweet beverage alone it would stand out more in blind taste tests.
Coca Cola isn’t Coca Cola because the ingredients, it’s Coca Cola because of the marketing.
Other countries and cultures have their own sweet drinks that arguably taste better. Hell America has plenty of sweet drinks that objectively taste better. Most countries also have the capability to produce their own, local, Coca Cola knockoffs, and they do, but the knockoffs are not as popular as Coca Cola.
What distinguishes Coca Cola, and what makes it Western is the Brand and the Marketing.
I think the distinction here isn’t so much about outgroups as about groups that present a credible threat to our culture. Take haredim for example: When I think of them as a marginal group on the verge of extinction, I get worried and don’t want them to disappear. When I see them as a massively growing demographic who can take over our culture, I really, really want them to.
Thinking about it, ingroup/outgroup corresponds remarkably well with who we view as threats to our culture (rather than to our personal safety): Americans on the right worry a lot more about transgender bathroom laws than terrorists, in proportion to the odds of actually being killed by them. But if you view it as a threat to their culture’s ability to survive, it all makes sense (Same goes for the left, with traditional christian values for example). The people most worried about immigration are the ones who see it as something that may change their culture.
This actually solves something that’s been bugging me, which is how to predict who some group’s outgroup will be – just look for whoever is threatening to replace their culture.
This is an important point. I should make this into a separate post, but I think some of modern American politics is best explained by failing to see the other side as a threat anymore because our bubble makes them seem as distant and bizarre as ISIS or North Korea. I think this explains why so much of the interesting debate these days is within tribes, eg between Sanders-style leftists and Hillary-style neoliberals, or between Romney-style technocrats and Cruz-style Tea Partiers and Trump-style nationalists. Does this sound plausible to anybody?
The other Tribe is still a threat, just not one that can be reasoned with. Their utility function is an inversion of our own. Why engage in policy debate with Thamiel?
There is a difference between “Disagrees over several policy positions that you value” and “Hates you and literally everything you stand for. Hates the fact that you are alive and happy and smiling and will do everything in their power to ruin everything you hold dear.” Politicians of the other tribe are the former, Thamiel is the latter, and it does nobody any good to say that the opposite tribe is literally the Devil.
Actually, despite the incredible polarization this election, both campaigns have tried to reach across the aisle. Hillary’s campaign has been reaching out to moderate Republicans, telling them “Yeah, you don’t like me, but Trump really is that bad, so hold your nose and help me keep him out of office.” And on the flip side, Trump has been reaching out to Bernie-or-busters, saying “Yeah, I’m not progressive, but you want to give a giant middle finger to the establishment, and I’m the guy to do that.”
There’s common ground between both sides. Not a lot of common ground, but you can find it if you don’t think your opponents are Satan Incarnate.
ISIS is as close to Thamiel as you’ll find anywhere in the world. They must be crushed utterly and without mercy.
I agree, but I’m not sure my Facebook feed does.
Ageus, I agree with what you said, except for this.
” it does nobody any good to say that the opposite tribe is literally the Devil.”
To say that the opposite tribe is literally the Devil is common practice in the U.S. And it does a lot of good– or at least accomplishes a lot of desired goals– in the sense of winning elections, keeping tribe members from leaving, and keeping one’s Congress members from ever compromising with the other party.
The Christian Right fundamentalists’ habit of seeing the other tribe as evil is why people seldom leave the “one true tribe” that is holy. And it’s why most governorships, most state legislatures, and both Houses of Congress are GOP dominated.
When leaving your party would mean going over to Lucifer, and being exiled by your former friends and associates because of your “sin”, people are unlikely to leave. And people who do remain in the tribe are very frightened enough of Lucifer to be highly motivated to go out and vote against him.
White Christian fundamentalist Right Wingers are a severe and powerful threat to those of us who believe in science and in human caused climate change, to LGBTQ people, and to many other groups of people.
Although both major political parties are trying to reach across the aisle, I would be very surprised if either one pulled a significant number of voters into crossing party lines in the election– especially not people crossing over to Dem from GOP. People don’t switch parties/tribes when it means being swayed by Lucifer and burning in hell forever. Just doesn’t happen.
It was the world’s most brilliant political propaganda idea ever, to overlap politics with religion, so that the other tribe is seen as Lucifer., and even listening to the other side’s point of view is being tempted by the Devil, with eternal damnation as the result.
Doesn’t this contradict your thesis that WFCRW-ers are the ones casting their opponents in the role of Lucifer?
>The Christian Right fundamentalists’ habit of seeing the other tribe as evil is why people seldom leave the “one true tribe” that is holy. And it’s why most governorships, most state legislatures, and both Houses of Congress are GOP dominated.
SO 10 years ago, most state governorships and legislatures weren’t republican. Did christian fundamentalists really only discover the power of labeling the enemy as evil a decade ago?
>White Christian fundamentalist Right Wingers are a severe and powerful threat to those of us who believe in science and in human caused climate change, to LGBTQ people, and to many other groups of people.
I swear, it’s like you’re trying to parody yourself.
ISIS are kind of a special case; they’re in favor of rape, destruction and death, without code or treaty, leading up to the end of the world in a gigantic war.
That’s substantially different to disagreeing on the precise way to go about avoiding those things or what weights to put on them.
Of course, it seems likely that specific ISIS agents have motivations more along the lines of “hey, free stuff!”
“Politicians of the other tribe are the former, Thamiel is the latter”
That’s just, like, your opinion man.
Most people with strong views on politics view their fellow tribesmen as the former and the other tribe as the latter. They consider it absolutely good to label the other side as the Devil, because they are quite certain the other side IS the Devil and we cannot afford to let anyone get mixed up about this.
DIdn’t you already write that post? 😛
That’s like the overview essay. We’re getting into the nitty-gritty stuff now.
What is the point of ideological superiority if it doesn’t give you power over someone you know.
Part of this is due to political incentives, I think.
There is next to 0 chance that in near-future a DPRK-like political group will gain electoral power. I’d guess that the likelihood of a North Korean military invasion and occupation is higher. In either case, there’s no point in getting worked up by it. Sure – some nutjobs on a soapbox or college campus might support something like this in a non-ironic fashion, but that doesn’t spell over into any political success.
But there is a very credible chance that the leader of the other Major Party (D|R) will win. The numbers vary year to year, but are almost always over 40% each election. That’s not the kind of Evil you can ignore. You have to do everything in your power to win. And so getting the troops all wound up about how Evil is about to take over and all that is Good and True is about to be wiped out is a winning strategy.
This is partly because it’s not just a matter of polling well, but of having your supporters actually show up and vote. It’s easy to choose going to a movie over voting if you don’t care strongly about the difference between candidates. So there’s a deep need to have your own supporters care greatly so that they will prefer voting over I Love Lucy reruns.
Doesn’t seem like you read Scott’s comment correctly. His point was that lately people aren’t focusing as much on the other side, and instead are getting worked up over disputes within their own party.
On the one hand, the “alien” vs. “outgroup threatening cultural hegemony” spectrum certainly shines through when looking at the West’s shifting opinions on some countries graphed against their GDPs. Japan, for example: in the 1980s, it was growing intimidatingly fast, so people figured its culture was intimidating; but now it’s, at most, a quaint holiday destination—the name conjuring images of Shinto shrines rather than of zaibatsu.
But on the other hand, look at the West’s contrasting opinions of China and India. Either country could conceivably “take over the world” culturally (i.e. picturing them as the one with a Sector Command And Control Mk-XIV whispering in their ear.) But China is seen as a rising cultural-hegemony “threat”, while India seems to actually be seen as a falling one (and never much of one to begin with), despite similar population and industrialization booms currently going on in both countries.
India isn’t growing nearly as fast as China.
IF the numbers given bear any relationship to reality in any way.
China’s official GDP is approx. $9 Trillion. India’s is $2 Trillion.
While Chinese economic numbers are generally agreed to be garbage, if they’re THAT garbage… it would surprise me very, very much.
The USSR’s were that bad. It’s certainly possible.
1. “We”, in the sense of Western Civilization, conquered and ruled India recently enough that we’re not really afraid we couldn’t conquer them again if we needed to.
2. Related to 1, in the course of that conquest we turned India into something halfway Western, so they’re not as much of a Scary Outsider as China
3. India doesn’t have as many of the trappings of a Great Power as China. They aren’t on the UN Security Council, don’t do military power projection, don’t have ICBMs, don’t show up in the headlines as playing a deciding role in any dispute anyone in the West cares about, etc.
4. To the extent that India’s economic growth matters to the average Westerner, it is in their role as a service provider. Nobody feels threatened by the servants. Western coders might care, of course, but they don’t exactly dominate the cultural discussion.
There’s also China’s being ruled by the CCP. While just what Communism means in a Chinese context these days is in flux, the movement and the party are associated with well-earned suspicion by the West, reinforced by any continuing geopolitical rivalries. The West fought a cold war against international communism; while Indian governments have been associated with various anti-western movements at times, there’s nothing comparable in the history of its relations with the west. Likewise, there’ve never been Hindutva insurgents in anyplace of interest to the West (that I know of, anyway) the way there have been Maoists.
However little communist ideology may remain in Chinese governance in practice, we’re still likely to be put further off by giant pictures of Mao or an iconography of red stars than by statues of, e.g., Gandhi or Nehru.
Regarding point 3, India most definitely has ICBMs, such as the Agni-V. And unlike China, India refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Agni-V is an experimental rocket, not an operational weapon.
Another key factor is that while India is only halfway western, the top brass of indian society is highly western educated and definetly western influenced. From the upper middle class and up we have the egalitarian gender norms, coke, and other things characteristic of american culture. Hell at my school in india we even used soccer to refer to what most indians refer to as football. Having relationships in high school was common. So the generation of indias future leaders will be strongly western friendly since they mostly tend to be from my social class and up. And all of grew up with American cultural norms.
China can’t be a cultural-hegemony threat because their culture isn’t interested in assimilating Westerners. (I’m not sure where the line is drawn; perhaps simply strict racial boundaries). They could theoretically dominate economically and politically, but not assimilate culturally.
Strictly ethnic. American born Chinese that can speak Mandarin can write their own ticket in China. This is in pretty strong contrast to the Japanese who discriminate strongly against e.g. Brazilian born ethnically Japanese people.
“Strictly ethnic. American born Chinese that can speak Mandarin can write their own ticket in China. This is in pretty strong contrast to the Japanese who discriminate strongly against e.g. Brazilian born ethnically Japanese people.”
Not as true as you might think. ABCs- particularly Eurasians- are mostly just seen as go-betweens. Which can be quite lucrative if you’re an entrepreneurial sort or can get into the right role (investment banking or international law, for instance), but they’re outsiders from the real action (party membership; project management and the SOE hierarchy).
That is an excellent point. I kind of wish I’d thought of it first.
I think the “threat” here is to a group’s interests more generally, rather than to its survival. Black people and Jews don’t actually threaten white supremacists’ survival, but the latter want to harm the former anyway, because it removes an opponent and increases their power. (And likewise for SJWs and fundamentalist Christians, of course.) Conversely, white supremacists are eager to protect threatened Neo-Nazi culture, because doing so strengthens an ally with common enemies. (And again, likewise for SJWs and, say, trans culture.)
To their survival no, but to their culture’s survival yes. If it’s part of their culture that blacks and whites are different ontological categories and that all whites are superior to all blacks, then anytime a white is seen interacting with a black as an equal the culture is threatened. There are stories from the south of social pressure being brought to bear on whites who were too friendly towards blacks, as well as the violence directed against blacks directly.
@Neanderthal from Mordor
Regarding the idea of “Neo-Nazi culture”.
I’ve always felt that white nationalists generally functioned as white nationalist nationalists, meaning that the nation they purport to defend is not the nation of white people, but a constructed nation narrowly defined around white nationalist ideology. This isn’t just that they oppose whites who oppose white nationalism, as you’d expect, but that they actively resist expanding the non-racial aspects of their ideology to include as many would-be receptive whites as possible.
This is also well connected to the article, because many of the people purporting to defend “Western civilization” despise all Western civilization beyond a relatively arbitrary point in the past when
da joozuniversal culture began to eat it.
I think this makes perfect sense from my semi-universal culture stand point: We go from attempting to exterminate to protecting ‘unique and interesting’ things based on their perceived threat level. Goes the same for wolves, snakes, Native Americans, middle eastern cultures etc.
We will debate the ethics of wiping mosquitoes off the planet until we decide it was unethical and that the mosquito preserve in Wisconsin should be protected.
Well, eliminating mosquitoes bumped into our desire to preserve rare birds so we abandoned the project. But I think that fits into your framework.
If Zika gets bad enough and bald eagles start killing everyone’s puppies, maybe we’ll switch back to the kill ’em all stance.
It’s not just about “threat to our culture”. In a democratic polity, groups that hold very different values can literally be a threat to me, personally. If you’re a young educated British person who dreamed of living and working in Europe, the Brexit voters may* just have screwed you over in a big way. If you’re a gay person in America who wants to get married, the Baptist voter is trying hard to keep you from exercising a fundamental human right. If you’re a conservative small business owner, the liberal / progressive voter is trying to put her hand in your pocket and seize your hard-earned money to spend on social programs that are wasteful at best and often actively destructive. Und so weiter.
Protect Hopi culture? Sure, that’s not going to affect anyone who doesn’t live on the Hopi reservation (which is so isolated that it’s actually completely surrounded by the Navajo reservation). Protect Southern Baptist culture? Putting aside the question of whether a faith that claims over 15 million adherents in the US needs much protecting, you’re very quickly getting into a lot of Terry Schiavo and Kim Davis type situations where the question of “who is being protected from whom” becomes nontrivial.
*details of Brexit are still TBD, so who knows for sure? But it’s uncertain enough that you could reasonably be very annoyed.
Why would you dream of this? Speaking as a European who’s lived and worked all over the place only to ultimately settle down in [Undisclosed Location], Britain, I can tell you that’s a ridiculous dream.
Do you understand why there’s such a strenuous net influx of migrants from the EU no matter what you do short of leaving and closing your borders? Do you realize that there’s a reason for this? The only places that can compare to Britain in pure civic-economic terms are the Nordic countries, but they’re cold as shit and in the case of Sweden, increasingly crumbling under the sheer weight of refugees. (Finland’s much better in that regard but compensates by being even colder and emptier than Sweden, which is a preposterous compensation.)
You guys have all the good stuff, Doug. This was the purpose of the Grand Tour back when: to send young men who were going to occupy high positions out in the world, so they’d understand how shit it was comparatively (and drag as many as possible of the few good things available outside back home). Stop dreaming about cosmopolitan glamour; stay home and enjoy that good stuff. Go on holiday somewhere hot now and then, if you like.
There are about 1.2 million British citizens living in the EU. Of these, an estimated ~400,000 are pensioners, mostly living in France and Spain. The other 800,000 seem to be workers and their families.
It’s true that there are more EU citizens living in Britain (3.3 million) than British citizens living in the EU. But then, the EU has about eight times Britain’s population. Per capita, Britain is exporting far more people to the EU than the other way ’round.
Brief googling doesn’t show any formal study of reasons for emigration. However, anecdotally, common themes that come up include job opportunities, better weather, better food, cheaper housing, cultural opportunities, and family ties.
A quick note that this “per capita” metric you’re using is a bad one.
I think you’d be best off comparing raw numbers of immigrants vs. expats because then you’re comparing ratios of (leavers per British person) and (comers per British person).
Your way is guaranteed to produce weird results. Like… consider my house vs. the rest of the world. If a million people from the world barge to my house, and I leave, by your per capita measure I am still a huge “net exporter”.
Esquire, I agree that per capita is problematic. On the other hand, comparing absolute numbers doesn’t make a lot of sense either.
Let’s go with this: 1.2 million Brits choose to live in the EU. That’s about 2% of Britain’s entire population! So, “dreaming of living in the EU” is a real thing, and there’s a nontrivial number of people who’ll be legitimately pissed to have that opportunity taken away.
I do think that comparing raw numbers provides a reasonably intuitive data point. Like… from the perspective of a British person, does free movement of people cause you to have more neighbors or fewer?
Anyway, just a methodological point and I agree with you on the substance. Cheers!
You have your preferences, others have theirs. They are not crazy because they have different preferences. I’m a Brit who used to live in Belgium. I thought it was great.
Anonymous is right that Britain is a fantastic place to live, no question.
But lots of people want to live in such an amazing place, so it shows up in the cost of living; particularly housing, because supply is so restricted. In equilibrium, the marginal person is indifferent between living in London and Sofia, but most people are infra-marginal, so removing the choice is a straight-up loss for many. There are lots of British people who have a far better quality of life in other European countries, because they don’t have to compete with bankers for floor space in London.
Germany has every single advantage Britain has, except with better sausages and beer. Oh, and an actual high-tech manufacturing industry, that too.
The reasons for Britain being such a popular destination for immigrants are extensive and complicated, of course, but I’ve thought for a long while that the biggest one has to be the global popularity of English as a second language. I often think that if French had succeeded in becoming the trade language of the planet, many of the refugees would never bother crossing the Channel.
Are you saying keeping you from living and working in the EU is a threat to you? That’s not the way I’d use the term. If it were, then the EU’s immigration restrictions would be a threat to me, a U.S. citizen.
As a US citizen, you can live anywhere in the ~10 million square kilometer area of the US — a continent sized area that includes a breathtakingly wide range of climates, geographies and subcultures.
As a British citizen, you can live anywhere in the ~0.24 million square kilometer area of the United Kingdom. One fortieth the size of the US.
You’re both in cages! But the American cage is much, much bigger.
Guess you guys should have fought a bit harder in 1776, then.
But seriously, what is immigration like between commonwealth nations?
If working Visas are not a major impediment for my third world country, it’ll hardly “screw over in a significant way” a Brit.
A pretty straightforward example: the Haredim in Israel. When they were 2% – 3% of the population, they were basically pandas — cosseted, given special privileges, exempted from military service. Once they hit 10%, Israeli society collectively woke up and began to freak out.
The military exemption was ended in 2014, but the debate over the role of Haredim is ongoing; about a quarter of all Israeli Jews under 20 are now Haredim, which means that even with defections they’ll be the single biggest bloc of Israeli Jews within a generation. “Protecting Haredim culture”, from the POV of many other Israelis, means allowing the Haredim to enjoy an increasingly expensive free ride on the Israeli welfare state.
This is not so simple, because hareidim have changed drastically since even 10 years ago. For example, it used to be normal for hareidi men to sit next to women on public transport. Now, it would be highly abnormal and probably would mark the hareidi man in question as being not “really” hareidi in some way (e.g. baal teshuvah). Street harassment of women by hareidi men used to be a non-issue. Now it is an ordinary experience of non-hareidi women in Bet Shemesh, Bene Baraq, and many areas of Jerusalem. Hareidi halakhah (as opposed to off-book practice) has also radicalised. The Israeli public is responding in part to this escalation.
There’s actually huge historical evidence for this. Early Americans thought Indians were evil and should be stamped out, primarily because of the huge threat they represented; the more distant Indians became, in space and time, the more benign and noble they seemed.
TL;DR you’re strawmanning early americans
Many settlers had excellent relations with indians, for example the quakers of Pennsylvania and Delaware and in all areas there was more peace and trade then war. Often behind indians wars there was a colonial power.
Later there was a very widespread mythology of the noble indian. Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans published in 1826 was extremely popular and definitely didn’t say that “Indians were evil and should be stamped out” as it had both among the heroes and the villains indians.
Nor was ever US policy to exterminate all indians.
Also, those captured by Native peoples were about as close as you can get to experiencing their “threat” and as linked in the above paper, many had a very “benign” image of their new nation indeed.
I’m also reminded of Tacitus’s Germania, which has a strong element of the “noble savage” in its depiction of German tribes; it was written by a grandson to the generation which witnessed what they saw as catastrophic atrocities at the hands of “Germans,” both those naturalised and thought to be safe, and those lurking wild in e.g. Teutoburg Forest. This is actually about the same distance in terms of time and political turn-around as the US is from their WWII encounter with Germany, and I think — someone may well correct me — Americans have not yet begun to feel quite comfortable waxing poetic/nostalgic about old timey German culture.
You’re right that my statement is overly broad; I need a qualifier like “many” in front of early Americans.
Consider the first sentence of the “Historical Background” section from the Wikipedia article on The Last of the Mohicans:
It’s almost as if this is evidence for my assertion that, the more distant Indians became, the more benign and noble they seemed.
I seem to recall a similar pattern in British history, where Scottish culture became quite popular some decades after Culloden.
“egalitarian gender norms”
[Sprays coffee all over the monitor.] Are you joking? Western gender norms are “egalitarian”? Are we talking about the same world? In the Western world I live in,
1. Alimony makes divorced men slaves to their ex-wives, but almost never vice versa.
2. A divorcing woman is almost guaranteed custody of the kids just because she’s the mother.
3. If an inebriated man and an inebriated woman have sex, the man, and only the man, is charged with rape.
4. Americans are eager to discard the keystone of Western jurisprudence, the legal standard of “innocent until proven guilty”, when the accuser is a woman and the accused is a man.
5. Media portrayals of women are far, far more positive than portrayals of men:
5a. The majority of child abusers are women, but in the popular media female child abusers are nonexistent or nearly so; it’s always the courageous mother protecting the child from the monstrous father.
5b. It is an unbreakable rule, as far as I can tell, that if an American TV series or movie portrays a competition between a likable man and a likable woman, the woman must win. (Every time I have tested this, my prediction that the woman will win has proven correct.)
5c. Women are often hyper-competent and men are buffoons. Compare Marge and Lisa to Homer and Bart on the Simpsons. Compare the female office help in the original Ghostbusters movie (smart, practical, full of spunk) to the male office help in the new Ghostbusters movie (dumb blonde). Compare the super-awesome-amazing Rey in the newest Star Wars movie, who never makes a mistake and becomes a powerful Jedi without breaking a sweat, to Luke Skywalker of the original Star Wars, who struggles through two entire movies to develop into a Jedi, the second one of which could have been titled “Luke Screws Up.”
What sort of “egalitarian” gender norms are these?
You know what I mean.
Would you mind explaining, anyway ?
As far as I understand, you meant something like, “our gender norms are more fair toward women than the gender norms of most other cultures”. Kevin S Van Horn agrees with you completely, but he argues that our gender norms are extremely unfair to men; perhaps as unfair to men as other cultures’ gender norms are unfair to women. Neither situation could reasonably be described as “egalitarian”.
I personally don’t agree with the stronger interpretation of Kevin’s point, but I don’t think you can dismiss the weaker interpretation out of hand. I suppose that one way you could resolve the conflict is to say that our current cultural norms, while not perfect, are the best in the world; and that they will get even better once our culture is further assimilated by the Universal Culture. I’m not sure if this is the argument you’d make, though.
I’m using “egalitarian gender norms” as Caplan’s easily-understood term meaning the kind of gender norms we have now.
It’s like how referring to “Great Britain” doesn’t necessarily pass a value judgment on whether Britain is really great or not.
Doesn’t the term “egalitarian gender norms” just reduce to a tautology in this case ? You are essentially saying, “Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, [whatever gender norms we’ve got now], sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t.” However, in that paragraph you appear to be saying that Western medicine, Coca-Cola, and sushi — are objectively superior to their alternatives (due to e.g. human biology). Are gender norms the exception, or what ?
I’m not sure what’s tautological. Yes, assuming that we are in universal culture (which I think we are), then the gender norms we have now are the ones that spread best, and we can predict that Iran will be trying to keep them out, as opposed to us trying to keep out Iranian gender norms. I think that’s a real prediction and not a tautology.
I suppose that’s fair, but still, it’s a little weird:
If I understand your argument correctly, Coca-Cola outperforms yak’s milk because it is better suited to human biology.
Western medicine outperforms maypole-dancing or whatever for the same reason (in addition, it is presumably more hostile to the non-human biologies of bacteria, viruses, and parasites).
Presumably, you would say that Western engineering is better than Feng Shui (or prayer, etc.) because it conforms more accurately to physics.
Western gender norms outperform other ones because, well, just because they do, or what ?
My point is that in all other cases we can objectively compare a Western value to its alternatives (excites more taste receptors / kills more bacteria / has a lower chance of collapsing / etc.); but, in the case of gender norms, this does not appear to be possible. So, gender norms are the odd man out in this example (pun intended).
These gender norms are best suited to economics, obviously. The reason these norms got implemented was because more workers were needed.
But are they conducive to reproduction?
No, it’s nightclubs that outperform maypoles.
I mean, for one thing you can’t go maypole dancing in winter.
Egalitarian Gender norms are more conducive to the levels of reproduction needed in a modern technological society with extremely low levels of infant mortality, increasingly long life spans and intensive resource consumption by the individual members of that society.
I think “Great Britain” isn’t really comparible – as there isn’t any substantial group that thinks “Great Britain” means “Fantastic Britain.” Whereas some people do think the west actually has egalitarian gender norms.
(fun fact – Great Britain literally means “bigger than Brittany, part of France, whilst being much smaller than all of France – it’s a kinda awful name)
I’m not convinced that is the case seeing as how a lot of “Western” nations are breeding at < replacement level.
I suspect it’s ‘best at attracting young women to adopt them’ which in turn means ‘best at attracting young men’ (because young men go where young women are, especially young women with gender norms which include casual sex with young men) and then into ‘best at being what a bunch of old people did when they were young’.
I think a better way to put it is that the success of gender “egalitarianism” culture is not in its ability to reproduce more humans biologically in an industrialized, commercialized, and globalized societies, but it’s ability to reproduce itself memetically in an industrialized, commercialized, and globalized society.
If we concede to Kevin Van Horn’s argument that what we call gender “egalitarianism” is slightly misandrist, I think it makes even more sense that gender “egalitarianism” is a part of the universal culture. Most non-industrialized societies were/are misogynist, and an effective method of becoming truly egalitarian– the best aka universal culture– could be by overshooting egalitarianism. In bombarding pop culture with Barts and Homers, the remaining misogynists will start to be pushed in the direction of egalitarian.
an effective method of becoming truly egalitarian– the best aka universal culture– could be by overshooting egalitarianism.
Even overlooking the gross injustice to men — I have with my own eyes seen someone justifying setting up kindergarden to favor girls because boys have gotten the better of things for centuries as if the boys weren’t five-years-old just like the girls — that also seems to be an excellent way to induce recoil and reaction that overshoots back the other way.
That is, at best, debatable.
Misogynist by the standards of modern liberal culture? Absolutely. Misogynist in some platonic dictionary definition sense? That’s the debatable part.
I’d say Ancient Greece (or at least the theme park version of it that exists in my head) was definitely misogynistic, no second wave philosophizing required.
That is the issue when people casually redefine terms on the fly to better bludgeon their opponents with, yes.
Increasing rights for women would seem to be a common phenomenon across a number of advanced civilizations late in their existence — not just ours (see Abbasids, Romans).
Restricting the rights of women is “high entropy”, to use Scott’s term, at least in advanced societies. From that standpoint, it’s perfectly reasonable to consider it part of the universal culture. It might qualify as low entropy in less advanced societies. The sexes start to have more equal status as soon as a man is able to go through his entire life without using his upper body strength to kill a single man or large animal. In the modern case, it accelerated once male upper body strength lost most of its market value and birth control gave women control over their fertility.
At some point, some proportion of sufficiently high-status/power men are motivated to defect from the status quo and grant rights to women. Once this process begins, it appears that societies have no means of stopping it, short of something like the Iranian Revolution — both extreme and, at most, a high-entropy pause button. Even in real-world circles where outright feminist proclamations are gauche, calls for men’s rights/patriarchy are even more gauche. Thus, women will at least lose no rights and at most continue to periodically achieve incremental gains in political rights and status.
In time, the fertility of such societies tends to drop, and the population finds itself replaced by more fecund peoples, who generally have much less enlightened views about the role of women. In their more violent and less urban culture, men have higher status as providers and protectors. The cycle begins anew.
You can roughly visualize the spread of the universal culture by looking at the decline of fertility rates across nations, though some of the lowest fertility rates seem to be in places where the universal culture has much more influence over singles than married couples and families, e.g. northeast Asia.
Of course, the universal culture’s hope today would seem to be that this time, the more violent and fecund peoples will assimilate to its feminist values, given the culture’s unprecedented assimilative powers. On the other hand, matters of sex and fertility are more fundamental than matters of beverage preference — there is memetic and genetic selection for a people who can outbreed the universalists and resist their culture’s call.
Today, nearly all societies are experiencing a drop in fertility, so it is entirely plausible (though uncertain) that the current generation of threats are no match for the universal culture. But Gnon/Moloch will keep searching.
Great comment. But the reason “this time is different”:
1. the technology, not manpower becoming the major determinant in war, epitomized by nukes.
2. increasing returns on raising a “blue ribbon” child e.g. Chelsea Clinton vs ten “breeders”.
“the technology, not manpower becoming the major determinant in war … .”
A point made by Adam Smith more than two hundred years ago. In classical antiquity, the barbarians were a threat to the civilized folk. By his time it was the other way around–because warfare depended less on labor and more on capital.
From the early modern age through the 19th century, advanced societies saw higher population growth than more primitive societies (which in the New World, at least, declined in population). This explains the existence of large European populations in places like the Americas, Australia, and Siberia, and probably at least partly explains the success of colonial efforts in places like Africa and India.
Nuclear weapons prevent the possibility of an organized invasion, so what we really mean when we say this time is different is that there won’t be a single organized invasion. Of course, the settling of North America wasn’t really a single organized invasion either. Sometimes the Europeans were welcomed, sometimes grudgingly accepted, sometimes opposed with full force of arms, but it made little difference. The same is even partly true of Rome and the barbarians.
Universal culture has more force of arms but is also highly biased towards acceptance and disinclined towards violence. This is both a product and a cause of Universal Culture’s feminist and feminizing tendencies, and these features are a constant irritant to Gnon/Moloch. They much prefer to work with an anti-feminist, high-violence, high-fertility approach to memetic and genetic transmission.
And they could work their way in via either unassimilated immigrant cultures or local cultures that have developed a sufficiently strong genetic + memetic basis for population growth and resistance to assimilation, the Haredim being the most visible near-term example, but it might even be the case in the partial de-secularization of Turkey, for example.
“2. increasing returns on raising a “blue ribbon” child e.g. Chelsea Clinton vs ten “breeders”.”
Not unless you end up with ten grandchildren from Chelsea and the ten breeders do worse.
Evolution doesn’t care about those “increasing returns” unless they are children. Those who reproduce will be those represented in the future, and those who do so the most will be the most represented.
No, every one of us will be dead no matter how many kids we manage to have. None of us are showing up.
Evolution doesn’t care about those “increasing returns” unless they are children. Those who reproduce will be those represented in the future, and those who do so the most will be the most represented.
But we’re talking about the spread of culture rather than genes. A single well-educated, charismatic kid might be more effective at spreading your culture than ten of the other kind. One person can have a pretty significant impact in the realm of ideas.
You could argue that parents will always have the most control over what kind of culture their kid is exposed to, and therefore those who breed more will always have more people in their culture. But I think that’s becoming increasingly less true as cultures become less isolated and communication increases.
Unless parents raise their kids in isolation their kids will still be able to pick their own culture eventually.
And parliamentary democracy is not democracy because your representative is there to represent you, rather than you yourself. Clearly.
OTOH, there is a case for using words properly, rather than using words that don’t mean what is meant.
Look, I’m sorry that you think it’s all pointless and we should stop caring about anything – but why haven’t you OD’d on heroin yet?
Spoken like someone who clearly has no idea how problematic* it is to acquire ethically-sourced, organic, fair-trade opium products. And that’s before you get into the whole shade-grown-vs.-non-shade-grown poppies question.
There are a lot of constraints on nihilism these days.
(* Also problematical. Probably also racist.)
If the ideas your child spreads suppress fertility, what they are is an evolutionary bottleneck — those who resist your child’s blandishments are going to be the ones whose genes last.
Probably best to not call them “egalitarian” if they clearly aren’t. Feminist gender norms would be accurate, and everyone would understand what you meant.
The other option is to make some goofy term up then have to explain to everyone what you mean every time you use it
OTOH, there is a case for using words properly, rather than using words that don’t mean what is meant.
I was actually confused by the idea (in both the quoted section of Caplan’s post and in your response) of “Western (universal) gender norms” even before you classified them as “egalitarian”. I don’t think we *have* consistent gender norms in “universal” culture yet; in fact, I think that’s one of the most actively-evolving parts of modern “western/universal” culture.
Even if I take all those claims at face value, the society you described is still egalitarian as fuck on a historical scale. Consider:
•Both men and women are permitted to own property
•Both men and women are free from slavery, they cannot be owned as property
•Both men and women are free from being ritually murdered because their spouse died (or for some other stupid reason)
•Both men and women are legally protected from being raped, even by their spouses
•Both men and women can participate in politics
•Both men and women are allowed to fill just about any professional role, although both genders occasionally encounter difficulty in certain roles
When you put the West/”Universal Culture” on a spectrum with these things it looks pretty egalitarian, no matter which side of the culture war you fall on.
I disagreed with Scott above, but I would like to point out that I agree with you, here. “Best gender norms currently on the planet” is not the same thing as “Best gender norms possible, period”.
But I don’t think that Scott meant to say that Coca-Cola is the best-tasting drink possible, period, either.
A protection which few are willing to exercise. Women’s reports of rape are often met with slut-shaming and suspicion, which is bad enough. But men’s reports of rape are a punchline. Not a shining example of egalitarianism here.
Roughly equally horrible treatment for men and women qualifies as egalitarian even if it doesn’t qualify as adequate.
That’s not roughly equal.
It was only recently that women’s raping men was counted as rape in national crime statistics. For decades, it did not count in the most literal sense.
And if you think rape conviction rates are bad, consider how many women are convicted of rape. Even when they are molesting quite young boys, the sentences are often light — AND the victim is often forced to pay child support.
Most of those equalities would apply to traditional Islamic culture, mutatis mutandis. Both men and women could be slaves. It isn’t clear what “participate in politics” means in that culture, but Aiesha played a sizable role in intra-Islamic conflict after Mohammed’s death, including leading an army. I don’t think women could be judges, not sure about muftis, but they could be legal scholars. Women warriors rare but not non-existent.
Women were obliged to have intercourse with their husbands unless there was some good reason not to, but there was a similar, although weaker, requirement on the husband. And, of course, women had essentially the same obligation in western culture until quite recently, with marriage counting as consent.
Islam happens to be the traditional society I’ve been most recently studying.
Men who converted were freed. Women who converted remained slaves — as did eunuchs.
Very few cultures had anything like slavery for only one gender and I’m not aware of any laws regarding spousal rape which made the genders of rapist and victim relevant. Certainly I prefer living in a society without legal rape and slavery, but it’s not because those things aren’t gender neutral.
Slavery is probably not the correct term, but the ancient Jewish legal system treated the process of marriage as analogous to the man acquiring a piece of property. Even today, the Hebrew word for husband is the same as the word for owner.
And “husband” as an English verb refers to what one does to what one owns (and values).
This may be true in kangaroo courts on college campuses,* but it’s not out in the real world. Three reasons why: (1) many states require that the alleged victim must be incapacitated for the encounter to qualify as rape, (2) few drunken encounters are reported as rapes to police in the first place, (3) prosecutors are generally reluctant to bring charges where the alleged victim was drinking heavily because they know they are likely to lose before a jury.
*Probably not, actually, but if you modify the consequent to read “if either party is charged with rape, it is almost invariably the man” it might be.
I think that this is confusing ‘Universal Culture Egalitarian Gender Norms’ with what goes in the western worlds very liberal left.
While this group/culture may be enabled by the move towards universal culture, I don’t think that they are actually representative of it. You’ll note that they (self sometimes included) are often up in arms about various trade agreements, working conditions in the developing world, lack of respect for environment etc. that is associated with globalization and western culture.
If universal culture is being defined as ‘what survives best given the current conditions’ then it is not ‘liberal western’ culture but something else. Look outside college campuses at the world inhabited by multinational corporations for a better idea.
1, 2 might be true (although some argue that men just aren’t as interested in keeping kids) 3, 4 are mostly confined to college kangaroo courts and 5 are signaling games of Hollywood and the far left. Although I find all of those unjust, they are not a big deal when considering the big picture.
Kevin> When I was a kid I used to think it was unfair how cats always lost to mice in cartoons. Then I saw a cat hunt a mouse in real life.
As for the point of the main post, I’ve argued on a few occasions with people who think westernizing and educating a hunter gatherer child would be a terrible crime, but who would flip their lids about an unschooled child living in a slum. It’s a weird cognitive dissonance.
Not that I’d want to live as either, but there seems a pretty big difference between a hunter-gather society and a slum.
And it seems to me that the slum is advantaged over the hunter-gatherer society in almost every way that isn’t purely a matter of taste, except that the slum-dweller has to live next door to people who have conspicuously more and better stuff. The question is, does this offend the slum-dweller more than it does the wealthy neighbors?
The slum-dwellers’ social networks might be less stable or their cultural context less rich (in the sense of “complex and interesting”), though it probably depends on the slum.
When I was a kid I used to think it was iniquitous to show the mouse ever beating the cat, since that’s impossible.
I still retain some feeling that it’s better that stories (even for children; especially for children) should reflect reality rather than try to compensate for it.
There was a reason that fairy tales always ended with everyone being eaten by wolves.
Because they were intended as cautionary tales, which
Itchy and ScratchyTom and Jerry definitely isn’t?
Although there’s the “The Little Match Girl”, where the downer ending was according to Wikipedia, intended as a happy one. (mumble mumble something Danish culture)
You should pick up some fairy tales from before they were mutilated by Disney.
The “egalitarianism” of Western social norms, to me, is that they allow men and women similar levels of autonomy (freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association) by defining those at a cultural level as things people should be allowed to do, rather than thinking that there should be different standards there between men and women. Basically, men and women are both given the “right” to be regarded as genderless (e.g. on the Western parts of the Internet) and interacted with purely as “people”—whereas other cultures often demand to know someone’s gender (and class/caste) as a preface to any interaction whatsoever, in order to know what norms to apply to interacting with them.
Western gender norms aren’t egalitarian when it comes to how people of various genders are protected under the law, portrayed by the media, etc. But these facets of life have less evolutionary adaptive pressure put on them by rivalry of a “better” Universal-culture idea, than pure social norms do. When a culture has a “better” idea than what it was doing before—let’s go with gay marriage as an example—social norms are one of the first things to shift, while the law is one of the last.
And media portrayal is often an extreme holdout: narrative is, in part, for old people to communicate old-people social-norms to young-people. Those old storytellers have to die before books featuring their “old-world” social-norms will stop being written.
blatant liemisgeneralization. You’re looking for a general rule where none exists, and you would be better served considering this on a case-by-case basis. Gay marriage was legalized after social norms had shifted towards majority approval. However, interracial marriage was legalized long before the average person considered it acceptable behavior. See relevant xkcd.
Gay marriage did not have majority approval in the US prior to US vs Windsor and Obergefell vs Hodges, generally having failed to have been passed by legislatures, overriden by veto when it was, and failing to win any referendums. FFS, it even lost when put to referendum in California. Gay marriage in the US is a shining example of the law forcing a societal change, as most everyone learned to sit down and shut up in the wake of aggressive State action against people who voiced displeasure with gay marriage wherever it could.
I disagree with most of this post, but I think this is the funniest part. Homer is a fat, lazy, and bald buffoon, and he is married to a hot, hardworking, competent woman, and Homer is the one getting shortchanged? Virtually every comedy with an overweight male lead (except Roseanne) has a super hot/competent wife. The gender norms of the 40s-60s were that a woman basically had to take what they could get. Marge has to choose between a physically aggressive narcissist and a pleasant, earnest but dumb with limited prospects (going back to early Simpsons episodes) slob. Women spend centuries fighting over the few men who wouldn’t beat them or abandon them with small children and no earning prospects.
The norms in a lot of those TV shows reflect not some “men are dumb, women great” sentiment, but that women without a career path of their own had limited options, and were basically expected to choose really early in life to avoid being unmarried at 30 (the horror!). Some states like California have terrible alimony laws, but that is a long way from equalizing the norms of the past X centuries.
Marge is hot?
Marge is repeatedly portrayed as hot (especially in flash back episodes).
This is completely missing the point. The argument is that the show is normalizing the idea that “dad” is a complete loser, who doesn’t deserve his wife, who is a saint for tolerating his shit (NB: “mom” doesn’t have to, if she doesn’t want to), and deserves no respect from either his family or his peers.
Why isn’t it normalizing the opposite? That the wife has to put up with a fat looser of a husband and has to have the patience of a saint to have any kind of decent life. One of these is closer to the (recent) historical truth.
Not to mention that these shows were primarily created by men, aired on networks owned and managed by men, and watched by men! Men must be a real self hating group if what you describe is true.
Is this seriously a surprise to you? Genuflecting before the superiority of women is pretty much a requirement for certain circles. How much is genuine self-loathing, and how much is just shameless virtue signaling, is up for debate.
No, neither is closer to the truth, generally speaking. In a world with hundreds of millions to billions, there’s bound to be no shortage of anecdotal examples of either case, but in the main, people settled with people like them.
Because someone is being painted sympathetically. Marge is always presented as choosing this life, the implication of which is that there wouldn’t be anything wrong with her choosing not to.
Norms = certain circles now? That certainly isn’t (wasn’t when the Simpsons came out either) the norm for the typical TV viewer.
This is a very strange interpretation. First Marge is presented with 3 other suitors that I can recall from the early seasons when character development was ongoing. Her bowling coach, Artie the implied rapist, and Moe, while Homer is presented with a beautiful and about to be wildly successful country singer, and a hot co worker.
Marge actually throws Homer out in an episode and the only thing he can offer her is “complete and utter dependance”, she is pregnant when they get married and there are multiple early episodes where she is portrayed as trapped by her family (to the point of a nervous breakdown in one).
Homer is an overweight, lazy, bald buffoon who (in most episodes) makes a good living and comes home in time for dinner. If Marge wants something he usually tries to do it, though being a buffoon he usually fails.
Marge isn’t the saint you make her out to be in most episodes; she seems to be only of average intelligence, and she’s also very unsure of herself (which is why Homer gets so far with so many schemes; her objections are no stronger than “I don’t know, Homie”). She’s a competent homemaker but not hyper-competent or an overachiever by any means. (Though in some episodes they change her character to fit the story, more so than the other major characters)
_Home Improvement_ might be a better example.
AllTheTropes of course has a whole page about this:
I didn’t call Marge a saint, I called her hot (she is treated as an attractive woman in multiple episodes, far more than Homer is), hardworking and competent. When compared to Homer her average intelligence is a substantial upgrade, so is her competence, work ethic, attractiveness and dedication to her family. Homer clearly married up, maybe WAY up.
I don’t think Home Improvement is a good example. Tim Taylor is portrayed as a buffoon, but he is also portrayed as a loving and engaged father and husband, attractive (or at least not fat/bald with bad hygiene), funny and he is financially successful. While an episodes plot usually will play on his mistakes and trying to fix them, he is generally portrayed as a very positive person.
The question is, who has it better in those marriages, the man or the woman? Homer clearly married up, and Christian norms compel Marge to try to make it work.
Which side are you arguing? Isn’t “These undeserving men have better home lives than their long-suffering spouses” a feminist point of view?
Better than everyone else’s, which all have those same problems, but even worse.
Not all US culture is universal culture. Like all other places USA has a mix of your own traditional culture and universal culture. A good way to spot the difference is to see what is spreading and what is not. Or you can just see what parts of your culture are shared by most equally modern countries.
Alimony is _not_ universal culture.
Alimony seems to only exist in English speaking western countries (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alimony). From this I deduce that it is a part of traditional British culture. Other modern countries such as the rest of Europe, does not have alimony. More importantly, alimony is not spreading, and it is not spreading exactly because it is bad law. No modern culture that does not already have alimony would ever invent it.
For the rest of your list, I don’t know for certain what is universal or not, because I don’t know exactly where the gobal trend is going. I can only offer guidance by stating the situation in my home country, Sweden.
2) Not true in Sweden. Shared custody is standard. A parent can only loose custody if that parent is actually done something wrong, like abusing or neglecting the child.
3) What is the legal meaning of “charged”, is that “accused” or “convicted”. Anyone can legally accuse anyone of anything, right? Being convicted is an other matter. In Sweden this situation alone would not be enough to convict anyone.
4) I can’t remember hearing, or reading about, any Swede suggesting that.
5) I don’t know. I don’t watch enough Swedish media.
Other modern countries such as the rest of Europe, does not have alimony.
The concept of alimony is present in the legal systems of most European countries. There are significant variations, though: for example in Hungary it’s called házastársi tartás and is awarded unless the recipient’s lifestyle has contributed substantially to the complete and irreversible deterioration of the marriage, while in Italy it’s called alimenti and no longer has such behavioral exclusionary clauses. Both of these countries also used to have more “bells and whistles” which were removed to make their respective alimony laws more in-line with the Anglosphere equivalents. As such, I fail to see how alimony is not spreading.
A good way to spot the difference is to see what is spreading and what is not.
Would you count Islamic fundamentalism as part of universal culture? It certainly did spread to countries such as the Gambia and Malaysia, and not to say Turkey or France (there’s talk but little evidence of Saudi meddling, but even if that’s the case, the costs are surely comparable to what Coca-Cola would invest when entering a new market).
By this reasoning, sushi isn’t Japanese, since fish, rice, vinegar, and seaweed are found all over the world and if there was no Japan sooner or later someone would have put them together. It just happens that someone in Japan first did so. And let’s not talk about pizza as Italian food (tomatoes originated in the Americas, and dough and cheese are found everywhere).
You seem to be using the term “refreshment that works” to mean two different things. First you are using it to mean “doing these steps produces the refreshment when done by anyone regardless of culture”. But then you are comparing it to medicine that works. Medicine that works is medicine that satisfies the goal of having medicine the best regardless of culture. Coca-Cola isn’t refreshment that works in that sense. (It might satisfy people’s tastes the best, but that’s a contingent fact; tastes do not have to be what they are now. The fact that particular medical procedures work for everyone is a necessary fact, given human biology.)
Also, I don’t believe for one moment that Coca-Cola drove out yak’s milk because it tastes better. Coca-Cola drove out yak’s milk because a product backed by lots of advertising and sold by a company that is so big that it has huge economies of scale will sell better than one which doesn’t. In some alternate reality, yak’s milk could have spread around the world instead of Coca-Cola; it’s not inherently weirder than eating raw fish on sushi. And in that world, people would swear that yak’s milk tastes better than other drinks. Of course, if you assume that you are immune to cultural influences, advertising, and any other mental influence outside your head, you may assume that because you find fermented yak’s milk disgusting now, it is inherently disgusting. (I find this assumption to be a common fallacy by rationalists.)
I think I’m claiming that Coca-Cola tastes good for biological reasons.
I agree that if you go back long enough by this argument nothing can be considered part of a culture. But I think that things that have been associated with one region for time immemorial and spread for reasons local to that region are how we define “culture”, and that western medicine is interestingly different than that.
Many things associated with cultures have been associated with them since some time much less than time immemorial. If Coca-Cola is ineligible as culture for only having been around for 130 years, then we don’t have to worry about American culture displacing other cultures, because there isn’t any American culture.
That’s, er, the entire point of Scott’s response to Caplan (the first two sections of the post).
Coca-Cola is certainly *sufficiently* tasty to reach fixation as a part of universal culture, but it also enjoys a sort of founder effect, given that it was one of the first of its kind to the game, and that it has always had skilled marketers, cheap distribution, etc. that allows it to install itself as a fixture more powerful than, say, Pepsi. I mean, it would be a little overconfident to say Coke is more popular than Pepsi for purely biological reasons, right? But its dominance continues.
This same logic helps explain why some people seem so unavoidably, consistently convinced that “Western medicine” is a scam perpetrated by expensive Western doctors. Western medicine certainly has many of the same hallmarks of an all-powerful capitalist brand that has cleared the market and rewritten the rules to its advantage: wide adoption, mainstream assumed acceptance, “everyone” assumes it’s well worth the money, etc. Unfortunately, this logic is sound for soda, but can get you killed for medicine. (Making good decisions is hard, it seems.)
I thought “science thinks that Coke is the tastiest drink” was a weak point here (though I assume it was at least a little exaggeration for effect), but the rest is really excellent, and I think your points on the dominance of “universal culture” social norms (as opposed to the specific products that have reached fixation) was particularly spot-on. You always know how to bring up the hard questions, Scott!
Yeah, sorry, I should have clarified that by “Coca-Cola” I meant sugary sodas in general. I can totally see something more like 7-Up or A&W taking that position in an alternate world.
But is there a world where Moxie would have taken that position? Probably not…
I don’t think this helps support your original point. As you note:
Those same people don’t, to the same extent, bring up the whole category of sugary drinks. So saying “sugary drinks aren’t Western culture, they’re universal” doesn’t refute them. You may have meant sugary drinks in general, but they didn’t!
Furthermore, if your point is about sugary drinks and not specifically about Coca-Cola, variations within the sugary drink category count as elements of culture. It’s not cultural that we eat bread instead of rocks, but French bread or Italian bread are still cultural. Likewise, variations within the sugary drink category are cultural, and Coca-Cola is an example of Western culture taking over in the same way that everyone eating French bread would be French culture taking over (even though both sugary drinks and bread are universal).
I can also imagine a world in which Arabs invent sugary, fizzy soda first, and everyone around the world drinks a sugary soda that tastes like mint and pomegranate, with a gold-colored can covered in Arabic calligraphy, partially to signal how “hip” they are by associating with the culture which first figured out how to be hip.
Also, the teenagers drinking “Jellab-cola” start wearing colorful thawb, watching Arabic-language film, and listening to electric oud music, because they want to be hip like the people who invented sugary, fizzy soda in an awesome-looking can.
Related, to what extent is Western clothing “winning” around the world because it’s “universal” and to what extent are, e. g. the Japanese businessman just adopting a particular form of dress because of its association with modernity, industrialization, etc.? I’m not sure a suit is inherently superior to a kimono in any way, and also not sure white people wouldn’t now be wearing kimono if the Japanese had invented capitalism.
Put another way, I think agree with the general thesis, but feel like you may be underestimating founder effects and the wide range of potential “flavors” and priorities most innovations could take on as a result.
“I can also imagine a world in which Arabs invent sugary, fizzy soda first, and everyone around the world drinks a sugary soda that tastes like mint and pomegranate”
Sekanjabin. Mint, vinegar, no fizz. But it’s been becoming increasingly popular in the SCA over the years.
@onyomi: Yes, well said. That put into words better than I could what was making me feel uncomfortable and want to say “But…” all through a lot of Scott’s post.
I think the underlying point Scott was making is mostly correct. But we have to take “Coca-Cola” as being an advertising and marketing strategy rather than actually a fizzy drink. Alternate worlds could very easily exist in which the one capitalist brand-name product that appears everywhere around the world is an item of clothing, or a means of transport, or a smartphone or whatever.
Are you sure the claim that Coca-Cola is replacing yak’s milk is even correct? I think that cuisine is a particularly bad way to illustrate the spread of the universalist culture. Sure, you can get sushi and coca cola in France but still you have distinct local cuisine and most people eat mostly the local French cuisine because they were raised eating that and people tend to like the food they eat rather than eat the food they like. The universalist culture seems to be too weak to replace French, German, Spanish, Chinese or Peruvian cuisine, it is a complement rather than a substitute of the local cuisine. In most countries, cuisine is not regulated by law, there is no repression, still you don’t see eveyone eating sushi and drinking Coca Cola (in the sense of having a homogeneous “universal” cuisine across countries). In Europe, part of it might be the view of everything “American” as somehow “inferiour” (hamburgers and soft drinks especially, at least the soft drinks that come from America) and is partially frowned upon so that might explain it but I still think that people keep eating their local cuisine not because of social pressure but because they genuinely like to do so. And they do because they were brought up eating it.
Incidentally, this might be true more generally than just in cuisine. The Amish are raised in a certain way and get to like a certain way of life which is why they often stay in Amish communities even though they have a choice not to. The same goes for everyone else. And while in some areas exposure to alternatives might make the local society drift one way, in others it does not. Cuisine seems to be very resistant to universalism, probably because I am rather skeptical about there being refreshments that work and those that don’t, at least not in as strong a sense as there is a medicine that works and medicine that does not.
Coca Cola, sushi, haggis, and chocolate each penetrate into universal culture to different degrees. Much like Darwinian fitness doesn’t always care about cardiovascular endurance, universal culture doesn’t always care about what a naive view would call “quality”. Coca Cola and sushi are “fitter” than haggis but not fitter than local cuisine in the same way that the coelacanth is fitter than the passenger pigeon but not fitter than the crocodile.
The spread of something in universal culture is the measure of how fit it is, and that can be based on many things including marketing budget, early adopter advantage, and government intervention.
Coca-cola: I’m reminded of beer. Let’s the view from Britain.
There’s what I call “megabrew lager” – a fairly consistent product that’s pretty similar the world over. There are your Czech lagers which are sort-of like the original from which megabrew lager was derived, the sort that beer snobs would be seen dead drinking (unlike most megabrew lagers which are an embarrassment). There’s CAMRA-approved Real Ale, pretty much a British phenomenon, the true drink of the beer snob, and the related “craft beer” thing which leads people to say “wow, the Americans can actually brew beer these days” and for British brewers to be producing some brews they’ll proudly promote as being “American style” or with American hops. There are weird foreign speciality beers that come mainly from Belgium.
Now, for me, a proper pint of Real Ale when I’m in the mood for it is a great thing. But it’s not exactly “easy drinking” – you have to be used to the taste. It’s not so consistent, it’s hard to keep properly, not everyone who serves it knows how to make sure it tastes nice. The weird Belgian beers are even further from being easy drinking. Megabrew lager is easier drinking.
Megabrew lager is well-adapted to it’s niche, and requires no effort to support. Real Ale – well, the fact that there was and is a campaign for it says it does need a little support, but it’s a fantastically successful campaign, so that says something about it as well. It fits in a different niche, with different conditions, different relationships to commercial conditions.
So I guess coca-cola is the soft drink equivalent of megabrew lager – well-fitted to its niche, the niche expands across the globe but doesn’t completely push out other things that fit into different niches.
That’s a good comparison. In Germany probably the most “popular” beer is Beck’s but that’s cause it’s relatively cheap, the taste is not very strong (but I personally find it quite tasteless) and so it is bought by students for parties and such. But you could hardly say that Beck’s is better than other beers or even that it pushes the other beers away, it is just a mass product the same way Hollywood romantic comedies or Britney Spears (or whoever is the current most popular pop singer) are. That is not to say that they are bad. They are good for people who have no particular interest in films or music or when you just want something simple and easy. The same goes for Coke. It is sugary and tasty in a rather boring way. It will never replace all other drinks (even if we exclude plain water) or even other soft drinks, but it is sort of the averaged out beverage, as Beck’s is an averaged out beer (and similar brands in other countries, Czechs call these kinds of beers “eurobeer”, which I think is quite a good term – it illustrates the mediocrity which is their essential property).
One argument against universalist culture can then be exactly that it tends to produce things that are necessarily mediocre, because mediocre things tend to have mass appeal. It is actually an argument popular in the “cultural left”. They oppose Hollywood because Hollywood produces films aimed at the biggest audience possible and so Hollywood films are often predictable. They oppose pop music for the same reasons. And the same goes for preserving weird foreign cultures even if they are backward and anti-progressive. I do not really agree with that argument, especially since I don’t think that the fact that someone is interested in music and therefore quickly finds pop music to be repetitive and predictable should force people who only listen to music casually (and therefore don’t get tired by the mediocre stuff) to subsidize the “high art” or that the mediocre stuff should somehow be restricted. And the same goes for soft drinks, beer or whatever. But I can understand those people on an emotional level and if I thought that the mediocrity is eventually going to engulf everything (so to caricature a bit, eventually everyone eats only at McDonald’s, drinks Coca Cola, watches romantic comedies and listens to Britney Spears), it would be hard for me not to support them. However, I think that this is not the case as it is not with the beer.
The movie example is interesting given Hollywood’s recent propensity to make action blockbusters China-friendly (e.g. all the China fanservice in the last Independence Day movie) because they do better universally, even though Americans might like them somewhat less (e.g. apparently Ant-Man did relatively poorly overseas despite good American reviews because the ironic humor and Paul Rudd don’t translate well).
So in that case the “Western” film culture is in a sense being subsumed by a Universal culture that’s more accessible to Chinese people.
So it’s like the cultural equivalent of trying to preserve endemic species.
A lot of biologists/ecologists think that, as humans keep on taking over different niches on the planet, species adapted to specific local conditions will die out – leaving only the ‘weedy’ species behind, the sorts of species that can survive in a diversity of environments and so are less vulnerable to change. Cats, crows, rats, cockroaches and grass, everywhere.
Most people feel there is value in the diversity of lifeforms – both for aesthetic and functional reasons. Even if those lifeforms may be more fragile or unusual.
So, is allowing for a diversity of human experience of the world worth some people not having votes or modern medicine?
” is allowing for a diversity of human experience of the world worth …”
Is it worth violating norms of tolerance?
Part of what keeps a distinct community distinct is barriers between it and the majority community. Some of those barriers come from the minority community, some from the majority.
I’m thinking specifically of Gypsies, Roma. They maintained a very distinct culture for a thousand years or so, in part because they knew that everyone not a gypsy was filthy, ignorant, a source of pollution, partly because the non-gypsies knew that the gypsies were all thieves and possibly child stealers.
In North America, they found themselves in a tolerant environment, facing relatively little prejudice and discrimination compared to their past history. As best I can tell, the result has been the gradual breakdown of their system. More details available if wanted.
On the other hand, the Amish have managed to maintain their distinctiveness despite being embedded in a friendly environment.
So what makes Gypsies assimilators and Amish remain independent? Is Amish culture more stable? A local equilibrium maybe?
My impression of modern Gypsies is that they very much try to maintain distinct familial and religious culture, but otherwise adopt (a certain flavor of) more mainstream dress, technology, etc, and perhaps interact with the mainstream culture more directly. But that’s a Wikipedia level understanding at best, curious what you know having studied more.
Maybe supports Scott’s theory re: veils in the Middle East? As Universal culture grows stronger, you need increasingly strict segregation to maintain a really distinct culture of your own?
The point about deliberately creating mediocrity is very crucial here. Most people only have a few intense or extreme interests, and are happy to dabble in a safe, familiar format when they step outside that mastered “comfort” zone. If I don’t drink beer, I don’t WANT a taxing, demanding drink, one that requires an expert eye to discern. I want friendly fizzly almost-pop.
The world benefits from variety, and so it’s important to maintain the extreme or intense versions of products, local variations and so on. At the same time, those miniversions will inetivably be pushed into careful little enclaves where the wide-appeal variant reigns elsewhere. It’s better to accept this truth and take it into one’s own hands by making that enclave a reserve, a piece of heritage, rather than being naively defensive and letting it devolve into squalor.
By the way by Czech lagers you probably mean Pils type of beer (don’t you?) – which comes from Pilsen (the capital of West Bohemia) and the original is still brewed there under the name Pilsner Urquell (Urquell literally means original source in German). The beer was actually first made by a brewer from Bavaria – Josef Groll, whom the Pilsen city council hired to create a better beer for the city since there was a lot of unrest (not quite riots but not so far from it) because of the bad beer quality in Pilsen back then.
Unfortunately, in the city where I study in Germany, the only Czech beer I’ve seen in a pub on tap is Staropramen for some reason. That surprised me because I never considered it a very good beer and Pilsner Urquell is a lot more famous. One can still buy it in bottles in a supermarket but that does not taste the same. And I am not so fond of most German Pils beers. So in Germany, I mostly drink Weißbier, which the
GermansBavarians ( 😛 ) make really well. Or Kellerbier, that’s also good.
Yeah, Pilsner. The Czechs certainly have other styles – some dark beers for instance, and when I was in Prague they had this odd thing where they mixed light and dark together. Pilsner Urquell does seem to be the one with the top reputation (and is utterly ubiquitous in Prague) but oddly enough I seem to prefer Staropramen; each to their own I suppose.
Becks is indeed as you describe; I’ll drink it if there’s nothing else on, back when I was at the university and the chemistry department had some catered event that’s the beer they’d provide. Germany, I suppose, is another place with lots of interesting beers (mmm, Weißbier) but Becks could be from anywhere.
Apparently another place for lots of interesting styles of beer is Lithuania, or so the internet tells me. Apparently they only export eurobeer but the local styles are said to be very interesting and not something you can find anywhere else.
I’ve gone to Pilsen and they still make small batches in wooden barrels, open-fermented in the chilly limestone caves under the brewery.
One of the better beers I’ve ever had. Pilsner Urquell isn’t the most complex or robust of beers, but like Pizza Margherita it’s just a perfection of simplicity.
If you’re into beer it’s easy to have a backlash against macrolager and go for bigger, more intense, more complicated beers (hi Imperial Double IPA’s!) but eventually you come back around to appreciating simplicity done well from time to time.
“Germany, I suppose, is another place with lots of interesting beers”
Eeeh, they’re good but the industry has really calcified. In a quest for perfection they’ve abandoned innovation. I hear the younger generations of Germans are turning to craft cocktails if they’re alcohol aficionados.
America is the place to be if you’re into beer. More uneven quality but it’s due to a frantic pace of innovation, improvement, and experimentation.
The legacy of the purity laws holds Germany back somewhat. American craft beer got really good because it got wildly innovative, and lots of new styles and modifications of existing styles were born. The good stuff rises to the top.
In Germany there are a handful of regional styles, which they have practiced to perfection – but not much variety or innovation. Competent but kind of dull.
I think there are two things going on here by the defenders:
1) Some (many?) societal evolutions that develop are bad, so just because something gets adapted into universal culture, doesn’t mean it’s likely to make things better. It’s easy to make claims for things with clear evidence of their greatness like Coke and Sushi, but political-economic systems are far more complicated. Also, Moloch. So I think people are defending against aspects of “universal culture” that they think aren’t conducive for success.
2) Many (not all) people want to surrounded by those who are similar to them, look the same, act the same, eat the same etc. They see this evolution as detrimental to their interests, regardless if it is more optimized for future success.
Hi Scott, I’m in early this time! Time to squander that advantage by writing too many words.
I have two major comments on this, and they’re not so much disagreements as agreements with caveats.
First, I think you under-play the effect of path-dependence on the specific form of the ‘universal culture’. If the Industrial Revolution had kicked off in 11th-century Baghdad instead of 18th-century Birminchester, it’s likely that the resulting ‘universal culture’ would be recognisable, but quite different: different kin structures (the atomic family is very atypical, historically); different perspective on the calendar; different relation of church and state; maybe a totally different commercial environment, without corporate personality. This comment box isn’t big enough for the conworlding required to shake out what the gender norms could end up being, but I don’t believe that you’re right in writing that ours are the gender norms that work in industrial societies.
Two: even the Noahide solution doesn’t really help without some kind of enforcement mechanism. Amish youths might not settle down in the big cities, but they’re atypical in that. Taking language as a proxy for culture, extermination of speaker communities is a (comparatively) rare event; what actually drives young people to speaking the locally dominant language more and more is that it’s how shit gets done (more access to more people means more and better opportunities means a (hopefully) better life), rather than their traditional language which has much less practical utility. Now, in the universal-versus-traditional culture case, this is confounded by the universal culture also bringing plumbing and healthcare and abundant food, so the playing field is hardly fair—but that’s the point, isn’t it, I suspect?
(Why yes, I did just read The World Until Yesterday the other month—how could you tell?)
“If the Industrial Revolution had kicked off in 11th-century Baghdad instead of 18th-century Birminchester”
In my mind, restricting it to an industrial revolution is probably too narrow–to really get a “universalist” culture that parallels our own despite its different origins I think you have to imagine some other culture having a full scientific revolution and developing similar ideas about a material universe governed by mathematical laws, since I think a culture that manages to do that will likely also be one where there’s a significant contingent of intellectuals questioning previous traditional beliefs and trying to come up with a new rationalistic foundation for philosophical thought along with science. Probably such thinkers would tend to come up with ideas like humans-as-material-systems, some form of consequentialist morality, etc. (and of course assuming this culture also has a Darwin, the intellectuals of this culture will probably do a lot of serious reckoning with the philosophical implications of that as well). And I would also imagine that the new interest in rational reevaluation of tradition would be coupled to more attempts to understand their own history in objective terms, less in terms of grand spiritual destinies or cycles, and not necessarily trusting founding myths even if they had been central to the culture’s conception of itself, along with more interest in comparative studies of other cultures that don’t just denigrate them or view them as barbarians.
So assuming that all this kicked off in Baghdad and spread to the wider middle eastern world, I don’t think the middle east would be likely to have the same sort of wide acceptance of blending church and state that they do in our reality, and likewise a lot of other “core” ethical and philosophical views would probably be closer to those that developed in Western culture in our reality (other issues like kin structure might be different as you said but these seem a lot less important to me, I could easily imagine those changing in the West a century from now without really changing the broader culture outside of family life too much).
Also, what do you mean by “corporate personality”? Are you talking about something like what’s discussed on the wikipedia page, dealing with issues like collective vs. individual responsibility, or are you referring to something more like the “corporations are people” legal fiction, as suggested by your preceding comment about the “commercial environment”?
Sure, but that just means the Mu’tazila school would have had to win, Ibn Rushd would be a major figure in intellectual history, and so on.
You can see the precursors of reason and universalism in many cultures, but how close they get is highly variable. Medieval Islam is actually one of the stronger contenders.
The Industrial Revolution probably couldn’t have started in 11th century Baghdad, even given a Mu’tazila victory. The standard economic analysis of the IR has the British Agricultrual Revolution as a significant factor. Greatly increased agricultural productivity produced surplus labour and so permitted industrialisation. (Baghdad might have acquired the necessary labour some other way, of course. 11th century agricultural practices in the Arabian Peninsula are not my field of expertise.)
And the non-standard analysis of the IR is that downward mobility and spreading middle class genes and values are what triggered it.
I could maybe stretch things to claim that corporations are western in nature if I knew anything at all about non European analogs to early European corporations, but every other item on your list is entirely modern (I mean, you point out yourself the nuclear family is atypical historically, did you think the west was somehow an exception?). That’s exactly what Scott is talking about when he says universal culture is wearing western culture’s skin. Only (maybe, again I really don’t have the background outside European history) democracy and corporations are things that western culture is spreading/has spread around the globe and are actually traditionally western.
“I mean, you point out yourself the nuclear family is atypical historically, did you think the west was somehow an exception?”
What power did an Englishmans extended family have over him in, say, the thirteenth century, that it does not have today?
Individual cases varied, there’d be a contract. Instead of waiting to die to pass stuff on to whichever man is inheriting (or splitting it up among the women) late medieval English parents would write up a contract listing the obligations to the family of the inheritor and turn it over so that getting everything done was his job now not theirs, while securing certain things. Exactly what this entailed (pun intended) differed by class. In the upper classes you get those classical plotline entailments where no daughters are ever to inherit for example, while in the lower classes it usually just meant an obligation to care for the older members of the family.
So, his parents could require him to do certain things in exchange for his inheritance? You could do that now, and put it in a contract.
So what has changed? (Other than farming and farmland becoming less important parts of the economy.)
The atomic family is very atypical *outside of England*, I hope you mean. By the 18th century nuclear was the norm in British households. To be honest, that household structure probably came in part-and-parcel with the economy and industrial reforms of the age; so in an alternative history where Baghdad /somehow/ revolutionised in this respect, it would almost certainly not be a Baghdad of patriarchal clans and extended family groups. Too much incentive to behave primogeniturally and too little incentive to cooperate with outsiders.
I have no idea where you got the idea that coke won the drinks wars because it was, quote, “more refreshing”.
Coke is dirt cheap to make. It costs fractions of a penny per bottle.
Apple cider is not. Neither is yak’s milk.
Water is even dirt cheaper than Coke, and probably more empirically refreshing at that.
If we have three variables, cost, taste and refreshness, then maybe coke is the one that maximizes the function.
This is a good point, though I wonder about qualifying ‘refreshness’. I know what you mean when you say it, but something doesn’t sit right when I try to separate it from taste. There’s a noticeable difference between bottled and tap water, which isn’t exactly ‘taste’, that has to relate to why bottled water is so much more expensive than soda, which is water + stuff and should thus be more expensive.
I usually look at food and beverage choices as tradeoffs between quality, taste, and cost. Fast food frequently maximizes the function, as it has an acceptable quality that meets consistent minimums, tastes adequate, and has a low cost in money and time to acquire. A full restaurant has higher quality (averaged over a greater range of possible qualities; bad restaurant food can be much worse than bad fast food from a recognizable chain, at least in this area), tastes better, but is more expensive in terms of money and time.
Soda is the same way, in many respects. It’s of a quality that is consistently better than average tap water, tastes fine, and is cheap in terms of money and time to acquire. Bottled water is of higher quality, tastes better (or is more refreshing, at least), but is generally more expensive for a given quantity.
I think of bottled water as paying for the bottle, primarily. If I’m at home, I just drink tap water because I’ve got cups handy. (And because I have decent water here; at college I usually raid the water coolers and stockpile it in my room because the tap water is awful.)
I’m not sure where you get the idea that it’s more expensive than soda, unless you’re buying Evian or Fiji Water it something like that. Dasani or Aquafina are about exactly the price of soda, off-brand stuff is significantly cheaper.
“Refreshingness” is the reason I drink cold, caffeinated soda water instead of plain bottled water. The taste part is mostly irrelevant to me.
Caffeine and carbonic acid both help to flush biofilms of food particles and bacteria out of the taste buds, tonsils, adenoids, etc. Caffeine acts in a similar way to alcoholic mouthwash, temporarily increasing muscle tonicity and thereby “flexing” envaginations flat. Carbonic acid acts a bit like trisodium phosphate, as a biological surfactant—and also induces respiratory acidosis in any aerobic bacteria present. (Xylitol is even better for this, and I’m still wondering why there’s no xylitol-sweetened cola yet.)
I might be an outlier in my reasons for drinking soda, since I have a really crap lymphatic system so biofilms tend to build up in my mouth really quickly. But I would expect everyone has to deal with this problem at a subconscious level to some degree, and soda provides everyone a pleasant temporary respite from it. (Though the sugar in soda also feeds the bacteria, ensuring they’ll come back quickly and your mouth will feel gross again, necessitating another “refreshing” gulp of soda!)
I’m used to fast food sodas, where I get free refills if I order a soda, but not if I pick up a bottle of water. Soda is so cheap, you’re paying more for the cup.
When I’m at a restaurant, only have a choice between bottles, or know I’m going to need to stay hydrated and won’t have a ready source of water, I usually grab bottled water.
Coke comes sealed in a bottle. That is, you can rely on it to not kill you.
more refreshing per dollar then?
To what degree is Coca-Cola dirt cheap to make because of economies of scale? If yak milk or apple cider were really that much better tasting, wouldn’t it be cheaper because there would be a massive incentive to have more yaks and apple trees?
True, there is only so much that can be accomplished by modern economic processes. I don’t know if we could get juice down to the price per volume of soda. Still, the claim that soda is horrible tasting and we only drink it because it is cheap doesn’t pass the laugh test. Soda had to come from somewhere. It’s only because it is popular that the processes that produce it have been set up to make it as cheap as it is.
There are exceptions. We can take a look at how tonic water evolved from something that started as a medical prophylactic and evolved into an acquired taste to find a case where people started drinking something and had to find a way to make it palatable.
No one is claiming that soda “tastes horrible”, and soda is *particularly suited* to economies of scale in a way that Yak’s milk, apple cider, etc are not.
Why is soda particularly suited to economies of scale? To Civilis’s point, Coke used to be made from an extremely valuable plant grown in a small climate in one part of the world. Due to massive demand, soda technology has innovated to the point where it can be made out of corn, an extremely abundant crop which is artificially plentiful due to scientific progress, market forces, and non-market forces (is. government subsidies). I don’t know of an apriori reason why apple cider or yak milk couldn’t undergo the same process if there was sufficient demand.
If apple cider went through that process we would call it soda
Sidral Mundet is essentially apple cider soda.
If soda is what we call the product that becomes universal then we’ve entered a tautology.
There’s a huge grey area where something has to have a certain level of low price to take over, and a certain level of appeal to taste, and a certain level of advertising, and a certain level of fitting in with the existing culture, and a certain level of military dominance, etc. None of these are a single deciding factor. Something that tasted worse might succeed with a little more advertising, and something that had a little less advertising might succeed if it fit the existing culture more, etc.
Juice probably couldn’t be reduced to the price of soda. But beef can’t be reduced to the price of rice and tofu, yet McDonalds is doing pretty well at taking over. Beef is not optimal with respect to price, or cultural reasons (consider Hindus), but it’s not so bad that it can’t take over if the other factors are sufficient.
I am reminded of your bit in In Favor of Niceness Community and Civilization about how a certain level of preexisting liberalism is required in order for “super charged liberalism” to work. If you refuse to enforce social norms, you shouldn’t be surprised (or complain) when those norms get violated.
I have to take issue with the claim that the Western/”universal” (mostly, just “progressive”) culture you describe is simply the Obvious Thing that will take over everything with no help at all. It’s had a lot of help; millions have died in the fights over, basically, whether Universal Culture will take over this place or that place. Japan would not be “Westernized” if they had won WWII. (I suppose you could argue that universal culture somehow imbues its carriers with superior military abilities. But this doesn’t hold up historically; the Germans were better at fighting than most anyone else in either war. Pretty clearly the result of the 20th-century conflicts was due to the US and its privileged geographic position.)
Just to give one example, there’s enormous effort on the part of the US-influenced media/academic class within, say, Japan to enforce the modern “egalitarian” gender roles. It requires barely less continuing effort in the US itself. The perpetuation of this supposedly universal high-entropy state requires the enormous ongoing efforts of a huge power structure which, for instance, drags men to mandatory sexual-harrassment awareness training. (And imposes child support payments based on an imputed income, and constantly propagandizes everyone with the notion that egalitarian gender roles are the only possible arrangement and any hint of inequality is evil, and…) If this support were pulled away and things left to assume their actual equilibrium state, how likely is it that we would just naturally achieve the totally equal paradise that feminists have spent the last six decades constantly striving for?
This too ^
Japan was somewhat westernized before WWII in the form of the Meiji Restoration. Vietnam won the Vietnam War and still ended up pretty westernized. I agree things could have gone differently, but I don’t see Japan reverting to Tokugawa-levels of cultural uniqueness.
Yes, but Meiji only happened because the US showed up and went all black ships. And then it used the opportunity provided by a temporary technological advantage (which one could argue is actually universal) to impose its incidental culture on Japan in a big way (trade agreements and so on). This isn’t a case of Japan just naturally conforming to the universal equilibrium.
Again: You can’t argue that modern progressive norms are a real universal equilibrium state that everyone will fall into naturally if left to their own devices. The only reason they dominate as of the end of the twentieth century is because their holders imposed them on everyone else using massive amounts of force. The Left is constantly in a self-imposed state of emergency devoting all its efforts to preventing anyone from deviating from progressive norms. And all this effort is still beginning to fail, because progressivism is not actually an equilibrium state; it’s massively unstable, and the coalition that forced it on the world during the twentieth century has run out of energy to keep it together.
I agree that the Aborigines went 50,000 years without adapting Western norms, given that they were never exposed to them. And I agree that if Japan had remained perfectly isolated, it would have escaped Western norms – that’s what I was saying about how enough censorship can successfully avoid Westernization.
But Tokugawa started the isolation policy because western ideas and products were already starting to infiltrate Japan before it was instituted.
You’re equivocating between Western technologies, which are plausibly universal and do indeed require censorship to keep down, and progressive social norms, which only achieve universality by force. (It seems like a big component of the reason Tokugawa imposed the sakoku policy was to keep something like a monopoly on access to Western weapons, which had been instrumental in winning the wars of unification. The other reason was to freeze out Christianity, which was seen as disruptive. And now, of course, Western technology is everywhere in Japan, but Christianity is still a rarity.)
You can talk about guns and industrialization and say these are plausibly universal. But modern egalitarian gender norms are a product of progressive ideology, and saying that they’re a universal equilibrium state which everyone will inevitably fall into is just ideological triumphalism, as well as being very counter to observable reality.
I disagree. Modern egalitarian gender norms have been thoroughly and voluntarily embraced even by the majority of society that does not embrace progressive ideology. Indeed, it’s a sign of how completely they’ve been embraced that progressive ideologues now have to resort to demanding gender-neutral bathrooms if they want to feel all progressive and ideological.
I believe the main drivers of this trend are not ideology, but rather prosperity and technology, which have greatly narrowed the practical economic differences between men and women–most importantly, their ability to perform economically valuable work. Thus economically empowered, women have used their newfound power to throw off the constraints on their behavior traditionally imposed by more powerful men. The same forces are at work in prosperous non-Western countries such as Japan, and even in more modestly modernizing countries where women have made proportionally smaller strides towards equality.
The reason modern gender norms have been so widely embraced is because 1. an ideologically progressive legal system provides the environment in which it is sustainable, e.g. easy divorce and child support laws, and 2. an ideologically progressive information apparatus constantly pushes the notion that those gender norms are the only moral way of living and anyone who wants to follow traditional forms is a loser.
The idea that women can only now do productive work is quite silly. Go back and tell a farmer’s wife from 1800, or 1600, or 1200 that what she’s doing isn’t “productive work”. For that matter, tell that to a modern woman who remains at home raising children rather than having a separate career. In fact, the ability of women to work for salaries outside the home in the manner typical of men is another unstable and unnatural situation imposed by a progressive power structure; see the massive edifice of anti-discrimination laws and sexual harassment regulations and so on. This isn’t a product of advancing technology, it’s ideological pure and simple.
I agree with a lot of your points, but this seems to be somewhat far-fetched. Working for a salary outside the home typically results in more choice of work and a greater income. If these are larger benefits than those offered by working at home (increased free time, greater sense of place, more time with the children), people will continue to choose them. As long as companies find it advantageous to have a greater pool of potential workers, they will continue to run sexual harassment classes and whatever else is necessary (within reason and at expense not exceeding their gain) to allow it to happen.
I think it’s fair to say that many aspects of present gender norms are subject to change over time. Perhaps that will include the types of jobs available to men vs women. But preventing women from working outside the home at all seems like a pretty clear case of restricting economic gain to preserve aspects of culture, which is pretty clearly the kind of tradeoff that Scott was talking about.
This is true even if having women work outside the home results in less utility (perhaps due to hard-to-measure intangibles like happiness or job satisfaction), though I admit I don’t believe that to be the case. In that case, it would be just Moloch making things worse, rather than universalism making things “better.”
Tom Hunt articulates clearly something that Scott would prefer not to see. Prediction: Tom Hunt is banned from the comment section within a month – ironically, this actually provides evidence for his argument in this thread.
She would disagree, but she would be wrong. The numbers on the issue are quite clear: parenting doesn’t matter.
OTOH, it does appear to matter that you *do* have a relatively normal upbringing – and that you are not raised by a single mother. Beyond the binary of receiving biparental parenting or not, it does not seem to matter that much, no.
I think Tom Hunt is in denial. The empirical evidence seems pretty obvious – every country that industrializes sees women achieve significantly more equality than they had in their traditional pre-industrial society. Countries that try to repress this change, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, have to spend massive resources on policing and apply “traditional” standards to women’s clothing and behavior that are often far more restrictive than the pre-industrial roles actually were, just to keep the women close to status quo. For the most part there is simply no real need in a post-industrial society for women to stay home – most domestic tasks that used to demand an entire day’s labor for most of history (cleaning, laundry, cooking, sewing) are automated or easily outsourced, and farming requires a tiny fraction of the labor force to feed the entire population. Child care is also provided by the state or can be outsourced relatively cheaply. Moreover, if women used to have to spend most of their 20s and 30s pregnant just to ensure the survival to adulthood of 2 or 3 children, modern medicine means pregnancy makes very few demands on a woman’s life. Most women can work through the 8th month and need to get pregnant twice to ensure two adult children. I would ask Tom Hunt what he thinks women should be doing if not working for salaries and competing with men. I suspect the rapid growth of home schooling is one answer to this – an attempt to create a compelling reason to allow (or keep) women to stay home where none naturally exists.
In reality the Japanese traded with foreigners throughout the Tokugawa shogunate. Previously, the Portugese had been converting large numbers of Japanese to Christianity (Universal culture? Or it was at the time but now it’s not?) and they did get kicked out. Censorship? What if the Japanese had allowed radio and TV transmissions (anachronism alert) into Japan but no missionaries, is that still censorship?
I would suggest that a certain level of gender egalitarianism is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that the level we have is that level. It may be that the level that exists in, say, Japan, is inevitable, but anything further is just due to progressives constantly pushing to keep it there and not natural at all.
It seems pretty clear to me that companies would not go to enormous amounts of trouble to increase the fraction of women in the workforce if they weren’t being pushed into it by ideological factors. (These factors could be either genuine ideological belief on the part of corporate decision-makers, or exterior coercion by governments; in most cases it’s probably a mix.)
Of course, much of the state of things is determined by economic factors alone. But I think it’s pretty clear that in the absence of coercion, the equilibrium would have significantly fewer women working outside the home than there are now.
I had written a longer post that basically agreed with what Tom Hunt said above, but it got lost. Briefly: the fact that women can own property and work outside the home without censure is plausibly universal, and won’t be going away. However, the current level of female workforce participation is probably not universal, but is being pushed away from equilibrium by ideological efforts to increase the number of women in the workforce. (Either that, or the massive efforts to increase the women in $FIELD are having no effect at all.)
Sometimes when you lose a comment in reply post box, it is somehow saved in the comment post box at the bottom of the page. Check there and maybe you can cut & paste next time.
Tom Hunt said:
I wouldn’t use “coercion” to describe the type of ideological pressure that’s typically exerted (though I do agree it applies in some cases that are non-typical but nevertheless get shouted about on social media). Otherwise, I agree with this sentiment. I expect the economic/biological equilibrium would, in an ideological vacuum, see women working outside the home at lower rates than we see in the present-day USA. However, I think that if women’s workforce participation dropped even to (for instance) 20% of current levels, that would still be a gender-egalitarian society by historical standards.
Essentially, I agree with the claim: “Current gender norms are left of Universal Culture’s equilibrium point.” But the claim you seemed to be making earlier, the one that I and I think most others in this thread disagree with, is: “Universal Culture’s gender norm equilibrium point is not left of historical norms.”
It is possible to suppose that Universal Culture favors gender norms that are more egalitarian than traditional cultures’ gender norms, without supposing that it favors the 100% gender egalitarianism advocated by many feminists. My reading of Scott’s post was that he made the first supposition, but not the second.
I think it needs to be clarified, the specific policies of 21st century feminism and social justice, justified or unjustified (and I think they are often but not always justified!), are not identical to the broader system of gender equality. Also, if “Universalization” can be a gradual process then people trying to rush ahead may still have to resort to “forcing it”.
But more broadly I think you are failing to consider non-centralized coercion. Asking “would societies drift to gender equality in the absence of coercion?” and “would societies drift towards gender equality in the absence of coercion by the state or other large powerful organizations?” are very different questions. Remember that oppression in general and gender oppression in particular were historically often enforced by local communities and families as much as if not more than a centralized state.
Actually the first question is almost tautological, as much of gender equality is just not coercing people into things based on their sex/gender, which is true more generally as well- alot of “universal culture” is just letting people do what they want (and is in a constant civil war over how this applies to economic policy). So in that sense, it is partly a universal equilibrium state without coercion, its just that well… absence of coercion is a large part of what “universal culture” is .
(This rule is not universal (heh), but it holds in many cases)
I thought the argument was about modern liberal norms (in the broad sense, and not the narrow American political left sense). Progressive norms (that American political left thing) may be another beleaguered culture desperately having to resort to strong state action to resist the universal culture engendered by neoliberalism (that thing that always seems to win that both extreme left and extreme right despise). Liberalism allows for inequalities in the market, which progressives can only react to and try and patch over by, for example, bringing in inefficient gender quotas. Liberalism is pretty much humoring them, however, and they’ll pay recompense if they go too far, just as the communist world did.
Yes, but Progressive norms shouldn’t be treated as directly equivalent to other traditional cultures for the following reason:
As someone who grew up in the ’90’s, the Progressive cultural ideal was communicated to me through grade school diversity training, Benetton commercials and Star Trek TNG. Members of other generations may have been indocrinated via other routes, but the fact remains the Progressive pollitical action to impose it’s cultural prototype is trying to achieve a culture which has only ever existed in imagined futures.
Most other “beleaguered culture(s)” are trying to maintain a social pattern which was at some time adaptive for an actually existing historical, geographic, and technological niche.
Thus, examining obsolete traditional cultures is likely to reveal some valuable insight into how to address the problems of living in the actually existing universe. Examining Progressive culture will only show you the shadows cast by the biases and assumptions of those who dreamed it up.
I think this is true, broadly speaking. Japan lost WWII because we had atomic bombs, and they did not; Germany arguably did as well, though the Allied industrial base also had a lot to do with it. Likewise, Spain managed to conquer lots of other nations because those nations lacked Spain’s powerful industrial base. Korea withstood the Japanese invasion because of basically one guy who said, “screw this, I’m going to put all my resources into tech and military training as opposed to whatever we were doing up till now”. The Vikings pillaged all over the place thanks, in part, to superior naval technology.
Superior technology wins wars almost every time, and superior technology is just an application of “doing what works”.
Not to mention that capitalism and free trade grow economies which allow governments to buy more weapons.
I agree with this but I think it’s a mistake to assume that capitalism and free trade necessarily make liberal cultural values closer to the equilibrium state.
In some cases technology (physical and economic) obviously lead to a more equitable situation. The most obvious example being the role of women changing with the increase in industrialization and capitalism. While I see this as a desirable outcome I don’t trust that it is the result of mutual acknowledgement of a more desirable situation. I think I may have more to do with hydraulic presses and robots eliminating the economic differences.
Not to mention that capitalism and free trade grow economies which allow governments to buy more weapons.
I may be reading into this too much, but there seems to be an assumption that a particular set of values is the best fit for every situation.
Capitalism and free trade grow economies better in peacetime. Once the war begins, however, socialized economies can turn their industrial power into military force much quicker, being able to direct much more of their economy into producing troops, weapons, and so forth. In the long run, this damages the economy, but if you lose, the economic damage is meaningless, and if you win, well, you didn’t lose. If I recall right, one of Germany’s problems (in addition to having a smaller economy just based on size) was that it actually took longer to put all its economy into the war.
Widespread development of nuclear weapons changed the picture completely. You could have a bigger economy than your enemy, that was growing faster than his, and mobilize it to war quicker, and still lose absolutely everything. (He wouldn’t win, either, but what was important was that you lost.)
Warfare has fluctuated back and forth between being dominated by a technologically superior elite and being dominated by mass numbers many times depending on the technology and political culture of the era. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so.
In the end, the ultimate cultural value might be the ability to adapt to changes. This is also something the universal culture seems to excel at.
decentralized solutions almost always work better in the long run, but centralized solutions can outperform them in the short run. If you want to bomb Germany to oblivion, the most efficient way to do or is to start paying bounties on bombs dropped and let the market go to work. But that will almost certainly take longer than just rushing whatever bomber design you have laying into production and doing it yourself.
Exactly. The main problem with thinking in terms of ‘the long run’ with regard to warfare in the eras of mass mobilization and industry is that if you lose a total war, the long run doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t happen.
Further, state-sponsored terrorism is a tactic born of this sort efficiency as applied to war under modern rules and technologies. If you can’t afford a conventional war, pay a bounty for someone else to do your dirty work for you. It’s also not a new development, Letters of Marque are basically the same thing as applied to naval warfare.
“Once the war begins, however, socialized economies can turn their industrial power into military force much quicker, being able to direct much more of their economy into producing troops, weapons, and so forth.”
“If I recall right, one of Germany’s problems (in addition to having a smaller economy just based on size) was that it actually took longer to put all its economy into the war.”
Do you not see a contradiction here? I’d be pretty surprised if the latter claim is true, given that Germany was the one in the middle of an aggressive militarisation, but the claims as stated are obviously contradictory, unless you want to argue that National Socialism (with all its public works programmes) was somehow less centralised.
“Widespread development of nuclear weapons changed the picture completely.”
“Warfare has fluctuated back and forth between being dominated by a technologically superior elite and being dominated by mass numbers many times depending on the technology and political culture of the era. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so.”
Eh? No modern state has lost a war against a non-modern state in a very long time, despite using much smaller armed forces and insisting on much lower casualty rates. (Pulling out of a war because it’s expensive and you lose a few hundred men does not count as losing, especially when enemy casulaties are ten times greater.)
Mass numbers lost a lot of relevance once we had machine guns, and things like rocket artillery and daisycutter bombs only made it worse. Atomic bombs have made numbers totally irrelevant for those states with nuclear guarantees, because mutually assured destruction does not require having more nukes, it merely requires *enough* nukes. The Long Peace is really, really strong evidence that you’re totally wrong about this.
Do you not see a contradiction here? I’d be pretty surprised if the latter claim is true, given that Germany was the one in the middle of an aggressive militarisation, but the claims as stated are obviously contradictory, unless you want to argue that National Socialism (with all its public works programmes) was somehow less centralised.
My recollection was that Germany was still producing civilian luxury goods long after Britain, the US, and the USSR switched everything that wasn’t essential over to military production. Countries aren’t perfect, and Germany was never a perfect war machine. It was more militarized at the start of hostilities but, if I recall right, less militarized than its opponents once they switched their economies to a war footing.
Eh? No modern state has lost a war against a non-modern state in a very long time, despite using much smaller armed forces and insisting on much lower casualty rates.
I’m talking about fights between modern states, or relatively equally developed states throughout history. There are times when smaller armies with advantages in tactics… the phalanx, the horsebow, etc., consistently routed larger armies through tactical superiority. If I recall right, Iraq had the 4th largest army in the world at the time of the invasion of Kuwait.
There are times when it just matters how many people you have. Germany’s better tanks and the Confederacy’s better generals couldn’t stop their larger opponents.
Mass numbers lost a lot of relevance once we had machine guns, and things like rocket artillery and daisycutter bombs only made it worse. Atomic bombs have made numbers totally irrelevant for those states with nuclear guarantees, because mutually assured destruction does not require having more nukes, it merely requires *enough* nukes. The Long Peace is really, really strong evidence that you’re totally wrong about this.
I think you’re misunderstanding me. The Long Peace is an example of what I’m talking about. The balance has now shifted back towards a state where war is most effectively waged by a small cadre of professionals, in this case including rocket scientists and nuclear physicists as much as soldiers or sailors or pilots. We don’t know that it will stay that way. A cheap and effective anti-missile system, for example, would completely change the calculus yet again. To what? Who knows? Though the rise of state-sponsored terrorism shows one of the flaws in relying on nuclear deterrence to shield an increasingly demilitarized population.
Germany’s tanks weren’t really better, for the most part. The Pz III and IV were outmatched by the T-34, the Panther was better armoured than the T-34 but had about the same firepower as the model of T-34 it was going up against, and the Tiger was produced in tiny quantities. The Panther and the Tiger both had major issues with reliability.
What the Germans had was generally superior tactical leadership, at various different levels. They were better at training men to lead in combat. They also had a greater supply of competent or better strategic-level commanders.
On the other hand, their grand strategy was a mess, their decision-making process and government in general was a shambles, their war economy likewise had some major issues, and they were outnumbered and outproduced.
The Long Peace….except for Vietnam, The Koreas, Argentina, Iran, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Balkan states, Israel, Malaya, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, China…
And that’s not even a complete list of states that’ve been involved in international wars, to say nothing of intranational/civil wars. You can certainly make the case that some of these are obviously not “modern states”, but plenty fulfill all the technological criteria. To exclude all of them and then ignore the various US and European actions undertaken abroad is to special exception the phrase “Long Peace” into meaninglessness.
Nuclear weapons -may- prevent a full-scale “Great Power War” (Russia-China, China-US, Russia-EU), But I am not confident that it will continue to do so indefinitely, between the pressure for nuclear disarmament among current great powers, the increasing sophistication of ABM systems, and the changing perception of great power leaders to actually follow through.
Given that the EU’s military forces are still imperfectly integrated at best and have serious personnel, equipment, and training issues, I would be very reluctant to put any bets down on how well the so-called “Long Peace” would last absent the explicit American security guarantees provided by NATO and other treaties.
And if/when the US gets with the program and down-sizes its military to German or British levels, it will no longer be able to effectively commit to European security in the way it has 1945-Present. Which is when things will get VERY interesting.
Supposedly towards the end of the war MI5 called off plans to assassinate Hitler, on the grounds that any likely successor would almost certainly be a better strategist and end up taking longer to defeat.
I believe the “Long Peace” refers to the historically low levels of war deaths relative to total human population. Yes, there have been many conflicts but they have been comparatively low volume (obviously small comfort if you find yourself inside one). And frequent low intensity / geographically limited conflicts have been going on basically forever – most of them are historic footnotes, just like most of the conflicts you mention will be in 100 years’ time.
Um. Doesn’t that depend on the motives for going to war in the first place? If we want Florin to withdraw its troops from Guilder, spend a few hundred deaths failing to achieve that, and then pull out, with Florin still occupying Guilder, well, I can’t call that a win.
More to the point, we do seem to be transitioning to a world in which the wherewithal to wage war is available to smaller and smaller groups, shifting the balance back toward the masses. It hasn’t reversed completely, yet, because Orlando-style terrorists still have access to guns and bombs but not plagues and nukes.
“My recollection was that Germany was still producing civilian luxury goods long after Britain, the US, and the USSR switched everything that wasn’t essential over to military production. ”
If true, this probably stems more from their believing their own propaganda than any centralized/decentralized issue. They really convinced themselves that the “stab in the back” had lost them WWI, and therefore that above all else the civilians had to be kept in good humor. They got a much lower percentage of women into the workforce than the USA did, for fear of what too much pressure would do (and imported slave workers instead). They issued occupying soldiers their wages in local currency — and shipped soldiers from the Eastern Front to Western Europe — so they would spend it there and so export wartime inflation. Etc.
Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State by Götz Aly has some good stuff on the topic.
Why the Allies Won by Richard Overy has some good stuff on the conversion to a wartime footing.
I submit to you that if we’re still having “lots of long simmering disputes that’ve been going on forever”, that the underlying patterns have not actually changed and that there is an external (to the pattern of conflict and violence) factor tamping things down: to-whit, the spheres of influence claimed by states with the economic and military power to smack down anyone who becomes too direct a threat to their interests.
But the same forces we’re talking about as “universal culture” have acted to cripple the ability of all but 3 of the world’s major power blocs. If the EU got its act together, integrated its militaries, and brought their actual real-world readiness and maintenance levels up to what they theoretically are on paper, they could maybe re-join that group as a collective after leaving it as individual nations , but they haven’t so far.
Furthermore, for better or worse I think we’ve seen indicators over the past 20-25 years that at least one of those powers (the US) is also going into decline in terms of its ability to bring military and coercive economic power to bear in a -decisive- manner. And others see it too.
Mind you, the US’ B Game is better than most of the rest of the world’s A Game (just ask Saddam), but that just means we don’t have to worry about the effects of the removal of that stabilizing influence for at least another decade or two, maybe three…but then again, maybe not that long.
Perhaps the EU, pricked by the repeated stings from ISIS wannabes, is going to turn around and rediscover the spirit of the bayonet or what have you, but I think it’ll take a lot more, and even if it did I don’t see that being a net positive for the “Long Peace”.
In short, I believe that talking about the lack of a recent Great Power War as some sort of indefinitely stable state of affairs and the natural progression of cultural evolution is Whig History of the worst sort.
Why the Allies Won by Richard Overy has some good stuff on the conversion to a wartime footing.
+1 on Overy’s book being excellent.
Mary has it. It was a combination of concerns about civilian morale, ideological reasons for keeping women out of the workforce, and probably just some plain bad ideas that kept Germany from adopting a war economy for half the war. In retrospect, German morale in WW2 looks nigh-unbreakable, especially in contrast to, say, Italy (though not compared to Japan), but Overy argued that it was more fragile than it seemed, and the German leadership, in turn, seems to have overestimated its fragility.
The German war economy also suffered due to overestimating the % of work half-starved slave labourers from occupied countries could do compared to well-fed German workers.
The second most powerful nation in the world, ever, was the USSR. Even with US forces deployed in Europe, the Red Army would have steam-rolled NATO if we did not use nukes.
Could you imagine Europe WITHOUT a US protecting it? We’re talking West Germany and France lasting maybe a month.
Yeah, Britain and France can try nuking the Soviet Union, but that’s a hopeless cause. The Soviet Union is just going to wipe you out. And those arsenals aren’t big enough to destroy the USSR. And a lot of them rely on flying bombers into the Soviet Union. Just ask Francis Gary Powers how awesome flying an aircraft into Soviet airspace is.
The UK doesn’t have submarine launched ballistic missiles until 1968. They often only had a single submarine on patrol, with 16 missiles, with 3 relatively small, relatively inaccurate warheads.
The success of the West militarily is clearly a US only phenomenon, and not part of universal culture. That we have 10 super-carriers, and the rest of the West has none, also means there is something funny going on in the US that gives it military superiority, which doesn’t exist in the rest of the Western nations.
Basically, there’s a big US Exceptionalist clause.
The British nuclear force isn’t sufficient to win a war against Russia because it isn’t designed to be. Unlike the American or Russian nuclear forces, it’s a pure deterrent — it’s designed to destroy Moscow (or other large Russian cities) in a countervalue second strike. The theory is that this should be enough to discourage a first strike.
In the absence of a strong military alliance with the United States, I would expect this to change. Note that French military ties with the US have historically been weaker, though both are NATO nations — and note that France maintained a full nuclear triad through the late Cold War. (It doesn’t have a land missile force now, though it does have air and sea forces.)
Right, the British strategic nuclear force is designed entirely to destroy a single Soviet city.
The French strategic nuclear force was never large enough to assure destruction against the Soviets, either, and most of it comes relatively late in the game, by which time the Soviets would’ve already mopped up the French and been done with them. The French do not even have a working atomic bomb until 1960.
If I am looking at a couple figures correctly, US nuclear spending in the 1962 was around $48 billion. That’s an incredible amount of money. Neither France nor the UK could afford regular expenditures of that amount, and even if they could, it’s too late in the Cold War to stop the Soviets.
>West has none, also means there is something funny going on in the US that gives it military superiority, which doesn’t exist in the rest of the Western nations.
There’s nothing funny about it, the US has twice the population of Japan and 4 times the population of Germany, and is considerably richer than both. It has 1/3 the population and almost half the GDP of NATO.
1/3 the population 1/2 the GDP and 9/10ths of the rednecks. 😉
I think the 9/10 of the rednecks might be a contributing factor in why the US also has 90+% of the aircraft carriers.
The US certainly did not maintain any such monopoly on force in any other period.
At which particular point in time? In 1945, certainly (in fact, there is a theory that the nuking of Japan was, to a large extent, a hint to Stalin that he shouldn’t continue to push his army into Western Europe). In the 1980s I don’t think the Russian army was very combat-capable.
Again, at which point in time?
This is specific to the military situation between 1945 and 1985. I would agree that the Soviets had effectively lost their edge in the 80s, but we’re backing US strength out of the equation.
Is that a small time period? Yes, but in a hypothetical no US world, that would have been enough time to do away with the remaining democracies, and we would be talking about a different “universal culture” while waiting in line for our bread.
Even today, the West is not hegemonic without the US. Maybe the West would increase their military power without the US, but maybe not.
Actually you can see this in the 80s, too, when the UK was only a few bad decisions and unlucky breaks away from getting its ass handed to it by some random military junta.
Now that one specific case has changed in no small part to Argentine neglect of its military, but I think the general trend there is obvious.
Germany didn’t lose because we had superior technology; Germany lost because they were swamped under massively superior numbers and resources, which were due to geographic advantage. Without the US sitting there pumping endless men and resources into the war, it would have gone entirely differently. (Yes, even the Eastern Front; I think without the US tying up Japan in the Pacific, the Soviets would be too busy dealing with the threat to their eastern frontiers to start pushing Germany back west.) The atom bomb was a sideshow; even without it, the US won the war in the Pacific, and would have successfully invaded the Japanese home islands.
It’s easy to imagine a world in which you hand nukes to the Germans or the Japanese, and the war ends differently. The outcome of that would likely look similar in technology and the hard sciences, but to argue that all the components of the modern “Western” progressive consensus would have shown up due to magic or something is quite ridiculous.
I’m not at all sure that’s true – as you pointed out, most of the war was on the eastern front. I don’t think the japanese could have affected russia that much – they didn’t really have the resources to take siberia, let alone slog through it. And your point about the numbers also applies to the japanese being massively outnumbered in Asia.
Over half of the Soviet Union’s aviation fuel and about a third of its ordnance was provided by the US through lend-lease. 15% of Soviet aircraft were British or US made, and hundreds of thousands of trucks, and thousands of tanks and trains were provided to the Soviet Union.
Yep, Germany’s biggest problem in both wars was that they couldn’t stop the Americans from sitting on the other side of the ocean and pumping resources into their enemies.
America provided endless materiel. Russia provided the endless men.
The “endless swarms of Russians” thing is an exaggeration. When you leave out POWs dying in captivity, Soviet military deaths:Axis military deaths on the Eastern Front is about 1.5:1. If you include prisoners dying in captivity, it becomes about 2:1.
That’s because the Axis death toll on the Eastern front was also huge. Point being that the Russians contributed a much vaster number of dead soldiers to the cause of defeating the Nazis than any other Allied power.
@gbdub: that is certainly true. The Red Army suffered the majority of Allied losses and inflicted the majority of Axis losses.
The popular image of them vanquishing the Axis by sheer forces of numbers is, however, incorrect.
If the Russians fought with brawn instead of brains, that’s their choice. It doesn’t make them more necessary to the war. (There were a lot of times when smarter tactics would have saved them a lot of lives.)
One of the reasons the Soviets suffered the kind of setbacks they did, despite advantages in men and materiel, is that they didn’t have much of an officer class at the beginning of the war — it had been hit hard by Stalin’s 1930s purges. Smarter tactics may have been out of the question simply because there wasn’t the institutional knowledge to execute them.
Massacring your officers strikes me as an excellent way to choose to fight with brawn rather than brains, and make the choice stick
I’ll also point out that the Soviets often had more men than weapons – particularly in the early stages of the war. You had one rifle to a fire team; when the rifle-bearer was killed, his partner picked it up and continued fighting.
I’ll also point out that the Soviets often had more men than weapons – particularly in the early stages of the war. You had one rifle to a fire team; when the rifle-bearer was killed, his partner picked it up and continued fighting.
I believe this was far more common during WWI than WWII. During WWII, the Soviets, through a combination of never throwing anything away (and Russian industry was doing quite well by 1916) and the fact that they spent the entire 1930s investing only in factories, generally had enough small arms.
If you could prove that German victory would have prevented the essence of progressivism to spread, you would simultaneously disprove Scott’s assertion that the Western-Culture-that-isn’t-Western is the default universal culture because entropy.
For the record, I think you’re wrong. Nazi Germany was pretty progressive in many ways and would have drifted into far gone multi-culturalism too, after a few decades.
I don’t essentially disagree with this, but it is pretty funny to read out of context. Do you have any examples?
The Nazis had public health campaigns against smoking and were very environmentalist and opposed to animal cruelty. For example they banned animal vivisection (while taking up the practice of human vivisection). Also, a lot of Nazi mysticism was quite New Agey.
It built homes to give refuge for unmarried pregnant women. It started workers’ committees for factories. It provided recreational opportunities for the working class.
The Netherlands got universal healthcare because of the German occupation (one of the Nazi laws we kept).
(Another one is the use of Central European Time in all of western Europe except Portugal and the British Isles.)
Tom, the US certainly pumped in a lot of resources, but your claim about endless men is tottaly wrong. The battle of Stalingrad alone killed more soldiers than the entire Western Front. (Here is a superb video breaking down the death toll of WWII: https://vimeo.com/128373915.)
“All the components” is very different from “most of the components, most of the way”. Nobody is asserting that Nazi!2016 would be arguing about gender-neutral bathrooms. It is pretty obvious that that world would have things like female emancipation and weaker gender norms than 1939, for the same reasons that China is now very capitalist and (heavily sanctioned, theocratic) Iran is pretty close to universal culture at street level. Things like income, education, high availability of food, percentage of the population engaged in manual labour and ability to control reproduction have really strong effects over the long term.
Nobody’s postulating magic, we’re just postulating well-established mechanisms you don’t know / admit exist.
Also, fascist Germany and Japan initiated stupid, pointless, unwinnable (or at least very difficult to win) wars. Seems like a maladaptive trait.
Well, Germany won a whole bunch of wars before they started the one they couldn’t win, with Russia. They could have owned the rest of the continent if they wanted to.
Could they? What would Stalin do if left alone?
Germany had no good reasons to expect they would win the war with France. And if some French generals hadn’t been so incompetent, they probably wouldn’t have.
I have heard that Soviet forces were amassed in the west, by the border, before the German attack.
I know for a fact that the Soviet Union was surprised by the German attack.
If the first is true, since the only reason to thus amass them without expecting to be attack is to attack, Germany might not have had much choice.
Depends on whose history you’re reading. Here’s one narrative (which may or may not be true)that explains the seeming irrationality, but the short of it is that the conflicts were either assumed to be short and winnable, or were seen as a tactical necessity:
Poland – Wanting Danzig which was technically a German city, also in response to anti-german violence in Poland. An easily winnable war in of itself.
France/UK Declared war on Germany as a result of Poland. Germany thought the treaty with the USSR would prevent having to fight these two countries immediately.
USSR: Believed that they were building up military capabilities and intended to strike Germany when they felt ready. The rationale was to strike first to prevent that from happening whilst also grabbing eastern territory.
Perhaps in an alternative history, Germany focused all of its energy on securing a surrender from the UK, and managed to do it quickly enough before the USSR had the idea of taking advantage of the situation. The US would probably end lend-lease and the the western EU powers would be strong-armed into a kind of Germany-lead NATO.
But of course if the UK stayed in the fight long enough and the USSR did strike first when they were prepared, then they might have grabbed significantly more territory then they ended up grabbing historically.
Just a thought.
I don’t really think the Germans had the capacity for a quick military victory over the UK. They didn’t have anything like the vast quantity of specialised landing craft that an invasion on that scale would require, or the beachhead supply infrastructure, and even if they had had both they would have been unable to prevent a night raid by the Home Fleet obliterating their transports at anchor long before they were fully disembarked. Certainly the Home Fleet would have suffered horrendous losses at the hands of the Luftwaffe before they could get out of range again, but the invasion would have been over before it had begun. A negotiated peace, of course, is a different matter: that could easily have happened, and it’s at least plausible that Churchill’s determination that it shouldn’t and persuasive power in convincing others to go along with him are the reason it didn’t.
A negotiated peace, of course, is a different matter: that could easily have happened, and it’s at least plausible that Churchill’s determination that it shouldn’t and persuasive power in convincing others to go along with him are the reason it didn’t.
Yes and no. Yes, in that there were feelers by Lord Halifax to the Germans, and if the Germans had bothered to answer, he might have been able to replace Churchill and sue for peace. (Ref) But he was an idiot, and blind to Hitler’s actual motives, which brings us to the no. The No being that there wasn’t really a good mechanism for a moderate negotiated peace between the two countries. Hitler would have been an idiot to let an independent Britain remain to threaten his flank, and the British had no particular motive to submit themselves to German dominance. Sea Lion was an utterly ridiculous plan (and quite possibly a deception run by OKW to keep Hitler off their backs until he got distracted) and the U-boats were never that close.
They had enough U-boats to bring literal starvation to the British Isles by the end of 1941, along with such trifles as shutting off the supply of fuel to the RAF and the aforementioned Home Fleet. They lacked reliable torpedoes, and a doctrine of air-naval cooperation, and strong leadership for the surface raiders, but these were not insoluble problems.
Reducing an enemy stronghold by siege is as much a military victory as doing so by storm, and it would have been quick enough for Germany’s purposes.
I would argue that Nazi Germany and the USSR were also part of the “universal culture”, they just represent dead-ends in the transition away from traditional culture to a post-industrial culture. And make no mistake, Nazi ideals had very little to do with “traditional German values” as Martin Luther or Goethe would have understood them. Hitler was very aware the world was changing quickly, and he was trying to create a new global culture that would have been dominated and directed by Germany rather than the US/UK or USSR.
“Japan lost WWII because we had atomic bombs, and they did not”
They had already lost by then. So far as quality of military technology was concerned, they were arguably ahead of us as of the beginning of the war. The O92 torpedo, the zero, and the Yamato class battleships were all better than anything we had.
Their big disadvantage was in quantity. We could produce airplanes literally in hundreds of thousands. They couldn’t.
I agree with the general thrust of this comment, but not with all the specifics: the Japanese torpedos were better than anything we had, though mostly because the American Mark 14 was an incredibly buggy weapon. The Zero was a beautiful airplane, and really good in its niche, but it reached that niche by sacrificing so much other stuff that new tactics could overcome its advantage in maneuverability to exploit its fragility.
The Yamato-class battleship, on the other hand, was a monstrosity. Bigger and better armed than anything the Allies had, but slow, fuel-hungry, and lacking the radar fire-control systems common to the US Navy at the time. Even if it hadn’t been obsolete in the face of air attack (which sank the Yamato and Musashi) and submarines (which sank the Shinano), I don’t think it would have fared well in battleship combat.
IJN carriers were nothing to write home about – even the Shōkakus were much of a muchness with the Yorktowns, and the other four in Kidō Butai were definitely inferior to even the Lexingtons, much less the Ys.
Battleships – For all the things wrong with the Yamatos, I’d pick them over everything on the US side before the Iowas turned up, and the question was in relation to 7 Dec 1941, not later.
And then we get into a long, complex, and technical debate about the lighter ships, but I’d pick the US cruisers and the Japanese destroyers.
Oh, and the US subs were far superior – but the Mark 14 torpedo mangled their effectiveness.
Finally, US fire control, damage control, radar, AA guns and AA doctrine were all superior to Japanese.
But yes, the Zero and the Long Lance were awesome. The rare occasions of the US military facing a technologically superior opponent are memorable because of their rarity.
It’s like how superior German tanks and machine guns get remembered – while the fact that the US infantryman had an M1 Garand and the German infantryman usually had a Mauser K98 isn’t.
Battleships – For all the things wrong with the Yamatos, I’d pick them over everything on the US side before the Iowas turned up, and the question was in relation to 7 Dec 1941, not later.
Battleship Nerd Hat On:
Yamato didn’t commission until December 16th, 1941, so at the very start of the war, our battleships (North Carolina and Washington) were the best around. And I might take a SoDak. The only difference from an Iowa was 6 knots and 5 calibers. (And a bunch of internal volume, which is really noticeable if you’ve toured one of each.)
But yes, the Zero and the Long Lance were awesome. The rare occasions of the US military facing a technologically superior opponent are memorable because of their rarity.
The Zero wasn’t. The Japanese should be given credit for their night-fighting doctrine, but not for airplanes that were simply designed to a different set of standards, which happened to suit the war their enemies initially chose to fight quite well.
Another crucial doctrinal difference: US willingness to withdraw large numbers experienced pilots from the front line for use as instructors, and to spend significant resources rescuing such pilots once downed.
“Japan lost WWII because we had atomic bombs, and they did not”
They had already lost by then. So far as quality of military technology was concerned, they were arguably ahead of us as of the beginning of the war. The O92 torpedo, the zero, and the Yamato class battleships were all better than anything we had.
Two of the three of these are definitely not examples of Japanese technological superiority. The Long Lance was by far the best heavy torpedo in the world at the time, but that’s the only area the Japanese had a clear technological lead.
The Zero was an anachronism, built for maneuverability when combat had already shifted to a basis of speed and power. This was common among Japanese warplanes at the time, and it failed utterly when they faced people who understood how air combat had changed since WWI. Look at how well the Flying Tigers did, or how things changed once the US got its tactics sorted out.
The Yamato was not a good design. Pretty much every advantage she had was because she was big, instead of because of good design art or technology. The USN rightly considered Iowa’s superheavy 16″ shells as effective as a conventional 18″ shell at most battle ranges, and the odd Japanese obsession with underwater shell hits made their shells even worse. US armor was better, and our engines were both more efficient and much more powerful per unit weight (which is very important, because engines have to be armored). Yamato saw very little service because of how much of a fuel hog she was. And US fire control was vastly better than the Japanese. Not to mention that Japanese AA guns and FC were terrible compared to ours on all levels.
(Conflict of interest disclaimer: I’m a volunteer at the USS Iowa.)
Their big disadvantage was in quantity. We could produce airplanes literally in hundreds of thousands. They couldn’t.
That was one of several disadvantages. Another was that very few of their basic doctrines worked well, and they weren’t terribly flexible. Their atomic bomb program was better-run than the German one, but they didn’t have the cash to throw at it that we did.
@ Tom Hunt
Fantastic point, and one that Turkey is directly relevant to, given recent events.
Kemal Ataturk decided that Western Civilization worked better, so he decreed that going forward the Turks were going to adopt Western culture. He took this to the point of banning the Fez.
However the values of “Kemalism” have been steadily eroded in Turkey of late, especially by Erdogan. The main Kemalist party finds itself continually losing elections. The Kemalist military was dismayed to the point of attempting a coup to protect “their” culture from being overwhelmed.
Turkey seems to me to be a clear example of “western” culture losing. A hardy weed, maybe, but not an unkillable one.
But that was not the Kemalist part of the army (the hardcore Kemalists who were framed in Balyoz/Ergenekon are already being promoted to stronger positions after the coup). Gulen and his subordinates have nothing to do with Kemalism.
Germany lost World War 2 because Russia is much, much bigger than Germany and could afford to lose far more men and other resources in the fight; Russia fought a war of attrition and won. If the US never entered the war Germany would have still lost, although France being occupied by Stalin’s army instead of Hitler’s would not have been much of an improvement…
I find it hilarious when people say things like this. Germany successfully conquered Russia just 25 years earlier. If not for American materiel, Germany takes all of Russia from Archangelsk to Astrakhan.
Probably they still lose the war, due to Britain, but it would have been a closer-run thing.
Without American material assistance to the UK, Germany would probably have been able to defeat the British Empire. There’s a strong argument to be made that the knowledge that the US was assisting their foes, and the prediction that the US would eventually enter into the war, led the German leadership to gamble on being able to knock the USSR out quickly.
If we’re positing no American assistance to the UK, then we’re assuming Japan stays out of the war too, right? If not, I agree that Britain alone would probably have been defeated by Germany, Italy and Japan.
However, against just Germany and Italy, I can’t see a German path to victory after 1940. Sure, they’d have defeated Russia once it entered the war, but they’d have been in a long-term war of attrition against Britain, sustained only by continually plundering their client states. The Nazi empire was obviously unstable and liable to collapse at any time; they weren’t going to win such a war, although it probably would have dragged out for closer to 20 years than 6. Maybe they could have landed some unlikely knock-out blow, but absent that, they were going to lose – if your system needs to grow to be stable, it’s going to collapse sooner or later. That, and not the invasion of Russia, is the real similarity with Napoleon.
I reckon that the US helped the other Allies more than Japan helped the other Axis powers. In 1940, following the fall of France, Germany’s military production was greater than that of the UK.
Early in the war the UK was pretty desperate to get US material assistance, to buy stuff on credit from the US, etc. Without knowing that they had the US in their corner, would they have held out against the Germans?
Plus, British colonies started to break away in a serious way following a decisive victory by the Brits in a 6-year war. Would they have hung around during a 20-year stalemate?
But Japan’s entry into the war was a massive disaster for Britain specifically. Without American assistance, I don’t think Britain could hold out in North Africa and South-East Asia simultaneously.
Britain’s colonies didn’t so much break away following WW2 as they were granted independence. India became independent because Britain no longer had the appetite for rule, and because the USA favoured decolonisation, not because Indian force of arms was remotely sufficient to achieve independence. And the same was true elsewhere. It’s even possible that a long, grinding solo victory over Germany would have resulted in a British Empire lasting to the present day, because it would have resulted in a post-war Britain feeling victorious, rather than defeated. Britain was quite capable of holding onto its colonies militarily, and it had the unconditional support of the Dominions. Even the independent countries that tried to break away – e.g. Iraq – were put down.
I guess what you’re saying boils down to “Did Lend-Lease change the course of the war?” It’s hard to see it, but I concede that it’s possible.
Not just lend-lease, or even the direct American impact on the war, but the knowledge that here was a massive country, with a large population and significant resource superiority fuelling the most powerful industrial economy in the world, clearly affected the course of the war.
For reference, according to Wikipedia, from pre-war to the end of the war, Germany produced just under 50,000 tanks and variants. In contrast, the US 1940-1945 produced over 100,000 tanks and variants. The USSR produced a little more than the US. The gap in aircraft is far greater – the US produced both more planes than all the Axis put together, as well as the Commonwealth plus USSR put together.
Without the knowledge that as long as they held in the fight US material support would gear up, and maybe the US would enter the war, would the British have stayed stubborn in 1940?
>The Nazi empire was obviously unstable and liable to collapse at any time; they weren’t going to win such a war, although it probably would have dragged out for closer to 20 years than 6. Maybe they could have landed some unlikely knock-out blow, but absent that, they were going to lose – if your system needs to grow to be stable, it’s going to collapse sooner or later. That, and not the invasion of Russia, is the real similarity with
The nazi empire fought until virtually every square mile of territory it possessed was forcibly wrested from its fingers and its leader killed himself. It fought long, long past the point of sense or any hope of victory. Despite enduring far more than they endured in 1914-18, there was no revolution. That is not the behavior of an organization liable to collapse at any time.
German path to victory after 1940? Neither Germany nor the UK are going to quit in any way, so it comes down to actual military power, not “will to fight” or some such.
Without US help, Rommel takes the Suez Canal. It was pretty close as was, and there were a lot of US planes and tanks involved in 1941-2.
It’s entirely possible that the Axis could grind their way through enough of the Empire to undermine British power. I dread to think how bloody a Nazi invasion of India ends up being, for example, but there’s a hard limit on the size and effectiveness of the British Army, and it’s just smaller than the German/Italian combination.
Now the RN is a different story. It’s technologically, tactically and numerically superior. Plan Z is a joke. And the Luftwaffe just wasn’t set up to contest and win control of the seas.
I wouldn’t rate the Regia Marina either. But the UK can’t last forever against the entire Eurasian landmass.
What does the world look like with an Axis conquest of the entirety of Eurasia and no peace? How long can that last? 1950?
The Axis could build and lose fleet after fleet until they can take on the RN with sheer numbers eventually. And the UK knows that. I think they can force the British to the table when the Empire falls apart.
Of course, a Nazi invasion of India would have to deal with the (British) Indian Army, which was the largest all-volunteer force ever assembled.
I doubt that significantly more Indians would have fought alongside the Nazis than fought alongside the Japanese IOTL- Japan did invade India, but Bose’s INA was a fiftieth the size of the Indian Army.
@cassander: There is a profound difference between Nazi Germany and the Nazi empire. Germany was in a seemingly strong position versus Britain in 1941 because of the huge amount of territory it controlled, either directly or via client states – basically, most of continental Europe. You’re right that Germany itself stayed loyal to the death (although that might have changed had the Allies not insisted on unconditional surrender), but the empire very much did not. Pretty much every client government attempted to break free, and many of them, like Vichy France, were looking for their chance to do so right from the start. And this was inevitable given the nature of Nazi control of these countries – they weren’t genuine allies, they were vassals and resource farms.
Germany had no means and no desire to bring these countries genuinely onside, so their rule always collapsed into direct administration (or loss of the territory), sucking away much-needed resources from the front. It was just a matter of time, similar to how Napoleon’s client states abandoned him after 1812. In a long war, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, etc etc are liabilities, not assets, on the German ledger.
@Richard Gadsen: I agree entirely that without US help, in the war as it was, Britain couldn’t have held out simultaneously against Germany and Japan in 1942. But it’s hard to imagine a way for Japan to enter the war on the Axis side without dragging in the US on Britain’s side. Therefore a North African campaign without US help necessarily implies that Britain has far more resources to devote to the North African campaign, not having to defend South-East Asia as well. Rommel still fails, and for the same reasons.
I agree entirely that without US help, in the war as it was, Britain couldn’t have held out simultaneously against Germany and Japan in 1942.
How was Japan going to help Germany take Britain out of the war? Even absent a US intervention (which wasn’t going to be the case because the Japanese assumed the US would come in, and decided to hit us first), they’re going to do terrible damage to the British position in Asia, but no more. They’re not going to sail their battlefleet into the North Atlantic to join up with Tirpitz and face down the British. It’s needed to keep staring down the US Pacific Fleet. They’re not even going to lend Germany their submarines for doctrinal reasons. It does hit at some of the supporting structure for the British war effort, but I can’t see it taking the British out of the war.
With out US help the Brits would have been even more dependent on commonwealth assistance and raw materials than they already were OTL. Supply lines that the Japanese were well situated to cut.
With out US help the Brits would have been even more dependent on commonwealth assistance and raw materials than they already were OTL. Supply lines that the Japanese were well situated to cut.
What’s the situation we’re modeling? Does the US just decide to ignore the rest of the world? Or do the Japanese decide to ignore the US Pacific Fleet, and hope US neutrality holds? I can’t see the US being isolationist enough to not sell things to the British.
And that aside, the Japanese could do a lot of damage, but not to the point where a German invasion becomes possible (leaving aside that the Wermacht is tied up in Russia). And the political situation in Britain at the time didn’t really allow for a negotiated peace anyway. I’m guessing the war ends with the collapse of the German economy some time in 1947 or so.
Without US assistance, without the promise of increasing US assistance, and without the hope that the US would actually enter the war itself, I think that Britain is pretty likely to sue for peace.
Leaving the US out isn’t just an issue of “well, now the Allies have less production and less men”. The knowledge that the most powerful economy in the world was on their side bolstered the UK and then the USSR, and meant that time was never going to be on Germany’s side.
The British Empire committed a million men to the Burma campaign alone. You don’t think an extra million men in North Africa would have had an effect on the war? (Hint – how large was Rommel’s army?) It’s not a coincidence that the peak of Axis success against Britain, the Battle of Gazala, happened at the time the British were most beleaguered by the Japanese in South-East Asia. Japan entering the war diverted much-needed men and materiel away from North Africa, and to another war theatre.
Isn’t this obvious?
Without US assistance, without the promise of increasing US assistance, and without the hope that the US would actually enter the war itself, I think that Britain is pretty likely to sue for peace.
But on what terms? Hitler was unlikely to accept anything other than vassalage, for sound strategic reasons. And I don’t think the British were likely to go for that after the initial panic over the fall of France faded.
Leaving the US out isn’t just an issue of “well, now the Allies have less production and less men”. The knowledge that the most powerful economy in the world was on their side bolstered the UK and then the USSR, and meant that time was never going to be on Germany’s side.
Time wasn’t on Germany’s side anyway, although they may not have realized that at the time.
The British Empire committed a million men to the Burma campaign alone. You don’t think an extra million men in North Africa would have had an effect on the war? (Hint – how large was Rommel’s army?)
The Burma campaign ran into 1945. It’s not even remotely plausible to suggest that if the Japanese hadn’t invaded, an extra million men would have been available to fight Rommel in late 1941/early 1942. For that matter, most were Indian, and probably couldn’t have been deployed against the Germans regardless for political reasons. I’m not familiar enough with Indian history to be sure, but it’s quite possible that a stronger Japanese push in India could have drawn India more strongly into the war.
It’s not a coincidence that the peak of Axis success against Britain, the Battle of Gazala, happened at the time the British were most beleaguered by the Japanese in South-East Asia. Japan entering the war diverted much-needed men and materiel away from North Africa, and to another war theatre.
Isn’t this obvious?
I agree that the Japanese entering the war was very bad for the British worldwide. They might even have been able to cut the link between India and Britain, which would have been borderline catastrophic. But Hitler wasn’t going to leave a non-puppet Britain guarding his flank, and it’s nearly impossible to come up with a scenario where he has the military power to force Britain to accept such terms. At which point, it basically becomes a race between the British economy imploding and the German economy imploding. I suspect the Germans would go first.
I’d be interested in seeing some sources in what sort of peace could have developed had the British sued for peace.
Additionally, British fears that Germans were about to be landing at Dover or wherever continued for quite a while after France fell.
With regard to the USSR, definitely – as shown by the fact that the USSR outproduced Germany in tanks and variants 2:1. But if Germany had only to face the UK and USSR, that would be more doable than also facing the USA, which also outproduced Germany 2:1 in tanks and variants, as well as massively outproducing Germany in planes, providing food and fuel for other Allied powers, etc.
Fighting one opponent who outnumbers you, has more resources, and has greater industrial production is bad, fighting two is worse.
Additionally, I’m going to start a new comment in OT 54.75 for WWII argument.
I’d be interested in seeing some sources in what sort of peace could have developed had the British sued for peace.
Unfortunately, this isn’t my area of expertise, so I don’t have those. My basis is that the British Isles in hands unfriendly to the ruler of Europe are a really serious strategic threat, so there’s not a whole lot of reason to accept any peace that doesn’t lead to Britain’s vassalization.
Additionally, British fears that Germans were about to be landing at Dover or wherever continued for quite a while after France fell.
How long after the fall of France? Maybe through the end of 1940, but no later. By the POD we’re discussing here, the Wehrmacht is tied up in Russia, and only Hitler himself thinks Sea Lion is a possibility.
Indian troops were deployed to North Africa, and later to Europe, during WW2. Three Indian divisions (the 4th, 5th and 10th Infantry Divisions) fought at El Alamein. The 4th and 10th Divisions, along with the 8th and a Gurkha brigade, fought in Italy later in the war.
The last foreign army to occupy Moscow over the winter was the Mongols’.
What an arbitrary standard. Are you aware that Moscow wasn’t even the capital between 1712 and 1918?
Not only did Germany conquer Russia in 1917-8 (go look up the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), but this was explicitly Hitler’s model for doing it again. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the authors of that victory, were not exactly obscure figures.
I don’t think Germany gets credit for Lenin needing Germany out of his business. 1917 Russia was not a typical Russia.
Given that they sent Lenin to Russia with millions of Deutschmarks in gold, I’d say they get a little credit
It’s possible the German nuclear bomb program would’ve been better supported in that counterfactual situation, which could perhaps have eventually won them the war.
What’s “natural”? Everything we’re talking about here consists of people doing stuff. I’m not sure there’s a principled distinction between feminism and patriarchy in this respect. Is it “natural” when the traditional societies win the wars but “unnatural” when they don’t? When bishops preach patriarchy but not when (Anglican) bishops preach feminism?
Japan would not be “Westernized” if they had won WWII.
In many ways, Japan scurried to Westernize as soon as Perry forced it open.
Indeed, the Russo-Japanese War got a lot of non-European attention because, as they saw it, a non-European power had adopted modern Western institutions, and a European one had not — and guess who won?
It encouraged Westernization both as possible and as useful.
True — but with the caveat that the Japanese version of fascism was skeptical of Western ideas and institutions. It was a more Westernized country in 1920 than in 1937, in some ways.
“The perpetuation of this supposedly universal high-entropy state requires the enormous ongoing efforts of a huge power structure which, for instance, drags men to mandatory sexual-harrassment awareness training. (And imposes child support payments based on an imputed income, and constantly propagandizes everyone with the notion that egalitarian gender roles are the only possible arrangement and any hint of inequality is evil, and…)”
You’re assuming that these things are currently necessary to maintain the idea that women and men should be equal under the law. This is not necessarily the case, and these actions may actually be undermining that idea.
I don’t know if Scott will make that exact same claim, but I sure as hell will. The universal culture always embraces the best of everything, and that includes the best of military tactics and strategy. Even to the extent that it can be outperformed in the narrow domain of military superiority, it comes to every war with an overwhelming advantage anyway because it’s so much better at economics and industry.
This is wrong for two reasons:
First, the idea that the Germans were better at fighting is largely a myth. Much is made of “kill-death ratios” in Operation Barbarossa by, I assume, really bad objective-based FPS players, but it turns out that this is largely untrue. It’s a myth created by two factors:
* The two sides had very different ideas of what counts as a “loss”. To the Soviets, a tank that got stuck in the mud all day was lost. To the Germans, a tank that had half its hull shattered, was completely inoperable, and was lost deep behind enemy lines, but could still theoretically be salvaged at some point in the future, was “in for repairs”.
* The main English-language source for Eastern Front history was the memoirs of German military commanders, who frequently lied to make themselves look good, in some cases reporting great victories against enemy forces we now know never actually existed. (This is where some people get the idea that the Waffen-SS was an “elite” unit, when in fact it was an albatross around the Wehrmacht’s neck)
Second, and more importantly, the Germans lost. It follows that the Allies were militarily superior. It doesn’t really matter how the Allies won, only that they did. Yes, the Allies were richer and more populous and more industrious than Germany, but that’s because they were benefiting from the universal culture in the first place!
Claims that “the Germans were militarily superior” are clearly false, for the reasons you give. However:
They had superior tactical leadership at pretty much every level. It’s hard to argue that Operation Barbarossa wasn’t, especially at the beginning, a stunning tactical victory. But what the Germans needed wasn’t a stunning tactical victory, but a decisive strategic victory, and that was what they needed. They were superior tactically, but inferior strategically. When a battle happened where both sides were about equal, the Germans tended to win, but due to strategic factors – some of which were within their control and thus their fault, some of which weren’t) that didn’t happen much after 1942 or so.
Tank numbers are deceptive, but soldiers KIA and POW is more objective (although the numbers on both sides can still be sketchy). You’re definitely right that the post-war apologias of German generals were bogus in many regards, and created a false understanding of the Soviet military: the “endless hordes of Ivans” myth, for instance. That alongside the bogus claim of the “clean Wehrmacht”, and the even more bogus claims of Waffen-SS generals that they were apolitical, non-criminal soldiers. German military memoirs post-WWII are mostly an exercise in blaming all the atrocities and mistakes on other people who were conveniently dead/in Spandau/fled to somewhere warmer.
Claims of destroying enemy forces that never existed, though, are common to all sides: you have American and British claims of knocking out Tigers in areas where German records show no Tigers, you have incredibly dubious claims of tanks knocked out by ground-attack air units (eg, Sturmovik units at Kursk claiming to have destroyed more tanks from given German divisions than those divisions even had), etc. And German kill-to-death claims are still less dubious than some of the American claims during the Vietnam war.
As for the Waffen-SS, is there actually a good and unbiased military perspective? The understanding I have is that they had about half a dozen or so high-quality divisions that were actually divisions, and the rest of the few dozen divisions they claimed were either low-quality crap devoted largely to hunting partisans and murdering Jews, not actually divisions, or both. They probably were an albatross regardless in terms of the confusion and inefficiency involved in the party having a separate military arm that had to be supplied with gear and men alongside the regular army.
Did the USSR have universal culture, or was it more populous and more industrious because the USSR was huge geographically? I likewise don’t know if you can ascribe the advantages of the USA’s enormous and rich territory to universal culture, or the fact that Britain had built an empire before Germany was actually a state to universal culture.
PS: I started a WWII thread in OT 54.75. Feel free to copy your reply over there too! The more WWII nerding, the merrier.
Nah, I’m not that much of a World War II nerd, I’m afraid.
I’d consider the Soviet Union to be a failed experiment by the universal culture. It can’t always identify the best option on sight, so sometimes it just has to try promising ideas like Communism and see what happens.
Which raises the question: is something that is universalizing – international socialism, after all – necessarily part of the universal culture?
And if you’re not a WWII nerd, how do you know about the controversies about post-WWII German apologia? Seems to be a bit of overlap there.
The thing that’s important to protect is the thing gestured at in this Vassar essay. By the contingencies of history, it was especially strong in the West 400 years ago. It makes some sense to preserve arbitrary Western things due to the Chesterton’s fence argument, but it is better if we can understand what made the West succeed and preserve that.
(Most things that are great about the West now are not what made the West succeed, but are instead causally downstream. The important things to preserve are the root causes.)
1) The reason that the same people advocate carefully protecting threatened foreign cultures and ruthlessly suppressing local ones is that they’re acting out of group interest, not based on principle. For the more internationalist (or “universalist”, as you’d say) segment of the population, protecting foreign cultures provides a justification for intervening internationally in a way that benefits fellow internationalists–culture-minded travelers, NGO workers, academics, and so on–specifically, rather than the country as a whole the way garden-variety colonialism would. (And conversely, the less internationalist–that is, more nationalist–segment of the population prefers interventions that benefit the country as a whole, which of course includes them, over ones that benefit internationalists specifically.)
2) My standard answer to the question, “what principled position should society take regarding tradeoff x?”, is, “let democracy sort it out”. Since groups are going to tailor their “principles” to suit their group interests anyway (see point 1), it’s better to let the entire population have a say than to make up a principled reason for one specific, self-interested group to have the last word.
Stating the obvious, but — the strongest version of this is false; some of this is clearly arbitrary. E.g. the use of English. And really a lot of things; I think there might be more “West” in this “universal culture” than you give credit for. Dress, for instance (consider suits and ties). The seven-day week and the Saturday/Sunday weekend. I could probably go on. And there is considerable variance even between “universalized” areas; contrast food here with food in Japan, e.g. See also Zompist’s “Are You an American?” and its offspring.
I mean, OK, I’m stating the obvious here, but, well, someone had to say it…
You would think English is arbitrary, but isn’t it a little odd that the language that prevailed globally out of all the Western languages just happened to be the one with the simplest grammatical structures and most friendly to foreign borrowings? English, even in the 16th century, was basically pidgin German with a huge amount of French and Latin vocabulary. In hindsight it seems like the logical choice. Maybe a language like Farsi, which has fairly simplified grammar and large amounts of foreign (Arabic) vocabulary, could have spread as easily but it is hard to imagine languages like Russian, Arabic or Mandarin spreading as quickly.
Not particularly given that they were the strongest empire and economy on the planet. French and Spanish did the same thing in the areas they ruled, as did Latin and Chinese. Language follows economic conquest.
And Russian, so.
You’re cherry-picking the advantages of English and not mentioning the disadvantages. For instance, Spanish spelling is a lot more regular than English spelling.
The reason that English spelling is so varied, though, is because of the variety of word origins. Compare the “sh” in “schadenfreude” to “chef” to “nation”. All three of these words have different spellings of the phoneme because all these words have different languages of origin; keeping the spelling of the original language was a (unconscious, emergent) design choice that allows people familiar with the root languages of Latin or French or German to recognize cognates on sight without having to consider an irregular spelling of the root word. Consider how language speakers of non-Roman alphabets feel weird when they see a Romanization that doesn’t accurately represent the phonemes in the word (e.g. the Greek “the-OH-ni-sose” versus the Anglicized “die-eh-NYE-sis”), and now extend that to every person who speaks a Roman-alphabet language as well. Consider how confused a German person would feel if they saw “shadenfroider”.
An advantage of languages like Spanish and French that force borrowed words to be spelled as they are pronounced (or try to replace them outright with native sounding neologisms) is that the spelling remains regular across time.
Reading Shakespeare is already a pain in the ass, and English works older than that look like a whole different language. But I can read Don Quijote in original ancient Spanish just fine (maybe with some f replaced by h but nothing major).
Then again, not being able to read old stuff easily is not much of a disadvantage for the Universal Culture. If old cultural works are hard to read, the Universal Culture is actually better off.
I agree. In fact, that’s probably why French, a language with ridiculously complicated grammatical structures and conjugations, was the prevailing languages for centuries in Europe (for much longer than English has been so far).
I’m not writing in English right now because it’s an easy language to master (though it totally is). I’m writing in English because the guy who owns the blog is American. If we had to choose a “universal, grammatically simple” language, we’d all be discussing this in Esperanto.
Which is how I feel about most of this article, by the way. When considering elements of our cultures, we always assume that they’re universal because we’ve never seen anything else. And you can’t just decide not to make assumptions, just like you can’t decide to always be incredibly smart. So the safe bet is to decide that you won’t be always incredibly smart and plan accordingly, and decide that your culture probably has elements that are really weird and hard to justify and not universal at all and you’re just not seeing them.
Vehemently disagree: you’re thinking of those properties like a programmer or conlang designer would (i.e. “it’s universal in that it has a feature for every possible contingency” and “it’s grammatically simple in that there are few rules.”)
But English is universal in that its grammar doesn’t break when you throw whole noun-phrases from other languages into it, and it’s grammatically simple in that most people would say “yes, this is grammatical” about nearly any randomly-generated sequence of English words, as long as all the words are there to communicate a coherent thought.
Or, to put it another way: a pidgin of another language and English, is called English.
I don’t know how literally you meant this statement, but I am fairly confident that among all the sequences of English words within some reasonable length (e.g. 10), less than 1% are grammatical.
You might be alluding to the fact that English second language learners can often get away with uttering not completely ungrammatical sentences? Like, if somebody says “He no like pizza” rather than “He doesn’t like pizza” it’s still obvious what they mean. But I’m not sure English is significantly different from other languages in this respect.
By the way, here is a passage from a pidgin of English and another language. (Well, languages. Various indigenous languages of Vanuatu.)
Doesn’t look much like English to me. It sounds a bit more like English than it looks, if you try to read it out to yourself, but it’s still clearly pretty far from it, and only the occasional phrase is comprehensible.
I don’t think that English “pidginability” is inherent to the language; in fact I think you’ve got cause and effect reversed and that English speakers understand broken sentences easily because of the language’s widespread use.
Formal Arabic has an almost Latin-like regular grammar but Arabic speakers are (in my experience) pretty tolerant of broken grammar and heavy accents. Koreans, on the other hand, seem to get confused easily by pretty mild mistakes and foreign accents in general. I’m basing this both on my own experience and talking to others, most of whom are better at either language than I am.
I don’t have any explanation for this other than that Arabic is a pretty widely used and diverse language, and Korean not so much (there are regional dialects, but they differ mostly in vocabulary and it’s nothing like e.g. Maghrebi vs Gulf Arabic).
Now, it’s possible that this works backwards somewhat (highly regular language gets widely used -> pidgins develop -> feedback into the “high” language makes it more conducive to pidgin speakers) and that in a strong case this process might even create a positive feedback loop where a lingua franca gets easier and easier to learn, but that doesn’t explain how it got to be a lingua franca in the first place. In the case of English that explanation is “British Empire”.
Well, probably not Esperanto… 😛
(But yes overall agree with this comment.)
I mostly like this universal culture, to the extent that it’s the same as what I’ve been calling “Enlightenment values”, and want it to spread, and agree with the statement that it’s what will inevitably win out assuming no censorship.
But that seems like a huge assumption to make! What makes you think that low censorship is a high entropy state? Free discussion and flow of ideas seems low entropy to me, and it constantly feels like the powerful are trying to take it away.
That’s why western/universal/enlightenment culture feels fragile to me.
I always enjoy when Scott channels his inner Land. That said, I believe this post is half-baked.
Capitalism is a demon summoned from the void that now until the heat death of the universe will self-perpetuate because there is a mechanism for it- those societies with capitalism outcompete those without.
Now, in a certain sense, this can work with social norms. However, at this point in history it is extremely hard to tell which norms those are. Like other commenters have mentioned, it appears to require a huge coordinated effort to sustain the “egalitarian gender norms” of modern societies, up to and including needing to reduce the competitiveness of institutions to ensure there exists a critical mass of women in all professional levels. And that is to say nothing of the endless amounts of formal and informal institutional effort it requires to keep men from tending towards unequal gender relations. Throw on top of this that modern society apparently produces unsustainably low replacement rates and makes up for it by importing other peoples…and well it’s not certain current norms are all that well developed for long run success.
I can easily imagine some Chinese inspired, mild patriarchy with medium level birth rates, intensive education, and no immigration, out competing the current “modern” international zeitgeist. But i digress, my point is modernity is so young, we don’t know what is well adapted and what is the product of massachusetts conquering the world in 1945 and inflicting its values on everyone for a few generations.
> it’s not certain current norms are all that well developed for long run success.
True, if it remained static, “universal culture” would die.
A crucial characteristic of “universal culture” is that it can turn on a dime and leave its hosts convinced the new normal is here and good because it is objectively better than what was objectively best yesterday,
I think this post will become a part of the “canon”, much like Meditations on Moloch et cetera. Thanks for writing this stuff.
Given that this post argues for essentially the opposite conclusion, future exegetes and harmonizers will have their work cut out for them.
It seems like pretty much the same thesis to me. Moloch is about how systems sometimes cause things that nobody wants to perpetuate. This is about how systems can cause things that people sometimes want and sometimes don’t to perpetuate. The meta point that unites them is that things can be perpetuated by systems regardless of whether people want them or not.
This post adds that Moloch convinces his followers that going along with Moloch is objectively better than resisting.
I’d say it this way: Moloch’s greatest lie is that he doesn’t exist; he tells you it’s been you, and your culture, all along.
The “Moloch” essay is an incredible gift to people like Peter Thiel and the tran-nationalist business class. It lays the foundation for a long-dreamed-of immunity from criticism that the creatively destructive had long ago given up hope of ever-reaquiring.
“Moloch” awards limited-liability in the court of public opinion to bad actors. Instead of public censure, private shrugs, all around. Shrugs, sighs and what-can-you-do’s.
The anti-sj thing +the moloch thing is what makes scott a budding thought leader on the right. the love-bombing Scott received from so many corporate courtiers at Mercatus and beyond was strange at the time but now I believe this essay is the new angle, libertarians have long-needed to repair the damage wrought by non-libertarians life experience’s with personally-known to be-assholes making one of the variations of the “helping people hurts people” argument- an arg that does make sense on a case by case basis- but NOT when this guy that I know does it.
Watching Chad explain to you that Democrats are anti-poor because they want to raise the minimum wage which is actually bad because disemployment….enough times…..that has seemed to hit a wall with most people. Moloch offers something else. A pov for the time best summed up by that story of the dying kid who wanted Trump to fire him.
For McCardle Caplan Reynolds David henderson et al, the ideal world is one in which the words “greedy businessman” are never uttered again. Moloch gets them halfway there.
No one ever mentioned how fateful it was that Scott got so much attention from so many of a certain political type. Why fateful? Because Scott could have stayed autonomous at that point.
I’d like to bet Bryan Caplan that Scott will leave medicine to be a “thought leader” in the world of republican/libertarian think tanks inside of three years.*
And there’s nothing wrong with that!
You don’t have to wait for Caplan. What kind of odds and stake are you offering?
You do know Scott’s a doctor, right? Which probably pays more than being a “thought leader” or whatever? And Scott already wrote his piece on how dualized fields like fame and celebrity often lead to bad outcomes and should be avoided.
That is to say, I’m interested in betting $500 at split odds.
I anticipate that if I tried to make the argument, “Consistency demands that we think of Southern Baptists and Brexiters similarly to how we think of Cherokees and Tibetans,” the response I would get would probably involve the concept of “privilege,” and I think this piece would be improved if it specifically foresaw and rebutted that counter-argument in advance.
I think another part of the response would involve “racism”. We don’t feel as much of a need to protect the cultures of white people because any threat to their culture from other white people is not a case of “racism”, whereas threats to the cultures of non-whites is clearly “racist”.
But that doesn’t work for China and Tibet, because Chinese and Tibetans are both East Asians.
But it’s typically white people doing the fretting over which cultures are worth preserving and which are not.
Oh, I think the Tibetans fret an awful lot about how their culture is worth preserving. Some of them even fret about other cultures being worth preserving.
You appear to be intentionally missing my point.
Here is your post, in case you had not read it previously:
Your point, clearly, is to make a generalization about an action that white people undertake more often than other ethnic groups. NN disagrees with this claim, and has provided counterexamples. If you’d like to continue this discussion, back up your assertions and provide a basis for them. If you want to hurl invective at people who disagree with you, go away.
The latter part of the post alludes to this, but I want to emphasize that there is at best an imperfect correlation between the quality of a meme, product, or cultural practice and its success in the marketplace. Coke is a good example; famously, it’s more popular than Pepsi even though Pepsi consistently beats it in blind taste tests. Coke outcompetes Pepsi in virtue of the marketing behind it, not its quality as a soft drink. The English language is another good example. I love our mother tongue as much as the next guy, but I’m skeptical that it’s spoken by a quarter of the world’s population because it’s more effective or “objectively better” than German or Arabic– English became the world’s lingua franca because historical contingencies made it a convenient focal point for coordination. And it may be that when members of other societies complain about western cultural hegemony what they are most concerned about are these semi-parasitic memes whose success is attributable to features other than their utility to human life. Universal culture carries a host of useful adaptations, but it also brings along new pathogens in its wake.
The story I always heard was that Pepsi outcompetes Coke in low-volume taste tests – the tester drinks a small cup of each, but that Coke fares better in a higher-volume test, e.g. testers take home six-packs to enjoy at their leisure. Arguably the second is a better measure of “quality” given soft-drink consumption patterns.
Makes sense. Pepsi is sweeter – I find it cloying more quickly than Coke.
Your anecdote appears to come from a Malcolm Gladwell book. Here is a neuroimaging study which purports to show that taste-testers who were evenly split between Pepsi and Coke in the absence of brand information strongly preferred Coke when the branding was included. This really does look like the effects of marketing rather than preferences which vacillate between the sweeter drink in small quantities and the less sweet drink in larger amounts. But it doesn’t matter a whole lot, all of this research is basically crap and there are thousands of other examples of memes or products which spread in part through parasitism rather than exclusively by improving the lives of humankind.
I agree the chance we will ever get conclusive or trustworthy evidence of which is superior is about nil. I only mean to point out, orthogonal to your larger point, that Coke may well be superior in both “quality” and marketing. Determining the “quality” of products like these is, I think, a lot harder than it would appear, at least in cases where the difference isn’t extreme.
When I think about arguments against immigration, I think things like: “immigrants are more likely to be poor people who are a drain on our welfare system” or “immigrants are more likely to be criminals, perhaps because they don’t have the right skills for many legitimate jobs” or “immigrants might not speak my language, which makes it difficult for me to communicate with them, and I like it when the people I meet are people I can communicate with”.
I don’t know if these arguments are true. I’ve seen studies asserting the first two are false, and when I talk about the third people tend to get angry at me. I do think there are people who believe these arguments to be true.
Above, you asked: “why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture?” and answered that people are afraid of their culture getting supplanted by the immigrants’ superior universal culture. I agree that this seems like an accurate description of some groups, but it doesn’t seem like an accurate description of (eg) some people in Britain not wanting immigration from the EU, or some people in the US not wanting immigration from Mexico.
We’re looking at cultural change as a cultural free market, where people as individuals make decisions, the sum total of which define the culture. In the real world, however, the cultural market isn’t truly free.
Take a town in Europe where everyone speaks German. All the signs are in German. All the town’s business is conducted in German. Then some people that speak French and German move in. Still, because everyone speaks German, it’s easiest to conduct business in German. Then some people move in that only speak French. Perhaps they are the grandparents of the French and German speakers that are too old to learn. Some people put up signs in French and German. At this point, some of the traditionalists might start to grumble. Still, because everything is in German, the French speakers have an incentive to learn German, and to make sure their kids speak German. Some of the Germans will learn French to expand their businesses. Despite the grumbling, the cultural market in the town is still free.
However, one day, somebody in the town Burgermeister’s office is going to see that there are a lot of people that speak French in the town. “Let’s require the town council to do all it’s business in German and French. Let’s require businesses, even those that only do business in German, to put up signs in both German and French. Let’s require people to pay for the change, or force them to change by law,” he’s going to say. His heart might be in the right place, but people won’t accept it
Once the law favors immigrants over locals, or appears to favor immigrants over locals, that’s when the market is no longer truly free, and people start to get grumpy about immigrants. People think ‘at one point we were fine with everything in English. Now we have to pay for a staff of translators in case the government needs to do business with someone that doesn’t speak English’. A while back the area I live in had a criminal accused of rape who had to be let off because they couldn’t find a translator that spoke his native language for the trial, despite his speaking decent English. This may have legally and morally been the right decision, but it smacks of the government favoring immigrants at the expense of the universal cultural values most people take for granted.
All of Scott’s problems with Caplan’s post can be cleared up by noting that to Caplan “Western” doesn’t equal “Christianity, Odonism, Roman Empire, etc.” To Caplan, “Westernism” equals “Enlightenment values of Calssical Liberalism.”
For example, Scott repeatedly attributes the cultural dominance of the West to a random “technological/economic head start.” That head start is anything but random. It was the product of specific thinkers who created specific ideas which spread throughout Europe and the US and lead to the West’s dominance. I’m talking about systemic rationality, the scientific method, free markets, independent judiciaries, individual rights, commerce as a moral good, consent of the governed, separation of powers, right to the pursuit of happiness, etc.
For example, Western medicine is indeed just medicine that works, but no one knew how to find out what works until someone (primarily Francis Bacon) conceived of empirical replicability as a means of determining what is true and not true.
You typing “Odonism” made me imagine an anarcho-communist egalitarian pagan culture of maritime raiders.
Is your name a Dark Souls reference?
Because there’s a case to be made that Kaathe is a quasi-Enlightenment figure in the Dark Souls lore…
Thank you, Dormin, for pointing that out. There’s usually at least 300 comments from clueless bloviators before anyone can bring up actually relevant points.
I agree. This is one of the useful comments. Western and universal cultures are alternative names for “enlightenment value classical liberal culture.”
This was the killer app necessary to get the three institutions of open access democracy, free enterprise and science. When you combine the cultural mindset of liberalism with these three institutions, you get a problem solving network of unprecedented ability.
+1, times a million!!
Or am I missing something?! Because I do not believe Scott does not understand this… Better reread, just to be sure.
Ooops, I meant “Classical**** Liberalism.” Not “Calssical.”
But were there some “false starts” in other cultures that would have created Enlightenment values, or something closely approximating them? E.g. ancient Greece or the medieval Islamic states could maybe have hit on Enlightenment but for some historical anomalies (yes, I know we usually count ancient Greece as “Western”, but a Mediterranean Enlightenment kicked off by Frangiskos Baconopolous would have probably looked rather different from what we ultimately got). Or maybe the Enlightenment could have failed in Europe with another big plague or a stronger central church to crack down on early Protestantism.
Maybe modern democracy would have stalled for a bit had the American Revolution (or the French one) failed.
Point is, Western Civ clearly found the killer app first. But how inevitable was it that Western Civ would find it? How inevitable was it that other cultures wouldn’t? We’re definitely looking through a thick lens of hindsight, and how much is “universal” vs. uniquely “Western” will still be sorting itself out for a long time.
Yes, there were false starts. In her series on “Bourgeoise Virtues,” Deidre McCloskey claims that numerous civilizations throughout history arrived at an apex of population and wealth similar to Western Europe in the early 1700s, but all of those other civilizations failed to push passed this “high equilibrium bubble” and inevitably receded. She argues that these civilizations lacked the philosophical values that enabled the investment necessary to make the push to industrialism, ie. entrepreneurial spirit, respect for commerce, respect for banking, strict enforcement of property rights, etc.
Hence Classical Greece, the early Roman Empire, Han China, India (at some point I can’t remember), and a handful of other civilizations never made it to the industrial revolution. Though interestingly, all of those civilizations had trace elements of industrialism. The ancient Greeks even managed to invent steam power, but never applied it widely.
As for the inevitability of the Enlightenment arriving in Western civ, I have no idea. Some scholars argue that Christianity laid a uniquely fitting foundation for liberalism (for instance, Christianity uniquely focuses on the individual soul, which lead to individualism, which lead to individual political rights, etc.). Other people say that basically everything that happened between the fall of Rome and John Locke was awful and regressive (the Church restricting science, lots of pointless conquest, etc.) and thank god a bunch of really smart philosophers happened to arise at the right time and come up with some really brilliant ideas.
Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire might have been on the way to such a system at the end of Khan’s life. See the first three laws of the Yassa:
Of course there is the part about homosexuality being punishable by death but the document is way more universalist than would be naively expected given the origins of the author.
How important was it that Henry VIII decided he really wanted to marry his latest crush, and that Clement VII wasn’t willing to give him an annulment so that he could?
Caplan may well believe his values line up with Enlightenment values, but this is only because terms like “Enlightenment” and “Classical Values” are emotionally loaded terms that most everyone believes they hold; Caplan’s globalist beliefs cannot possibly be reconciled with the Enlightenment values concerning republicanism, which holds that all government authority derives from the will of the people, government being created by the people of the nation, hence the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that government exists to further their “safety and happiness” and not the world’s. Note that these goals are inclusive of, but not limited to, monetary profit; that the people may be perfectly happy not having a higher GDP, should it allow for greater social cohesion, is anathema to Caplan (I’m not even sure if he’d understand it if you asked him to consider social atomization a cost for economic growth). Caplan’s views are best described as “globalist” or even “Managerialist.”
Enlightenment values are not confined to politic. Rather classical liberal politics are derived from broader ethical claims. You’re right that there is nothing particularly “anti-Enlightenment” about wanting to live a life of poverty in third world hell hole, but it notably is a product of the Enlightenment that:
1. If you do want to leave your third world hell hole for the sake of your own personal happiness, which presumably includes at least some level of wealth creation, then you should do that. And…
2. You should at the very least have the OPTION to leave your third world hell hole, and not be bound to it by coercive government policies, nor by oppressive social norms (like sexism, racism, etc.).
These two points might seem like common knowledge to us today, but even something as simple as “you should live your life for your own sake, and not for the sake of the king, the government, the church, the family, society, etc.” was a revolutionary idea brought to the world by the Enlightenment which would go on to irrevocably change everything.
What about the pictures of students (especially female students) at places like Cairo University over the years? See How the Veil Conquered Cairo University.
If universal culture is simply better and able to out-compete other cultures, why is it clearly losing in the trend in those pictures? Is fundamentalist Islam simply better than universal culture? Or are you claiming that even though it looks like the universal culture is losing, it will win the long run as it cannot be suppressed?
What about Rome? It’s pretty reasonable to say that Roman culture was strong and effective. They may not have had the full scientific methods, but life in Rome tended to be comparatively better than life in non-Roman areas. Shouldn’t other people have adopted Roman culture as objectively better? Instead Rome fell, and what replaced it was not obviously better.
I think the fall of Rome weighs heavily on those who insist on defending Western culture. Rome did a lot of things right, and it still fell. Its culture slowly changed into something that was probably a lot weaker than its early incarnations. If Rome could fall, why not the current West?
I would say that the truly persistent and weed like aspects of this universal culture are not the aesthetic parts. I doubt there is a lot of cultural evolutionary advantage in writing in English or Arabic or whether we consider it more freeing for people to be able to hide their faces or to show then but expect makeup and beauty. Capitalism, on the other hand, will likely persist as a dominant trait until the environmental/technological conditions that allow it to thrive change.
Roman culture had many of the same aspects of ‘universal culture’ that seem to be persistent (including strong, technologically advanced military) and it did well before running into economic, political, and ecological problems. The conditions changed and the culture adapted, changing into something very different.
Considering the rate of change in modern times, I think we are not at an equilibrium point. Our current ‘universal culture’ will change in dramatic and unexpected ways.
I think there are a couple of reasons universal culture seems to be in retreat in places.
One is that certain fundamental values that caused the universal culture to prosper and spread are in decline everywhere, such as the respect for the rule of law. As part of the rise of victim culture, many countries are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in order to roll over and accommodate perceived victims.
To combine with this, the universal culture has strong trends toward pacifism as a result of world war two and anti-colonialism as a result of the horrors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This means we give former colonial areas as victims a free pass when it comes to not adopting the universal cultural values.
Finally, Islam specifically, especially Wahabbi Islam, has memetic values that seem to be highly capable of keeping it in a sort of stasis by weeding out foreign elements to preserve itself. A strong, unified Islamic subculture in an area will weed out pollution from the universal culture and eventually take over an area by sheer numbers of united adherents. I think that, ultimately, however, this will fail when the universal culture reverts to some of the values it had around the time of the second world war.
They did, or at least tried to. That’s why Latin was the language of educated people for a thousand years after the Empire fell, and why people are still putting up neoclassical buildings.
The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. Anything (like re-introduction of veils) that’s only been happening for 5, 10, or 50 years might be a cultural “bubble.” The ascendancy of Universal culture can only be observed by smoothing the curve on a much longer time-scale.
Consider the possibility of “feedback loops” on the evolutionary process that forms universal culture. Add the natural tendency (Reward systems tuned for savannah) to optimize for addiction / atrophying comfort and the fact that this perfect system from beyond the void is doing its best to function without people entirely… Looks pretty bad. Coca-cola is acceptable (At the cost of impulsive people’s health and worse, still worth it imho), letting the algorithm that summoned it shape and homogenize our entire civilization strikes me as suicidal and kind of inevitable.
Reminds me of this:
I don’t really see any solutions… Maybe trying to engineer some kind of system that would thrive in this “ecology” and “encode” human values on it? Sounds like wishful thinking.
This is probably one of the more moldbuggian things you have written
More Landian really.
It’s really really not.
Moldbug demonstrates at length with lots of historical evidence that the modern progressive perspective isn’t universal and is only “universal” because of military force which on the side of progressivism due to historical accident (progressives gaining control over a massive continent protected by two oceans). Scott either doesn’t see or pretends not to see the amount of coercion necessary to keep people acting like good progressives and how this force is only able to be brought to bear because (as someone else pointed out in a comment earlier) Massachusetts conquered the world in 1945.
For actual universals, one might just look at a list that anthropologists came up with. It’s rather strikingly different from the nowadays notions of free love, egalitarian gender roles, open borders, etc.
Bingo, this is pretty much exact opposite of Moldbug.
I think a charitable reading would be that the Cathedral is a perversion of/deviation from universal culture, a deviation which is negative because it tries to weaken some of the strengths of the universal culture (capitalism, empiricism) for its own purposes. The “paranoid rant” supports this (Moldbuggian) angle.
In any case, it’s mostly repurposed Land. After all, “I can basically get arbitrarily much acclaim just by taking basic [death eater] theories and removing the stupid object level ideas so people will read them. “
James Fitzjames Stephen propounded one eloquent account of the Moldbuggian view, in response to John Stuart Mill:
Are you so sure that the process by which local cultures are being replaced by universal culture is a voluntary, nonviolent one? Certainly people drink Coca-Cola voluntarily, with gusto. But Coca-Cola is not what resistance to universal culture focuses on, usually.
Are you so sure that agents of universal culture don’t meet and threaten to meet more central examples of resistance with violence, and that this might partly explain the great success of universal culture?
Yes, until the heroin addicts failed to reproduce.
Don’t Date Robots!
Junkies actually reproduce just fine. Insiders told me stories about, eg, a 16 y.o. male drug addict who already had four kids that he knew of. Heroin addicted prostitue mother of three. It goes on.
I don’t know stats, but anecdotically, they reproduce better than the average Child of Moloch.
I do wonder what future culture will look like if it’s mostly just the underclass that reproduce (the costs of their reproduction being paid, of course, by the taxpayers, which they aren’t). They’re only nominally aligned with the cathedralites, due to the package deal that gives them welfare – anyone who had dealings with the underclass knows that they’re not paragons of progressive thought.
If that were the trend, then the future would probably look like a significantly reduced welfare state followed by a reversal in reproduction patterns.
Radical realignment. How harsh and how swift depends on how the welfare state breaks down for lack of tax payers.
Stage 1: break down of all political systems, mass migration into gated communities.
Stage 2: humanity divided into feral and domesticated populations (a.k.a those behind walls and those outside the walls).
Stage 3: charitable organization (or even for-profit organizations) use transhumanism (e.g. genetic engineering) to re-domesticate the feral population.
Stage 3: Domesticated populations fully automatize, the human components perish. Feral populations use this new beast in order to get free tech, have “fun” and explore/conquer the universe. Or maybe the things eats them too.
This is the primary thing I wanted to question, too. See, heroin use is an equilibrium state… but it seems to me that disapproving of heroin use is also an equilibrium state.
This seems like an idea the post didn’t explore at all: that memes that “would” otherwise dominate in the marketplace of ideas, can have, rather than top-down censorship blocking them from the market, bottom-up populist resistance stemming from shared human instinctual revulsions to them.
For example, imagine that there’s some sort of great way to make people more productive with an Augmented Reality information-streaming device that fits over one eye. (Perhaps one made by Google in 2013.) Such a device would, in a naive economic analysis, “win,” like smartphones “win.” But there is an instinctual human revulsion to facial asymmetry: having one eye but not the other covered in machinery makes you look like a weird Borg zombie (whereas having both eyes covered in machinery just makes you look like Geordi LaForge—not nearly as unsettling.)
Heroin is like that, I think. Presuming no law against it, it still wouldn’t reach fixation, because it has too many negative effects for people to want to allow it to spread. It would have inverse-viral growth: people would be trying to shut others up about it at every turn.
Now, cocaine, on the other hand: more positives, fewer (though a nonzero number of) negatives. Works out positive-sum. So, not surprisingly, it had huge viral memetic spread across all of Universal culture in the 1980s. Top-down sentiment tried to crush it, but Universal culture routed around that—first with (populist!) gangs selling it, then with large pharma corporations creating safer alternatives to achieve the same stimulatory effect. The same “go-getter” types who were snorting coke in bathroom stalls in the 1980s are now the people who have bottles of Adderall and Modafinil in the office pantry.
Another category to think about might be corporate culture.
Businesses exert control over who works for them though hiring, firing, education, propaganda, mentoring, peer pressure, monetary rewards, and so on.
Sometimes this works. Nonetheless, a business’s culture usually isn’t as different as they like to think. Tactics that work tend to be adopted everywhere.
I think viewing culture as a tool in the same way as a physical tool helps you think about this. We have certain physical tools for doing stuff, like hammers, books, lathes, etc. We occasionally replace a tool with a more advanced version, like replacing a smithy with a steel mill, or a physical encyclopedia with the Internet.
Some people get sentimental about their physical tools and still like to use them, even if there is a better one available. Some people still like to make metal stuff in medieval smithies instead of buying it from a steel mill; or like owning a physical copy of an encyclopedia (and that’s fine, people are allowed to be sentimental). But most people just want to accomplish whatever goal they need to tool to accomplish, and it’s not fair for somebody who likes smithies to stop everyone else from using steel mills; or someone who likes text encyclopedias to ban Wikipedia.
Let’s extend this metaphor:
Replacing a traditional culture with a universal one is like replacing an old tool with a newer one that fulfills the same desire the old tool did, even better.
Reprogramming people to like hydrogen is like getting rid of the desire people were using those tools to fulfill in the first place.
Those are not the same thing at all. We have core values that go much, much deeper than any culture, which we colloquially call “human nature.” These are what our “real values,” our cultures are instruments for serving them.
I think the reason it might be so hard to think about this topic is that people have trouble keeping their instrumental and terminal values separate. In my extended metaphor I treated “cultural values” as “instrumental values,” and “human nature” as “terminal values,” but often the two seem to get fused together, like the guy who likes making stuff in smithies, or the person who values their culture independently of what it does for them. But I think the fact that people voluntarily assimilate into other cultures, or adopt parts of other cultures, indicates that most people seem to believe that “human nature” comprises our real values, and the values of our culture are just instrumental tools.
Nah, I think cultural and environmental values are real and not necessarily less important than our “core values” (Which are not deep at all, strictly meant to help us breed, way lower on the “moral hierarchy” according to several perspectives.)
If by “core values” you mean, “the values of natural selection” like “survive and breed” [it being understood that natural selection is not intelligent and saying it has values is a metaphor] I definitely agree with you. Natural selection’s values are not the same as human values.
Natural selection’s values weren’t what I was talking about when I said “human nature.” What I meant was the values and behaviors like love, happiness, friendship, curiosity, etc. These values occur in all humans, everywhere. While they may have been programmed into us by natural selection, they aren’t the same as “survive and breed.” Human are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. In fact, they are just as violently opposed to natural selection’s “values” as cultural values are.
[moves to Brooklyn]
[goes on antidepressants]
[has lots of drunken casual sex until turning 30 or contracting incurable STDs]
[gets three cats and an alcohol problem]
[fails to reproduce]
I agree that we have both biological and cultural values, but I don’t think that there’s necessarily a moral difference between them. That is, if I value both Judaism continuing to exist as a religion (cultural value) and my children doing well and having children of their own (biological value, at least if you trust evo psych), but on net I believe the Judaism thing is more important, then that’s a legitimate belief and any utilitarian who cares about my value system should help preserve Judaism rather than help my children.
It’s true that it might take less work to raise my children not to care about Judaism than to raise my children not to care about their own children, but until that work is done we have to respect the values that people actually have (including the value not to do that work if they don’t want to)
I like a lot of this post and it ties up some important ideas very nicely, but there are a couple things that bother me.
First, is this culture really universal? I think you’re claiming that certain things including egalitarian gender norms, somewhat-restrained free market capitalism, and effective medicine are part of a “universal culture” in the sense that they are attractors in the space of possible cultural traits. That most cultures will tend to drift in their direction when given the chance. In the case of effective medicine, I’m willing to believe this without much proof, but some of the other things (fizzy sugar drinks, for example) seem very contingent on current tastes and, in particular, on America / the West’s economic and political dominance. It seems plausible to me that, much like the lingua franca was not always English, what you might call “universal culture” next century might have more of a Chinese or Arab flavor (or whatever) than the Western flavor that generated Caplan’s confusion. You allow that the dominance of a culture (or of anything really) is context-dependent, but then how “universal” is it? Since it’s not everywhere and always an attractor, the argument that the summoner culture is just as much a victim of the demon as any other seems, as least, not airtight.
Second, what is “culture”? I guess this is in some ways an extension of my first point. There seem pretty clearly to be some adaptations that just about any real culture will tend to move towards, but I would assign pretty low confidence to any assertions about the universality of, say, denim jeans or Coca-Cola. And then if the only things I’m comfortable calling universal are things like medicine and faster transportation, I feel strange calling that cluster of ideas a “culture.”
On the other hand, it’s possible that all I’m saying is that “culture” (as I use the word) tends to point towards the deviations from or variations in the dominant “universal” culture.
(I had the impression while reading especially the first half or so of this post that it was less compelling than some of your other similarly though-through writing, but I admit I’m not really satisfied with my attempts to explain that impression.)
“Universal culture” is a terrible term and I’m only using it because “capitalism” would sound too left-wing and “cosmopolitanism” too right-wing and I want to stay as apolitical as possible (ie not very)
“Cosmopolitanism” is a right-wing shibboleth? I wouldn’t have thought that — it sounds academic to me, if anything.
I would have said that “globalism” belongs to the right and the populist left, “capitalism” belongs to the left generally, and “cosmopolitanism” is more or less neutral.
Cosmopolitan has a very positive connotation to it. Using it to describe something makes it sound like you approve.
For one, a respected right winger just wrote a widely read column criticizing “cosmopolitan finance capitalism”. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/opinion/sunday/the-myth-of-cosmopolitanism.html
For two, “rootless cosmopolitan” is sometimes an anti Semitic attack. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rootless_cosmopolitan
So yeah, it has right wing associations (when described skeptically at least.)
I think any of these three terms (universal, capitalist, cosmopolitan) don’t really encompass the concept here. We’re talking about some sort of value-neutral efficiency maximizer, that exists on not just economic but also cultural and technological levels. I’d just go with “inhuman”.
Without the “rootless” though, you don’t get the anti-Semitism. And note that Douthat’s column is about how these people are not “cosmopolitan” in any meaningful sense.
I’ve seen “cosmopolitan” as a negative epithet, but it’s fairly novel usage, I definitely wouldn’t call it right-wing just yet, though it sounds like something the broader alt-right might adopt.
In the UK, cosmopolitan is if anything left/progressive, being associated with being pro immigration, pro lgbt, not a ‘little Englander’
“Modernity” would have done just fine, I think.
interesting essay, though I’m a bit confused about your Tibet example, especially when you first use it. do you think the Sinicization of Tibet is “universal culture” replacing Tibetan culture? I’d say there are some elements of “universal” culture — modernization, infrastructure building, mining and business development — but there are also very Chinese elements at play, like armed guards maintaining order outside the Potala Palace, sporadic mobile communication censorship/blockage, etc. Is “universal culture with Chinese characteristics” still universal? or is it possible that there are free-roaming “universal” elements that supersede individual cultures/civilizations but don’t undermine the discrete identity of those civilizations? would there not be a foreseeable clash between “Chinese” and “Western” universalisms, for example, which are defined and propagated in different ways?
unrelated side note 1: I recently interviewed an artist who worked with Robert Rauschenberg on his 1985 “Cultural Interchange” project in Lhasa, this struck me as amusing and is maybe relevant to this post, if obliquely: “Li collaborated with Rauschenberg on the ROCI exhibit, which in Lhasa included more than 70 works flown in on decommissioned military aircraft. Rauschenberg’s goal of using art as a ‘non-elitist’ form of universal communication was not entirely successful. The exhibit included ten video works, some of which featured snippets of Disney cartoons. ‘There were not many TVs in Tibet back then,’ Li explains, saying that some local viewers were entertained to the point of distraction by the novelty. ‘Some of it was cryptic, incomprehensible to the average person. How could they ever understand those paintings? When Rauschenberg saw the Tibetans happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, he got angry and told us to turn off the TVs.'”
unrelated side note 2: Tibetan Buddhism already has a prominent transgender bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, which is also the most popular bodhisattva in Mainland China, as Guanyin. though this doesn’t necessarily filter down to everyday identity politics in Tibetan (or Chinese) society.
I could hardly think of something more universal than state violence. Yes, it’s bad. Yes, aggressive Sinicization can also be pretty bad. No, what you are saying is not an example of Sinicization, it’s utterly generic industrial-era violence and oppression.
Suppose we asked someone in 1700 “There’s going to be a country that has armed guards and lots of censorship – is this country more likely to be China or England.” I don’t think our hypothetical person would have any reason to go one way or the other.
I agree that there’s more subtlety than I’m admitting in that dictatorships tend to converge on a set of best practices for running a successful dictatorship and this is different from democracies converging on the best practices for running an optimal democracy, but it’s not clear to me that there’s much that’s “Chinese” in the sense of “descending in unbroken continuity from the values of Confucius, the Yongle Emperor, etc” about modern PRC culture, least of all what they’re doing to Tibet.
Visual Mangalwadi in his book “The Book that Made Your World” makes a good case that many aspects of this “universal” culture that’s gaining on the world does have deep root in western culture, especially in Christidom. Ideas like the need for written versions of the vernacular and for translations into them, or that nature is logical and orderly and humans can understand it, but only if they approach it with humility, were born out of Christian theology.
It’s clear that you can hold these parts of universal culture without holding to the Christian theology, but western culture does have a built in harmony with the philosophy of the universal culture. It’s not clear to me that other cultures can achieve such a good fit.
I haven’t read the book, and what you’re saying is true, but there are so many strains of Christianity (and other religions) that I worry it’s easy to make up patterns here. Think about how modern Buddhists are always talking about how Buddhism is the only truly rational religion and the Buddha always said that we should believe things based on evidence and not faith and so on. If Tibet industrialized and took over the world, it would be easy to prove that modern culture descends inextricably from Tibetan Buddhism.
I haven’t read Mangalwadi, but I think this is basically right. Peter Harrison makes this argument for Christianity’s influence on science in The Territories of Science and Religion, and Rene Girard makes it for Christianity’s influence on Enlightenment morality in I see Satan Fall Like Lightning.
Scott is divorcing these ideas from their historical context, and assuming that they can safely be transplanted without that context. Sometimes that really is the case, but not always. For example, Girard thinks that secular Enlightenment morality, in borrowing Christianity’s concern for victims, ends up doing the same thing it (rightly) excoriates — turning people it doesn’t like into scapegoats — largely because it has divorced itself from other aspects of Christian morality.
Why doesn’t everyone default to this universal culture when it seems to be superior to any other culture?
My gut feeling is that diversity makes for a more interesting society and a (relatively) unique individual identity provides meaning and satisfaction to people – who don’t want to all be the same.
That extra identity actually adds something on top of universal culture, making people happier than if they just went full on generic universal culture. The better their base culture, the more people hold on to, rather than swapping it out for universal ideals.
To some degree, while there is a homogenization of values under the universal culture, there is a value for respect for diversity in a lot of the more superficial elements of culture like individual tastes.
What sports or food or entertainment you enjoy isn’t defined by the universal culture, just that there is a large number of sports and foods available for you to pick from.
I think this post misses something very important in what Caplan was saying, even as it makes a very important point of its own.
Caplan is not defending the worship of Thor, or encouraging everyone to dance around maypoles, or even defending the worship of Christ. He’s defending this monster-beyond-the-void universal culture thing, and he’s calling it “western culture” because that’s what people mostly call it, even if they’re shouting at it for being evil. He’s defending it because he thinks it is Good, that it makes people happy and wealthy and healthy and he likes this. And he’s saying that it doesn’t need to be elaborately coddled because it is very powerful.
Really, I’d describe him as making a similar point to the one you make at the end of “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization”: Wait, it’s not just that you guys don’t think this is evil, you don’t think it’s a horrifyingly powerful monster?! Of course it’s a horrifyingly powerful monster! It’s just our monster.
At least, that’s how I interpret him.
Edit – Never mind, I should’ve read more carefully, I was misinterpreting *you*. Manifold apologies.
Having a lot of small cultures is adaptable. It’s diverse in the same way biodiversity is diverse. Diversity is good, not for its own sake, but because multiple different cultures are better equipped to adapt to change.
Having one big culture is different. It means the culture takes the best everything, and spreads it everywhere. Sire it is technically the best, but it cannot adapt to changes as easily. If everywhere is universal culture, universal culture would have nothing to steal ideas from.
There is a best of both worlds. A universal culture that appeals to the least common denominator, but also creates temporary local cultures within it. The Bay Area may be one of these temporary cultures. Its good ideas spread everywhere, its bad ideas do not. Soon the world might look a little bit more like the Bay Area. Lots of small pockets of experimentation are necessary in order to keep innovation going. Once the universalization of their good ideas are complete, more experimentation is necessary, and the process repeats ad nauseum.
If a lot of people experiment with heroin in the Bay Area, and there is a problem, other locales will not adopt heroin use. They could do this with laws, with cultural taboos, or a number of other things.
This works in every case except Moloch. I can’t seem to figure a way out on that front.
Huntington says you can graph a country on two axis: One Modernization/Industrialization and one Westernization. There are cultures like that of Japan, which have modernized, yet have not become part of the West. Japan remains distinctly Japanese. In Huntington’s words “Western culture is not the Big Mac but the Magna Carta.” Elements of Western Culture might produce the most utility, but that should not make them necessarily universal.
Good article with parts that confuse me.
But this argument could be used to define anything as universalist!
There’s nothing intrinsically “Native American” about making a headdress from dyed feathers. Does that make Comanche war bonnets universalist?
There’s nothing intrinsically “Jewish” about putting religious texts in a box and wearing it on your head. Universalist phylacteries?
You’re using a radical definition of “cultural” that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before – that unless something’s an exclusively [adjective] trait, we can’t describe it as an [adjective] trait. What kinds of things would you consider cultural? I’m drawing a blank.
Why the “so-called”? I’m probably missing something obvious, but don’t we call it “Western medicine” because as a factual matter that’s where it came from? Sort of like we might talk about “a Caravaggio painting” when in principle those same brushstrokes could have been laid down by an equally talented disciple, a robot, or an infinite number of monkeys?
Yeah, its an idea plucked from the void, but that’s trivial information. All ideas are waiting to be plucked from the void. In theory a Scythian or a Bushman could have come up with germ theory. In practice, they didn’t. The West did. (Or maybe not? Greg Cochran suspects that its real discoverer was an unknown person two thousand years ago).
Maybe there’s an alternate universe where the electron microscope was invented by a Bushman. But the patent office doesn’t accept applications from alternate universes.
What is so great about a headdress of dyed feathers that it’s clearly the optimal solution and we should expect every country to use it once they realize it is an option?
I don’t know. What’s so great about carbonated sugar water with weird dark brown syrupy stuff? Sure, it tastes sweet, but plenty of other things taste sweet (e.g. sweet tea, apple cider, lemonade) so why would that specifically reach fixation the way it did?
It’s entirely plausible that if Japan had mass-available refrigeration in the Coca-Cola era, and a marketing force as powerful as Coke’s, we’d all be drinking Cool-Chai instead. The main innovation isn’t really the carbonated drink, it’s the supply and distribution chains in combination with strong advertising and marketing forces (did you know Coca-Cola invented the coupon as a marketing ploy?)
Scott has said that he’s really talking about sweet drinks, not about Coca-Cola, in which case there’s no need to explain why lemonade didn’t become universal instead.
(Of course, “sweet drinks are not Western, they are universal” is an uninteresting claim, since nobody ever said they are. People who complain about Western culture taking over specifically mention Coca-Cola. This makes it a motte/bailey.)
I’m kind of curious to know how the obvious superiority of egalitarian gender norms squares with Warrenian concerns about the 90% marginal tax rate on women’s income and other infelicities? Infelicities that could have been avoided had we only managed to coordinately assign status points to SAHMs, i.e. to preserve a certain culture?
“Obvious superiority” from the perspective of the demon, not the summoner. Lots of taxes are good.
It’s called welfare, dude. It works pretty well in places where it works. Hell, it was even pretty okay-ish for women in the Eastern Bloc.
Without commenting one way or the other on the optimality of gender norms, I would add that competitiveness isn’t necessarily about actually being the best, but about being the most convincing. If you have a country that doesn’t have egalitarian gender norms, and they become aware it’s an option, people are going to start agitating for egalitarian gender norms and probably get their way if there’s no crackdown. I’m not necessarily saying they’re right to agitate for them – it could be something like “buy Made in the USA” which is stupid but naturally convincing to the average member of the populace – but it is certainly seductive.
The more I re-read, the less sure I am that I understand. At times, “universal culture” is the enlightenment, science, industrialization, self-expression + secular/rational values, liberal democracy and capitalism, all topped off with a Kirby-like ability to assimilate foreign cultural elements to itself. Hence the passage:
On the other hand there is the more daoist notion of universal culture as “whatever happens to gain mind-share”, which of course might be horrible.
These two senses are distinguished in part IV, but it seems like there’s still some slippage. Heroin is “universal culture” in the second sense because it will spread unless checked by force, whereas a maypole dance is merely “western culture” because it will not spread unless backed by force. So far so good.
Caplan, for example, is exclusively concerned with universal culture in the first sense: awesome stuff that works and spreads by working awesomely. Caplan obviously could not care less about Maypoles and dirndls. But it seems like you’re mostly committed to the claim that universal culture wins in the second sense, because it is defined to be whatever wins. So it appears that this is not really an argument about western culture vs universal culture, but about universal culture (1) vs. universal culture (2). If universal culture (2) is what is robust, then Caplan’s opponent could be quite right to worry that universal culture (1) is fragile. Heck, it might not even spread that easily after all, at least for certain elements. (Michael Bay, coke and blue jeans seem to travel much better than liberal democracy, scientific research and the nuclear family, for example.)
That’s not at all obvious. Who needs heavy censorship to know that heroin is terrible? How many people are thinking “If only that darned government didn’t keep me from taking heroin, because I’d love some”? Undoubtedly some people would be pressured into taking it and become addicted, others would be curious and have poor impulse control, and so on. But it seems implausible to me that it would happen on the level of a society. Also, while heroin is an example of people choosing something that’s bad for them, the fact that someone chooses something is still prima facie evidence for it being good for them.
As for multi-agent games, the question there is whether one would trade being able to participate in universal culture in exchange for your neighbors not being able to do the same. If universal culture has significant negative externalities, one should take this deal. But it doesn’t seem good – if anything, one would hope that one’s neighbors would embrace universal culture as well.
Finally, there are the arguments that universal culture is universalist, and that aspect comes from a universalizing religion. Maybe something similar could’ve formed around Islam, but not around an ethnic religion that doesn’t proselytize. For example, we care much more about Tibetian peasants getting their eyes gouged out than Tibetians care about our poor people not getting their eyes gouged out.
(Re: Islam – see that famous anecdote of the Ottoman Sultan sending famine relief to Ireland against Britain’s will.)
I’m not sure we really have a disagreement. I don’t think heroin is objectively the best thing, and I probably wouldn’t take it even if it were available. But I think if it were legal, it would become very common, in the same way not literally every single person drinks Coke and eats cheeseburgers but they’re viewed as a common part of our culture.
My evidence for this is first of all that many people use heroin already despite dire penalties and limited access, and second of all that apparently somebody thinks it’s necessary to fight a war on drugs to prevent heroin from being used more often.
Consider also the popularity of cigarettes, which are about as dumb a decision as heroin but remain popular because of their addictiveness.
I would definitely disagree with the second part – considering that cigarettes do not produce even a small fraction of the behavioral influence that heroin does, the decision to smoke is, indeed, significantly smarter and safer.
Opium use was once pretty widespread in China; for a long time, it was basically the only thing European merchants could sell there other than precious metals…
And Great Britain went to war to force China to allow it to remain legal.
“My evidence for this is first of all that many people use heroin already despite dire penalties and limited access, and second of all that apparently somebody thinks it’s necessary to fight a war on drugs to prevent heroin from being used more often.”
I don’t think it follows that “some people use heroin even though it’s illegal; therefore, lots of people will use heroin if it becomes legal.” I don’t think there are a lot of “low motivation” heroine users (or would-be users).
If you legalize something you get more of it. This is a fact. This still applies to heroin. See here.
It’s important to note that you are far, far, FAR from the marginal case. The marginal case is the unemployed “trailer-trash” manual laborer who got laid off from his factory and can’t get work because $outgroup keeps taking the jobs he normally would take, and needs a little something to take the edge off. That guy currently would probably smoke; in our contrafactual world, he’d probably shoot up with what little money he had left.
Also note that there are strong social effects here. If shooting up is legalized, and then glorified on TV/film/media you consume, and all your friends are doing it, you’re more likely to do it as well.
You really think that, here and now, “that guy” on average isn’t using anything harder than tobacco?
Different marginal case, but probably a similar result. The marginal case Anon was discussing is a guy who starts using when he wasn’t before. Your case is already a user, and legalizing it will likely increase his consumption. I’ve never heard a remotely plausible argument from anyone who is familiar with basic economics that legalizing drugs wouldn’t lead to an increase in consumption.
I didn’t say legalizing heroin wouldn’t increase heroin use at all, only that it wouldn’t necessarily increase it a lot.
Despite the true horror stories, there are many functional opioid (including heroin) addicts. It seems to me likely that legal and common opioid use (in the absence of prohibition, probably mostly not heroin) is possible without destruction of society, just as legal and common stimulant use is.
Scott, have you read this article about meth et al?
I would add to that, that civilization-destroying power of opiates is even something that does not bode very well with history – the laws strictly prohibiting the use of opiates are relatively modern, and the opiate medical use and not-so-medical abuse was known for quite a while (and seriously damaging mostly in the cultures it was rather recently introduced to). Plus, the bans on such addictive substances do have a significant negative effect on the society, too…
He specified heroin, and the history of potent opiates can probably traced just to morphine in the early 19th century… also relatively modern. It spread for about a hundred years, heroin was created in the very late 19th century, and in the very early portion of the 20th century, people began to ban or put strong controls on these products (at least in the US).
This was a great read– thanks Scott! Made a bunch of important issues much clearer to me. Though I was kind of frustrated when I found Part IV addressing and even sympathizing with all of the objections I had been forming.
The one major hole / critique I’m left with is that the nature of the summoner / demon relationship was never really addressed. Why did “universal culture” start in Western Europe, as opposed to China or India or Mesoamerica? Jared Diamond would have an answer, of course, but only part of the answer– from the state of the world in, say, 800 AD the other regions might seem to be equally likely candidates.
Furthermore, we need a way to explain how “universal culture” began and grew up within “Western culture” if the two are really opposed to each other. It seems far-fetched to presume that “universal culture” sprang fully formed from the head of Galileo (or anyone else) and immediately started taking on traditionalism. If you’re going to take that route, the obvious figure to thank for “universal culture” would be Jesus, since it appears fairly miraculous anyway. (And just to be clear, I seriously consider this to be a plausible explanation.) In the alternative, you’ll need some explanation for what “universal culture” was when it was simply part of Western tradition.
(HBD seems at least historically relevant to Scott’s post as a whole, incidentally. Nuclear families and outmarriage are plausibly more conducive to progress than the historical alternatives, and, conversely, I suspect that the international spread of e.g. foods is subject to biological constraints as well. Current universal culture may not be stable if it’s sufficiently dysgenic.).
I would suggest that “universal culture” began not in Western culture at its core, but in the trading peripheries of the West–and it has strong analogues in other trading cultures. (Note that the Renaissance starts with books brought from Greek and Islamic territories.)
I do think that Jesus (and Paul) is a core figure–although he is part of a well-established, already articulated interpretive tradition–but combine typical border/port/trading culture with some “everyone is equally important in ultimate terms” values, and universal-ish culture won’t be far behind.
I don’t think that the reasons that Europe had the Industrial Revolution are relevant to anything in this post (except the caveat at the end that maybe Western culture is “better” in that it was better at setting the stage for industrialization) and I know this subject is very complex and heavily debated, so I stayed away from it.
I would say that culture and genetics might have played an enabling role, but that it also needed lot of luck, both in terms of geography/resources and the economic patterns of the time. I think any explanation that’s too culturally or HBD based ends up unable to answer the question of why it started in England instead of Germany or France.
At least on the England/France question, every convincing answer I’ve ever seen says that it was basically an economic accident. You can call it ‘cultural’, but not in the sense that English culture was better, only that English land and property norms turned out to be marginally better at enabling a market transition no one had ever expected.
As the story goes, England had done better about avoiding property fragmentation than France (by inheriting to the first-born instead of subdividing), and had a lot of farmers who were landed but poor, or renting a farm. As you got the first underpinnings of industry (water wheels and spinning looms), it was particularly easy to have the yeomen go broke, leave the farms and become labor, and transition their land to industrial uses and mass farming.
Add to that aggressive trade-secret protection on the water wheel (let’s assume it could have been invented anywhere) and a slightly more convenient infrastructure and governmental situation of the moment, and England wins without any appeal to HDB or superior culture.
Best explanation I’ve seen is that it’s caused by greater outbreeding (which was a result of various factors including a Church ban on cousin marriage) eventually resulting in greater altruism and less clannishness.
I don’t believe in destiny as much as you do. Sure, some things will turn out the same if you run the experiment multiple different times, but some things are chaotically dependent on starting conditions. For all that Japan is “westernized”, they don’t really care much for sugar-filled fizzy drinks. They have this amazing vending machine culture and they waste it buying cans of milk tea. And yes, this doesn’t actually matter, but imagine a capitalism developing not around a kernel of Christianity, but rather Buddhism, or Islam, or the Aztec one where they cut out the people’s hearts. Can you really say that it would not have found some different local minimum of the cultural space to occupy? Can you really say that a Shinto-originated capitalism would be able to outcompete the existing network effects of Christian-originated capitalism just because it was actually better? When it has to grow from nothing? And Christocapitalism is sitting there in its full splendor enticing you with its blue jeans?
I love the English language sometimes.
who cares which elements came from what culture. that way lies pointless identity politics. let’s maximize expected utility
Interesting post! As Oligopsony says, you are at your most fascinating when you engage in materialism.
Also, I fucking hate the Dalai Lamas so much, ugh. Sorry, but yay China.
(I mean, China ought to be less oppressive about it and all that, but still. Also, the Soviet Union did similar things to Central Asia, and that was objectively great.)
Oh, you mean like killing millions and leaving the people to starve and sentencing any dissent with death? I don’t know what anyone else thinks, but that looks Not Quite Objectively Great to me.
Every time you post something like this, I still wonder why you, Multiheaded, of all sorts of people, are attracted to a rationalist “maximize-expected-utility” blog. I also wonder why, for someone who has been facing discrimination in Russia to the point where you decided to flee the country, you insist on defending every action of the USSR tooth and nail.
My best guess is you think utilitarianism and consequentialism are the philosophical bases you need to believe and accept to justify Realpolitik. So let me ask you: what end, what end at all did the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China cause that justifies the deaths of millions??
I’m pretty sure he was referring to the post-Stalin era, when life in the Soviet Union was fairly good. I can’t speak for Multiheaded, but there’s certainly not much about Stalin himself that I would defend. (Stalin’s death toll was probably somewhere between 6-10 million, though mostly not in Central Asia). Half of the Soviet Union’s development happened after 1953, though, and it makes no more sense to tar the Soviet Union under Brezhnev with events that happened 30 years prior, than it does to tar the United States in 1990 with Jim Crow.
Central Asian countries today are middle income and relatively developed, and equally importantly have thus far stayed quite secular and resistant to Islamism, so I think the record of the Soviets and Czarists w/r/t their Central Asian possessions is quite good. (More importantly, the ‘end goal’ for which they were fighting was ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, which is still the best ideal for running a society I’ve yet seen).
Yay! An interesting long post! Here are some thoughts:
1) If universal culture evolved out of Western traditions, and is still incorporating new memes from other parts of the world (sushi), shouldn’t we think of it as more of a local maximum than anything else? In that case, we don’t truly have a universal culture yet and probably won’t until the quickest spreading elements are universalized. The current implementation of not-quite-universal/Western culture incorporates all the highest entropy Western memes (and some leftover baggage) but it hasn’t yet incorporated the rest of the world’s best. In this view (as /u/edman2133 on reddit pointed out) Coke might just be the best thing we’ve come up with yet, and maybe if Japan industrialized first and universal culture had originated more from there, maybe Bubble Tea Or whatever other concoction would have been the norm.
2) Won’t the spreading of universal culture lead to “coordination problems” of its own that prevent it from every becoming truly universal? I’d say language is a pretty huge barrier to universality. Let’s say I am a Chinese person who loves the quality stories and amazing special effects of Hollywood movies, but would prefer to watch movies with Chinese specific elements and without subs or dubs. I’m going to continue watching Holywood movies really only until the point where my own culture is able to match the story-telling and special effects while catering to my other preferences.
Language might be a only a small culture-differentiator (maybe they eventually film two versions of the same movie with Chinese and Western actors), or maybe everyone learns the language of universal culture (English), but I think that’s a rather impossible problem to solve barring some huge changes in technology. Climate/location seems like another obvious differentiator of the end result:people in the Sahara probably won’t ever do to wear Uggs.
There is also the habit of habit. Australians might not be able to convince others to try Vegemite, but other cultures might be equally unable to break the taste Australians have acquired for it. Of course, as Scott mentions, time plus migration plus good alternatives seems like a sure recipe for eventual destruction.
3) What about push back? How much homogenization can occur before people’s need for Feeling inclusion and signalling individuality pushing them back towards The fringe?
I think you already see this a ton with participants of Western universal culture; if you have an ethnic identification you can take on, you get really invested in nurturing that aspect of yourself even if you hadn’t felt that urge earlier. if you are an American WASP who looks on the remnants of your ancestors’ culture with distain, you probably end up feeling lost. You might find whatever you think you can hold onto, criticize colonialism/the system for what it does to others, find cultural identity through other ways (hello, rationalists!), or just forget about it and happily go along with Moloch. I expect this trend to increase, especially as the outgroups one differentiates herself with continue to lose influence.
4) It seems a lot of disagreement between countries with a big dose of universal culture is about how to deal with perverse incentives, like the example Scott used with heroin. Canadians and Singaporeans might speak the same language, support democracy and egalitarianism, buy the same products, consume similar media, etc. But Singapore supports extreme penalties for anything relating illegal drugs, while Canada is moving in the direction of decriminalization. You could just say it’s down to difference in starting culture, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps the reason universal culture exists in harmony with restrictions is because each society still needs to function well to appeal to the outside, and to produce and spread it’s memes.
If so, I think it’s very possible that universal societies could get “worse” and more wire-heady over time, especially if technological productivity gains are frequent enough to pick up the slack. If universal culture societies still function well enough with llegal addictive drugs, attention-shortening media, and prevalent obesity, will the public really be as concerned with limiting these “societal ills”? Over the long term, other cultures might to well to hold the line against cultural entropy, like Singapore with its drug policy.
This may be the most SSC buzzword-y thing I’ve ever written.
To me universal culture does not seem likely to supplant the cultures of even Western or “Westernized” countries. A lingua franca is useful, but it’s not going to become the native language of everybody around the world; it’s not even all that likely that everybody around the world will know it or enjoy using it. So as you point out countries still have their own literature and cinema that isn’t “universal”. The same is true of food and other cultural attributes. Hamburgers and sushi might have become universal, but around the world people still eat dishes that are very much part of their own national or local culture.
Canada and Singapore are extremely different countries in many ways apart from their attitude towards drugs. For one, I don’t think it’s at all true that they consume similar media.
There are two amusing examples of English culture that illustrate both your and Caplans’s points in turn:
1. Whenever someone asks me what the English national dish is, I say: sandwiches! But I’ve always known this was slightly facetious because I understood that sandwiches are pure “universal culture”. If you have bread, then a sandwich is an obvious and tasty way to make a portable meal. Maybe it first arose in England (I don’t really know whether this is technically true but it is sometimes claimed) but even so it’s hard to say sandwiches worldwide are an example of English culture.
2. Whenever someone asks me what the English national dress is, I say: the business suit! I’m much more sure this is genuinely English than sandwiches. And it’s hard to say the business suit is the optimal office working clothes, so I think it’s spread globally really is an example of Caplanian Westernization.
On the other hand, no one I know professionally wears suits anymore. We wear t-shirts, jeans, shorts etc. Comfortable and easy stuff. This is universal culture supplanting Western culture, exactly as you suggest.
Hillel the Elder beat the eponymous earl by 18 centuries.
So is meat. So is bread. But specific dishes that use those can be cultural even though the general idea of meat isn’t. (And likewise for Scott’s Coca-Cola example.)
Are English sandwiches exactly like anyone else’s sandwiches? I find that unlikely.
Are bite sized triangular sandwiches common in the USA? Or are they being particularly English just a Daily Show joke I heard once.
Seems a bit hoity-toity. It’s not going to be ordered for a meal, but might be catered at a fancy party or buffet for something.
Or if you are five.
So there is at least some difference. Over here it’s something that you’d get at a regular non-fancy party, business function.
Basically anytime you’re supposed to walk around and mingle, with a buffet, bite sized triangular sandwiches are a likely possibility.
I thought you were going to say “chicken tikka masala”, which I’ve also heard.
Shut up and take your soma.
Refusing to call it “Western Culture” smacks of posturing. You wouldn’t say there’s nothing African in African-Americans because what some call “African” is just a genome that works, or would you?
Almost nobody likes warm Coca-Cola, which tells us that an essential ingredient is refrigeration, which back then was not to be found just anywhere in the world.
Of your list of ways that “universal culture” is “objectively better”, I will only agree that it makes the Economy grow faster, and I wouldn’t even agree that fast growth is inherently good. Given that much intersubjective disagreement, can we really call it “objectively” better?
By just about any metric that isn’t athletic or musical talent, African is clearly not a genome that works.
Of course, these statements of “genome that works” and “culture that works” are generalizations. There are successes and failures in every genome and culture; the ones that “work” are the ones that provide the greatest good to the greatest percent of their members, in the Bentham sense. The African genome doesn’t provide that for the current environment except in a few niches, the same way the Native American cultures didn’t provide that in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus evolution marches on.
It works by the most important metric – self-replicability.
Could someone explain to me why universal culture is described as being high entropy and not low entropy? I would have understood a high entropy society to mean a society that must expend greater effort to offset the natural decay of its institutions. In Scott’s post however he implies the opposite, that a high entropy society is one that survives and spreads without help.
How have I landed backwards on this one?
He’s using entropy in a non-judgmental way here. He means that high entropy regions (such as the US) have progressed further towards having cultural norms that will only have trivial fluctuations from the universal culture, i.e. a state of maximal entropy. To prevent an increase of entropy in a society, such as Tibet, one would need to pump in effort, which is analogous to the work required to maintain a low entropy state in the presence of noise.
Ah gotcha. Thanks.
My basic reading comprehension failed me. I was treating maximal entropy as akin to a state of societal collapse. Treating universal culture as a culture that doesn’t need to continuously fight disorder because its institutions are just that good. i.e. a culture that is exempt from entropy. dumb.
But I follow you now that maximal entropy is the state all cultures would tend toward in the absence of resisting effort, and countries like the US are the ones that let themselves go with the flow.
Two points that sprang to mind:
1) The captives who preferred Native American living to Western living weren’t choosing something over “Universal Culture” – because the colonists weren’t living in that culture. If anythign they had deliberately rejected the forward-moving Western European culture so that they could continue in their religious lifestyle in a new place.
Think of them as the Brexit voters who decided the best way to avoid living in Europe was to move to a new, “empty”, country…
2) The reason not to invade a country because they’re violating basic human rights (which are the modern equivalent of the Noahide Laws) is because unless you then spend a vast amount of resources recreating a liberal democracy in said country what you are left with is generally worse than what you had before. And, frankly, we haven’t shown much interest in doing that since the Marshall Plan.
It’s generally been easier, and more effective, to use the carrot rather than the stick and say “You can join our peaceful pan-continental trading group if only you sign up to the European Convention Of Human Rights.” and let countries transform themselves into liberal democracies.
This appears to be a special case of “If you are nice, you can join our cuddle pile.”
Yes, and an excellent idea. And I agree with Andrew that invading a country because they’re violating basic human rights doesn’t make sense unless you have some reason to believe that after you invade and stop the human rights violations, things are going to be better afterwards, not worse. And in most cases, we have no reason to believe that.
To steelman the idea of invasion: Whether things are better afterwards is less relevant if the goal is to disincentivize future violations of human rights, by way of the threat of invasion. Practically speaking I don’t think that works at all, but it’s an argument.
There’s a good point here – there is such a thing as a universal solvent culture that spreads – Coca-cola, like heroine trips the pleasure centers of the brain more strongly than apple cider or yak milk (actually, probably not more than yak milk, but it’s cheaper and there’s no satiety limit on how much coke you can drink).
What you’re missing is how much violence and enforcement it takes to keep in place the fashionable but insane ideas of current “Western civilization” – bringing up one example you mentioned over and over “gender equality”. This example is a perfect summary:
No. That’s only if you hold the invisible to the fish because he swims in it assumptions of a society that goes to tremendously violent extremes to enforce “gender equality”. All of the following could be the outcome of that encounter:
1) Woman in red pepper sprays the man. The man throws acid in her face. When the police speak to the man he explains that the woman was dressed in red then pepper sprayed him when he asked her price. The police accept that explanation and go about their day. The woman’s father plots revenge on the man’s family.
2) Woman in red pepper sprays the man. The man drags her into an alley and rapes her then leaves her with the standard fee for a prostitute. Police confront the man, he explains that she was wearing red, they laugh it off.
Eventually either “gender equality” takes over the police force or women stop wearing red in public – even if they were from the culture that doesn’t encode woman wearing red in public as a signal that she is a prostitute.
Could be? Well, conceivably. But not likely. Pepper spray is not easily shrugged off — especially when a surprise. It’s been known to send people to the hospital.
Pepper spray in the eyes hurts like hell, and you’re not going to be seeing too well (or, realistically, at all; though you can force your eyes open and see blurrily at the cost of more pain). But it’s not literally incapacitating, and if he can get a grip on her before she runs, and he knows the area, he could certainly do her much harm.
The scenarios offered, that I objected to, started from the principle that she might as well have thrown some dust at him.
Maybe this “basic delight in diversity” isn’t just “basic” and can be broken up and explained? Although I agree it is simply beautiful, and that’s my best explanation why I can donate to preserve species diversity when I could save more chickens with the same money.
The most useful reduction I can come up with myself is that diversity is a reservoir of potentially useful adaptations.
If a powerful virus comes along, a more genetically diverse group of organisms has a bigger chance of having a few resistors around. That’s why we have a seed bank on Svalbard and it’s the best argument against (GMO-)monoculture.
If a powerful memetic virus comes along (e.g. drugs, a very engaging computer game), a more memetically diverse set of cultures has a bigger chance of having a few who won’t opt-out of existence. That’s why we have xxx and it’s the best argument against universal monoculture.
Not sure what xxx is. Seed banks are pretty harmless and hard to disagree with. I don’t dislike efforts to preserve old languages and rituals in databases, but even the Académie Française seems a bit too intrusive to me. Maybe societies that hold up old rites are pretty okay, but not all of them are doing very well. Seems to work for carnivals and dancing around maypoles, not so much for less fun things, like forbidding foreign media.
This seems to me more like a post hoc explanation (even though the arguments might be correct) than the reason behind those feelings. Humans are generally curious and want to expose themselves to new things. If the whole world were completely uniform then it’d be pretty boring.
I agree? I think the arguments are correct and worth thinking about though, since feelings don’t carry that much weight when trying to convince.
Humans are generally curious and want to expose themselves to new things
Speak for yourself. New things are generally unpleasant and bad. I avoid them when possible.
Well, that is what the world generally is for.
History books? Old literature? The Amish?
Sure! But you know we have seed banks, because you can simply plug them in the earth and watch them grow. But for animals, you can’t just do a compact DNA bank, you end up with something like Noah’s ark.
I think some aspects of culture are more like animals than seeds. You can write down Hagakure and maybe a Mafia hitman many years later will see some value in it, but you haven’t really preserved the living culture.
I don’t know if the Amish concept of self-segregation scales well 🙂
I think you’re overly optimistic about what Caplan thinks of as “western culture” to be adaptive and the currently-best-available. We’ve had this thing implemented for a century, at best (the world wars period being the transition from soft traditionalism to cathedralism). In historical terms, this is almost nothing. Time will tell whether cathedralism will reign supreme for any significant amount of time – I will be impressed if it survives another century.
Cultures, just like all memetic entities, reproduce in two ways – horizontally (peer to peer) and vertically (parent to child). Cathedralism obviously has an edge on horizontal transmission, standing on the shoulders of giants – its Christian ancestors – but unlike its ancestors, it represses the vertical reproduction of its hosts. It is like a virus that makes you feel good while debilitating you, making you infertile. We know that all human behavioural traits are hereditary in the genetic sense, I figure that a natural resistance to cathedralism is hereditary in this way too.
What I predict is cathedralism burning brightly for a time, like the Black Plague, until it runs out of suitable hosts to spread to because it has decimated their numbers below the threshold required to keep spreading.
Because low fertility is an absolutely vital component of universal culture and won’t respond to changes in structures, incentives and culture. Got it. Why was that again?
A component of the culture will not respond to changes in the culture?
Can you rephrase with some added sense, please?
Aside from the fact that it’s presumably selected against in the long run, I’m not sure why we’d think it wouldn’t be at least a necessary consequence of the adoption of “universal culture”. Certainly it seems to be shared between a bunch of developed countries with markedly different underlying national cultures. What do Japan (TFR 1.4) and Italy (1.43) have in common? (I mean, besides economic stagnation.)
Japan imported (copied) a lot of western institutions during its westernization process under the Meiji Restoration. What Italy and Japan have in common are, for example, the type of mass education (Prussian-style, like AFAIK, all of Europe), a post-industrial economy, a permanent professional military force, type of urban construction (glass towers, etc), high female participation in the workforce and probably many other features that I missed.
Hm. There’s a lot to be unpacked here. I agree that, for example, tomorrow someone might discover another drink that is even tastier than Coke, in which case it will replace Coke as part of universal culture and traditionalists will grumble about the good old days when everyone still had Coca-Cola. And the same thing could very well happen with gender norms! Maybe there are other gender norms that are better (ie more seductive and likely to catch on). For example, someday polyamory might take over the world, which would require a lot of changes.
If you mean that authoritarianism might someday prove to work better than non-authoritarianism, I agree that might be true. I think that (even though it’s much more important), this isn’t ontologically different than that some soda might be better than Coke. The only exception is that if censorship became more popular, it would then allow other cultures to develop again.
OK, yes, you can invent a tastier neo-Coke, just like you can have more appealing institutions and ideologies crop up. But ‘appealing’ is not the same as ‘good’! Wireheading is appealing once you have been wireheaded, but isn’t good for you, because you’ll probably just wirehead yourself to death, and the future will belong to people who are resistant to being wireheaded for whatever reason.
Theoretically, sure. I think it would require considerable biological changes in humans… I would expect that we would have to become more like the animals that have polyamorous reproductive behaviours (do any?) in order to conceivably move towards polyamory in general.
What *reproductive* advantages does polyamory have to humans who practice it? Can they outcompete humans who practice one of the dozen modes of reproduction within the monogamous/mildly-polygynous framework that produces the best known results in terms of surviving offspring? Honest question – I really don’t see any advantage to polyamory when compared to standard intensive reproductive mode (monogamy) or the extensive reproductive mode (polygyny).
There’s currently very few groups that are resisting the influence of universal culture wholesale despite immediate exposure and are keeping their fertility rates high. Takes some strong defences against horizontal transmission.
It might get more infectious all the time, as the media becomes more entertaining etc.
Low fertility rates are not some basic, inescapable aspect of universal culture, they are mostly caused by things like female education and careers delaying first births (now that easy female-driven contraception allows for it). People, including women, desire above-replacement fertility levels, on average. But they don’t get there, because of various incentives.
Not really a strong reason to believe these things will never change. They’ve changed a lot, quite recently, and the response is still underway. And if you don’t believe in a social solution, maybe you will consider a technological/biological solution like postponing menopause more realistic.
Polyamory could lead to reproductive advantages if e.g. childless women who don’t find a suitable mate in a monogamous society decide to have kids if they get access to already-paired-up mates. But doesn’t seem likely to be an important force soon.
Comparing recently slightly-below fertility rates to e.g. Bubonic plague which kills 30-90% of those affected and works within years as opposed to within decades seems a bit off in numbers.
Human individual difference traits are usually called heritable not hereditary for a reason, we have ample evidence that they are quite malleable (e.g. height, myopia, violence, Flynn effect, changes in number of books owned).
I agree – I’m talking about the only supposedly “universal” culture, what Caplan is on about. This very-definitely-not-universal culture has the low-fertility elements (like mass education beyond puberty, career women, etc) as part of its core program.
Oh, I quite believe they will change. It’s just that I believe that they will change by throwing out the counterproductive aspects of the “universal” culture – and who knows what else will go with the bathwater.
Postponing menopause is quite interesting, but I doubt we’re anywhere close to making it practical en masse, regrettably. Would have to wait for tech level where safe, cheap, reliable genetic reengineering of adults is possible.
The timescale is different, yes. Otherwise, I stand by my analogy.
What “core program”? Is this the “cathedral” that you mentioned earlier?
There’s lots and lots of people trying to reduce the negative effect that female education and work has on fertility through social engineering (not through reducing female education) and these initiatives have the full support of national and international governmental bodies. The core program includes female education, not a clash between fertility and education and it’s really short-sighted to think their link is not malleable.
Why would you need genetic re-engineering to postpone menopause? But even if so, how are we not close to that, with the first CRISPR trials soon to start? And why would it have to be safe en masse, if most people won’t need it? Technologies that afford fertility late in life are already being used despite risks.
This is not the problem with society pressuring women delaying childbirth, this is. Since women, as a rule, don’t have kids with the pool boy, you also run into this problem.
A society that insists that child-birth and rearing are best postponed while you make a career – that is, you do a lot of working making people other than you rich – is a society that will make Idiocracy look like an aspirational goal.
Yeah. Moldbug is the go-to source for analysis of what these meme cluster is all about.
It may be malleable – I think it is – but not likely on the timescale that will prevent disaster (from the perspective of the adherents of the ideology). Further, I consider education to be vastly overestimated regarding what good it does; most people are overeducated to their detriment. Reducing education would be the sane, sound solution to many problems plaguing us today, not just low fertility rates – but the progressive article of faith is that education is good, and more education is better. So they try hard as they can to both increase education ad-infinitum and fight valiantly the problem they themselves create.
Because menopause seems largely baked into the human genome. I’ll stand corrected if they do manage it through some easy hack, but I’m not hopeful.
Why wouldn’t most people need it? The current trend is to keep, and perhaps expand, the amount of schooling and education and careerism. I see more and more people needing reproductive aids, if they keep being lied to that it’s in their best interest to spend half their reproductive lives in the approximation of a prison.
Are they helping much? AFAIK, they mostly allow childless 40s and 50s women to have a kid after all, which I guess is better than nothing, but it’s does not replacement make.
Those problems are my area of research. Maternal age-related defects are already quite well-solved by available screening, paternal age is not as big a problem as you appear to think it is. But we seem to agree that changing the societal levers would be simpler and more morally correct, I just anticipated that Anon would not believe in societal levers.
“Because menopause seems largely baked into the human genome.”
What are you on about? There’s tremendous variation in age at menopause across women, so at least it’s “teh human genome”. There’s also clear life-history relationships, like women who had a lot of kids having menopause later.
Also, I’m fairly sure few would-be mothers actually run into the hard limit of menopause, more likely they stop short of it, scared of genetic risks and owing to difficulty achieving conception but not wanting to try e.g. IVF.
“cathedral”: I know what this refers to. I was trying to tell you that this word has no effect except making you sound like a conspiracy-theorist to me, it’s a bad signal, not a useful concept handle. As I said, there is no “core program” and politicians are willing to (somewhat blindly) pull on levers related to fertility. Decreasing unnecessary education is an option too and is something that is happening in centre-left-governed European countries (e.g. highest level of school stops at 12 instead of 13 years now).
Take a moment to think about what you believe are the current ages at 1. first birth 2. average birth 3. last birth in a liberal, socialist country like Sweden and how this compares to ye goode olde days (1737-1880). Then look at this graph:
Are you surprised?
Doesn’t seem like everybody is running into hard biological limits all the time, does it?
Doesn’t seem like we have unprecedentedly late births, does it?
Doesn’t seem like the trend is always up, does it?
I’m referring to the fact that humans have menopause. AFAIK, most animals don’t.
And I think it is. The same cluster of ideas causes low fertility rates which also pushes for more education, more equality, less distinct sex roles, more early-life careerism, less enforcement of marriage, etc. Largely because these things that it likes cause the low fertility.
‘Blindly’ is the correct word. None of them seem interested in replicating the last known working configuration. All I hear from them is proposals for more childcare, more state support for mothers, etc.
First I hear of this. Source?
Where I come from, the “compulsory education until legal adulthood” is the law, and has been the law since approximately the end of WWII.
Are you suggesting that Sweden was not, in fact, considerably ahead of the curve back then in terms of progressivism? I seem to recall that Sweden in that time had the highest literacy rate in Europe, something around 80% in 1836 or so. That the Nordic countries are held up as centers of social democracy did not appear out of thin air in modern times.
I concede that it’s probably not biological limits in this case. If I read this chart correctly, Swedes start reproducing roughly when their ancestors did, but stop much sooner for whatever reason.
Is this data representative of Europe in general? ISTR that the Nordic countries generally have a little bit better TFR than everyone else here.
That’s an odd use of “solved.” Screening means abort and try over; the higher base rate means she needs to try over more often, which won’t always be an option. Not every woman is going to have screening available to her in the first place. Over time, and with growing numbers of women affected, the problems are going to add up.
No offense, but comments like this make your claim of being involved in this field rather dubious. There are significant differences in children of older men, particularly involving personality disorders like schizophrenia. I can only see someone claiming this isn’t a big deal if they’re talking about the odds on an individual basis, which is the completely wrong metric to use.
Is that so?
Seems pretty solid to me.
@nyccine Read e.g. Jacob Gratten to get an angle on how paternal age effects must be overestimated. Many studies estimate effect sizes that are too large to be consistent with population genetic theory, so there must be unobserved confounders. I really do work in this field and have every incentive to talk these effects up, but the literature has mostly overestimates and people then overinterpret these overestimates.
I did not mean to minimise the harm and hassle involved in maternal age related defects, but if you compare rates and fears, it’s quite striking that the there is overestimation of rates there too. And we do have handles on these problems (e.g. egg freezing). As I pointed out in the earlier post, few run up against a hard biological limit.
And you think that won’t work, but it’s not what the people who are involved in this discussion think, the ones who’re best informed.
Regarding education, here’s one source. I don’t know if I was clear, I didn’t mean age 12/13, but years of schooling K-13 changed to K-12. Also, not all countries have compulsory education until legal adulthood, e.g. Germany, Sweden (although in Sweden most choose to continue education until adulthood).
Reproductive timing in historical Sweden is very comparable to Québec and a region of Germany at the same time, and it did not change from 1750 to 1900.
I’m not sure how representative modern Sweden is, a colleague is compiling the data. There’s an undue focus on age at first birth in the lit and public eye. But the general pattern (more decrease in age at last, than increase in age at first) seems to be widespread.
So, all in all, not that late, a lot of changes seem possible and informed people consider them workable. As you’ve seen, there’s a lot you don’t know about these things. That’s excusable, just maybe don’t take away women’s education yet.
I think it doesn’t work. All of Europe, sans France and Iceland, has sub-replacement fertility and the western states generally have very substantial childcare and mother support already. At best, these measures seem to be very expensive ways to slow the population decline down, and I’m not sure it’s all that effective at this.
I’ll withdraw the proposed bill from the legislative process momentarily. 😉
You think that the reason for Coca-Cola’s popularity is that it is soooooo delicious? Then please explain why they have to spend more than any other drink advertising and marketing it.
I think your model of how advertising works is wrong. It doesn’t expand the market (the decision to buy a sweet fizzy drink or not is not influenced by advertising) but it does expand market share (the decision to buy the fizzy drink in the red can versus the fizzy drink in the blue can). Coke can’t spend less on advertising because they’re locked in competition with Pepsi. If they could collude to arrange caps on ad spends at the present level, or if the UN Security Council threatened to nuke Coke and Pepsi headquarters if they changed their ad spends, their relative market share would remain as it is presently.
I don’t think Coke is in competition with yaks milk, each appeals to different parts of your brain. Yaks milk isn’t sugary or carbonated. You couldn’t substitute one for the other in a recipe. Yaks milk is competing with other milk. Coke is competing with things like kvas or malta.
It’s old and unnecessary, people get bored of old and unnecessary things unless they’re constantly reminded of them.
On the gender norms issue (and related issues around the other social justice categories), I think part of the confusion comes from ignoring the divisions within universal culture. Like all cultures, we have a set of gender norms embodied in our “religion” that we don’t entirely live up to in practice. So universal culture’s “priests” (mainstream media and mainstream education) preach one set of gender norms, universal culture’s commercial elites practice a different set of gender norms (see Charles Murray, or any of the standard screeds about redneck sexual morality), and arguably we see yet another set of gender norms appearing for practical commercial reasons among groups entering universal culture from outside (for example assembly-line work now appears to be coded feminine).
Universal culture is the world’s greatest commercial culture, bar none. But third-wave feminism comes from the religious caste, not the commercial caste. Deciding whether it is part of the “just better” culture or whether it is the result of a virtue-signalling death spiral is left as an exercise for the interested observer.
I really liked the original “Outgroups” piece and more than any other piece it made me stick to reading this blog. However, with every addition the author makes to the original material, my confusion grows. What I have taken from “Outgroups” and still hold to be true not at all seems to match the author’s intended message or his current stance. This, frankly, is accompanied by the growing impression that the author has spent his powder on “Outgroups”, “Moloch” and “Archipelago” and all that is left to him now is reiterating the same topic over and over again with very mixed quality but never failing to extensively link to his prior greatness. Also, at least from the European’s perspective, I think the curren piece contains unusual amounts of wishful thinking. Here is why:
One of the central revelations of “Outgroups” to me was that there even is such thing as a red tribe. The author’s description of how he is socially insulated from red tribers resonated with me. Throughout my youth, Europe’s political landscape was firmly divided into “conservatives” and “socialist” (which Americans probably should imagine as slightly more extreme “liberals” rather than slightly less extreme “communists” from what I understand about American use of these terms). While both camps did routinely paint eachother as the absolute evil, by the late 1990s or early 2000s they had more values in common than not and I think that was common knowledge. Social circles of nominal conservatives and socialits did overlap. The actual working class was shrinking and to my understanding Blair and Schoeder built a political career on realizing this and repositioning their parties accordingly. In Germany this culminated in Frau Merkels first term, the ultimate empirical proof that conservative and socialist politics had become interchangable in anything but the name. Universal culture at its best, one should think.
Hovever, in the last 10 years, things have changed. In hindsight neither conservatives nor socialists of that time were particularly red tribeish. A statement which coincidentally seems to match a cornerstone of the philosophy which we shall not name. If there was a leave-movement in 2006, I think it was nowhere near a majority. If “westeners” did convert to Islam, nobody talked about it. To me, and I realize this might be completely different in the US, the (re)emergence of the red tribe not only happened unnoticed by the blue tribe, it is also a new phenomenon. To me, this is not about some traditionalists rediscovering their culture for whatever reason and finding it to be endangered. It is about the explicit rejection of universal culture by people who were part of it and found that it has nothing to offer to them.
In this context I think it is disputable, if universal cuture really is on the rise. In Europe I think it is stagnating or even retreating. I cannot tell if this is offset by the global trend. But that question is sort of besides the point. What really puzzles me is this: In times were Britain managed to coordinate half of its voters againts universal culture, how can one seriously claim that:
a) Universal Culture is “objectively better” than the alternatives. [Here’s 52% saying it isn’t. And while this is not per sé an objective assessment, the author does seem to judge cultures goodness by people’s willingness to accept it, so I think this is a fair counterpoint.]
b) Alternatives face unsolvable coordination problems. [It was universal culture that famously could have won if it had managed to coordinate which it didn’t.]
c) Universal Culture’s rise does not rely on government intervention [Cameron, albeit weakly, did try to intervent on behalf of universal culture. This, I think, was hardly a first.]
I’d say Meditations on Moloch was the best thing Scott ever wrote, but I suspect the true reason the best is in the past is not that he’s spent his powder. I think that when he saw where this train of thought was ultimately leading him, he flinched.
I don’t agree for a second that “universal culture” wins because it is “objectively better”. At least not for us mere humans, that is. But if we cross out the human value judgement and leave it at “objectively different”, I’m on board. Yes, this new “universal culture” is objectively different from all the traditional cultures that came before. A new kind of beast.
I get similar vibes from Nick Land, btw, in that he, too, seems to have grown reluctant to mercilessly follow through on some of his earlier insights.
What would be, in yor opinion, the natural consequence of his train of thought? I don’t know Nick Land, so I can’t really see the common points.
I’d also like to see elaboration on this. I don’t know if you can get less merciful than the belief that we should align our values with an alien intelligence that will probably destroy us.
Land’s writing on the matter is pretty obscurantist but as far as I remember, he never said such a thing “in the clear.”
To be more precise, what he was pretty clear about was that he thinks intelligence can’t help but explode once it has the ability to self-modify and self-improve at the substrate level. But (again, AFAIR) he didn’t said we “should align our values” with that intelligence. It’s only that… it will happen. There Will Be Intelligence.
People on his blog and elsewhere started to mirror his ideas back to him in cleartext and (naturally, I’d say) imputed the value part. Why do you think we should align with (submit to, gladly accept extinction by) exploding artificial intelligence?
I don’t remember a clear answer. I assume, because that’s my impression, that he found something in the mirrored, more clearly stated expression of his ideas that he didn’t like and didn’t want to pursue.
His blog now has reduced the “autonomous intelligence explosion” content and is about Bitcoin, “sea power vs land power”, ministates organized like public corporations.
Lately, increasing rants against White Nationalists and a blog meltdown over the death of a Jo Cox, neither of which make much sense if your stance is that we’ll get rendered down into computronium anyway.
I could be wrong about all of this and would love to hear why.
This post summarizes my feelings pretty well about peak-SSC.
The “red tribe in Europe” part rings true as well, apart from the timeline, which seems oddly Germany-centric. For example, by late 2006 the red tribe was definitely dominant in Hungary, and if the elections would have taken place in the second half of the year, Viktor Orban would have won easily (as he did in 2010). Meanwhile, in the west, the red tribe was less spectacularly successful, but it had a strong presence in many countries: by 2006, DF, the Danish People’s Party was undeniably among the big three of Danish politics.
Anyway, Scott seems to regard Western culture as some kind of universal that sweeps to other areas via osmosis. This seems contrary to evidence: take e.g. Iran’s transformation from a Western state to a theocracy, or for that matter Turkey’s slow de-Westernization.
Iran went from a dictatorship to a theocracy. It did have a Western-style democracy a while back, but it got overthrown by the CIA. Also, while modern Iran’s government is brutal and theocratic, the street-level culture is considerably more liberal, at least in the cities. See, for example, this Reddit AMA of an uncloseted atheist living in Iran.
I think you’re missing the point here. The point is not that Iran is insufficiently liberal, it’s that public opinion fluctuates all the time and that there is little to no historic evidence of some “universal culture” spreading effortlessly by osmosis (i.e. without external pressure).
The point I’m trying to make is that the “universal culture” that Scott talks about does indeed seem to have spread to Iran despite the best efforts of the government to suppress it. Again, I invite you to read through that Reddit AMA that I linked.
I’m not sure what you’re seeing here that contradicts with what you saw in Outgroup.
But then I’m not sure what you saw in outgroup or what you’re seeing here, I wouldn’t mind hearing the details though.
I’m not sure where you live but I really doubt this is accurate here in the UK.
I don’t think that “Brexit Tribe” were ever part of universal culture (at least, large sections of them were not – Brexit voters are not one group).
Rather, I’d say that the most Red Tribe parts of Brexit Tribe have been fighting against Universal Culture for at least the 1980s when Thatcher (representing capitalism) went to war with the unions.
They’ve been invisible for a while because Labour figured out they could ignore them and their values and still get their votes, but I don’t think there was ever a point in time where the average ex-coal miner who voted for Brexit ever felt like they were a part of universal culture,
Outgroup told me that there is this strange alien tribe living among us which I do not see and almost never have contact with but which I can fundamentally not understand within my own system of values. [This I think is true.]
This piece is trying to tell me that my culture is the only one that ever stood a chance to win, it’s universal and more than that, it is “objectively better” than any alternative. [This makes me want to scream at the author: But what about the 50% you made me realize exist who reject this culture? The 50% that you made me realize do this not out of idiocy or general backwardness but because for them, my culture is very much not “objectively better”.
You are right – I phrased that badly.
Let me split my point into two points.
First, many people (specifically mainstream media) seemed to be taken by total surprise that something like a leave-majority could happen at all. I am partly guilty of this myself. “Publius Varinius” was right to call me on Orban. To someone utterly surprised by Brexit, Orban clearly can have been nothing more than a glitch, a sign that our eastern neighbours perhaps did not really understand how Europeans ought to behave themselves. And yes, Brexit took me by surprise. But not the “how on earth could this have happened?” kind of surprise I see in large parts of blue tribe, but more a “oh, red tribe actually won something of significance to me, that’s interesting”. Because unlike my tribemates at least I knew that there is a red tribe to be reckoned with. Something I learned from the very same Scott Alexander who now wants to convince me that red tribe will never win the cultural war. It is the chronology that bothers me, because just the other day I significantly updated my priors of red tribe winning things. Had he written this piece a year ago, it might have convinced me.
Second, there is another way in which I think the model presented in this piece does not fit the data. Universal culture, as depicted by the author, had a very long winning streak, reaching back at least to the invention of Coca-Cola. If pitted against an arbitrary traditional culture like e. g. English nationalism, I think this would predict that English nationalism, say since WWII, would have had plenty of time to realize that something was up and react. It would also predict that English nationalism’s chances of winning should be higher the earlier it reacted and the less time it was exposed to universal culture’s assimilation attempts.
Whatever you think did happen, I think it is not the above. Brexit tribe might have put up a fight since the 1980s but if Brexit tribe had critical mass in the 1980s, Brexit would have happened then. I can only conlude that Brexit tribe has grown (relatively) since the 1980s. This is the opposite of what the model predicts.
So I grant you that the (I presume somewhat proverbial) ex-coal miner never was part of universal culture. But I also assume that you are not a nation of 52% ex-coal miner equivalents and if you were, you would have Brexited earlier. So some part of the 52% must have tried to play nice with universal culture and turned their back in disappointment, no?
By analogy, the author mentions traditional chinese medicine. I cannot tell if there are traditional chinese defending their medicine as a part of their culture, like the author suggests. What I can tell, however, is that there are loads of westeners defending traditional chinese medicine without ever having really known a culture other than the “universal” one.
Makes me think.
IMO, it’s simply not true that the blue tribe reflects universal culture and the red tribe the opposite.
The current blue tribe is mostly Third Way politics which protects the interests of one group of people over the interests of other people. The people who are in the blue tribe and think that their subculture is objectively better are guilty of conflating ‘better for me’ with ‘better for everyone.’
Third Way politics is a huge economic failure for the lower classes. Their wages have stagnated, inequality has increased and work conditions are being eroded. The ‘right’ kinds of sexism and racism are being celebrated, etc. The Brexit simply reflects the reality that people who see things getting worse for them will get pissed off and vote ‘stop this shit.’
If we can agree that “the west” is divided into two fundamentally different cultures (red and blue) I wonder how this can be the result of a universal culture being on a winning streak presumably for decades. I find these assumptions to be incompatible.
So I did, what I thought was the charitable thing, and assumed that the author thinks that the universal culture he speaks of now is identical to one of the cultures he described earlier.
If he instead thinks that universal culture is somehow the synthesis of red and blue culture, or something like that, I think that this needs much more elaboration and cannot be easily handwaved.
I think the same is true about universal culture whether you believe it to be identical to blue culture or not. Am I wrong?
If you are right and universal culture is (a) something distinct from blue culture (b) “objectively better” and (c) winning since 1650, how come universal culture has not fixed said problems?
The red/blue thing is a split in the universal culture, not two fundamentally different cultures. One of the things which makes the universal culture universal is that it is neither monolithic nor unchanging. Parts of it will have different characteristics at different times. Some of these might be superficial (e.g. lack of beef in Indian McDonalds restaurants); these can remain different indefinitely. Others are fundamental, and cannot.
One might regard the “blue tribe” as being a part of the culture which changes more quickly, both absorbing things from other (to-be-assimilated) cultures and experimenting on its own. In some cases (e.g. ending of strict gender roles) these new things work and “red tribe” is pulled along. In other cases (perhaps the blue embrace of Communism in the mid-20th century?) they fail and “red tribe” remains as a reservoir of the old values to fall back upon.
This is obviously far from complete.
So basically it comes down to the question who means what by “universal culture”. This observation was already made elsewere in the comments to some applause.
Personally I cannot imagine a definition that is universal in any meaningful sense and compatible to the red/blue divide and at the same time excludes traditional culture which the author presents as universal culture’s antagonist.
You seem to suggest that such a definition can exist.
Maybe, we might agree that providing such a definition would take some care and a few 100 words of explaination and that the author invested neither. The piece as it is allows everyone to project their own definition into the text and I think this is the main reason for both the praise and the criticism it received.
I can respect that as a stylistic choice, but it might not be the best choice if the author wanted to convey a specific point.
I fully agree with your criticism about the vagueness and the article being more of a ‘mirror’ than a clear explanation.
As such, I am as of yet quite unconvinced of the value of the ‘universal culture’ concept.
The way I see it, cultures simply evolve in various ways to deal with problems that people encounter. This evolution has many dead ends (sometimes literally, such as Communism and Nazism) and is often 2 steps forward, one step back, at best. People try and retry horrible ideas quite a bit, so it’s hardly true that people simply copy the best. See Venezuela, for example.
Finally, Scott seems to equate popular with good. I think that at best ‘universal culture’ is what appeals to people. As people are quite irrational and otherwise flawed in many ways, ‘universal culture’ would be reflective of that.
An example is that it’s pretty clear that voters often blame local politicians for good long term policy that is unpleasant in the short term and reward them for bad long term policy that has predictable bad consequences in the long term.
I’ve got limited Internet at the moment so replies will be short and infrequent.
So you said you felt that Outgroup said “Red Tribe exist and are powerful”. This post says “Blue tribe will always win”. And those contradict.
I don’t think they do contradict.
Firstly I didn’t read this post as saying Universal Culture always wins. Just that it has advantages by definition.
Secondly, I don’t think Scott’s saying it’s better in any moral sense. It’s more objectively fit in an evolutionary sense, but it’s not objectively better in a moral sense.
But is that significant on a cultural level? I mean, I think there’s room for countersignalling in the universal culture.
I think the core point is that modern medicine. has inherent advantages to becoming a culturally domimant form of medicine because it works better.
(I’m not touching on brexit because that’s really complex and I don’t have the time)
Eight crucial tenets of the (west-centered) Enlightenment are presented in Jonathan Israel’s Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 (p. 866) as the following “hardy weeds of the Radical Enlightenment” (in Caplan’s phrase):
From an SSC perspective — especially from a psychiatric perspective — the culturally and biologically universal aspect of Israel’s eight “hardy weeds” is that they naturally extend to the following “eight hardy medical weeds”:
Medicine being at present still largely in the Dark Ages — particularly in regard to the effective medical treatment of personality disorders — the medical elements of the 21st century Radical Enlightenment, that presently are nascent, in coming decades will become globally prominent and even geopolitically dominant.
Needless to say, it isn’t simple to navigate between the Scylla of restricted access to Enlightened Medicine, and the Charybdis of the compelled embrace of it. As Alfred North Whitehead put it:
Never are Whitehead’s “dangerous merits of science” more plainly evident than when we contemplate the prospects for Enlightened 21st century medical capacities. Although individuals may reject the seductive attractions of 21st century’s burgeoning medical capacities, cultures as a whole cannot resist the personal freedoms and the relief of familial sufferings that are inherent in these capacities, neither in practice do most individuals, most families, and most patients desire to resist “these hardy medical weeds”. Quite the contrary!
This is why, on timescales of decades and longer, NGOs like Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the medical capacities these NGOs provide, and the knowledge they disseminate, and the training they provide, in aggregate already are acting as a more potent agent for Enlightened social change than any feasible occupying army, in that the “hardy weeds” of the 21st century’s Enlightened Medicine are proving to be universally and irresistibly attractive. 🙂
@Ilyushechka – “…in that the “hardy weeds” of the 21st century’s Enlightened Medicine are proving to be universally and irresistibly attractive.”
What would, for you, count as evidence that you are wrong about the efficacy or irresistible attractiveness of the 21st Century’s Enlightened Medicine?
• The Nobel Prize in Medicine committee votes “no award”? 🙂
• Pharmaceutical revenues flatten, then decline?
• The stream of peer-reviewed medical research advances slows, then halts?
• Young scientists stop perceiving exciting new medical opportunities?
• Young entrepreneurs stop founding new medical enterprises that create new medical markets?
• Young physicians feel neither any rational need for new treatment options, nor any reasonable hope that such options are feasible?
• NGOs like Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) close down, on the pragmatic grounds that “we’re not needed any more”?
Isn’t the likelihood that any of these seven evaluation criteria will be fulfilled, in the next few decades, comparable to the negligible likelihood that global warming trends will slow and reverse, in those same decades?
Based on the above seven lines of evidence, isn’t it rational to conclude that that the Dark Ages of Medicine are ending, and a Radically Enlightened Age of Medicine is beginning?
This is very good news for everyone (young people especially), isn’t that right?
PS Doesn’t the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, as awarded to the Chinese herbalist Youyou Tu for her discovery of the antimalaria drug artemisinin, amply illustrate the solvent power of 21st century Enlightened Medicine?
Already PUBMED finds more than six thousand articles on Youyou’s drug artemisinin — a drug now appreciated within a transdisciplinary span of Enlightened medical contexts that is enormously more diverse than traditional herbalism could feasibly encompass.
Isn’t this a good example, of the solvent process by which Enlightened Modernity, as realized in the context of Enlightened Medicine, first encompasses, then irresistibly dominates, global cultural cognition?
PPS For the past year and more, recent remarkable advances in cancer immunotherapy have been much-discussed at emerging technology conferences.
Now former US President Jimmy Carter’s astonishing remission of stage IV melanoma with brain and liver metastases is receiving substantial attention at the Democratic National Convention, largely in response to President Carter’s keynote address “The Future of Medicine is Bright.” 🙂
It is scarcely plausible that the citizens of any nation will tolerate — or morally should tolerate — healthcare economies that privilege some patient populations relative to others, in regard to access to these life-sustaining therapies.
That is why, in the long run, there is no nation in the world, and no culture in the world, that is resistant to the fresh hopes that are conveyed by the 21st century’s Radical Medical Enlightenment.
Primate ideals of equitable justice (even capuchin monkeys are passionate about these ideals).
Using these monkeys as a comparison is weird for two reasons.
1. They are less evolved, “monkeys do it” would not be an acceptable defense for other human actions.
2. The monkeys in that video are protesting equal pay for equal work, which does not imply that they would be upset if a former president monkey got better treatment than other monkeys who had never been president. In fact chimpanzees (far more closely related) often have unequal spoils in hunts and have unequal relationships depending on the status of the chimps in question.
As long as awards are still handed out, papers are published, the drugs are sold, the acolytes are excited, new businesses are founded, newcomers feel like their field is making great strides, and the NGOs perpetuate themselves, everything is as it should be and the future is bright? Am I understanding you correctly?
…Where does actually, successfully healing people come into it? At the societal level, where does actually building and maintaining stable, prosperous and peaceful societies come into it? Shouldn’t that be the measure of success, of progress generally?
There are many papers and much peer review, and yet we have the replication crisis. There are many prizes, and yet how many true breakthroughs can we name? There are many pills and many doctors, many businesses and many, many promising new treatments, and I watched someone I loved dearly self-immolate because none of them were worth a damn. And of the few genuine advances, what do they matter when we can’t afford them?
When it comes down to it, what bothers me about what you write is that you do not doubt, and you do not question. I have never seen you genuinely ask someone for more information; you seem to think you have all the answers. Maybe you do, but it doesn’t seem to me that you legitimately understand the views of those who disagree with you, and I note that the ideology you preach has been on the rise for some time, and the world does not seem improved by its ascendancy. If the last hundred years haven’t ended sexism and misogyny, what makes you think you can do better? If the last hundred years haven’t made a dent in racism, what makes you think the next hundred will be different?
Then you start talking about “remediation of personality disorders”, and my skin crawls. I think I would rather be dead than have someone who talks like you playing around with my brain. I’ts possible that this visceral horror reaction is unreasonable, but it is quite real.
Mark Twain expressed it humanely:
Our century has plenty of horses running; though victory is guaranteed to none, the race itself is well-worth running (and enjoying). `Cuz really it’s us running, not horses!
Keeping in mind that my parents are older than the civil rights act in the United States, and I’m not old enough to have more than a dozen parents in my peer group, I’d say that there has been a pretty big dent in racism in the last 100 years.
@Nicholas – “I’d say that there has been a pretty big dent in racism in the last 100 years.”
So one might think, but then from whence would come Mr. Sidles’ “Dark Age”, and why do we so desperately need the Enlightenment he’s pushing? If White Supremacy really is baked deep into the fabric of America such that nothing has really changed, why would we think the next revolution would work? If it isn’t, why is the next revolution necessary?
@Uncle Ilya Kuriakin – “PS Doesn’t the 2015 Nobel Prize… …amply illustrate the solvent power of 21st century Enlightened Medicine?”
I have no idea. Because we have new, better medicine available than before this discovery? Is it cheaper as well? What exactly do you think this discovery shows?
“It is scarcely plausible that the citizens of any nation will tolerate — or morally should tolerate — healthcare economies that privilege some patient populations relative to others, in regard to access to these life-sustaining therapies.”
Scarcely plausible, provided one ignores all of human history. Resource scarcity is a bitch.
“That is why, in the long run, there is no nation in the world, and no culture in the world, that is resistant to the fresh hopes that are conveyed by the 21st century’s Radical Medical Enlightenment.”
For the past three centuries and more, the opponents of Enlightened Modernity have espoused this view. When feasible though, the opponents of modernity have preferred to embrace active measures: abusive mockery, state censorship, punitive fines, social ostracism, national exile, solitary imprisonment, brutal torture, homicidal lynching, and public execution.
Yet despite these repressive measures, nowadays individual Enlightened Modernists are more active, more diverse, more hopeful, and more enterprising, than ever in their history. So over the long haul, even the most brutally repressive measures of the Counter Enlightenment haven’t been all that effective, have they?
During the last hundred years, Enlightened Modernity’s most effective stratagems have included the public advocacy of Mark Twain’s gently humane narrative of tolerance:
It is precisely the Enlightened tolerance of diversity in cognition — the diversity that Twain’s works celebrate — that in past centuries has provoked the most savage outbreaks of mockery, censorship, fines, ostracism, exile, imprisonment, torture, lynching, and execution.
In past centuries commonly, hopefully less commonly in this one. Because by this gentlest yet most irresistible of methods, Enlightened Modernity has been handily winning Twain’s horse race! 🙂
— — —
Literary riddle If Twain’s tolerant humor and improbable coincidences were excised from Huckleberry Finn, what narrative would remain?
Answer The dystopian horror of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
This observation inspires reflections upon President Carter’s astonishing (relative to epidemiological expectations) metastatic cancer remission following immunotherapy by pembrolizumab.
What resources were required to treat Carter and cancer patients like him? Scarcely any physical resources are required (the total mass required of pembrolizumab antibody was about five grams).
Almost all of the resources required for Carter’s treatment were intangible: first the desire of Carter and his family to live, then a foundational scientific understanding of the human immune system, which inspired the entrepreneurial vision to run clinical trials, and which recruited the capital investment required to support those trials.
The point is, that none of these resources are globally scarce; rather our globe is presently blessed with superabundances of the intangible resources of people, knowledge, and capital.
If any quantity has been in short supply, that quantity is the unifying catalytic agent called hope … and isn’t hope the catalytic agent that Enlightened Modernity specializes in synthesizing and sharing?
In summary, aren’t we fortunate that in our century resource scarcity isn’t any kind of b*tch? … fortunate instead that we are superabundantly blessed by a Cornucopian Goddess of Enlightened Hopeful Modernity? 🙂
Provided that we attend thoughtfully to the goddess’ Enlightened message, that is.
@Uncle Ilya Kuriakin – “For the past three centuries and more, the opponents of Enlightened Modernity have espoused this view.”
Indeed they have, and frequently from the floors of Gulags all across the world. The prisoner is on his knees because he is part of the past; the inquisitor, the torturer and the executioner have a uniform and a salary because they are the present and intend to be the future. The prisoner prays because she knows she has no control; her tormentors laugh at her superstition because they think control is what they are. They have a system, a scientific, rational process by which their goals are achieved. There is no room for doubt or uncertainty in the state-machine of the state.
You appear to want to draw a neat line around all the good things in the history of the Enlightenment and call them “Enlightened Modernity”, and then take all the bad things and call them the “Counter-Enlightenment”. It would be very convinient if that were possible to do, but I note firstly that this is wildly, nakedly dishonest, and secondly that most of the worst episodes of humanity’s history have started with precisely this sort of historical reapportionment.
Science and progress are nothing more than the assessment of power, and power is strictly amoral. Is it any wonder that Bentham’s most concrete contribution to mankind was the police state?
The historical record shows no shortage of horror in the name of Enlightened Modernity. What keeps us human is humility. What makes true diversity possible is humility. If you know you are right, why tolerate deviation from the obvious truth? Any who disagree must be sick, and of course the sick must be dealt with, one way or the other.
@Uncle Ilya Kuriakin – “In summary, aren’t we fortunate that in our century resource scarcity isn’t any kind of b*tch? … fortunate instead that we are superabundantly blessed by a Cornucopian Goddess of Enlightened Hopeful Modernity?”
A Cornucopian Goddess of Enlightened Hopeful Modernity.
Leszek Kolakowski’s writings are a sovereign remedy for the cherry-picking historiography of which FacelessCraven justly complains. In Kowalski’s view:
Ofttimes the self-knowledge that we gain by this venerable Kolakowskian practice ain’t all that pretty. 🙂
Kolakowski’s wryly titled essay collection My Correct Views on Everything (2005) especially touches upon many themes — Kolakowski’s severe criticisms of Marxism in particular — that will resonate sympathetically with SSC‘s more conservative commenters.
@Uncle Ilya Kuriakin – Just wanted to mention that I greatly enjoyed the Cowboy Havamal, and have passed it on to several others. I haven’t had a chance to read kolakowski’s essay, but hope to get to it soon. Thank you for the conversation, and I apologize for any offense given by my comments.
Your comments too, FacelessCraven, give plenty of grounds for thought, and your last comment in particular is most gracious.
May you and I and every SSC reader find enjoyment and some benefit in our exchange! 🙂
PS All who enjoy The Cowboy Hávamál are likely to enjoy too the free-as-in-freedom narratives of The Icelandic Saga Database … for one reason, to learn about the historical and cultural foundations of Iceland’s pioneering, thousand-year-old, yet still-uneasy, embrace of Enlightened Modernity … and for another reason, to learn where Tolkein got many of ideas for LOTR! 🙂
There’s a dangerous unstated assumption in this post: “universal culture” may not be a unique solution to the high communication culture problem. There may be multiple equilibria, and they may be dependent upon other factors such as genetics.
We haven’t really seen much of this yet, but the global high communication state is still quite young.
EDIT: And even now we see differences with so-called universal culture – the gender/culture wars, we see ISIS-inspired radical Islam exerting cultural control over individuals in Europe. It would certainly be interesting to travel 70 years into the future and see how well the assumption made here stands the test of time.
« the idea is advanced that the spread of Western consumption patterns and popular culture around the world is creating a universal civilization.
This argument is neither profound nor relevant. Cultural fadshave been transmitted from civilization to civilization throughout history.
Innovations in one civilization are regularly taken up by other civilizations. These are, however, either techniques lacking in significant cultural consequences or fads that come and go without altering the underlying culture of the recipient civilization.
These imports “take” in the recipient civilization either because they are exotic or because they are imposed.
In previous centuries the Western world was periodically swept by enthusiasms for various items of Chinese or Hindu culture.
In the nineteenth century cultural imports from the West became popular in China and India because they seemed to reflect Western power.
The argument now that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization trivializes Western culture. The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac.
The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former. It also has no implications for their attitudes toward the West.
Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and, between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.
During the 1970s and 1980s Americans consumed millions of Japanese cars, TV sets, cameras, and electronic gadgets without being “Japanized” and indeed while becoming considerably more antagonistic toward Japan. Only naive arrogance can lead Westerners to assume that non-Westerners will become “Westernized” by acquiring Western goods.
What, indeed, does it tell the world about the West when Westerners identify their civilization with fizzy liquids, faded pants, and fatty foods?
A slightly more sophisticated version of the universal popular culture argument focuses not on consumer goods generally but on the media, on Hollywood rather than Coca-Cola.
American control of the global movie, television, and video industries even exceeds its dominance of the aircraft industry. Eighty-eight of the hundred films most attended throughout the world in 1993 were American, and two American and two European organizations dominate the collection and dissemination of news on a global basis. This situation reflects two phenomena. The first is the universality of human interest in love, sex, violence, mystery, heroism, and wealth, and the ability of profit-motivated companies, primarily American, to exploit those interests to their own advantage.
Little or no evidence exists, however, to support the assumption that the emergence of pervasive global communications is producing significant convergence in attitudes and beliefs.
“Entertainment,” as Michael Vlahos has said, “does not equate to cultural conversion.”
Second, people interpret communications in terms of their own preexisting values and perspectives.
“The same visual images transmitted simultaneously into living rooms across the globe,” Kishore Mahbubani observes, “trigger opposing perceptions. Western living rooms applaud when cruise missiles strike Baghdad. Most living outside see that the West will deliver swift retribution to non-white Iraqis or Somalis but not to white Serbians, a dangerous signal by any standard.” »
(Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, chapter 3, “A Universal Civilization? Modernization and
This is a misunderstanding.
In the UK, the working class is not rural. In fact, almost nowhere is rural in the sense that so much of America is rural – our island is much more densely populated than that. Many working class areas voted for Brexit, and rural areas voted for Brexit, and so you seem to be conflating the two, but it’s not the same thing.
To put it into stereotypes – there were unemployed ex-coal-miners from Middlesbrough voting for Brexit, and there were retired Colonels in Hampshire voting for Brexit. The (semi-)rural leave voters aren’t seen as protecting an inferior culture – no-one thinks “Oh, the Cotswolds, what a hell-hole(!)” – but rather that these are old, rich, NIMBYist people who are stuck in the past. The poor urban Brexit voters are more seen as protecting an inferior culture, but they aren’t much like US “trailer trash.”
Ohhh, so this is why “white people have no culture.” It means “universal culture is at best a very non-central example of a culture.” That’s really obvious in retrospect. Thanks, Best Crypto-Conservative!
This also gets at why the “white people have no culture” thing is so incendiary to so many. Blue tribe white people / “universal culture” people have no culture _might_ be a more useful assertion.
I come from a Mormon family. Mormons are overwhelmingly white. They also absolutely have their own culture. I’ve heard mention of studies that suggest Mormons, by some statistical measures, resemble a separate ethnic group, like Orthodox Jews.
I also grew up around a bunch of white southerners who’s roots go WAY back. Again – to claim they didn’t have their own culture is just absurd, regardless of what you think of that culture.
Of course, the defining thread of both of those groups is that they have very strong, non-universal identities. Moreover, they define themselves largely in contrast to some sort of larger, more universalizing culture.
This is part of why I appreciate Scott linking the Tibetans and Southern Baptists.
Long time reader, first time poster; first of all, thanks for the excellent blog!
I think this is a bit pessimistic: generally, people do not forget “the summoner” so easily. “Traditional Western culture” is protected and cherished much in the same way as the “exotic” cultures you mention, and it started a very long time ago; see, e.g., the Gaelic revival that started back in the XIX century — you don’t get much more Western than that. Traditional Spanish, French, or Russian cultures are also preserved.
Naturally, nobody expects Gaelic to become a rich and important international language… and this brings me to my second point.
To me, this stance sounds very patronizing towards the smaller cultures and unfair to the people in these cultures. It sounds like there are some specific people who have a responsibility to “preserve their culture” — but are there really? As much as I regret the unrecoverable loss of a whole language (no sarcasm, it’s an unfortunately very common tragedy for linguistics), can anybody require that real people spend their real lives “preserving culture” that they happened to be born into?.. I wouldn’t want myself or my children to be pressured into “preserving Russian culture”, dance traditional dances, play balalaika, and tame bears with vodka — it’s no fun at all, I have better things to do with my life. Scott actually makes the same point: if a culture loses, maybe it’s happened for a reason, and the reason is that it is actually a better outcome for all the people involved?
P.S. Yes, I realize that Scott is not making the second point himself; this is more of a general rant.
I sympathize with your sympathies but I have an objection to you implicitly merging several things (Science, Food, and Gender norms specifically) under the aegis of Universal / Western Civ. I think their robustness and [and thus likelihood of being adopted] is varied.
Gender norms in the modern day seem more like religions in that they are taught in schools and modern gender norms are preached implicitly and explicitly on television by groups who are very distinct from the great masses. This is different from fast food which is not officially sanctioned by anyone and yet is perpetuated by its own addictive qualities. (And most western people left and right don’t care about preserving fast food anyway)
And on the other hand it’s not entirely clear you need any legal or cultural protections for women or non-straight persons in order to have a technologically modern society. Nor do you necessarily need democracy. The only circumstances I can think of where non-ideological feminism would take root would be a situation where women are required for practical reasons to enter the workforce.
Also universal values aside, something that many of these cultures that are coming to the west lack. (Which the east Asian countries are reasonably good at) is social scale. The inability of groups to cooperate outside of a small social circle of relatives makes the institutions you describe difficult if not impossible to maintain.
I send my friend excerpts from stuff I read an he guesses who wrote it. His reaction to the below was “slate star codex being facetious was my second guess. robin hanson being deadly serious, my first”
I’ve always thought that the infinite game rules from Finite and Infinite Games would make a decent minimum viable ethical system, suitable as a basis for modern Noahide laws.
A point about culture – numerals. I notice your sections are numbered in Roman numerals. Roman numerals are one of those little holdouts that never really went away, but are like a once-dominant species being pushed into a tiny niche. Out “Arabic” numerals – which aren’t the same shape as their counterparts in Arabic scripts, and which the Arabs didn’t invent either have won out over our own Roman numerals in most cases because, well, they’re much easier to get anything remotely serious done with. But whenever the actual numbers are small or don’t matter too much and we want to add a touch of class to things, out come the Roman numerals.
I think a lot of cultural traits can be plotted on a spectrum from “utility” traits that actually have a use (e.g. Arabic numerals allowing for easy math, more equal gender norms that allow women to contribute to the economy), to “aesthetic” traits that are arbitrary and actually “cultural” in the traditional, anthropological sense of the word (e.g. wearing business suits or kimonos, speaking a native language).
Some traits in the middle ground:
– Some traits have a use that is manifested in a cultural way (e.g. almost everyone likes chocolate/sugary drinks/fatty foods, but every culture has different ways of serving and preparing them; most cultures enjoy storytelling, but some consume it through Disney cartoons, some through storybooks, and others through campfire tales, and all the contents of these tales are vastly different; national anthems and other national symbols allow for a common rallying point for a nation and are vastly different from each other)
– Some traits are useful in that they satisfy aesthetic desires (e.g. makeup helps women look prettier than they actually are; people like Victorian-looking architecture so it shows up a lot in homes)
– Some traits are completely aesthetic in nature but end up giving the culture positive benefits (e.g. most religions meet for a weekly ritual, which allows the group to develop much stronger bonds and community than they would if they met, say, monthly or twice a year.)